Crucifixion by Power: Essays on Guatemalan National Social Structure, 1944-1966
One of the most gruesome slaughters of this century in Latin America has been taking place in Guatemala during the past four years, and it has increased radically in recent months. This nation of ancient Mayan highland culture and rain-soaked hills and savannas is suffering a reign of terror that has claimed several hundred lives in the past few months alone, and thousands since it began in 1967, with US support, as a counterinsurgency operation to destroy a rapidly expanding guerrilla movement. Only rarely have the victims been members of the guerrilla bands, which are based primarily in the capital and in the dry, hungry hillbilly country of the Guatemalan Oriente. More often the victims have been peasants, students, university professors, journalists, union leaders, and congressional deputies, who have been killed for vaguely leftist political associations or because of personal grudges.
The case of Guatemala is only the most lurid example of the kind of paramilitary violence that emerged in Latin America during the late 1960s as a recurrent method of managing intractable social and political problems. It is also prevalent in Brazil and Santo Domingo, for example. In Guatemala only a part of the killing of dissidents has been done by the government’s official forces. In 1967 more than twenty right-wing paramilitary terrorist groups went into action with weapons supplied to the Guatemalan army under the US military aid program. The groups used names like the White Hand, the Purple Rose, the New Anti-Communist Organization, etc. They first circulated leaflets carrying the names and sometimes the photographs of their announced victims, whose corpses—and those of many others—were later found grotesquely mutilated: dead men with their eyes gouged out, their testicles in their mouths, without hands or tongues, and female cadavers with their breasts cut off.
In early 1967 a Guatemalan army source gave me an estimate of some 2,000 persons killed by vigilante groups in the Oriente, while other estimates for the 1967-68 period have run between 3,000 and 6,000. In May, 1967, Guatemala’s Catholic bishops declared: “We cannot remain indifferent while entire towns are decimated, while each day leaves new widows and orphans who are victims of mysterious struggles and vendettas, while men are seized in their houses by unknown kidnappers and detained in unknown places or are vilely murdered, their bodies appearing later horribly disfigured and profaned.” But the killing continues.
Since last July the President of Guatemala has been Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, the slow thinking, slow speaking former commander of the Zacapa army base in the guerrilla zone and executor of the counterinsurgency operations during the terror of 1967. “If you want to have a real understanding of the international communist conspiracy,” Arana told me at that time, “you should read two books: The View from the Fourth Floor by Earl Smith (former US Ambassador to Cuba) and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”1 In a subsequent interview the US military attaché in Guatemala City called Arana “the best officer they’ve got…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.