A Mayan woman named Petronila doesn’t know how old she is, but she knows how long it has been since her life was shattered in the Guatemalan war: nineteen years. The story she told me when I was in the highland province of Quiché is typical of what happened to many thousands of others. In 1982, before her eyes, her sister was raped by soldiers and then carried off, never to be seen again. That same year an army patrol showed up and ate the dinner she had cooked for her father and brother, both of whom the patrol had just killed not far from her house.

Guatemala is now at peace, and it is almost unimaginably changed from what it was when those acts were committed. After more than three decades of war and a few years of recovery from the worst effects of the cataclysm, the country seems ready to begin its climb back toward normality. Before it can do so, however, it must decide whether to punish those responsible for the countless outrages like those that destroyed Petronila’s family. Guatemala is a country whose rulers have for half a century suppressed historical memory as if it were a poison. Now, for the first time, there are serious demands to examine the past.

“I want it to be remembered that this happened,” Petronila, who like many indigenous Guatemalans cannot speak Spanish, told me through an interpreter. “I don’t hate anyone. Maybe they were forced to do it. But when I see soldiers, I’m still afraid. I know what people like that did to my family. We have to do everything to make sure this never happens again.”

A great many Guatemalans share that determination, but how can they best realize it? This question is slowly but inevitably seeping into Guatemala’s political life. Many countries that have emerged from repressive dictatorship have had to decide how to confront the horrors of their past and how to deal with people who committed terrible crimes. Yet there is still something astonishing about the fact that it is happening in Guatemala, where soldiers slaughtered their fellow citizens with unparalleled savagery over a period of more than thirty years, where the number of dead—more than 200,000—exceeds the toll in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina combined, and where ethnic cleansing was practiced on a scale beyond even that of Bosnia. For more than a generation Guatemala lived under a ghastly form of state terrorism; now, almost unbelievably, it is something like an ordinary country, impoverished and devastated to be sure but no longer in the grip of homicidal fiends.

Guerrillas have turned in their weapons, and some now serve as mayors and members of Congress. Teams of forensic pathologists are digging up mass graves. In front of the National Palace, where not long ago presidents and cabinet ministers met to draw up lists of people to be assassinated, there is an eternal flame to commemorate “the anonymous heroes of peace.” Near the Roman Catholic cathedral, twelve pillars have been erected that bear the chiseled names of 13,500 victims, representing the many more thousands who died between the time the first shot was fired in 1960 and the signing of the peace treaty in 1996.

Demonstrators regularly gather in front of government offices to chant slogans and demand justice. Human rights groups have become insistently active. In the evening people listen to folk songs at coffeehouses where pictures of Pablo Neruda and Che Guevara adorn the walls. The one-quetzal coin carries the stylized image of a dove and the word “peace,” a word that for decades Guatemalans were forbidden to utter.

“December 28, 1996, was the night I could never have imagined,” writes the scholar Susanne Jonas, one of the few Americans who closely followed the course of this war and its aftermath. “On the eve of the signing of Guatemala’s peace accords, the Central Plaza was the scene of unprecedented, previously inconceivable, popular ceremonies and celebrations. A variety of indigenous groups danced and marched with banners in Mayan languages…. One friend of mine, part of the government team, described himself as being in an ’emotional coma’—a combination of exhaustion and delirium, I think.”

These are by no means good times in Guatemala. The government of President Alfonso Portillo, an awkward coalition of reformers and hard-liners elected in 1999, has failed to comply with key elements of the 1996 peace treaty, among them clauses that call for new housing programs, increased spending on public health, tax reform, and the abolition of repressive police units. Honest judges, crusading journalists, and others essential to a civil society live in a climate of fear and intimidation. Criminal violence has reached alarming levels, and gangs of citizens are taking the law into their own hands by lynching people they consider guilty of crimes. Many political leaders seem uncomfortable with new ideas such as accountability and the supremacy of law. Worst of all, the country remains plagued by vast inequality, and millions live in deep poverty.


But with the war over and peace beginning to take hold, the central reality of life has changed. There is at least modest hope that Guatemala, so cruelly damaged by the counterinsurgency doctrine that was spread throughout Latin America during the postwar era, can finally build a political system able to confront its great national problems. Peace has created space for political and social debate. It has brought about a grudging acknowledgment on the part of some large landholders and powerful business leaders that the feudal structure of society must be changed so that social tensions never again explode into rebellion. And it has allowed people to say aloud what I saw scribbled in large red letters on a wall in Guatemala City: “We know who committed the massacres: the army.”

The painstaking negotiations between government and guerrilla leaders that led to the 1996 peace treaty took five years and involved the signing of fifteen different accords covering topics from civil service reform to the rights of returning refugees. These accords were to be carried out over a four-year period ending in December 2000. When that date came, however, more than a hundred commitments remained unfulfilled, so the parties agreed to extend the deadline until 2004. By that time, there undoubtedly will still be many unresolved issues. But in one matter, that of confronting the past, much is already being done. Lawyers, human rights investigators, Church workers, and ordinary peasants, intimidated for many years, are breaking the silence that has covered up their government’s crimes.

One of the preliminary accords, signed in Oslo on June 23, 1994, stated that the nation had been convulsed by “grave acts of violence” and asserted “the right of the people of Guatemala to know the full truth about these events.” It established a commission to investigate what happened during the war years, although its findings could not be used either to fix individual responsibility or to serve as the basis for legal prosecutions.

The leader of the government team that negotiated the Oslo accord, Hector Rosada-Granados, an independent writer and university professor with social democratic sympathies, told me he signed it only after much consultation with fellow officials. “I went to the president and told him I wanted to know what the army thought of this proposal,” he said. “I wasn’t going to sign something like this and then be killed for it. So we arranged a meeting with all the top military commanders, 152 in all. I told them what was on the table and asked them: ‘Are you ready to deal with the truth?’ They wanted to discuss it among themselves, and I waited outside. Forty-five minutes later they called me back into the room and said that yes, they were ready.”

Rosada-Granados’s own life has been shadowed by political crime. His grandmother, a journalist, was assassinated in 1916, and he has never been able to find out why. On a table in his apartment he has sixteen framed black-and-white photographs of the Polish branch of his family, which was decimated in the Holocaust.

“I can look at these pictures, but my father and mother couldn’t,” he told me wistfully. “It’s a lot to expect that after just a few short years, a society can be ready for a self-examination that is this profound and searing. The conditions that led to our war are still with us: exploitation, violence, racism, human rights violations, ideological polarization. And although many of the people who were the worst offenders are no longer in power, some are, and even those who aren’t still have influence. We need profound changes in our mentality and political culture. We need a new generation, a generation of democrats. All around us we still have this pall of authoritarianism, this cloud of fear. This process is going to take time.”

The report issued by the “historical clarification commission” in 1999 was shattering in both its details and its unequivocal conclusion that more than 90 percent of the dead civilians had been killed by soldiers. In presenting the report, Christian Tomuschat, the German lawyer who headed the commission, said that while he and his fellow commissioners had a general idea of what they would find before they began, “not one of us could have imagined the dimensions of this tragedy, not even the Guatemalan commissioners who had lived through the experience directly.”

After describing some of the most awful aspects of the repression, Tomuschat added something that needed to be said: “Until the mid-1980s, the United States government and US private companies exercised pressure to maintain the country’s archaic and unjust socioeconomic structure.” The American ambassador issued a perfunctory denial of that obvious truth, but a few days later President Clinton came to Guatemala and offered an extraordinary public apology, which he read from handwritten notes. “For the United States,” Clinton said, “it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”



Damning as the commission’s report was, another report, produced by the Catholic Church in 1997, penetrated more deeply into the machinery of Guatemalan repression. So directly did it blame the security forces, in fact, that the man under whose auspices it was written, Bishop Juan José Gerardi, was murdered two days after it was issued. In March two former army officers and a priest went on trial for the killing, but the prospect that the full truth will come out at the trial, or ever, seems remote. The killing, in which the bishop’s head was smashed with a heavy stone, was a vivid reminder that thugs who reject the idea of peace, many of them renegade army and police veterans, still roam at night.

Very few Guatemalans have read either of the two densely written historical reports, and for a time there seemed a danger that they would simply be filed away. The Catholic Church, however, has produced a shortened version of its own report, illustrated with hundreds of drawings that show soldiers beating and executing peasants, police officers torturing prisoners, and villages littered with bodies as helicopters fire on fleeing civilians. Ten thousand copies of this book have been distributed to Church workers across the country, and another 40,000 are to follow. Organized by the Church headquarters in Guatemala City, these people travel the countryside holding seminars at which people learn not just what happened, but who was responsible and how they organized their terror campaign. In no other country has there been such an ambitious effort to bring the findings of a truth commission into the homes and hearts of ordinary people.

“We have to take advantage of this moment and this opportunity,” Marco Antonio Morales, one of the Church workers who helped produce the illustrated report, told me when we met in his office adjacent to the cathedral. “The army wants this to be forgotten, and so do many civilian and political groups. We know there aren’t going to be quick results from what we’re doing. This is a process aimed at future generations. A space was opened for us to do this, and we’re taking advantage of it.”

As Morales suggested, those who worked in or collaborated with the repressive apparatus are not the only ones worried about where this “process” will lead. During my recent visit to Guatemala I met the guerrilla commander Rodrigo Asturias, whom I remembered as a legend, a rebel who would, so everyone thought, certainly die in combat one day. Yet to my amazement, after organizing a force of several thousand mostly indigenous fighters and leading it for years, he not only survived but became a principal negotiator in the peace talks. Today he heads a legal political party which, in coalition with another left-wing group, won 12 percent of the vote in the 1999 election. He and Julio Balconi, the Guatemalan general who was the key military figure in the peace talks, tell their stories in El Guerrillero y el General, a book compiled by two Dutch researchers from long interviews. Balconi describes how he slowly came to realize that the war had to be brought to a negotiated end; he recounts the steps, including a long meeting with Fidel Castro, that led to the final accord. But it is Asturias who comes across as the more complex figure. A son of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, he gave up a life of privilege to spend years in the mountains waging what he calls “an inevitable war, from my point of view a just war.”

I met Asturias at the office of his political party, which overlooks a leafy avenue not far from the National Palace, where, several people told me, he dreams of one day being installed as prime minister. During the years when he was fighting the war and I was writing about it, I never imagined that one day I would see him alive, a large, muscular man of sixty, bespectacled and balding. Last year the State Department refused to grant him a visa to visit the United States, citing what it called his background as a terrorist. This was odd, not only because Asturias is now an important figure in his country’s political system but also because some of the bloodiest Guatemalan officers, true terrorists in every sense of the word, travel freely to the United States and even in some cases have retired to Florida.

Yet Asturias, like other guerrilla leaders, can hardly be considered free of blame for his country’s plight. Units under his control were guilty of atrocities during the war, although not on the same scale as the army was. Their guilt raises the most troubling aspect of the Guatemalan peace treaty; it is in a sense a pact between leaders of two murderous gangs who agree to pardon each other not just for their acts of war but also for their crimes against innocent civilians. For these enemies to have continued their war indefinitely would have been immoral, but the way they ended it was, perhaps inescapably, also unjust. Its most bizarre effect has been to give Asturias something in common with his erstwhile enemies in the army high command: a desire not to examine the past too closely.

“We’re not the biggest promoters of this,” he told me. “Of course the victims have an inalienable right to justice, and of course the most important thing to all of us is that this never happen again. But the way to guarantee that is to build democratic institutions. If we don’t do that, then finding out the truth about what happened in the past is only marginally important.”

Many Guatemalans agree with him. Gudrun Molkentin, a German political scientist who conducted scores of interviews across the country in 1999 and 2000, worries that although the violence of the war years “surpasses human imagination,” the daily struggle for survival now overwhelms discussion about how to confront the past. But she does not think that the need to establish truth is in any way marginal. “The war claimed many victims, and many were responsible for it: those who participated directly as perpetrators, those who gave financial support, and those who remained silent,” she writes in her book, whose title and theme is the “difficult paths of peace.”

“We cannot feel what the victims felt, but it is possible to make gestures to them in the form of symbolic acts and concrete reparation,” she writes. “The absence of discussion about the war in the heart of society makes the process of national reconciliation more difficult.”

The United Nations has assumed responsibility for helping Guatemala through the postwar period with the largest-scale “peace-building” operation it has ever undertaken. The mission’s budget is shrinking because of a steady decline in international concern for Guatemala; it is working with 280 people and $16 million this year, down from 530 people and $30 million last year. Yet the challenges facing the UN workers and their Guatemalan counterparts are monumental. They are trying not only to deal with chronic poverty and build new education and health care systems, but also to reorganize the army, create a modern police force and judiciary, and find ways to incorporate the indigenous Mayan majority into national life. They talk of the need to replace a deep-seated culture of confrontation with one based on compromise and conciliation. But when I visited the deputy director of the UN mission, Juan Pablo Corlazzoli, I found him willing to say aloud what many people secretly fear: “This peace process is not irreversible. If Guatemala doesn’t have a period of social peace so that these changes can take hold, things could begin to fall apart. There is still the danger of a return to the past.”


The Guatemalan conflict has its roots in cold war history, specifically in the CIA-sponsored overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Arbenz, a leftist army officer, wanted to impose a land reform program that not only offended the United Fruit Company, Guatemala’s largest landowner, but was also based on the premise that poverty was the country’s central problem. For decades after the 1954 coup, even discussing poverty was taboo. Although any visitor could instantly see that the country was miserably poor, for a Guatemalan to admit this was to fall under suspicion of having Marxist sympathies. It is therefore not the least accomplishment of the postwar years that the government planning agency has just issued an official report called The Drama of Poverty in Guatemala. It is the first official report on this subject since Arbenz was forced out of the country nearly half a century ago.

The report contains little that is new. What makes it remarkable is that it shows the willingness of at least some government officials to admit the realities of Guatemalan life. Sixty percent of Guatemalans live on less than $1 per day and indigenous people, mainly Mayan Indians, suffer disproportionately, with nearly three quarters of them living in poverty. Child labor is endemic, 40 percent of the people have no health care, and 30 percent are illiterate. Three percent of the country’s farms cover 65 percent of the arable land. Guatemalans have less chance of living to the age of forty than citizens of any other Central American country. “People living in poverty have no commitment to democracy because they see that it does not give them the resources they need to develop as human beings,” the report concludes. “In the long term, this situation can make the country ungovernable. Without fear of exaggeration, it is the most serious problem facing Guatemalan society.”

But even Arturo Montenegro, the head of the government planning agency, who was responsible for the report, admits that dealing with poverty in his country is a challenge intimately tied to the need to face the past. Poverty was the underlying cause of the long war, he told me; the peasant and guerrilla organizations recruited people who were desperate for food and land. This relentless poverty cannot be overcome, he said, without breaking down the social structures that have dominated the country for centuries—or without facing the appalling truths of recent Guatemalan history:

The question of what we do with our memories goes to the heart of Guatemalan society. On one hand we want to forget our tragedies and our memories. We wonder what sense there is in investigating the details of what happened. But we’re finding not only that we can’t forget, but that our memory conditions everything we do. Slowly we’re realizing that we can’t face the future without facing the past.

After we had spoken for a few minutes, the door to Montenegro’s office opened and the foreign minister, Gabriel Orellana, found us. I quickly realized that he had not appeared by accident, but that when Montenegro told him he was going to be discussing these issues with a visitor, he asked to be present. He sat quietly for a while. When he spoke, it was about the possibility of inviting more foreigners to come to Guatemala to write and speak about the past. I asked him why Guatemalans couldn’t do it themselves.

“Foreigners see things that we don’t see so clearly, and I think that for a while to come, they will be the ones who write our history,” he answered. “During these years we lost the ability to judge ourselves. This country badly needs collective therapy, but we don’t have therapists here. We have to import them.”

It is indeed the case that most books about the Guatemalan conflict have been written by outsiders. For decades it was dangerous in Guatemala to be a historian, sociologist, or anthropologist; to pursue those professions honestly was to risk death. As a result, there are few Guatemalans who can tell their country’s story, just as there are few experienced politicians now because the generation that should have produced them was devastated by waves of assassinations.

I was encouraged to hear the foreign minister concede how extensively the war has shattered Guatemalan society, all the more so because of his political background. He is an ally of Efraín Ríos Montt, the president of Congress, who ruled Guatemala for slightly more than a year after staging a military coup in 1982 and who was responsible for some of the worst violence of the war. Ríos Montt is much hated by war victims and their sympathizers, but he has a strong following among rightists and others who believe their country needs strong, authoritarian rulers. Had a court not forbidden him to run for president in 1999 because of his role as leader of the 1982 coup, he might have been elected. As his stand-in he chose Portillo, a university professor and one-time leftist, who won in a runoff and assumed the presidency in January 2000. Portillo has named a few officials who seem bent on reform, but when he must he defers to Ríos Montt, who remains the power behind the throne and effectively stifles political and economic change.

A group of fifteen Guatemalan and foreign lawyers have spent several years preparing meticulously detailed cases against Ríos Montt and three other former generals closely associated with mass murder: Fernando Romeo Lucas García, who was president in the late 1970s and early 1980s; his brother and chief of staff, Benedicto; and his defense minister, Rene Mendoza Palomo. The four of them were principally responsible for the scorched-earth campaign of the years between 1978 and 1983. It is estimated that of the 200,000 people killed during the thirty-six-year conflict, 132,000 died during that five-year period.

War crimes investigators have painstakingly reconstructed seventy massacres that took place during those years, all of them apparently committed by soldiers, and visited each of the villages where they took place to ask residents if they wanted to become plaintiffs in these cases. Most were too terrified to agree, but in the end twenty-five villages voted to join the prosecution. The case against Fernando Romeo Lucas García, who lives in Venezuela and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and his two main collaborators was filed last year. It includes the testimony of sixty-seven witnesses to ten of the massacres; the attorney general’s office, to the surprise of many lawyers, agreed to name a special prosecutor to pursue it. The case against Ríos Montt, charging him with genocide and crimes against humanity, is to be filed in the coming months.

“We’re doing this because we have to get recognition of what happened and why,” Paul F. Seils, a British lawyer who is helping to coordinate the cases, told me. “It’s not going to happen any other way. If the state would accept the real truth, if it would say that this was genocide, that it was absolutely wrong, that the victims were totally innocent, and that the state was responsible for killing them, we’d probably drop these cases. This isn’t about money or prosecutions. It’s about a political will to break with the past. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to get that, which is why we’re pressing ahead.”

Seils and his colleagues are determined that the monumental crimes of Guatemala not be forgotten. They reject as facile and sentimental the rhetoric of simple reconciliation, just as they are skeptical of bland hopes that a better and more unified society can be built by forgetting.

“People say it’s impossible to get something like this done in Guatemala, but if you look at the facts, actually quite a bit has been accomplished here,” Seils told me. “There have been three successful prosecutions, including one of several soldiers and two others of members of state-controlled paramilitary groups. That is significant even though no one convicted so far has been from the top level of the army or police. The government is taking our cases very seriously. Guatemala has achieved much more than most people believed possible.”

If the work of the Catholic Church slowly spreads an awareness of Guatemala’s recent history through the countryside and if enlightened officials can assure that the law is allowed to take its course, teams of lawyers such as the one led by Seils may one day force the nation and the world to confront the horrible truths of Guatemala’s tragedy. The possibility of dealing with the deep poverty and injustice that afflicts the country depends in no small measure on their success.

—May 23, 2001

This Issue

June 21, 2001