One of the activities at San Pedro Spanish School was a talk given by Felipe, a middle aged man living in San Pedro. He visited the school one afternoon and spent about an hour recounting a rather disturbing personal story.
First, let me give a little background. Guatemala experienced a civil war from 1960 to Dec 1996, when the peace accord was signed by the warring parties. This war was the longest and possibly the bloodiest of the many wars in Central America. There were various causes, but a major one was the CIA- sponsored coup in 1954 against the popularly elected socialist President Arbenz Guzman, prompted largely by his efforts to redistribute unused land of wealthy landowners such as the US- controlled United Fruit Company (UFco). At the time, UFco owned huge tracts of land in Guatemala, much of which was unused. (Even today, the richest 2% of Guatemala’s landowning population owns more than 65% of all of the arable land). UFco was was known as the Octopus (“el Pulpo”) since it controlled large parts of the economy including the ports. It had shareholders and friends in high places in the Eisenhower government, who objected to the purchase and redistribution of their land to the peasants by the Guatemalan government. This they viewed as communism. Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA in 1954, was at one time a board member of UFco. His brother, John Foster Dulles, was the current Secretary of State, and had previously acted as one of the lawyers of the UFco. They persuaded Eisenhower to authorize a coup. Arbenz was forced to flee the country.
After the coup, Guatemalans lost many of their democratic rights, and were ruled for perhaps 30 years by military strongmen. In 1960, one of several guerrilla groups rose up against the government and the civil war began.
Much of the conflict took place in the highland areas occupied by the indigenous Mayan people, who make up about half of Guatemala’s population. Studies reveal that perhaps 200,000 people died during the war, the overwhelming majority indigenous Mayans, and perhaps 90% at the hands of the military. (A few percent were killed by the guerrillas). Toward the end of the 1970’s, the civil war grew in intensity. Presidents Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt are considered the two most barbaric Presidents. Both practiced what was tantamount to genocide in an attempt to deprive the guerrillas of their traditional support in Mayan villages. It is estimated that 600 villages were raised to the ground and their inhabitants murdered by the Guatemalan military.
Much of the weaponry was supplied by the Reagan Administration, which at the time was also funding another bloody war, against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (remember Iran- Contra?).
One estimate is that during Rios Montt’s short 16 month reign (1982-83), perhaps 50,000 people were murdered, either by the military of by vigilante groups (with the President turning a blind eye). It appears that Garcia’s reign (1978-1982) was almost as bad.
This sets the scene for Felipe’s story, which took place under Garcia’s reign. In March 1980, Felipe was living at a boarding school near Chichicastenango, in the highlands. He was about 17 years old. The boys (about 11 to 18 years of age) lived in dormitories which were separated from their classrooms by a sports field. The girls lived on the other side of the property. One morning, the boys were walking across the sports field when they ware shocked to encounter 3-5 bodies. All were Mayan men, and were naked, with their hands tied behind their backs. All had had their throats slashed. The boys sounded the alarm, but the police seemed unsurprised. There was no investigation. The bodies were simply taken away. Much shaken, the boys continued with the studies. Many were tormented by what they had seen and some found it difficult to sleep at night. Some time later (perhaps months), they stumbled across more Mayan bodies in the sports field. This time the total included two women. All were naked, with hands tied, and this time each had been shot in the side of the head. The two women had both their breasts amputated. Once again, the police seemed unsurprised. This second occurrence added to the discomfort and terror amongst the boys. Later, it dawned on Felipe that these bodies had been intended as warnings by the military, to dissuade the boys from joining the guerrillas.
In October, the school year ended, and the kids were relieved to return home. Felipe returned to San Pedro, which is on the southern side of Lake Atitlan, about 2 hours from the school, and was therefore relatively far away from the main theater of the civil war. However, it seemed that the government wasn’t taking any chances of it’s spreading to San Pedro. Shortly after his return, the military showed up in force, and summoned everyone to a meeting at the local sports field. The office in charge said that the terrorists were everyone’s enemies, and that in order to defend the town, they wanted 50 volunteers to be trained as guards. The required number of male residents stepped forward, and the army led them away for some training. Shortly after, the 50 returned, each with an automatic rifle. The military announced martial law and disbanded the police. Henceforth, they said, the guards would be in charge.
Then commenced a reign of terror by the guards. The military remained in the background. The guards would bang at people’s doors at night, and extort money. If the person refused, he would be taken away, often never to be seen again. Many of the residents had to pay substantial bribes to these guards to be left alone. Often, these guards would simply “disappear” persons against whom they held a grudge.
Felipe told us that at no time did any guerrillas come to San Pedro.
About a month later, the guards, this time with military support, banged at the doors of 5 houses late at night, in order to abduct 5 young males for “questioning”. Felipe was one of this group. The guards barged into his house. He tried to escape and was shot in the thigh and arm. (We saw the scars). He and the others were taken away to a building perhaps 2 hours walk away, along the lake. He said this had been owned by wealthy foreigners and had been commandeered by the army. There the captives were tortured.
Felipe had been severely wounded, and had lost much blood, so a military medic arrived to give him some basic treatment and bandage his wounds. But all were kept with hands tied, which caused much discomfort. Felipe was the only one of the 5 who could speak Spanish, so he became the spokesperson.
During the next few days, the military would burn them with cigarettes and beat them with gun butts. Felipe says the guns were Galils, supplied by Israel. Each time, the military would offer to release them if they revealed the names of their guerrilla leaders and the locations of their arms caches. Since neither existed, the boys could not satisfy their torturers. After a few days, one of the boys was released. After he had walked perhaps 10 yards, and guard shot him in the back. This terrified the remaining four boys.
A day or so later, the guards took each boy, still with hands tied, and tied a second rope to each one’s body. They took the 4 boys down to the lake. They weighed each one down with rocks. One at a time, they threw each boy into the lake where he was kept submerged for a minute or so and then retrieved, each time he was asked the two questions. The periods of submersion became longer. The torture was stopped when one boy drowned. This left three.
A day later (day 5), all the boys were taken outside and their pants removed. A cord was tied to the testicles of the other two (Felipe was spared), and passed over the branch of a tree overhead. The two boys stood there with hands tied while the guards exerted increasing force on the cord, stretching their testicles upward. They yelled with pain. After a while the torture stopped and the boys collapsed. Later the three were taken back to their prison.
The next day (day 6), their captors announced that they were to be released. At first the boys refused to leave, remembering the fate of the first boy. However, their captors forced them out. They were left to find their own way home. They started walking. They were very weak and had to stop often. Eventually some locals found them and took them back to the village. Everyone was amazed to see them as they had been given up for dead. Felipe returned home, to the joy of his parents. He later recovered and was able to lead a normal life. The other did not fare as well. One died shortly after, perhaps due to suicide, and the other tuned to drink.
The story has a positive sequel. This was referred to in general terms by Felipe, but the details were supplied by one of my Spanish Teachers, who was about 10 years old at the time.
Apparently, the military left shortly afterward, having decided that the guerilla threat in San Pedro was small and that their proxies, the 50 armed guards, could handle things. At the time there lived in the village two brothers who were prominent citizens. One day, perhaps a year later, the guards decided to do away with them. One they captured in a nearby town. That night they came to abduct the brother. The people heard about this and came out into the streets shouting. However, they were unable to prevent the abduction. The two bodies were discovered the next day in the mountains, hanging from a tree. That night, the people organized into groups and entered the homes of each of the guards. Apparently, no one was killed. All the guards were overwhelmed by the townsfolk, which must have been an amazing act of bravery on their part. My teacher witnessed some of the arrests. The people were for lynching the guards, but wiser heads prevailed, and they were jailed instead. Later they were taken to the town of Sololá, the district center (about an hour away by car), and handed over to be prosecuted. It appears that most, if not all, were jailed for up to 10 years. This seems amazing in view of the fact that the military was still running the country. At the time, world attention had come to be focused on Guatemala’s human rights abuses, and the US Congress had recently stopped the sale of arms to the govt. (Sadly, other countries such as Israel and Italy filled the gap). Perhaps the government had decided to bow to the will of the people of San Pedro and to international pressure, and try the guards.
After a long period, the guards were released, and some tried to return to their previous lives in San Pedro. But the people ostracized them, and the few that live here today do so on the margins of society.
Postscript: None of Guatemala's dictators was ever tried. Today, Rios Montt is still in the government, and may run for president again. He has assumed the role of a born again Christian. As a military man, he was trained in the US.