It Was Heaven That They Burned
Rigoberta Menchú Tum was 23 years old when she arrived in Paris in January 1982, when she gave the interview that would produce her memoir. The worst of Guatemala's civil war was yet to come. The roots of the crisis reached back to five years before Menchú was born, to the CIA's 1954 overthrow of democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz. The agency objected to the fact that Arbenz had legalized a small communist party and implemented an extensive agrarian reform. Following the coup, Washington promised that it would turn Guatemala into a "showcase for democracy." Instead, it created a laboratory of repression. After the costly Korean War, US policy-makers decided that the best way to confront communism was not on the battlefield but by strengthening the "internal defense" of allied countries. Guatemala, now ruled by a pliant and venal regime, proved a perfect test case, as Washington supplied a steadily increasing infusion of military aid and training. US diplomats often signaled a desire to work with a "democratic left"—that is, a noncommunist left. But the most passionate defenders of democracy were likely to be found in the ranks of Washington's opponents and singled out for execution by US-created and -funded security forces.
By the late 1970s, more than two decades after the overthrow of Arbenz, the Guatemalan government stood on the point of collapse. Repression against reformist politicians, a radicalized Catholic Church, indigenous activists and a revived labor and peasant movement swelled the ranks of a left-wing insurgency that, by the end of the decade, was operating in eighteen of Guatemala's twenty-two departments. Between 1976 and 1980, security forces killed or disappeared close to a thousand Social and Christian Democrats, trade unionists, university professors and students. By 1980 death squads were running rampant in Guatemala City and the countryside, and mutilated bodies piled up on the streets and in ravines.
In the indigenous highlands, violence against activists had been commonplace since the 1954 overthrow of Arbenz, and steadily increased through the '60s and '70s. Menchú's brother, Petrocinio, was murdered in late 1979. Repression of Catholic priests and catechists reached such a pitch that the church shuttered its diocese in the department of El Quiché in 1980; the first of many assaults on Menchú's village took place that year on Christmas Eve. The massacres started in 1981 and at first were not linked to a plan of stabilization or rule. Then in March 1982, shortly after Menchú's Paris interview, a military coup in Guatemala brought an even more vicious, yet more competent, regime to power. In an effort to eliminate the insurgent threat without generating wider circles of radicalization, military analysts marked Mayan communities according to colors: "white" spared those thought to have no rebel influence; "pink" identified areas in which the insurgency had a limited presence—suspected guerrillas and their supporters were to be killed but the communities left standing; "red" gave no quarter—all were to be executed and villages destroyed. "One of the first things we did," said an architect of this plan, "was draw up a document for the campaign with annexes and appendices. It was a complete job with planning down to the last detail."
A subsequent investigation by the United Nations Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH)—a truth commission, for which I worked as a consultant—called this genocide. The CEH documented a total of 626 army massacres, most of which took place between early 1982 and 1983—that is, the period between Menchú's interview and her book's publication in French and Spanish. In a majority of cases, the commission found
evidence of multiple ferocious acts preceding, accompanying, and following the killing of the victims. The assassination of children, often by beating them against the wall or by throwing them alive into graves to be later crushed by the bodies of dead adults; amputation of limbs; impaling victims; pouring gasoline on people and burning them alive; extraction of organs; removal of fetuses from pregnant women.... The military destroyed ceremonial sites, sacred places, and cultural symbols. Indigenous language and dress were repressed.... Legitimate authority of the communities was destroyed.
Massacres broke the agricultural cycle, leading to hunger and widespread deprivation as refugees hiding in the mountains and lowland jungle scavenged roots and wild plants to survive. A million and a half people, up to 80 percent of the population in some areas, were driven from their homes, with entire villages left abandoned.
This scorched-earth campaign was designed to cut off indigenous communities from the insurgency and break down the communal structures that military analysts identified as the seedbed of guerrilla support. This explains the exceptionally savage nature of the counterinsurgency, which, while constituting the most centralized and rationalized phase of the war, was executed on the ground with a racist frenzy. The point was not just to eliminate the guerrillas and their real and potential supporters but to colonize the indigenous spaces, symbols and social relations military strategists believed to be outside state control. Terror was made spectacle. Soldiers and their paramilitary allies raped women in front of husbands and children. Security forces singled out religious activists for murder and turned churches into torture chambers. "They say that the soldiers scorched earth," one survivor told me, "but it was heaven that they burned."