Editor’s Note: Over the following months, WireTap magazine will publish interviews with Guatemalan Maya activists from the Association for Justice and Reconciliation looking to hold ex-dictators and military heads responsible for one of the hemisphere’s bloodiest civil conflicts in the modern era.
Last month marked the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords in Guatemala–an agreement that ended nearly four decades of extreme state-led violence. The army’s so-called “counterinsurgency” efforts, allegedly aimed at ridding the country of guerrilla combatants, claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people while displacing more than 1.5 million others, the overwhelming majority of whom were indigenous Maya.
Antonio Caba, an Ixil Maya activist who currently serves as president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), lives in the highlands of El Quiche–the Guatemalan state hardest hit by the military campaign. Some 344 of the 669 massacres committed by the army against Maya villages occurred within El Quiche; an estimated 14.5 percent of all Ixil Maya were killed.
Among the seven genocidios (the men who plotted and ordered the genocide) that the AJR is pursuing, the key figure is José Efraín Ríos Montt, an evangelical minister who rose to power via a military coup in 1982 and thereafter ruled over what became the most violent chapters of the genocide. Under Ríos Montt’s similarly brutal predecessor, Romeo Lucas Garcia, male peasants were forcibly organized–into what were termed Self Defense Civil Patrols–to carry out military whims within their occupied villages.
In a climate of pervasive terror, the Civil Patrols became the lone form of organization allowed by the army in many communities–the only semblance of so-called civil society. In 1981, one out of every two adult men in Guatemala belonged to a Civil Patrol. Apart from using the civil patrollers to gather intelligence within villages and exploiting them as human shields in missions to hunt guerrilla in the mountains, the military–through credible threats on civil patrollers’ lives–forced indigenous men to participate in the violence.
By 1982, the military had perpetrated 130 massacres in El Quiche; civil patrols had taken part in 41 of them. All in all, under Rios Montt, the incorporation of civil patrols into state-led massacres doubled, accounting for 41 percent of all the army’s massacres, while the amount of victims to violence directed by the military in which the civil patrols participated more than tripled to 47 percent of those killed.
Ilom, the El Quiche village believed by many Ixil Maya to be the birthplace of their people, carries the unique distinction of having suffered a massacre on March 23, 1982–the exact day that a military overthrow unseated Lucas Garcia and soon replaced him with Rios Montt. Ilom is also the breathtaking hamlet that Antonio Caba calls home. Antonio was 11 years old when army soldiers, along with the civil patrol from the nearby La Perla plantation, gathered Ilom’s residents in the village plaza and murdered 96 of its men.
WireTap’s Elias Lawless met up with Antonio to hear about his experiences following the massacre, his forced participation in Ilom’s civil patrol, and his risky departure. This is the first of a two-part interview.
Wiretap: What happened to you and your family following the massacre in 1982?
Antonio Caba: We went to live on the Santa Delfina plantation, and we were there about one year living as slaves, working the plantation without a salary. The military kept the people from Ilom living there under surveillance. After that we had to tolerate hunger since there was no food, because everything we had they burned. They set fire to our houses, our corn, our beans, and we remained with nothing–only the clothes that we wore when we left.
And when we were on the plantation, after three or four days, the children began to die; over 150 children died. It was under Rios Montt’s regime that these hundreds of children died–of sickness, of hunger, of cold, of fear–because they had no homes, because they lived in the rain. Sometimes one child would die each day, or two, or three. Every day children died … back when we were living as slaves.
WT: How was your family specifically affected by the violence?
AC: Well, hunger and illnesses affected my family a lot. After three or four months, my grandfather became sick and died. The army kept him terrified because they used to threaten him and then one day they scared him again and he died there in the plantation. Then my sister died of fright, also in the plantation. What affected us is that we did not have anything, and, in fact, we remain in poverty today because there are not many resources here.
WT: How were the self-defense civil patrols formed in Ilom, and what was your experience within them?
AC: Well, the patrols were formed in the Santa Delfina plantation after Rios Montt was already president. So when his government was already in place, they first organized the men together, and they threatened them, “If you will not accept then you will die.” That is to say, the army was going to kill these persons who had survived, the leftovers from those already massacred.
They were forced. The army kept them monitored, and if an order comes that they must patrol in the mountains, then they have to go. They were under threat, they must go. And when I was 14 years old, they likewise forced me to join. Boys of 14 and 15 years were forced to be patrollers by the army.
WT: What types of things were you required to do as a patroller?
AC: You had to be available in the service of the military at their posts stationed along the edges of the community. “To wait for the guerrillas”–that is what they said.
There were lookout posts in the four corners of the community, so it was nearly enclosed. The army forced us to keep watch in these places; we had to rotate midnight shifts. Furthermore, we received no salary–it was “military obligation.” They obligated us to go into the mountains and cut firewood to take to the military bases. This affected me a lot because I became sick when forced to patrol in the mountains.
But those from Ilom did not stain their hands by killing people. Only the cornfields, yes, they had to cut down, because if they do not cut it, well, then they are one of the guerrillas. In the era of Rios Montt, an order arrived that all of the cornfields must be cut down. The bean stalks must be cut down, the sugarcane, the malanga, all of the fruit that grows there must be cut down so that the guerrillas would die.
The government did not give food to the civil patrollers; instead, only the army had food rations. Well, the patrollers did not have any, and they were obligated to be in the mountains some 15 days or a month, and when they returned, those people, the civil patrollers, would come back really feeble, arrive sick. It would be completely mournful, the lives of these people. So, I got very sick and afterward stopped patrolling, but I was already affected due to hunger and fear. For two years I was bedridden in a grave state. I was going to die, but thanks to God I escaped death, so here I am alive at the front of the struggle.
WT: What year did you leave the civil patrol?
WT: A U.S. State Department memo from 1991 stated that “those who refuse to serve in the civil patrols have suffered serious abuse, including death.” When you left the patrollers did you have permission or were there consequences for leaving?
AC: When I stopped being a patroller, it was of my own volition. A congressman named Diego came along who was on the side of the poor. Well, he came here and ordered the military not to force people to join the patrols. But the army did not respect those orders. Then came [the autonomous office of the attorney of] human rights, publicizing that one can not be forced to be a civil patroller. They gave me a small book of the laws and rights regarding service in the military and what their obligations were. I did not know how to read very well; I did not have the opportunity to attend school, so I did not know much, but I understood what the booklet said.
From then on I began to participate in human rights work. They trained me, they taught me, and it was there that I first learned. So, at that moment when I first came home, I said, “They cannot force me.” “This decision is mine and the law says so,” I said. But there were consequences: they treated me as if I were a guerrillero, as if I belonged to the guerrillas.
The military constantly came to advise the people that to allow one to leave the patrollers signifies that they have permitted the guerrilla to infiltrate the community. This is the policy they used. But there was no guerrilla here during that time that the military was here, and the military realized that. It was a pretext, no?
WT: How did the culture and customs of the Maya people change in Ilom following the massacre?
AC: They went changing when the violence arrived. In 1978, all the men wore their white pants, the traditional belts; they had their red coats which we call cotones. But when the violence happened, these customs left–everything. And there had been Mayan ceremonies as well as Catholic customs here. But when the violence happened, everything was changed.
The [villagers] stopped using their clothing since the military told the people that they could no longer wear the white pants because the guerrilla could see them and then kill them. That is the tactic the military used. They threatened them so they would not wear that traditional clothing. There are some today who still wear [traditional clothing] but so few you can count them. In that moment, everything changed. Now they are all evangelicals. The destiny of the population was changed by the violence.
The genocide case filed by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation has stalled in national courts since its original filing in 2000. There appears to be no motivation by authorities to move the case forward. Impunity is the norm in Guatemala: stats indicate that only an estimated three percent of murders are ever investigated and prosecuted there.
To support the AJR’s struggle:
1. Send a letter or an e-mail the Guatemalan government demanding that they move the case forward.
2. Apply to become a human rights observer with the AJR.
3. Join an e-mail update list about the AJR and other social justice struggles within Guatemala.
4. Donate to support U.S.- and Guatemala-based solidarity work with the AJR.
Translation, photos and introduction by Elias Lawless, 22, an independent journalist from Texas working in and around Guatemala. Feel free to contact him with comments or ideas for collaboration to support the AJR at elias (at) riseup(dot)net.