The civil war in Guatemala (1960 – 1996) was among the bloodiest of Latin America’s Cold War conflicts, and the period 1981 – 1983 witnessed a spike in violence against civilians, including well-planned offensives that targeted the country’s Mayan population.
By the late 1970s, the government, ruled by vested Ladino elites, faced a range of challenges from reformist politicians, the Catholic Church, indigenous groups, labor and student activists, and a rural communist armed insurgency that was particularly active in Mayan areas.[i] In response to these perceived threats, the government intensified its counter-offensive, beginning with sweeps against the guerillas’ urban infrastructure and other popular movements and stretching out to scorched earth tactics throughout the Mayan highlands. In 1980, the first organized rural massacre took place, although without the level of central control that would characterize later campaigns. Tactics of violence included policies of mass killing, homicides, disappearances, and torture intended not only to wipe out opposition, but to create fear that would dissuade citizens from aiding or supporting guerrillas.[ii] In Mayan communities, a high proportion of atrocities were committed in public and, with extreme brutality, or arbitrarily with the intention to foster fear.[iii] Described by Jennifer Schirmer as ‘blind, random, and massive’ these assaults inadvertently served to increase the rebel ranks.[iv]
In early 1982, three previously independent guerilla groups joined forces to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. Junior officers, critical of the poorly managed war and self-enrichment of senior army leaders,[v] organized a coup on 7 March 1982, that installed General Rios Montt as head of state. While the entire period between 1981 and 1983 was significantly more violent than the span of the civil war, the period that overlapped with Montt’s time in power witnessed the height of the assaults against Maya. Calling for a thorough modernization of the state, Montt and his collaborators developed a security and development plan that prioritized defeating the insurgency and included other repressive policies: suspension of the constitution, closing the parliament, and arresting and torturing opponents.
The cadre of junior military leaders who crafted the counter-insurgency plan implemented under Montt’s leadership understood that the previous indiscriminate use of violence was counterproductive. They also recognized that the historic marginalization, poverty and alienation of the Maya contributed to the success of the insurgency. Their response was to craft an uncompromising militarized policy that would first crush the rebels and then force Maya to conform to their version of greater social integration. The counter-insurgency included systematic, ruthless assaults on rebel strongholds, and a second phase intent on controlling Maya social and cultural expression.
Extrajudicial killings in Guatemala occurred during every presidency since 1960[vi] and larger spates of violence, including the killing of an estimated 8,000 civilians during the first scorched earth campaign from 1966-1967.[vii] However, the spike in 1981 – 1983 represented a significant escalation and was characterized by targeting based on ethnicity. The killing, which disproportionately affected indigenous populations, was not only a tactical military operation, but also a racially motivated state-building project[viii] that killed far more civilians than guerrillas and purposefully disrupted social and cultural traditions of indigenous communities.
The Commission on Historical Clarification in Guatemala (CEH) states that the guerrilla insurgency never posed a serious threat to the government, a fact that the government was well aware of due to extensive intelligence documenting the number and capacity of insurgents. Therefore, the CEH concludes that the state deliberately magnified the military threat of the insurgency in order to subjugate and reorder the civilian population.[ix] Further, the CEH recognizes that the “undeniable existence of racism expressed repeatedly by the State as a doctrine of superiority, is a basic explanatory factor for the indiscriminate nature and particular brutality with which military operations were carried out…”[x] Based on its findings, the CEH determined that acts of genocide were committed against the Mayan people in the four regions that it reviewed.[xi]
After Rios Montt came to power, there was an immediate decrease in urban violence, and an intensification and further institutionalization of the rural campaign of violence.[xii] Under Montt, military strategy was highly centralized and nearly all functions of the government became militarized.[xiii] Montt launched Operation Victory 82 which included both killing campaigns and “villageization” programs. During Operation Victory 82, massacres were characterised by brutal performative cruelty that included torture, forced sterilization, forced cannibalism, destruction of food supplies, systematic sexual violence that was sometimes enacted as public mass rape, and the targeting and destruction of ancient ceremonial sites. Attacks against rural villages were intentionally planned for Sundays and holidays so as to maximize the number of civilians who could be targeted. Violence peaked under Montt in 1982 and during the presidencies of Lucas and Montt, a total of 660 villages were completely razed to the ground.[xiv]
The operation also included heavy emphasis on indoctrination and control of the civilian population in the wake of massacres.[xv] In line with these goals, Montt expanded the use of Civil Defense Patrols (PACs). PACs, initiated under Lucas Garcia, were armed groups composed of civilian males between the ages of 16 and 65, who were recruited into pro-government forces. Although recruitment was not voluntary and the PACs were composed of indigenous men, some of these PACs were responsible for perpetrating intra-ethnic atrocities.[xvi] PACs worked alongside government military units[xvii] and forced surviving populations into model villages that were meant to modernize and develop the areas, but had the effect of forcibly destroying indigenous culture.
The Guatemalan government was responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths; the CEH concluded that state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of violations against civilians.[xviii] Although the government detained and tortures victims during the period of atrocities, it favored immediate execution or disappearance of victims more than other Latin American regimes of the same period.[xix] In line with the goals and genocidal rhetoric accompanying atrocities, 81% of victims were indigenous civilians, according to the CIIDH data.[xx] Rural victims tend to be indigenous and anonymous, while urban victims are more likely to be Ladino and identified.[xxi] Women and children also make up a much higher percentage of indigenous victims, indicating the lack of discrimination used by militaries when operating in indigenous areas.[xxii] Higher rates of violent death among women and children in the indigenous population also indicate the degree to which entire villages and indigenous populations were viewed as collectively culpable for the actions of guerrilla groups.
The police were the primary perpetrators of violence in urban areas, but the army perpetrated most atrocities in rural areas.[xxiii] During the atrocities period, the majority violence committed by the PACs was perpetrated in conjunction with state forces or paramilitaries. However, under civilian rule in the late 1980s and 1990s, PACs more frequently committed atrocities without the presence of state forces but with encouragement of the state. These attacks were promoted by the government as a means of maintaining an atmosphere of violence and terror even after the larger killing campaigns had subsided.[xxiv]
The figure of 200,000 deaths and disappearances is given by the CEH as an estimate of the number of atrocities during the entire 36 year conflict, with most of the victims being civilian.[xxv] 91% of these violations are believed to have occurred between 1978-1984,[xxvi] 81% between 1981-1983, and 48% in 1982 alone.[xxvii]
Similar figures for civilian deaths are given by other authors and scholars. Greg Grandin writes that over 100,000 Mayan peasants were executed between 1981 and 1983.[xxviii] Susanne Jonas references the deaths of 100,000-150,000 civilians in the same three year period.[xxix] Jennifer Schirmer concludes that 35,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the Lucas presidency and that 75,000 were killed during the Montt presidency, with most of the violence occurring in the first eight months.[xxx]
However, neither the CEH nor any of the above authors give a footnote or indication of how the numbers were arrived at. The CEH itself registered 42,275 victims of arbitrary execution and forced disappearance, but states that based on “other studies of political violence in Guatemala,” the total number was likely over 200,000. The final report issued by the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI) which preceded the CEH, listed 55,021 victims of a variety of types of government violence, including execution, forced disappearance, kidnapping, cruel treatment and torture, and sexual violence.[xxxi] In a quantitative study based on findings of the International Center for Human Rights Research in Guatemala (CIIDH), specific numbers of deaths and disappearances are recorded for each year of conflict. These numbers follow the general patterns of violence laid out in other sources but the actual numbers recorded are much lower than the 200,000 estimate. 37,255 deaths and disappearances are recorded for the entire 36 year conflict period (calculated as 1959-1995). 23,857 of these deaths are recorded between 1981 and 1983 with a clear peak of killing in 1982 with 18,167 violent deaths and disappearances.[xxxii]
It is reasonable that the actual number of civilians killed is considerably larger than those explicitly recorded by the REMHI, CEH, or CIIDH, given the high number of rural massacres and what is known about the extent of use of lethal violence. The CIIDH report does state that the Montt regime likely executed tens of thousands of more civilians in its short 17-month occupation of the National Palace than are recorded.[xxxiii] However, the CEH and scholarly works reviewed do not reference the specific source of larger numbers.
Mass atrocities in Guatemala had ended by 1983. The ending of atrocities was precipitated by the success of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign and the militarization of nearly all of the institutions and operations of the state.[xxxiv] By 1984, much of the civilian population in areas targeted by the government was organized into model villages and PACS, effectively under the control of the government. Mass atrocities ended disjunctively, as military campaigns swept through the country and ‘pacified’ the population. Once the military achieved control over the countryside in a brutal campaign, Montt was ousted in favor of the less controversial figurehead of Meija before the military eventually turned the presidency back over to civilian rule.[xxxv] However, even after the return of democratically elected civilian presidents, the Guatemalan military maintained strict control from behind the scenes.[xxxvi]
Although the international community played a key role in promoting peace negotiations that officially concluded the civil war, atrocities ended long before a peace agreement was signed with members of the URNG insurgency, due to the success of the counterinsurgency campaign. While mass killing ended in 1983, as Roddy Brett writes:
“conditions of structural violence profoundly affecting the indigenous population—including extreme poverty, regional famines, maternal mortality and chronic infant malnutrition—have escalated, as has resource extraction in indigenous communities, precipitating the systematic violation of indigenous peoples’ fundamental right to autonomy.”[xxxvii]
The end of extermination has not been accompanied by an end to structural violence or the social and cultural components of genocide.
We code this case as ending ‘as planned’ by the primary perpetrators, the military regime, who opted to normalize the situation. Their efforts to do so included another coup, which unseated Rios Montt, hence we also code for a leadership change.
Ball, Patrick, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer. 1999. State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Center for Human Rights Research.
Brett, Roddy. 2016. “Guatemala: The Persistence of Genocidal Logic Beyond Mass Killing,” in ed. Bridget Conley-Zilkic. How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH). 1999. Guatemala: Memory of Silence. February 25. Available at: https://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/mos_en.pdf.
Grandin, Greg. 2009. “Politics By Other Means: Guatemala’s Quiet Genocide” in ed. Etelle Higonnet. Quiet Genocide: Guatemala: 1981- 1983. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Gurr, Ted Robert and Barbara Harff. 1994. Ethnic Conflict in World Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Jonas, Susanne. 2009. ‘Guatemala: acts of genocide and scorched-earth counterinsurgency war’, in Samuel Totten and Williams S. Parsons (eds.), Century of genocide, Third Edition. New York: Routledge.
Popkin, Margaret. 1996. Civil Patrols and their Legacy: Overcoming Militarization and Polarization in the Guatemalan Countryside. Washington, DC: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center.
REMHI/Archdiocese of Guatemala. 1998. “Victimas Del Conflicto” in Guatemala: Nunca Mas. Available at http://www.odhag.org.gt/html/TOMO4C2.HTM.
Rothenberg, Daniel. 2012. Memory of silence: the Guatemalan Truth Commission Report. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rojas, Ricardo Saenz de Tejada. 2004. Victimas o Vencedores? Una Aproximacion al Movimiento e los Ex-PAC. Guatemala: FLACSO.
[i] Jonas, 2009, 380.
[ii] Rothenberg 2012, 12.
[iii] CEH 1999, 26.
[iv] Schirmer 1999, 18.
[v] Schirmer, 1999, 44.
[vi] Grandin 2009, 3.
[vii] Grandin 2009, 7.
[viii] Gurr and Harff 1994. Brett 2016.
[ix] CEH 1999, 22.
[x] CEH 1999, 24.
[xi] CEH 1999, 41.
[xii] Brett 2016.
[xiii] Schirmer 1999, 65.
[xiv] Brett 2016, 43.
[xv] Brett 2016, 44 – 45..
[xvi] Popkin 2004.
[xvii] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 100.
[xviii] CEH 1999, 20.
[xix] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 7 and 69.
[xx] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 89.
[xxi] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 57.
[xxii] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 2.
[xxiii] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 96-97.
[xxiv] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 104-105.
[xxv] CEH 1999, 17.
[xxvi] CEH 1999, 33.
[xxvii] Grandin 2009, 21.
[xxviii] Grandin 2009, 1.
[xxix] Jonas 2009, 381.
[xxx] Schirmer 1999, 44.
[xxxi] REMHI/Archdiocese of Guatemala 1998.
[xxxii] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 119.
[xxxiii] Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer 1999, 38.
[xxxiv] Schirmer 1999, 62-65.
[xxxv] Brett 2016, 47.
[xxxvi] Brett 2016, 48.
[xxxvii] Brett 2016, 50.