La Violencia After War: The Long Legacy of Conflict in Guatemala

Camar Díaz

She went to Guatemala for a glimpse of postwar reconstruction, to witness that a Latin American country can grow out of a violent past and toward peace and security. Instead what Camar Díaz found was widespread armed violence.

Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Kent MacElwee

As if prepared for public humiliation, firearms sentenced to destruction lay on the street in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Guatemala City. They lay tightly assembled like a completed jigsaw puzzle, over a five by fifteen-foot board, wide enough for a single drum road roller to drive over and crush them. On the left side of the board were rifles and shotguns. On the right, pistols and revolvers. The verdict: guilty of la violencia.

To facilitate peace building after internal conflicts, the United Nations promotes the destruction of firearms. Making the destruction public is intended to induce confidence in the state, confidence apparently necessary to build peace and security. On February 2nd, 2006, the Supreme Court of Guatemala withdrew 501 guns from government storage and, with the support of the presidential office and the Catholic Church, used them to carry out this first public destruction of firearms in front of the Cathedral. Ten years had passed since the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, the military, and the government finalized signing the Peace Accords, committing to end violence that left about 200,000 people killed. Firearms were the main weapons of mass killing, and the proof is in the collection of bullet-perforated skulls of men, women, and children that have been exhumed by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation from clandestine graves since the 1990s.

I placed my hands on the orange plastic barricades that kept spectators a safe distance from the firearms puzzle and scanned the people on the other side. I noticed the leader of the National Commission for the Eradication of Illegal Arms adjusting the podium’s microphone. During an interview at his office, he had previously told me that the Commission was created in 2004 with UN guidance, because the 1996 Peace Accords neglected to address the problem of surplus firearms left from the war. In relation to the surplus, a social justice activist shared with me this story: “I went to La Libertad, Huehuetenango a couple of years ago to investigate a series of lynchings. While there, a lady had sold her land and thieves arrived at her house to steal her money. She was alone with her two boys, eight and eleven years old. The eleven year old grabbed an old Mauser, got up on the roof, and killed two of them. The Mauser was his dad’s, one of the rifles that paramilitary patrols used. The dad hadn’t handed it over after the Peace Accords.”

Whereas wartime guns that weren’t handed over after the Accords presented a problem, the challenge was magnified by the arrival of many new illicit guns into Guatemala. The National Commission for the Eradication of Illegal Arms estimated that there were about two million illicit firearms in circulation. Mainly due to narco-trafficking and the rise of violent youth gangs, the proliferation of guns far outpaced the capacity of the Commission. In response to the asymmetry, the Commission began with what was in reach, working with sympathetic state offices to carry out a public destruction of 501 guns.

While waiting for the arms destruction event to begin, I looked up and spotted a pigeon atop the neoclassical cathedral, between its two bell towers. The sky was clear and the air crisp, rightly illustrating Guatemala City’s motto, “the city of eternal spring.” The word “spring” also had political significance to many Guatemalans, as in the Ten Years of Spring or the Democratic Spring that began with the civic-military revolution in 1944, a revolution that enabled free elections after a long history of dictatorship as well as economic reforms to benefit the country’s majority, the rural poor. The Democratic Spring ended in 1954 with the US-engineered military coup that overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz. President Arbenz had threatened US economic power in Guatemala with agrarian reforms that expropriated land owned by the United Fruit Company, a move that carried more insult than injury to the company’s economic empire, since 85% of the land it owned was uncultivated. United Fruit’s monopoly not only comprised prime banana land but also ownership of Guatemala’s single port on the Atlantic coast and railroad expansion throughout Central America. United Fruit’s dominance in Guatemala and throughout the rest of Central America gained it the popular name El Pulpo / The Octopus, its eight arms extracting everything it touched. After having worked at El Pulpo for 20 years, Thomas McCann wrote in his 1976 book, An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit: “United Fruit’s profits [in Guatemala] flourished for fifty years. Then something went wrong: a man named Jacob Arbenz became President.”

Lobbyists in the US exploited Cold War rhetoric and convinced the Eisenhower administration to take out democratically-elected Arbenz under the pretext that he presented a communist threat.

The company’s persuasive lobbyists in the US exploited Cold War rhetoric and convinced the Eisenhower administration to take out democratically-elected Arbenz under the pretext that he presented a communist threat. Arbenz’s overthrow resulted in the reversal of agrarian reforms, the birth of revolutionary groups like the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, more military coups, and the four-decade civil war. Meanwhile bananas continued to be grown for export. Today, bananas are still the leading produce imported into the US from Guatemala. United Fruit became Chiquita, whose labels on bananas at US stores often read “Guatemala.” McCann witnessed that change; he began working for El Pulpo the year before Arbenz’s overthrow. And this is what he had to say after his tenure there: “Two decades since United Fruit Company and the Central Intelligence Agency conspired to make this hemisphere ‘safe’ for their particular version of democracy—Guatemala remains one of the most unstable governments in Central America, as well as one of the most dangerous countries to live in or to visit.” Now 40 years after the publication of McCann’s book, this assessment continues to be mostly accurate.

Guatemala has yet to live another democratic spring. Today the rural poor accounts for 70 percent of the country’s entire poor population. And exploitation of land and people as well as extrajudicial killings continue to scar their lives. According to the Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC) website, the CUC was founded in 1978 “when peasants and farmworkers united to fight for better salaries and against militarization and discrimination of indigenous populations.” I interviewed two CUC leaders who spoke to me specifically about Izabal, a region crowded with plantations growing bananas for export. One said that, since 2000, 15 CUC members had been killed by “paramilitary groups that have continued to operate after the Peace Accords.” The other CUC leader added: “In Izabal, we see landowners who move around better armed than the Army. These armed people intimidate the peasants and farmworkers. We cannot raise our voice.” Barely pausing to take a breath, he continued, “We’ve been struggling on some farms for about 20 years, and we haven’t been able to get land redistribution. Peasants can’t pay for land they’ve occupied, so they have to leave. The farm owners arrive with their armed people to remove them.”

Guatemala has yet to live another democratic spring. Today the rural poor accounts for 70 percent of the country’s entire poor population.

Soon after I left Guatemala, I read disturbing reports by trade union organizations, including the International Trade Union Confederation, about banana farmworkers who were shot to death in Izabal as a result of their union leadership roles. If Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemala’s Nobel laureate who wrote protest fiction about exploitation of banana farmworkers during the first half of the 20th century, were still alive, he’d have enough material to publish a sequel to The Banana Trilogy, enough material to make George Orwell roll in his grave with envy.

Before the Cathedral’s colossal wooden doors, government and church officials gathered for the arms destruction event. They were all ladinos and ladinas, that is, Guatemalans of European descent. Eight bodyguards in suits, some wearing sunglasses, protected the small group. Guarding the Cathedral stood twelve large pillars carved with names of desaparecidos y desaparecidas / the disappeared—a euphemism for civilians considered subversives who were abducted, assaulted, detained, tortured, and executed, and then whose bodies were hidden during the war.

Behind me, Plaza Mayor spread over half a square kilometer in its Spanish colonial elegance, with a fountain at its center. The fountain’s water dripped down one, two, three gradually larger bowls and then into the ground pool. Around the fountain, in that same public square years ago, a protest took place against the Carter Administration. “I still remember a manifestation at the Plaza Mayor against Jimmy Carter,” a political scientist told me, “because he and Congress put a ban on Guatemala based on human rights violations. I was there. The Plaza was full! It looked like one of the manifestations in Teheran against Ayatollah Khomeini. Carter was playing the game of the guerrilla; that was our interpretation of the situation. The communist insurgency was our common enemy. We were at the most explosive, most crucial point in the war.” He paused, squinted and darted an accusatory look at me that made me feel guilty simply for being a US citizen, and calmly concluded, “It’s just that our army was fighting the enemies of the United States, then the US took away support after getting the Guatemalan Army into a civil war.” As he spoke, I imagined him as a young man at the plaza, sharing his indignation among fellow Guatemalans who had believed in such a thing as US loyalty and who couldn’t yet envision their own country’s autonomy.

Plaza Mayor is nestled in the historic center, the Cathedral stands at the east while the National Palace stands north. Inside the palace, in 1999, President Bill Clinton publicly conceded: “It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the [UN Historical Clarification Commission] report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”

The mistake need not be repeated for the one already made to continue to have repercussions. A human rights advocate shared her experience: “Since 2000, clandestine structures started attacking human rights defenders. Clandestine structures are, in reality, military intelligence turned illicit. During the war, their actions concerned counterinsurgency. In the present, they have diversified. When I was the director of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, we decided to accuse—in Spain—General Ríos Montt, six military officers, and two civilians involved in state terrorism and genocide. That generated a series of attacks against myself and the lawyer.” Then, in a dispirited tone, she added, “If you listened to the declarations by the Ministry of Defense three months ago, they continue to think that the so-called ‘radical human rights movement’ is an enemy of the military. After so many attacks, they have weakened the networks of solidarity and cooperation among us. Today, the human rights community is a scared community.”

However scared that community may have been, they have persevered in their effort. They waited when their hands were tied while Ríos Montt sat in Congress from 2007 to 2011, a position that had granted him prosecutorial immunity. But after he was out of office, in 2013, the High Risk Court Tribunal of Guatemala found him and his chief of intelligence guilty of war crimes. During Ríos Montt’s short presidential rule between 1982 and 1983, his leadership managed “the most closely coordinated, intensive massacre campaign in Guatemalan history, killing an estimated 75,000 in 18 months,” borrowing Jennifer Schirmer’s words from The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. After the unprecedented prosecution, presiding Judge Yassmín Barrios sentenced the accused to 80 years in prison commencing immediately. A few days later, the Constitutional Court annulled the trial judgment, suspended Judge Barrios, and ordered a retrial. Since then, the trial has been rescheduled several times, with delays based on procedural grounds and excuses based on Ríos Montt’s mental incapacity to participate in the proceedings. Those who have awaited justice for decades put their hope on the latest scheduled trial of January 2016. The prosecution was once again postponed, allowing for senility and impunity to further mature.

More people continued to arrive to watch the arms destruction. At any given time during the hour-long event, I saw about fifty spectators watching curiously. Some people stopped, looked, and resumed their course. The majority in the audience were Mayan men who reminded me of the CUC leaders who told me about the murders of banana farmworkers. A man near me looked intently at the guns, then said to anyone who would listen, “Ba, esas son armas viejas que ya no sirven.” / “Bah, those are old guns that don’t work anymore.” Later that day, a source in the Supreme Court would reveal that the firearms chosen for the destruction event were, in fact, inoperable. And that they had been seized from “delinquents”—meaning, insurgents—during the war.

Once all the official guests arrived, about 25 in total, the event finally began. Taking turns at the podium were the vice president of Guatemala, Eduardo Stein, the president of the Supreme Court, Beatriz de León, and Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada, who in a press conference a few days later would hold a bullet in one hand and a packet of contraceptive pills in the other to compare them as equally destructive and to dramatize his opposition to proposed family planning legislation. The speakers referred to the event as a historic moment and spoke succinctly about la violencia, the eradication of illegal firearms, Guatemala’s future, and hope.

The World Health Organization says that an epidemic of violence starts when there are 10 homicides per every 100,000 inhabitants, and here we already have 40.” The great majority of those homicides were caused by firearms.

De León shared her hope that the destruction would be a message reaching the hearts of Guatemalans and especially la juventud / the youth. Aside from the small group of male high-school students conscripted to hold white balloons for the finale, youth were absent from the event. Neither was there any identifiable attendance of those who had lost family members to armed violence during or after the war. That day, the Human Rights Ombudsman Sergio Morales was quoted in a local newspaper saying, in translation, “The situation of la violencia continues to be severe. The World Health Organization says that an epidemic of violence starts when there are 10 homicides per every 100,000 inhabitants, and here we already have 40.” The great majority of those homicides were caused by firearms.

Cardinal Quezada talked persuasively about the “immense quantity of lives cut by la violencia.” He urged Guatemalans to commit to una cultura de vida / a culture of life. A man near me turned his face away from the Cardinal, the Cathedral, the guns. We made eye contact, so he spoke as he began to leave his spot in the front, “Eso no va a parar ninguna violencia.” / “That’s not going to stop any violence.” My eyes followed him to see if he was shifting his place in the audience, but he simply left.

Guatemalans who I interviewed during my eight-month stay in their country often told me about la violencia, which primarily referred to gun violence. It still does, even to a US photojournalist. In her photo essay, published in 2013 in as ‘Life is Worth Nothing in Guatemala,’ Lianne Milton displays la violencia. Some of her photo descriptions read: “man who was shot in his car”; “blood-soaked gurney from a shooting victim”; “young woman was shot and killed.” For her photo essay, Milton won a Latin American Photography Award. In Guatemala, her work would have encountered steep competition given that so many graphic exhibits of the aftermath of gun violence appear daily in local newspapers. To Guatemalans, those images aren’t art or admirable photojournalism, but merely a stark reminder of the absence of peace and security.

Others have grown numb and indifferent. In telling me about a project he led called ‘For Life, Against Guns and Violence,’ an artist shared a finding by one of his colleagues: “When one of the photographers would go take pictures of someone killed by gun violence, she’d ask the children who would be looking at the cadavers,

‘What do you see?’
‘What do you feel?’

She titled her work ‘La violencia is leaving us blind and without feelings.’ So with the project, we want to rescue values.” Then the artist somberly added, “Guatemala has been a violent country in the past, but not at the level of the current conditions. I can’t say, ‘This is who we are.’”

The road roller that had been parked next to the guns-sentenced-to-destruction rumbled to life. Everyone quieted. The government officials and Cardinal stood up, adjusted their suits, then crossed their hands in front, some behind. Five short men with copper brown skin and wearing jeans, casual jackets, and baseball caps, grabbed the chicken-wire that had fenced the guns and laid it over them. They stepped back and the roller moved slowly forward. Once fully over the guns, the driver stopped the vehicle and reversed a bit. “¡No se rompen!” / “It’s not breaking them!” yelled a young man in the audience with a concerned look but who was clearly enjoying the spectacle. Very slowly, the driver continued forward until he traversed the puzzle exhibit and parked at the other end. A public works label adhered to the side of the roller read, ¡Haciendo Buenas Obras! / Doing Good Works! In this context, the irony of the inscription reminded me of words a former guerrilla member had said to me. We were talking about the end of the war when he said that the Peace Accords meant el silencio de las armas / the silence of the guns, referring to the cease-fire between the guerrilla and the military. Yet, the opposite of el silencio de las armas has transpired following the war’s end.

I went to Guatemala, that Central American Cold War icon, for a glimpse of postwar reconstruction, to witness that a Latin American country can grow out of a violent past and toward peace and security. Instead what I found was widespread armed violence.

I went to Guatemala, that Central American Cold War icon, for a glimpse of postwar reconstruction, to witness that a Latin American country can grow out of a violent past and toward peace and security. Instead what I found was widespread armed violence. In the press coverage of this violence, deaths were attributed mainly to organized crime and youth gangs, known in Guatemala as maras. And when the press did cover incidents by other groups, it was primarily incidents of the poor against the poor. Some papers ran countless stories about armed passengers—always men—on buses who would decide to take justice into their own hands by attempting to shoot thieves looking for petty cash. Instead, the “justice seekers” would hit the bus driver or fellow passengers, sometimes even children. Buses were affordable and the main form of transportation for most urban residents, and hence very many Guatemalans risked gun violence in this way.

Armed violence was also a risk for those with cars. Anyone who honked their horn at another vehicle was under threat of getting shot. Informants regularly told me about such incidents. The director of the organization Security in Democracy shared her story: “I see armed people in shopping centers, in gas stations, and my first reaction is of anguish and worry that ‘anything can happen here.’ I believe that the great circulation of firearms in Guatemala generates a climate of insecurity. I have lived it! A couple of years ago, my sister and I were leaving home in the car. Another vehicle overtook us at high speed. My sister honked. So the boys in the other car, they were about 17 years old, rolled down their windows and pointed three, four shotguns at us. We slowed down and stayed behind,” she said sinking back into her chair, manifesting the fear she experienced. Then she added, “A friend of mine was shot four months ago, here on this avenue. He was driving out of work on a Friday afternoon when a car overtook him, so he honked. The man in the other vehicle got out and shot him. The car had seven bullet impacts; one hit my friend in the arm. In my opinion, there isn’t more security with more people armed. To the contrary.”

Any connection between the increase in violence and increased civilian gun possession is strongly refuted by Guatemala’s gun rights association, ACTEPAR. The association’s spokesman told me about their work: “We lobby in Congress, explaining what has happened in other countries. In England, Canada, Australia, where handguns are prohibited, violence has increased. So it’s not true that violence is going to end by taking away guns. That doesn’t happen anywhere in the world. There are studies by Dr. John Lott and Gary Mauser, of the University of Chicago and Simon Fraser University, that demonstrate that it’s not like that.” Reading and citing Lott’s and Mauser’s work was rather a pastime for him because Guatemala’s Constitution is unambiguous in its protection of gun rights, which, of course, is ACTEPAR’s anchor. When I asked the spokesman about a membership certificate of the US National Rifle Association that he had framed and hung on an otherwise bare wall by his desk, he said, “One writes to them and can become affiliated. For them, the more members they have the better. Because in the United States, the same as here, it’s a constitutional right. The constitution of my country guarantees it in Article 38, Owning and Bearing of Arms.” Tapping his index finger on the desk, he added, “It’s in the section of human rights. For me it’s not a privilege but a right that we all have.” He then talked about the great responsibility that comes with bearing a gun. “It’s not a toy,” he assured me.

While I believed there were responsible gun owners, I heard and read more frequently about the ones who were not. To that effect, another informant referred to the phenomenon of random, careless use of guns as “the most common story.” She said, “My dad and my brother are armed. And my dad is a doctor, a common person of middle-upper class who one would think is the last to get a gun. My brother started it, got a gun with the excuse of protection. My parents have had five break-ins. The desperation and impotence provoked my dad to get a gun. My parents feared that sooner or later a robbery would occur while they were home. Indeed it happened. My mom, dad, brother, and sister-in-law were in the house. My dad had his gun on his back…” She paused momentarily as her face reddened. I think she was embarrassed to reveal her dad had gone as far as bearing the gun. “The thieves hadn’t noticed his gun. My mom got very nervous and they started hitting her. When they saw my dad’s gun, they shot him in the leg and ran away. They blasted his femur. My brother just asked my dad if he was alive,” she said laughing and turning red again, “then went to get his gun and ran after the men to shoot them. He wounded one, and then got shot in his arm. This is the most common story here.” She became silent for a few seconds, allowing the story to sink in. “Four minutes later, I had arrived to visit them with my son who was very little at the time.” This she added, I think, to emphasize how just about anyone could become caught in the crossfire. She then concluded, “This is a personal story, I share it with you to illustrate that the topic of firearms and of violent responses is everywhere here.”

After the road roller presumably crushed the guns in front of the Cathedral, the event moved on to the final item in the agenda. The boys freed their white balloons into the city’s already polluted air, then a dull sound of clapping hands signaled the end. The government officials and Cardinal turned to talk to one another and then progressively departed.

Most all of the spectators were gone when a passerby, a woman wearing black eyeliner and holding a grocery bag, stopped to ask me what was going on. I told her about the gun destruction. She half whispered in response, “Ay sí, pa’ que se acabe tanta violencia” / “Ah yes, so that so much violence will end,” and then walked on.