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A Violent Guatemala

In Nebaj at a cemetery for civil war victims—another History lesson from Jorge

In Nebaj at a cemetery for civil war victims—another History lesson from Jorge. By Murray Foubister - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link.

Jane Duran teaches in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Among ethnic disasters of the past few decades, few can match in intensity or have been reported in the media more extensively than those of the Indigenous in Guatemala.1 The social structure of the nation—its hierarchy, driven by a light-skinned population, most of whom are ethnically mestizo but who do not identify with the purely Indigenous—its history, and its small size make it an important site for the documentation and reporting of ethnic disputes and differences.

Although Guatemala might superficially resemble its neighbor to the north, Mexico, the two do not have as much in common as might readily be believed. The Indigenous population of Mexico, without European admixture, is believed to be no more than about 10 percent or so of the total. In contrast, in Guatemala, the Indigenous populations are estimated to be over 50 percent. The ability to speak Spanish is already a mark of status in Guatemala, whereas in Mexico the number of those who still speak Indigenous languages is comparatively small. Because of Guatemala’s isolation, there is concomitantly little development outside of the two major cities, Guatemala City and Antigua, and even there the level of infrastructure does not approach, for example, the wealthier areas of many Latin American nations. The story of the Indigenous in Guatemala is a remarkable one, and the past few decades are worth recounting for the light they shed on international violations of rights and egregious social constructions.


Indigenous people in Guatemala were the target of sustained attacks by the government during the country’s long civil war, which some date back to the 1960s and only ended in 1996.2 As Brigittine French writes: “[The Guatemalan dictator] José Efrain Rios Montt…had been complicit with acts of genocide against the Maya population during La Violencia…when more than two hundred thousand people were killed by Guatemalan military forces.”3 What makes the situation in Guatemala unusual, even in terms of twentieth-century catastrophe, is the sheer violence displayed toward women and children, the degree of destruction of villages and homelands, and the demonization of the targeted population as uneducable and undeserving individuals. Although the status of Native Americans in Central America has historically been at the lowest rung of the social ladder, in Guatemala they have long comprised a statistical majority of the population and are by far and away the most numerous of the nation’s inhabitants. By contrast, as noted, individuals of European or even mixed identity are a very small group in Guatemala.

Thus, rather than scapegoating a minority for its own ends, the government of Guatemala mercilessly targeted groups that, taken together, constituted a majority of the population of the country. French stresses: “Rios Montt…had sought to purge from the body politic of the nation [the Indigenous] through acts of horrific genocide that have yet to be brought to justice in the ‘post-conflict’ era.”4

Rape and sexual violence were among the main forms of torture employed against the Indigenous population. In this context, the Indigenous were feminized while urbanization/Eurocentrism—associated with use of the Spanish language—were typed as male. This factor, in and of itself, constitutes a remarkable feature in any accounting of the human rights violations and failures that occurred. Irene Matthews indicates, as have other commentators, that sexual crimes directed against the male spouses of targeted women seem to be higher in Guatemala than in other countries or regions. She argues that it is important to understand this construct in terms of “La Violencia”: “Violence specifically directed against women would seem [to some] to have little political import in this climate of virtually total control. Once again, however, I would supplement [the] interpretation that widespread rape is a signal.”5

The history of Guatemala and the Americas lends itself, unfortunately, to this sort of oppression, but Guatemala seems in many ways to be a special case. The level of violence, its duration, and the feeble attempts of the foreign community to work against it all militate against the notion that it was simply another crime in the long human catalog of ills.

Many Indigenous commentators have attempted to set out for the uninitiated a thorough accounting of the various paths taken by Indigenous rights and abuse of those rights. Part of the atmosphere within Guatemala that allowed the attack on the Indigenous to be sustained for so long has to do with the construction of the Ladino population, its history, and various themes across the Americas. As Enrique Sam Colop has noted: “Misinformation and racist opinions are also presented in universities and schools.… The contemporary Maya and all things Maya are associated with the ‘past’ and ‘backwardness.’”6

This tendency on the part of the more industrialized and urbanized population to take a stand on issues that denigrates the very lives of Indigenous people and the historical past of the area itself is a pronounced one, and is tied to the sequence of events that transpired. It is as if inscribing the body, as contemporary phrasing has it, means that, in the case of Guatemala, all things Native American are lacking in worth while all things European are of high value. Although one might be tempted to say that this thinking had its origins in the Conquest (and many would make that claim), what is remarkable is the very lengthy chronology during which “Conquest era” thought patterns have persisted in this particular region of Central America. It is for these reasons, according to Colop and others, that the abuses of “La Violencia” took place, even as many foreign observers did virtually nothing to stop the violence or to mitigate the social ills that preceded it. A certain sort of romanticization of the Spanish and their legacy is the ineradicable backdrop of Guatemalan history.


There seems to be general agreement among followers of Guatemalan politics that the unequal distribution of land and the general health and education conditions make it one of the most poverty-stricken and degraded parts of Latin America, placing it more properly on a par with nations on other continents. In still another recounting, James Painter writes in Guatemala: False Hopes, False Freedom that “the Army’s response [to leftist activists] was to launch a campaign of terror that has rarely been paralleled for its savagery (and lack of publicity) in the history of Latin America.”7

Painter believes that the total number killed and disappeared is in the tens of thousands, if not higher, and, like other observers, he is struck by the social construction of the Indigenous population and the ease with which it is received. Claiming that Native Americans are “a part of nature,” like “plants and animals,” Ladino informants communicating with foreign observers seemed to be unable to understand that the Indigenous population consisted of human beings entitled to rights.8 Apparently, a good deal of the justification for the destruction and its concomitant expropriation consists of the ad hoc justification that the Indigenous do not need or deserve their lives or their property. In addition to the general characterization of “La Violencia” by outside observers, Guatemala also had the dubious distinction during this period of achieving, as Painter indicates, a sort of valedictory “false democracy,” which appeared to most critics as a perfect sham.

The current structure of the country, described in geographical terms, consists of large land holdings, called latifundios, worked by Native Americans but under the control of what might best be termed a central government. Many who live in the mountainous regions have rarely traveled away from their home areas and there are few urban locales. The cultural interpreter W. George Lovell reported in 1992 that entire areas of the nation are undervisited and underdeveloped.9

Because of this, coupled with racism against the Indigenous population, gross violations have occurred in ways that might not have taken place in more industrialized societies, or in nations with different geographies. It is as if the Indigenous are invisible and, when they are seen, their lives are taken or their villages destroyed. Migration into the cities, another staple of Latin American life, has in the case of Guatemala resulted in pockets of poverty so dire that, according to informants, they are as bad as anything seen anywhere on the planet. As Susanne Jonas recently remarked, with respect to developmental conditions some decades back, “migration to Guatemala City was beginning to swell the barrancas, the shanty-towns in the capital’s mud-paved ravines.”10 For those not directly acquainted, one can only imagine what a typical barranca in a mud-paved ravine looks like.

Commentators note that it is a feature of village life that key components of Mayan cultures remain in place, and yet this only seems to make Native Americans more vulnerable. Their cultures feature a heavy emphasis on fertility and a belief in the fundamental importance of that cycle: it has been remarked by many that a core part of their belief system is the notion that the “first father” and “first mother” were made of cornmeal dough.11 Mayan cultures’ vulnerability to attack, taken as a group, along with their ties to the land seem only to further inflame those who would take advantage of them.

Susanne Jonas is probably one of the best and most succinct writers on the importance of the events of the 1970s and ’80s, and the unparalleled degree of violence in Guatemala. She writes: “There is no more painful chapter in the history of modern Guatemala than the events of 1980–1983. At the human level, it is a tale of wholesale slaughter and genocide by the new death squads.… That this holocaust was almost unknown and unimagined in most Western countries, certainly in the United States, is a testament to the ‘great silence’ about Guatemala…perhaps because the victims were overwhelmingly Indians.”12

Jonas goes on to note that over 440 villages were destroyed, and over 100,000 were killed or disappeared.13 Whatever the source of the statistics—and however accurate or inaccurate they may be—one thing is certain: the violence in Guatemala seems to be a special case of genocidal rage against an Indigenous population, with certain features that appear to be unique. The construction of the Indigenous as subhuman is not novel, but what is new is the simultaneous social construction combined with the technological capacity to do extreme damage; in other such cases, either the interpretation of the culture was somewhat different, or the technological capacity was lacking, at least in its current sense.


One might be tempted to try to compare the situation in Guatemala with other situations known internationally within the last few decades, such as Bangladesh when it was breaking away from Pakistan as a nation-state in the early 1970s. We know, for instance, that the Punjabis of the Western region of Pakistan held the Bengali population in contempt, and we also know about many instances of rape, degradation of women of the Eastern region, and so forth. Because of the brutality of the forces, led by then General Yahya Khan, one might want to compare the set of circumstances in Guatemala and the set of circumstances in Bangladesh. As the Pakistani journalist Akbar Ahmed has noted, the war “fed into the international image of Pakistan as a brutal military power oppressing its own people.… Global sympathy was created for the Bengali cause.”14

Although there are areas of similarity between these two events, there are also important differences. The violence in Bangladesh was due largely to efforts by the Bengalis to create their own nation-state—in fact, the war is probably best described as a civil war brought on by an independence movement. The repression in Guatemala had largely to do with the government and ruling class’s fears that the Indigenous were dangerous and could become leftist sympathizers. Although the destruction in Bangladesh and the degradation of the female population became the focus of much international commentary (and was even alluded to, for example, by Benazir Bhutto before her death, although she herself was from a Punjabi background), the level of destruction in Guatemala was still more intense, and encompassed individuals of all genders and differing age groups.

Writing in a volume on international issues of human rights violations, James Waller notes that “over 60 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in dispersed rural communities of less than 2,000 people. Health and educational services are scarce to nonexistent in most of those communities. All told, 45 percent of the population lack minimal health services, and the mortality rate for children under age five was 67 per 1,000 live births in 1995—one of the highest such rates in the industrialized world.”15 Here we can see, stated tersely, what drives much of the impoverishment of the lives of the Indigenous of Guatemala—they are provided with no social services and functioning infrastructures, in contrast to the country’s middle and upper-middle classes, comprised of individuals from different backgrounds.


The abuses against Indigenous people in Guatemala are particularly important to recount because they are illustrative of the strong Eurocentrism that has guided colonialism throughout much of its history.16 On this view, persons not of European ancestry do not possess rights in the ordinary sense of the term, and the Enlightenment project, despite its various pronouncements, does not meaningfully apply to persons on other continents. The construction of the Indigenous as childlike, incapable of learning, “backward,” and uneducable not only casts doubt on the motives of those in leadership positions in many of the Central American governments, but in a larger sense possesses explanatory power with respect to much of what has transpired in other places.

Although one might want to claim, for example, that the rights of women in other areas have little to do with this set of difficulties, closer examination will show that this is not the case. In general, any set of abuses against an ethnic group usually relies on the construction of that ethnic group within the larger culture and, in many instances, there is some purported linkage (at least symbolically) between the group and gender. Thus, many groups that have been the target of the sort of abuses committed in Guatemala have been categorized as feminine, and the Indigenous of Guatemala are no exception. Thus, a linkage between the global mistreatment of women and the mistreatment of certain ethnic groups can be made.

In addition, as mentioned earlier, it is important that the crimes committed against the Native Americans of Guatemala were committed in a nation in the Americas located so close to the United States. Rather than being able to make the claim that these abuses took place on another continent, anyone interested in investigating the matter can see that, in terms of miles or kilometers, the abuses occurred just a very short way from Mexico, and within a self-appointed sphere of distance from the hegemonic capitalist country. These crimes, occurring in this way and within this geographical sphere, might make one think more carefully about how the categorization of abuses is constructed, and why it is that we are all too often tempted to think of such episodes of degradation as the product of societies and cultures far away.

The crimes of Guatemala have been the subject of numerous books, articles, and appeals to civil and judicious bodies. The Enlightenment thought of the eighteenth century, although enshrined and promulgated in international organizations and civil codes, seemed powerless to stop the wholesale slaughter of Indigenous persons in Guatemala just a few decades ago. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from Guatemala is that abuses are much closer than we think. The recent arrest of the former president, Otto Pérez Molina, on charges of corruption simply brings to the fore, once again, the catastrophic nature of Guatemala’s past and present.


  1. Indeed, it is partly because of the reporting of these problems that attention was given to the work of Rigoberta Menchú and her receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1994.
  2. Diane M. Nelson, Reckoning (Durham: Duke University Press), xiii–xiv.
  3. Brigitte French, Maya Ethnolinguistic Identity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press), 2.
  4. French, Maya Ethnolinguistic Identity, 2.
  5. Irene Matthews, “Torture as Text,” in The Women and War Reader, ed. Lois Ann Lorentzen and Jennifer Turpin (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 190.
  6. Enrique Sam Colop, “The Discourse of Concealment and 1991,” in Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala, ed. Edward Fischer and R. McKenna Brown (Boulder: Westview, 1996), 111–12.
  7. James Painter, Guatemala: False Hopes, False Freedom (New York: Crossroad, 1986), xiv.
  8. Painter, Guatemala, xiv–xv.
  9. George Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala (Montreal: McGill-Queens’ University Press, 1992), 37.
  10. Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala (Boulder: Westview, 1999), 65.
  11. Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala, 34.
  12. Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala, 146.
  13. Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala, 149.
  14. Akbar S. Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity (New York: Routledge, 1997), 238.
  15. James Waller, Becoming Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 190.
  16. Edward Said’s Orientalism is a work that aims to make much of this project transparent. (Edward Said, Orientalism [New York: Vintage, 1978].)
2020, Volume 72, Issue 04 (September 2020)
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