The Guatemalan Genocide Case Chronicles: Day 2

Kate Doyle

Editor's Note: The international human rights case charging eight Guatemalan former military and police officials with genocide, state terrorism, torture and other crimes began February 4 in Madrid. Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and director of their Guatemala Project, attended the closed hearings as part of the investigative and legal team working on the Guatemalan Genocide Case. This is the second installment of her five-part series on the opening days of the case, in which witnesses gave harrowing testimony on a period known in Guatemala as the “Silent Holocaust.”

The Guatemalan Genocide Case Series

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

Day two of the Guatemalan genocide hearing before Judge Santiago Pedraz in Spain’s Audiencia Nacional (Spanish federal court) continued on Tuesday, February 5, with testimony from three more survivors of the Quiché massacres, as well as testimony from expert witness Allan Nairn, an independent U.S. journalist who wrote extensively about the Guatemalan Army’s scorched earth policies in the 1980s.

Anti-impunity march in Guatemala City, June 2007. (Photo: James Rodriguez/

The first witness described what happened to his aldea (village), near Nebaj, when the military began showing up in 1981. The first time they came, they kidnapped four leaders from his community. In 1982, they moved through the area accompanied by members of the civil patrols known as PACs, burning houses and destroying crops. The witness’s house was burned to the ground on May 15, 1982. He and his family moved to an area they felt was remote enough that they would be safe and built a second house, but the Army found them and burned that too in December. They fled the area altogether. Neighbors who did not leave were killed; the witness listed their names

The family went into hiding in the mountains. In January 1983, the witness joined the guerrilla, but left six months later when he realized his wife and children were starving without him. He was able to sow a small, hidden milpa (farm plot) with other families and planted corn, beans, vegetables, and fruit trees, but the Army found it and cut it down. “We had no more food,” remembered the witness. “We had to eat the leaves of trees in the forest, wild sweet potato, and roots.”

The Army would pass over the areas where the communities camped and bomb them; people also died of hunger and cold. The witness told of a clandestine cemetery organized by the refugee communities so they could bury their dead. When the soldiers retired to their bases for the night, the people would creep down from the mountains and pick up the bodies so they could bury them secretly.

On April 26, 1984, the Army set fire to the woods where the people were hiding, and on the following day troops captured the witness’s two sons, ages 12 and 9, and forced them to march with them carrying Army backpacks. He never saw them again. They also caught his mother-in-law, who was 65 years old, tortured her and burned her hands and feet, and left her corpse. The witness and other surviving refugees escaped. They spent years on the run from the Army, subject to constant attacks, bombing, and the destruction of the forest and fields. The witness remained in the mountains until 1992. “That is the story of what we lived.”

The second witness to testify said that in 1979 and 1980 his community heard tell of a guerrilla army operating in the area of Ixcán in northern Quiché. One day in 1980, a group of people arrived in the market and said they were from the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). They spoke of a war that would last for 80 days and put up a banner in the marketplace, telling the people not to remove it. The Army arrived in the area shortly afterward. That is when the military occupation of Nebaj began, when the soldiers began controlling who came and who left the village. In March or April of that year, the Army ordered the community leaders to bring all the men 18 years and older to the nearby base to get their military IDs, but when they came many of them were captured and disappeared.

The witness described how the military swept through the valley, capturing and killing the residents. They ordered those who survived to live in controlled villages, and many people fled, including him. From July to September, the Army encircled the zone, below Chiantla, from Huehuetenago, up to the Finca La Perla – all of this area was surrounded. The communities survived in the mountains, but when the Army saw their smoke they would bomb them. When they came upon their crops, they would destroy them; when they found their animals, they killed them. The witness’s grandmother died of hunger in the mountains. “We all cried because what could we do? Even the dogs and the cats cried.” He remained in hiding from February 1982 until 1995.

Allan Nairn was the third person to speak, appearing as an expert witness. Nairn visited Guatemala as a journalist in 1980-86, traveling to Nebaj, La Perla and other communities in the Ixil, among other places. He interviewed Presidents Ríos Montt, Mejía Víctores and Cerezo, Army officers, members of the PACs, military commissioners, and soldiers, as well as many Ixil Maya, massacre survivors, guerrillas, human rights workers, priests, catechists, political leaders, businessmen, and many others. Nairn told the judge that the Guatemalan armed forces had a program to eliminate all opposition and dissent, directed particularly against the Mayan peoples because of their history of resistance. The methods used included torture, state terrorism and genocide, and the program was executed through a strict chain of command. Much of Nairn’s testimony echoed the stories told by the protected witnesses to Judge Pedraz.

Nairn gave examples of what he learned through his reporting about the Army’s methods. He quoted soldiers who told him how they tortured people to make them talk: with a rope used as a garrote, by suffocation, near drowning, slicing with knives, burning with lit cigarettes, beating, electroshock, and mutilation. One soldier standing over recently killed bodies demonstrated how he would press a wooden club against the victim’s throat until he was on the edge of death as a means of persuading him to talk.

Nairn described state terrorism as the government’s policy of killing civilians for political purposes. One Army corporal told him how the people would react when troops arrived in their village: “They run out of their houses into the mountains” Nairn: “And what do you do?” “We capture some of them alive but others we can’t catch. When they run for the mountains we have to kill them.” Nairn: “Why?” “Because they could be guerrillas.”

Nairn talked about the Guatemalan state’s effort to “annihilate” the Maya. Ríos Montt and his advisers openly suggested in interviews with Nairn that all Mayan people were potential subversives and therefore targets of the Army. Soldiers and massacre survivors alike told Nairn that the Army was ordered to kill Mayan children, before they grew up to become subversives. The children were called “delincuentes subversives” by the military. In addition to attacking Mayan communities, soldiers told him of killing their animals, burning their crops, and destroying their homes and possessions.

Finally, Nairn cited interviews with military officers confirming the Guatemalan Army’s strict adherence to the chain of command. Officers in the Ixíl triangle, for example, told him that there were only three layers of command between themselves and Ríos Montt (during 1982 and 1983): the colonel, the army chief of staff and the Minister of Defense. They reported frequently to the colonels by radio-telephone during actions – receiving orders and approval in advance of attacks – and kept a daily log of operations which was later reviewed and critiqued by their superiors. Nairn extended that chain of command up to military officers, intelligence personnel and civilian politicians of the United States, who – he told Judge Pedraz – also played a role in aiding and abetting torture, state terrorism and genocide in Guatemala.

The last witness of the day was a former member of the civil patrols in the Ixcán in northern Quiché. He testified as to how the scorched earth operations of the Guatemalan Army arrived in his community in May of 1982, when he was 18 years old. Although some residents of his aldea decided to flee, his family and many others chose to stay in what became a military-controlled village. As a result, he and his brothers were forced to join the PAC. In 1983, the witness was taken as part of his group of civil patrollers to the military zone in Santa Cruz de la Quiché to form part of a task force with other units. His company, headed by Captain Herlindo Velásquez Maldonado, received four months of special training. “They would tell us, you have to be trained to kill your own family; they said that everyone living in the Quiché was a guerrilla and so we had to kill all of them.”

The witness spoke about the military “task forces” that were created to sweep through the highlands: Iximché, Gumarcaj, and Tigre. He participated in numerous operations with the task forces. He said the soldiers always operated through the chain of command: from military staff to senior officers, to junior officers, to troops, “the hierarchy was always followed.”

Kate Doyle is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and a member of NACLA’s Editorial Committee.
James Rodríguez is an independent photo-documentarian based in Guatemala. His work is available online here. Any comments or interest in publishing, please contact him: james(AT)

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