Guatemala: Peasant Massacre

September 25, 2007

Published in the July/August 1978 issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas, "Public Debt and Private Profit." 

"It took just a few minutes of solid, frenzied gun-fire for the Guatemalan Army to clear the village square at Panzos. When the shooting stopped, bodies of children, women and men lay bleeding among the trees."

This report, written by Marlise Simons of the Washington Post, was one of the only comments to appear in the U.S. press of what has become known in Guatemala as the "Panzos Massacre." On May 29, 1978, in the town of Panzos, Alta Verapaz Province, Guatemalan soldiers opened fire on a crowd of peasants, killing 140 according to many reports. Peasant massacres have a long and painful history in Guatemala, but the recent events at Panzos have a particular significance.

On May 29 a group of some 700 Kekchi Indians marched to Panzos to petition that their rights to the land be respected. Over the past decade, more and more had been losing their land to large landowners, politicians and the military. The Kekchi
were also trying to determine the location of three peasant leaders who had been kidnapped some weeks earlier. When they
arrived, they found the Army and landowners ready for them.
According to survivors, a group of eight landowners had brought 150 soldiers from the military base at Zacapa. The soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 140 and wounding 300.

Some people, including five women with babies, drowned as
they tried to escape across the Polochic River. Others were
hunted down or died for lack of medical attention since the
military kept the Red Cross out of the area. The dead were quickly buried in a mass grave.

Army and government officials have denied these reports which were gathered from sources in Church and labor organizations and from peasants who were able to escape from the zone. The Army, for its part, claimed that the peasants had attacked
the military garrison at Panzos, and that the soldiers only fired in self-defense. Yet, as the Washington Post noted, there is no military garrison at Panzos, nor would the peasants prepare an attack armed only with machetes and accompanied by their children. Guatemalan President Laugerud chose to blame the incident on Fidel Castro while Defense Minister Otto Spiegeler accused local priests and nuns of arousing the peasants and declared that they were all potential subjects of investigation.


Alta Verapaz is one of the provinces most affected in recent
years by political violence directed against the peasantry.
The root cause of this violence is a grossly inequitable system of land tenure in which 2% of land-owners own over 70% of the land. The mass of the population lives at or below subsistence level on tiny plots of land or as migrant laborers on the large estates.

Attacks on the peasantry in Alta Verapaz and neighboring Quiche Province have stepped up as these areas became focal
points for the government's development programs. Much of the interest in the area stems from the discovery of large oil and nickel deposits.

The large oil deposits discovered in neighboring Mexico in the past few years originate in an oil substrata which extends into northern Guatemala and southern Belize (which is claimed by Guatemala). To reach the market, the oil must be piped to the center of the country. The pipeline runs through Alta Verapaz Province where a consortium of Basic Resources-Shenandoah Oil is also drilling for oil.

Besides oil, the region is in the heart of Guatemala's nickel
mining district. The deposits are mined by Explotaciones Mineras Izabal (EXMIBAL), the Guatemalan subsidiary of the International Nickel Company, a Canadian-based firm founded in
1902 by J.P. Morgan, which owns 80% of EXMIBAL, and the
Cleveland-based Hanna Mining Company, which ownd the remaining 20%. (For more information on EXMIBAL see "EXMIBAL: Take Another Nickel Out," in NACLA's Guatemala, 1974, pgs.151-166.)

Given the increased interest in the area on the part of both
national and foreign capitalists, the value of land in the provinces has risen precipitously. Not surprisingly, the large landowners have made a concerted attempt to evict the Kekchi Indian peasants who have worked the land there for more than 100 years. The bishop and priests of Quiche Province have denounced the "systematic and implacable extermination of community leaders" in northern Quiche Province by the Army and private terror squads formed by the local landowners.


According to one official in the region, the land has gone "to
politicians, the rich, the military. They all grabbed what they could. There are large untouchable estates we call 'the zone of the generals.' " The Guatemalan Agrarian Transformation Institute (INTA) has cooperated in this wholesale land robbery by providing legal title to the land to
the largest landholders. Significantly, INTA's head is Hans
Laugerud, brother of the Guatemalan president. He recently
blamed the Panzos massacre on trade union leaders. "The peasants," he said, "don't know anything about they are fooled by leaders who stir them up and make them believe they can take over the lands they have worked for years, even
though other people are the legitimate owners."

Laugerud is not the only government official with personal
interests in Alta Verapaz. The President-elect, General Lucas
Garcia, is a large landholder in the province as is the Minister of Agriculture, General Rubio Coronado and the Minister of Defense, Otto Spiegeler.

The massacre at Panzos has touched off a furor in Guatemala.
On June 8, 80,000 people marched through Guatemala City, culminating a week of demonstrations and protests by student, labor, Church, peasant and professional groups. The protesters have been asking for a thorough investigation to determine those responsible for the massacre. Speakers at the protests stressed the need for unity, particularly a peasant-worker
alliance, as a defense against the repression.

Still, the repression continues. Claiming that the peasants are regrouping in the hills to "attack" again, the Army has
occupied the entire area. Helicopters are tracking down those
peasants who managed to run to safety in the hills, and the Navy patrols the Polochfc River. Press and medical personnel have been escorted into the town only once, while leaders of popular organizations have been denied entrance.

In a related event, the National Confederation of Workers (CNT) charged on June 27 that dozens of middle-level labor leaders have been arrested and their whereabouts are still unknown.

For most of the U.S. press, however, their attention riveted
"on the deaths of whites in Zaire and Rhodesia, the massacre at Panzos is just as fictional as that described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude:

" 'You must have been dreaming,' the officers insisted. 'Nothing has happened in Macondo, nothing has ever happened, and nothing ever will happen. This is a happy town.' "

Tags: Guatemala, Panzos massacre, Kekchi, repression, Indigenous

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.