The Guatemalan Genocide Case Chronicles: Day 1

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 first 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.”

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 first 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

The international human rights case charging eight Guatemalan former military and police officials with genocide, state terrorism, torture and other crimes began on Monday, February 4, in Madrid. Judge Santiago Pedraz presided in his chambers in the Audiencia Nacional (Spanish federal court) as lawyers for the complainants – Almudena Bernabeu of the Center for Accountability and Justice and Manuel Ollé from the Asociación Pro-Derechos Humanos – presented their first two witnesses. The witnesses, who gave their testimony under protection of anonymity, focused their testimony on the effects of the Guatemalan army’s counterinsurgency offensives that targeted the Mayan communities in the north of the province of Quiché beginning in 1980.


Coffins containing the exhumed remains of genocide victims ready to be re-buried in the Ixíl triangle region. (Photo: James Rodriguez/ www.mimundo.org)

The first witness lived for many years in Nebaj, in the Maya-dominated Ixíl triangle. In 1980, the Army began to raid villages systematically, kill those inhabitants suspected of subversion, and corral the remaining residents into controlled villages. As increasing numbers of the Ixil abandoned their homes for the mountains, the Army sent helicopters to drop thousands of pamphlets over the area, warning that if the people were not living in the Army-controlled villages, “You are animals living in the mountain, and we will treat you like animals.” The witness’s house was occupied, and he was interrogated and tortured. He joined residents fleeing their villages; by 1981, he said, 90 percent of the people who had survived the Army’s scorched earth operations were living in the mountains in hiding.

The Army used the offensives to eject the Ixíl people from their territory and occupy their land. The witness described how the military would sweep through an area and destroy anything in its path – killing the inhabitants who stayed behind, robbing their possessions, and burning their houses to the ground – in order to control the population while at the same time opening up vast tracts of land for development. The witness and his companions survived by organizing themselves into groups of resistance – what later became the Communities of Popular Resistance, or CPRs. They lived for 16 years in the mountains above their original territories, from 1980 until the peace accords were signed in 1996.

After the war ended, the witness recounted, he and some 400 Ixil Maya organized a project to study the causes behind their experience fleeing the Army operations. The witness ended his testimony by describing the findings of the study. He explained how the Army put into practice the military campaigns of the early 1980s, and the specific operations Ixil and Plan Sofia, which targeted the communities where he lived. In order to maximize the effect of the counterinsurgency sweeps, the military created “Task Forces,” made up of troops drawn from military units all over the country and concentrating their power to destroy the Ixil communities and massacre their people.

The second witness told the judge that he was a survivor of the Ixil massacres. The witness was a child when the Army arrived in his town in 1978 and began a program of forced recruitment of the young men living in his and nearby communities. He recalled the appearance in 1980 of members of the CUC (Comité de la Unidad Campesino – Committee of Peasant Unity), their efforts to organize the people and their support for campesinos who no longer wanted to serve as migrant workers – maltreated and poorly paid – in the coffee and cotton plantations in the south. He remembered his first encounter with guerrillas from the EGP in 1981, and the Army massacres that followed.

In 1982, the violence ravaging his village and surrounding communities worsened. “That’s when the Army arrived for good.” They burnt the houses. They burnt the fields and the forests around them. Many people died. When people tried to flee into the mountains, the troops would pursue and kill them. The military told those remaining in the village that if they wanted to live peacefully they would have to carry an Army-issued ID. On March 9, 1982, the witness’s father was disappeared by the military after he went to the local base to collect his ID. The witness never saw him again.

The witness and his mother and two older brothers decided to continue living in the village, though it was occupied by the military. The witness’s most wrenching testimony described life inside the “strategic hamlet,” living under strict rules about how much food was permitted, what clothes one could wear, and when one was allowed to leave one’s house. It was a hard life, in which, he said, “You had to be silent, completely silent. You were not free.”

The Army forced the witness’s older brother to join the civil patrols, or PACs, as his mother and other brother continued to live in the village. The authorities used a local convent as a center for interrogation and torture. In mid-1982, the witness – then 10 years old – and his mother were tortured by the military inside the convent, his mother raped. They survived, but decided to flee into the mountains. There, life was harsh – thousands of Ixil had escaped to the sierra, without access to their homes, their clothes, their animals or food, surviving in the bitter cold. It was unbearable – so much so, that they finally returned to their village in 1983.

They lived under the brutal conditions of the Army occupation for years. Eventually, Domingo’s mother began to organize, becoming a member of CONAVIGUA (Coordinadora Nacional de Viudas de Guatemala). By doing so, she became a military target again. In 1990, the witness and his middle brother left town to attend a course in human rights. While they were gone, the Army killed their mother.

The witness ended his emotional testimony with a plea for justice. He pointed out that he and his brother had done everything in their power to bring the case of their mother’s assassination to the Guatemalan courts, without success. He said his experience mirrored the experience of all Ixil Maya who suffered the Army’s scorched earth policies. “When you have lived with what we lived, it never leaves your head,” he said. “You can never forget.” He thanked the judge for permitting him to speak; “I feel free to say anything here,” he told him, “which I have never been allowed to do in Guatemala.”


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 me at james@mimundo.org
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