“The CPRs [Communities of Popular Resistance] exist because the army has forced us to resist. We carry with us the scraps of bombs and bullets that you tried to kill us with. (…)You know very well that we are not guerrillas, but rather peasants, civilians… The Constitution gives us the right to resist when you place yourself above the reproach of civil society, when you persecute us, when you kidnap us illegally, when you have poisoned our rivers and tried to kill us by starvation.” ~ Message to the Guatemalan Army from the CPRs.
“The CPRs [Communities of Popular Resistance] exist because the army has forced us to resist. We carry with us the scraps of bombs and bullets that you tried to kill us with. (…)You know very well that we are not guerrillas, but rather peasants, civilians; you know well how you have fired on our huts, which you’ve burned many times before (…) You have bombarded our communities, kidnapped thousands of our brothers; you have also ordered civilian patrols to stop us from setting up businesses (…). The Constitution gives us the right to resist when you place yourself above the reproach of civil society, when you persecute us, when you kidnap us illegally, when you have poisoned our rivers and tried to kill us by starvation.” ~ Message to the Guatemalan Army from the CPRs.
At first sight, CPR-Salvador Farjado (Petén) seems like any other community in Guatemala. A few small shops, a school, and houses made of wooden boards, out of which one can catch always smell that wafting, warm perfume—firewood being burnt in preparation for dinner.
About 400 families—hailing from Cobán, Santa Rosa, Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango and Chimaltenango—now live in Salvador Fajardo, a meager human community carved out of a small portion of the Petén jungle. There, I got to know Ms. Elvira, who told me of her past and of the community’s history, which reflect the extreme extent of violence that Guatemala had seen until 1996.
The Guatemalan state has always been characterized as authoritarian, militarized, and managed by the ruling classes to serve their own interests. In the ’60s, various guerilla groups began to form as state violence and repression increased. These groups joined together as the URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) in 1982.
The tension between guerrillas and the army intensified between ’78 and ’83: but the atrocious “scorched earth politics” advanced by the ‘Kaibiles‘ special operations unit, the PACs (Civilian Self Defense Patrols), and various paramilitary groups, showed clearly that the growing counter-insurgency effort was, without a doubt, disproportionately brutal.
According to the Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala, the total sum of both dead and ‘disappeared’ during the conflict in Guatemala is over 200,000, 83% of which are indigenous Mayans. In their report, the Commission writes: “The great majority of these human rights violations were carried out viciously and in public. […] Assassinating defenseless boys and girls, on many occasions by throwing them against walls or tossing them into ditches alive, only later to be buried by the corpses of adults; the traumatic amputation or removing of limbs; assassination by being burned alive; disembowelment of still-living victims with others looking on; the internment of victims who had already been fatally tortured, and keeping them alive deliberately in a state of constant agony; the cutting open of pregnant womens’ stomachs. Extreme cruelty was consciously utilized as a technique to create a climate of terror in the population. The vast majority of victims of the State’s actions were not guerrilla combatants, but rather civilians.”
It is estimated that in the early ’80s, between 500,000 and 1 and a half million people were forced to flee from Guatemala because of the violence: of these, around 150,000 took refuge in Mexico, while the rest were condemned to continual, internal displacement within the country. Some of these internally displaced persons [IDPs] formed the CPRs: in Ixcán, in the high plateaus of Quiché (CPR Sierra), and in the Petén jungle. These then became the preferred target of military operations.
The CPR-Petén hid in the impenetrable snare that is the Lacandon Jungle, in a strip of Guatemalan land that borders the Eastern frontier of Chiapas. Ms. Elvira, who was originally displaced from the Santa Rosa District, lived there for 12 years. She gladly recounted her experience there, in what has come to be known as “the mountain” in Salvador Fajardo.
Back then, military incursions were so frequent that every morning the families of the CPR-Petén packed up the few things that they had so that they would be ready to flee at any moment. “We always had lookouts at four different points”, Ms. Elvira told me. “When the army arrived, a shot fired into the air was the signal that it was time to grab your suitcase and go. And the army would make incursions continually: sometimes every four days, at the very least every month. When they came, we had to escape, to go to some other part of the mountains—if we didn’t have enough time to take our things, they would just destroy everything. So we would set up camp somewhere else, because the army already knew where we’d settled and would check to see if we came back—that’s why you would never return to the same encampment.”
Ms. Elvira told me about the difficulties she faced in those years, of the constant fear, of a solidarity of both the community and hunger. One ate what the jungle gave you: roots, plants, and fruits. Some managed to get into Mexico to get food—“a bit limited”, Ms. Elvira emphasizes. “Sometimes when community members walked around they would come across milpas [small crop fields] and they would steal a little bit of corn to feed their children…there were a lot of children in the mountain. We cooked what little bit of corn they took: we would walk around with a mill and a pot, and wherever you came across corn you would grind it right there. We would make little balls of dough out of it and then wrap it in leaves. Then we would go look for a place to eat safely, each person with their own portion tucked away in their bag, but you couldn’t light a fire in the daytime, because there was always a plane hovering over the mountain—if it detected the smoke from a campfire, it would drop bombs on the whole encampment. So we would cook at night.”
After the final offensive in 1992, the displaced families of CPR-Petén realised that the army would no longer be as vigilant of their presence, and that they had the possibility to settle down in the Lacandon Jungle. There they founded four communities: Fajardo, Esmeralda, Virgilio, and Albeño, where they sowed milpa fields and vegetable gardens. They also decided to begin pressuring the government to award them a finca [agricultural plot of land] so that they could leave the jungle and begin life anew.
It was in 1998 that the CPR-Petén founded a community in memory of Salvador Fajardo in Santa Rita, after the “Firm and Lasting Peace Agreement” (1996) was signed. Fajardo was a community member who, in the ’80s, after the umpteenth flight to the jungle, offered to return to the encampment to retrieve their pots and pans. When he arrived, he found that the army had already taken all except one pot, which was sitting in the middle of a campfire. When he lifted it up, it exploded—a mine had been planted beneath the firewood.
“When we came here we didn’t bring anything with us, because we had nothing to bring, but after being here for awhile many organizations supported us”, Ms. Elvira told me. “The only governmental institution that gave us a little bit of support was FONAPAZ [National Peace Fund]: they helped by giving us food, but it wasn’t much. Everything we have was possible because of support from international organizations: the preschool and elementary school, the clinic, the radio station, the store. But the government did not fulfill its promises—the only thing it followed up on was building a mechanical well to secure a water supply. And sure, they bore the well; they even bought a bomb to clear it out but in the end it didn’t serve us well: after three months it was completely dry and we were left without water. The municipality didn’t help us either, instead claiming we were guerrillas—they discriminated against us.”
Many have accused members of the CPRs of being part of the UNRG, but they have always responded that they have only ever served as bases of support for the guerrillas, whom they guaranteed a place to eat and rest. In exchange, the UNRG offered an indispensable service to the CPRs: “the guerrillas defended us, because in reality, if the guerrillas were not around, the army would have annihilated us already. They were with us; they knew that there were people, women and children, elders, defenseless people here. It was when they neglected us, when they retreated from the surrounding area, that the army would come in. But as long as they were with us, nothing would happen to us”, said Ms. Elvira—a very special woman indeed.