Democracy and Repression: A Trip Through Guatemala’s Violent Past

I had read about the horrendous civil war that had ripped Guatemala apart and wanted to visit some of the places most affected by this violent past, talk to the victims and make some sense of what had happened. This is how I ended up in a remote community in the heart of the Ixcán jungle, near the border with Mexico.

A friend and I arrived on a hot and humid day in January after two-and-a-half-hours squashed in the back of a camioneta, a rusty old American school bus that had clearly seen better days. The dirt track ended abruptly and the bus rattled to a halt in the middle of a grassy clearing. The engine died and we stepped down. This was Primavera del Ixcán.

The midday sun beat down mercilessly as we gazed around at the lush green foliage. Catching sight of us, a neighbouring family invited us to join them for a typically Guatemalan lunch of beans, tortillas and eggs. We were then introduced to Emeterio, once leader of the village, who offered to show us around.

"Have you come from far away?" he asked.

"From the other side of the ocean, from Europe".

He nodded and gestured us to sit down on the grass. "We may not have come from such a faraway place", he began. "But the road was not an easy one".

Primavera, he told us, had come into existence in 1996, the same year the Peace Accords were signed, putting an end to 36 years of Civil War in Guatemala. Primavera’s inhabitants had met long before that however, under much less peaceful circumstances.

Back in the early 80s, during the most bloodthirsty years of the Armed Conflict, thousands of Guatemalan peasants were forced to flee their homes to avoid being burnt alive by the army. This was the "scorched earth policy" that began under General Lucas García and continued under General Efraín Ríos Montt. The aim was to eliminate all social support for the guerrillas. The idea behind it was quitarle el agua al pez: eliminate the fish by eliminating the water, the fish being the guerrillas and the water the civilian population.

Soon, what began as a US-backed attempt to eradicate a perceived communist threat had turned into out-and-out genocide. Thousands of Guatemalans fled across the border into Mexico to escape army massacres, whilst thousands more took to the mountains and jungles to hide. As the war dragged on many peasants returned to their villages and turned themselves in to the army. Others preferred the harsh conditions of the wilderness rather than face the army back home.

Amongst those who never returned home were the families that made up Primavera today. Originally from different parts of the country but united in a common plight, they came together gradually to form an organised mobile community, complete with schools, kitchens and health centres.

"Our families were living in nylon tents", Emeterio explained. "We were living the life of nomads and it required great efforts on our part."

The efforts were real enough: providing basic medical care, preventing disease, ensuring that the children received an education, using facilities that could be dismantled at the slightest sign of the army’s approach.

Besides this there was the small matter of producing enough for the community to survive on; not an easy task given the frequency with which the soldiers burnt their crops.

"It was a time of great repression", Emeterio continued. "But we responded bravely by calling on our shared Mayan values: living and producing together as a community. Our time spent in the jungle was a big experiment in community organisation".

He spoke calmly and eloquently. There was no hint of bitterness in his voice, as might have been expected from a man forced to flee his home and live in such difficult conditions for so long.

Emeterio’s community and others like it became known as Communities of the Population in Resistance (CPRs), and counted up to one million people in the early 1980s, according to the International Centre for Humans Rights Research (CIIDH). At the time, this represented over ten percent of the Guatemalan population, concentrated mainly in the highlands of El Quiché and the jungles of Ixcán and the Petén.

It wasn’t until 1994, over ten years after they first appeared, that the CPRs finally "came out into the clearings", both figuratively and literally, demanding the right to settle and to be recognized as a non-combatant civilian population by the state.

It was in precisely such a clearing that we now sat, listening in silence as the sun went down.

"We weren’t exactly received with open arms around here," our friend chuckled. "There was a lot of mistrust and resentment, but before long, believe me, before long, the jealousy disappeared when they saw that we resolved our problems peacefully, and that we rise to the challenges of production and organisation in a good way. They soon realized that what people had said about our being guerrillas and bad people simply wasn’t true".

"They" referred to the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, but also to the thousands of refugees who returned to Guatemala in 1994 after years of exile in the southern states of Mexico. Many of these retornados reclaimed their old jungle homes, but others, like the CPRs, needed new land to settle on, which initially gave rise to tension between the CPRs and their fellow returnees.

Land issues were eventually settled peacefully amongst the peasants, and before long members of neighbouring communities were coming to Primavera to get medical treatment. The quality of their education soon became known in the area, and today the village school is attended by pupils from up to 16 surrounding villages.

If life in flight taught the people of Primavera how to organise, it also inspired an acute sense of social justice.

"There was never any question of imposing anything", Emeterio continued. "Everything here is done by consensus". And so it was. Months of negotiations established precisely where the streets should go, and just how the land was to be divided into lots in such a way as to make all the families happy.

By practising a form of participative democracy, the villagers ensured that no voice was left unheard, although in Primavera, people were not afraid to speak up for themselves to defend their interests.

The village women provided a remarkable example of this. At a time when Primavera was allegedly losing its sense of direction in terms of moral values, they joined forces to protest at excessive drinking among the men. The result – a ban on the sale of all alcoholic drinks in the village.

"It is here that the idea of human rights first emerged" we were told. "You see, the people in this area were unclear about their rights, so our village tries to promote these values".

A much needed activity in Guatemala. In 1994 when talks to end the civil conflict were under way, the United Nations set up its ten-year Mission for the Verification of Human Rights in Guatemala (MINUGUA), to put an end to persistent abuses. Two hundred and fifty human rights monitors, legal experts, indigenous specialists, police and military observers were posted throughout the country, down to the remotest rural areas.

Another feature of Primavera is the number of languages spoken by its inhabitants. Of the country’s 23 indigenous languages, no fewer than 10 are spoken here, each one corresponding to its own cultural community.

"Those with the strongest identity here are the Mams and the Kanjobals", said Emeterio, naming two of the Mayan communities represented in the village. "But amongst the CPRs, it doesn’t matter if a Kanjobal gets married to a K’iche’ or a Mam to a Kaqchikel. The result is that they end up speaking Spanish in order to understand each other, and their children only speak Spanish". This was the case of Emeterio’s own children. He himself was a K’iche’, but had married an Akateca.

We were impressed. And yet what had become of the village identity with so many languages and such cultural diversity? Was there any common identity left to talk of?

"We are the people of Primavera", said Emeterio without hesitation. "This is a strong identifying factor. And we are CPRs. We have re-identified ourselves as CPRs".

It was getting late. Night had fallen, and the temperature had dropped.

After much of what we had experienced in rural Guatemala, from grinding poverty to first-hand accounts of torture and killing, it was heartening to come across such apparent dynamism. Against a backdrop of ongoing hunger, violence and persecution, here were people who had refused to give up the struggle for freedom and their rights as Mayan peasants, who had overlooked their cultural differences in the name of a common cause.

This, of course, was just one person’s version of the facts, but there is evidence to back up Emeterio’s account of his village’s accomplishments.

In 1996, a visiting expert from the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations reported that Primavera had "established very good relations with neighbouring villages, with which it shares its services: medical clinic, school, sports grounds, human rights workshops".

Five years later, in 2001, community efforts and solidarity had extended beyond neighbouring villages as far as neighbouring countries. According to the Nicaraguan magazine Envío, the people of Primavera were quick to respond to the state of emergency which followed the January earthquake in El Salvador. They gathered the little corn they had and delivered it directly to the victims, calling upon other communities to do the same.

At a time of war, the people of Primavera were brought together by shared human values. Today, a decade after the signing of the Peace Accords, they still stand by those values.


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