Guatemala: The Forgotten Spirits of Rabinal

The impunity enjoyed by war criminals is one of the main obstacles to justice in Guatemala. Like other indigenous communities in Guatemala, Rabinal is the current home to powerful criminals of the past. Hundreds of massacre survivors remain quiet and most of those responsible for human rights abuses have stayed behind, confident that justice will never catch up to their crimes.


Legal trial in Rio Negro, the sentencedt o the right.

The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea. – Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, 1982

A Thing Called Genocide

Five centuries after the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population continues to be marginalized and exploited by the Spanish-speaking minority. Throughout history, the Spanish-speaking elite have viewed the Mayan people and their distinct cultures and ethnicities with suspicion and disdain. Economic and social discrimination and exclusion are a reality for an indigenous population that likely constitutes the majority of inhabitants. When compared to the Spanish-speaking population, indigenous peoples disproportionately lack access to essential public services, such as potable water, health care, education, electricity, sewerage, and employment. Rural Mayans suffer from among the highest levels of illiteracy, malnutrition, hunger, infant mortality, and preventable respiratory and infectious diseases in the world.

While most indigenous Mayans are campesinos (rural farmers), whose livelihood and survival depends on the successful cultivation of their land, Guatemala continues to have the most unequal land distribution in the Western Hemisphere, with 2% of the population owning 70% of all productive farmland. Poor indigenous campesinos eke out a living through subsistence agriculture often on the nation’s poorest soils, while wealthy plantation owners (latifundistas) benefit from an agricultural system based on international exports and the exploitation of cheap, mostly indigenous labor. This disparity has led to fierce and violent land conflicts between poor campesinos and latifundistas who maintain dominance through close ties to the government. Indigenous families are often forcibly and violently evicted from their lands by the military and private security squads.[1]

At times, the government’s distrust and disdain of the Mayan population has become manifest in acts of violence and grave human rights abuses. State violence was most evident during the internal armed conflict, when indigenous civilians were deliberately targeted for their supposed support for insurgent guerrillas. The 36-year Guatemalan civil war officially ended in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords by guerrilla commanders and army officers. Out of the ashes of the 1996 Peace Accords the UN-sponsored Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico [CEH]) [2] investigated the violence that ravaged the rural highlands of Guatemala. The CEH’s 1999 investigative report came up with some horrific conclusions. [3]

The CEH found that 626 Mayan villages experienced massacres during the violence. It reported that over 200,000 died or "were disappeared" and countless men, women, and children were tortured and raped. The commission reported that 150,000 refugees fled to Mexico and over 1,000,000 were internally displaced from their ancestral lands. The Commission found that 93% of the violence was perpetrated by the Guatemalan army and its death squads, armed by and trained in the U.S.[4] Most importantly, the state-sponsored violence against the Mayan indigenous population in Guatemala was described by the Commission as nothing short of genocide.

Due to genocide survivors’ brave struggle for justice against powerful war criminals, I lived 14 months in the small, traditional Maya Achí community of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. Rabinal sits in the valley of the Sierra Chuacas Mountains, central part of Guatemala, just a few hours north of Guatemala City. As an international human rights accompanier in the Rabinal municipality, I visited and accompanied war survivors who formed the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR). These brave men and women gave their public testimonies in the genocide cases against the high commands of former dictators Romeo Lucas García (78-82) and Efraín Ríos Montt (82-83). Annually, there are hundreds of attacks annually against human rights defenders, judges, and prosecutors in Guatemala.[5] It is the hope that an international presence provides some measure of security to those accompanied, creating space to organize in defense of their rights.

In Guatemala, impunity is alive and well. War criminals are well protected and often hold important positions of political power. Guatemalan impunity is most illustrated by the fact that not a single military official responsible for the 1980s violence has had to give his public testimony in a court of law. The two former dictators responsible for designing the rural scorched earth campaign that ravaged the indigenous countryside, Generals Lucas Garcia and Ríos Montt, have never had to face accountability. In 2006 García died at the ripe old age of 81. The 82-year-old evangelical preacher, Ríos Montt, was elected to a four year Congressional term in 2007. He is expected to have immunity due to Guatemalan law that grants members of Congress immunity from prosecution. However, the legal counsel for the AJR, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), has argued that under Guatemalan amnesty laws, persons accused of genocide, torture, and forced disappearances cannot be granted immunity from prosecution and conviction, no matter what position of power he may hold.


Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam

Scorched Terror in Rabinal

Borrowed extensively from U.S. counterinsurgency strategies employed in Vietnam, the violence orchestrated by the Guatemalan military under Montt and García was designed to depopulate the zones of guerrilla operations. Montt’s scorched earth tactics were expressed thusly: The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea. "Draining the sea" was little more than a euphemism that entailed the looting, burning, and theft of everything considered useful to the insurgency. Since the counterinsurgency campaign did little to differentiate between the guerrillas, who wanted to overthrow the dictatorship, and the rural agricultural campesinos, innocent civilians were killed at extraordinary levels. An estimated 132,000 innocents died during an 18-month period ending in 1982.[6]

"What had been a selective campaign against guerrilla sympathizers turned into a mass slaughter designed to eliminate any support or potential support for the rebels, and included the widespread killing of children, women and the elderly," proclaimed the CEH.[7] Former Defense Minister, Hector Alejandro Gramajo Morales, summed up this counterinsurgent strategy frankly:

We have created a more humanitarian, less costly strategy, to be more compatible with the democratic system [in 1982]… which provides development for 70 percent of the population while we kill 30 percent. Before, the strategy was to kill 100 percent.[8]

The highland municipality of Rabinal, home of the Maya Achí people, was one such region brutally targeted by the scorched earth policy of the early 1980s. The Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology (FAFG) [9] estimated that between September of 1981 and August of 1983 there were 5,000 extra judicial assassinations by the Guatemalan military and its death squads—out of 22,753 registered people. The CEH estimated that 99.8% of the victims were Maya Achí.

The high level of violence that targeted Rabinal had its roots in the State’s desire to confiscate indigenous lands and natural resources, specifically water, to be utilized for the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam.[10] The state-owned National Institute of Electricity (INDE) planned the construction of the hydroelectric dam without the knowledge of the 23 indigenous communities near the Chixoy River. The Maya Achí farming and fishing community of Río Negro, located in the northwestern part of the Rabinal municipality, was one village notified of their forced eviction from their ancestral lands. Its inhabitants would suffer five massacres before its 1983 inundation.[11]

Convincing the indigenous people to act against their will and leave their ancestral lands was not a difficult task for INDE and military officials. Profits were motivating their actions. The government never attempted to displace the residents in a legal or peaceful manner, which was viewed as too time-consuming. It chose rather to employ a campaign of propaganda and terror for the permanent expulsion of the residents. Local opposition to the dam was painted as insurrectionist guerrilla activity. Army intelligence and judiciales—local civilians appointed by the military to be in charge of law and order—applied violence, including torture and assassinations, against opposition leaders. They wanted a mass exodus of the population.

As a response to the rising State violence centered on the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam, the People’s Army of the Poor (EGP), a guerrilla militia, planned a number of strategic acts of sabotage against the State. On September 12th and 13th, 1981, detonated bombs destroyed a military command center in nearby Cobán, Alta Verapaz, home to the regional military base. In the Baja Verapaz departmental seat, Salamá, a government building was destroyed. Transit roads and bridges throughout the Rabinal municipality were also damaged. A planned attack against the Rabinal military base never materialized. But local military leaders uncovered its plot.

Army Vengeance

Planned by army commanders and intelligence officials at the Coban[12] and Rabinal[13] military bases, the army counterattack did not specifically target EGP leadership or guerrilla combatants. The "counterattack" was rather a strike of vengeance against the distrusted indigenous population. "The army was never interested in capturing or killing EGP guerrillas responsible for the property destruction," stated local activist, Jorgé. He continued:

Otherwise they would have waited to plan a counterattack. They didn’t wait. They jumped right in the following day. The army wanted to wipe out any potential collaboration between the locals and the guerrillas, partly due to the embarrassment of local soldiers who fled the military base after they received a tip that guerrilla attacks were coming. The army wanted vengeance… plain and simple. This was the draining of the sea.

The day following the guerrilla acts of sabotage, tortured bodies were found dumped in ditches and pathways throughout the municipality. Villagers disappeared after leaving their homes to do errands. Alongside the selective assassinations, soldiers and judiciales visited the indigenous communities to remind the residents to participate in the annual Independence Day celebration. Cesár Baldizon’s judiciales[14] had a notorious reputation in Rabinal of being especially ruthless towards the local population. Baldizon and his minions were most infamous for their murders for profit and their out-of-control aggression directed at perceived threats to their leadership. Local human rights leader, Eleodoro, stated that when "Baldizon and his people invited you to an event, it wasn’t voluntary… it was mandatory."


Maria and her family

Thus on the 15th of September, thousands of villagers flooded Rabinal after dusk. The villagers did not enter a town. They entered a tightly controlled army operation. Whereas villagers could enter the town, nobody was allowed to return to their communities. Upon arrival, the villagers were lined up at the local cemetery until the march began. "There were thousands of people marching with members of their community," stated AJR supporter, Antonio, of Xesiguan.

I marched with a few friends that day. None of us knew what to expect. We started at the cemetery and ended at the central plaza marching on various streets in Rabinal. We were all a little nervous because it was a different route from years past. There were also more soldiers and other men with guns as we approached the plaza. Despite the festive environment, the fair rides, and the high number of women and children, we were all nervous. We never expected that much bloodshed.

According to a number of witnesses towards the front of the march, the parade ended with an angry speech by the Cobán military commander, who left immediately afterwards in his vehicle, surrounded by bodyguards. According to an eyewitness interviewed in the 1997 FAFG report, The Massacres in Rabinal, the commander criticized and threatened the public, yelling furiously:

We all know what happens if you continue supporting the subversives… We’ve already advised you beforehand, but since you’re not paying attention you’re punishment will soon arrive. Remember what I’m saying. You’ve been warned…[15]

As the commander’s car hurried off towards the East around midday, the judiciales entered the crowd carrying lists of names. They were hunting down suspected "subversives" scattered throughout the celebration. The people whose names were found in the dreaded backlist were dragged off, never to be seen again. A number of men attempted to escape, running out of the plaza towards the streets. They never made it that far. Those who attempted to escape were clubbed or gunned down on the spot. The gunshot blasts created chaos in the central plaza and sent everyone running towards safety. Since everyone was attempting to escape the carnage by running or hiding, everyone was deemed suspicious and targeted. The judiciales and soldiers killed marchers and onlookers without preference. According to witnesses, nobody was safe from the violence, regardless of one’s age or sex.

As tears dripped from her eyes, María, explained how few escaped the butchery. "They…they…they killed everyone. Everyone. I don’t know how I survived." María is a Mayan Achí woman from the municipality of Rabinal. A genocide survivor active in the struggle for justice as vice-president of the AJR, María lost her entire family during the violent epoch. She witnessed much of the slaughter on Independence Day, yet has never told her story to anyone. Maria continued: "They pointed their guns at anyone fleeing. I guess I was lucky to be a young girl. The army eventually captured me in a local military base, but my life would be spared."


A student painting from Rabinal depicting the violence of the past

Piles of Dead Bodies, Pools of Blood

The violence was not strictly relegated to Rabinal’s central square. While armed men butchered innocents in the plaza, soldiers and judiciales dispersed throughout the outlying streets. In an interview recorded in the Rabinal Achí Community Museum’s investigative work, Oj K’aslik—Estamos Vivos,(We are Alive)[16] the judiciales targeted everyone present at the celebration. Adorned with red bandanas around their neck and firearms by their sides, "every poor person they encountered in the plaza or the street, they killed."

María described how schoolmates from her tiny one-room schoolhouse in Xesiguan marched in the celebration:

Thousands of people came down from the villages surrounding Rabinal. I was marching with my classmates when the shooting started. My brother and I didn’t know what to do. The judiciales and the soldiers were targeting everyone. They just kept shooting and shooting. Everyone was running and screaming, desperately trying to escape. But with the exits blocked off, nobody could leave on the roads. Bodies lined the streets that day. My brother and I survived by hiding quietly in a ditch. I still vividly remember the soldiers and judiciales shooting at people standing right next to us.

Rabinal residents who realized the horror of the situation fled to their houses. The out-of-town villagers never had the opportunity with the exits blocked. Eyewitnesses stated that after the shooting terminated in the late afternoon, only the feasting and fighting of dogs interrupted the silence. Gregorio, who escaped by fleeing to his house in Rabinal, told the author that the bodies were so badly mutilated by high caliber gunfire that "it was impossible to recognize the dead."

From interviews with victims, an investigator at the museum believes that that in the late afternoon most of the bodies were trucked off in trailers to unknown areas. The investigator believes that there are bodies clandestinely buried in other regions and towns along the highway headed towards the capital. He believes that other bodies were dumped along the interstate highway and the Motagua River heading east towards the Atlantic Ocean.[17] Local residents are also well aware of bodies buried underneath a former military detachment. A soccer stadium was recently constructed on the remains.[18]

The investigative reports by the CEH, FAFG, and the community museum declared that perhaps 800 men, women, and children were massacred on Independence Day. However, due to the uncertain location of clandestine graves and the number of years that have passed since the massacre, the actual number killed or missing will likely never be known. Victims’ family members have been impossible to track down due to relocations, deaths, and the continued desire to remain silent. The writers of Estamos Vivos believe that the Independence Day massacre is the "least documented massacre in Rabinal… Although we know parts of the puzzle, one is unable to assemble it completely"

When asked how many people he thought lost their lives that day, without hesitation, Gregorio responded, "One thousand. Maybe more." Witnesses who observed local workers filling trucks with fresh cadavers confirm this high death toll. Gregorio continued:

I saw thousands in town that day. Most were from the villages. They had no place of refuge to escape the slaughter. Those who survived hid wherever there was room. Everyone was a target. Men, women, children, the elderly… entire families were dead in the streets as I ran to my house. The streets of Rabinal were literally covered with piles of dead bodies and pools of blood.


Patricia, a Mayan woman who lost 8 members of her immediate family.

State Terrorism and Death Squads

According to locals, the violence escalated in the Rabinal municipality after 15 September 1981. Immediately after the Independence Day massacre, the Guatemalan Army and its death squads continued with their violent assault against the Maya Achí people of Rabinal by attacking villages such as Xococ and Vegas Santo Domingo. Various villages experienced military attacks with the latest military technology, including helicopters, machines guns, and grenades. The military sent an ultimatum to selected villages that it felt could be manipulated. Its message was: Join us or die.

Around the time of the Independence Day massacre, the Garcia brothers’ military regime first organized the rural communities into the infamous civil defense patrols (PAC). Under orders from President Romeo Lucas García and Defense Minister Benedicto Lucas García,[19] all male agricultural workers (campesinos) were forcibly organized into these civil patrols. Their official tasks were intelligence gathering and defending their community. However, the PACs carried out the desires and whims of the military, including brutal atrocities within their own communities and against neighboring villages as part of the scorched earth campaign. Independent of the military, local PACs frequently took advantage of this sudden emergence of power for personal gain and for settling old scores.

In the Rabinal municipality, the most aggressive PAC was centered in the small indigenous village of Xococ, a few hours north of Rabinal by foot. During a 2008 court case against PAC leaders, witnesses described how PAC commander Carlos Chen López,[20] alongside army officers, ordered soldiers and patrollers to rape and kill women and children in the 13 March 1982 massacre. The 177 victims—all women and children—were butchered with guns, ropes, machetes, rocks, and sticks. The females, including young girls, were often gang-raped before their demise. Massacre survivor, José, recalled the events during his 2008 trial testimony:

My mom was already dead. So I began walking towards Río Negro, but was intercepted by a patroller… There was still the screaming of women and children and gunshots of the patrollers and soldiers… At 5:00 everything went silent. Everyone [from the PAC] selected their kid to carry to their houses, but one child was not elected… Jesús tried to bring his little brother [Jaime] but a patroller [Pedro Gonzalez Gomez] grabbed him out of his arms and tied a rope around his neck and carried him like that. He then threw him in the ravine against the rocks.[21]

One month previous, the Xococ PAC massacred 74 Río Negro residents collecting their identification documents. The same PAC would later participate in two more large-scale massacres of Río Negro residents in May and September of 1982. In the massacres, the PAC grabbed land from Río Negro residents and carried off war booty, including clothing, tin roofs, farm animals, jewelry, and child slaves, like José.

The CEH placed blame on the Xococ PAC for their roles in the massacre. The commission found that the Xococ PAC took advantage of neighboring land disputes with the residents of Río Negro. The patrollers labeled the Río Negro inhabitants "subversives" and "guerrillas" in order to systematically wipe them out or drive them away in terror. The CEH concluded that the Guatemalan state and their agents of terror, including the PACs, perpetrated state-sponsored genocide against the Río Negro people under Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[22]

According to the CEH, the PACs perpetrated 18% of all documented human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict. It reported that 95% of those crimes—most frequently extra judicial executions, torture, forced disappearances, and rape—were in less than a three-year period (1981-1983).[23] In Rabinal, the most notorious massacres involved the PACs. The survivors of these massacres now constitute the backbone of the genocide cases.


Antonio and Silvia at their home.

Historical Memory Dangers

The impunity enjoyed by war criminals is one of the main obstacles to justice in Guatemala. Like other indigenous communities in Guatemala, Rabinal is the current home to powerful criminals of the past. Hundreds of massacre survivors remain quiet because war criminals and their allies holding influential positions in politics, business, and the church. Although some of the men responsible for human rights abuses fled to avoid possible prosecution, most have stayed behind, confident that justice will never catch up to their crimes. Thus, like many Guatemalan communities, massacre survivors of Rabinal live, work, and greet the violent aggressors of the past.

One name frequently mentioned by massacre witnesses is that of Lucas Tecú Xitimul,[24] a former Rabinal military commissioner during the worst of the violence. "Lucas Tecú was responsible for many massacres and assassinations, including those in my hometown of Xesiguan," stated genocide survivor María. "Now he has a large following as pastor and claims his past actions have been forgiven by God." Continued María:

But I don’t forgive him. How is it that a man who has blood on his hands can call himself a man of God? He wasn’t a man of God when he was murdering innocent men, women, and children. Now that he is a minister of God, he says that we must forget the sins of the past and concentrate on our life after death. I lost members of my family from this man of God. My family is buried underneath the earth while Lucas Tecú is above the earth, a free man. How is this fair? When will this man be called to testify? When will he face justice for his crimes?

Antonio of the small mountain village of Xesiguan has a similar story. Like María, Antonio witnessed the Independence Day massacre and survived by sneaking into a nearby forest. He and his wife, Silvia, hid in the mountains for parts of four years during the violent epoch, living off whatever nature provided. In 1984 Antonio was captured as a "subversive" by soldiers and tortured for 10 consecutive days in the Rabinal military base. Antonio described how soldiers would urinate and defecate on the captives tied up underneath them in a dirt pit.

"They wanted to show us how vulnerable we were…how dependant we were to the Army," instructed Antonio.

When asked if he still sees his torturers, Antonio described a former judicial that I knew. Mako is a loud-mouthed, portly man in his early 60s who runs the local bus terminal in Rabinal. Mako was especially notorious as a torturer who sliced open deep wounds on the skin of Antonio and other victims with a sharpened machete. Antonio described how one of the victims had to eat the worms infesting in his open wounds on his skull and arms in order to stave off starvation. "We were beaten, sliced, punched, and screamed at throughout my time in the military base," stated Antonio. "I was lucky I survived. It is unfair that don Mako continues to live without a care in the world as a respected man of the community. The man is a murderer. And I have to see this murderer every time I need to travel."

José’s Dilemma

Despite the high concentration of war criminals living in Rabinal, not all war survivors have remained silent. It was during my time researching at the Rabinal Achí Community Museum that I met José, a local painter who occasionally hires himself out as a day laborer and field hand in order to provide for his family. José’s passion is painting works around his own Maya-Achí culture and the rich traditions of Rabinal. José told me how a few years ago he had entered a few paintings in a local art exhibit glorifying Guatemala’s culture and people for its Independence Day celebration. Only a child during the Independence Day massacre, José entered a painting that depicted the massacre that he witnessed. He had previously painted works depicting the violence but never had entered such a work in an exhibit open to the public.


A mural in Pacux, home of the Rio Negro survivors.

"The first night of the exhibit, I was a nervous," laughed José. "I had seen men with guns—men responsible for the violence—walking around the fair. I mean, there are a lot of them in Rabinal. I remember that some of these men entered the exhibit and seemed upset. That only made me more nervous." José said that the armed men were officials in the municipal government and various political parties, like former deputy mayor Lucas Tecú. José chuckled a bit nervously, "I’m sure they never witnessed a painting of a massacre before—at least not that specific massacre that they were responsible for. I mean, I had never known anybody to openly describe the Independence Day massacre in Rabinal."

José looked around his workshop, as if he was nervous about someone walking in, before continuing in a lower voice. "Well, the night of the exhibit opening, after I washed up for bed in my own house—where my family lives—I was startled by knocks at the door." José answered the door, where he was confronted by two men, armed and unmasked. They demanded that he take down his painting "for the good of the community." José heeded to the advice of the men and removed his painting the following morning. When asked if he knew the men, he said that one was a former judicial. When asked if he believed he made the right choice, José rested his head on his fists and let out a loud sigh. "What else could I do? I am a proud man…proud of who my people and proud of all they have been through. But they still have the guns and the law."


An AJR member looks at a quilt with names of massacre victims.

Forgotten Spirits

Like many genocide survivors, Gregorio is frustrated at the impunity that characterizes Guatemala but is afraid to speak out publicly. He remembers when silence was the only form of survival; to speak out meant certain torture and death. During the 1981 Independence Day celebration, Gregorio witnessed the slaughter in the streets with his fellow students before escaping to his house on the outskirts of town. Describing the "dead victims" as "the forgotten spirits of Rabinal," Gregorio believes that hundreds of people were slaughtered that day. When asked if there is any campaign to find the physical remains of the victims, or if there is any current mobilization for justice against those responsible for the massacre, Gregorio responded immediately. "The indigenous people in Rabinal survived the violence and its aftermath with silence. This is what the people know… silence."

To date, Rio Negro is the only legal case, out of dozens initiated with forensic evidence, which has concluded with a conviction of men responsible for human rights abuses during the scorched earth campaign of the 1980s. Eight low-ranking civil patrollers have been convicted in a Guatemalan court; three in 1999 and five in 2008. Not a single military official who planned, ordered, or participated in the hundreds of massacres during the dictatorships of García and Montt has had to face the courts. To Río Negro massacre survivor, Jesús Tecu, it is no coincidence that the eight convicted men happened to speak Maya Achí. Tecu declared in the 2008 legal trial that convicted five Xococ PAC members, "There is only justice for the indigenous people accused…and those who are the material authors of these crimes, there’s nothing."

The Mayan people of the Guatemalan highlands are frustrated at the State not respecting their language and cultural rights. It was largely believed on 4 November 2007 the largely poor, indigenous population of Guatemala went against history when it voted Alvaro Colom into power. For the first time since Guatemalan reinstated "democratic" voting in 1985, the Spanish-speaking population did not decide the election. Colom is well indebted to the rural, campesino, indigenous population because, as columnist Sam Colop stated in the 11/7/07 Prensa Libre, "for good or bad the rural counties decided the elections."

But since the election, I frequently heard genocide survivors tell me, "The government doesn’t respect us." Gregorio agreed. "Colom is a career politician. He was never a savior to the indigenous population. He turned his back on them since he took office. Colom is like all the other Latino politicians. He doesn’t respect the indigenous people." Gregorio added, "I think that the Guatemalan state sees only one good use in us. We are their servants in the fields, the factories, and the tourist industry. We are their cute little puppets. We are treated with the same contempt and discrimination as we were during la violencia," emphasized Gregorio. Looking at recent news stories in Guatemala, it’s hard to disagree.

In the villages in Rabinal municipality, people speak of the marked increase in the number of forced—and often violent—evictions of poor and indigenous campesino families involved in rural land disputes. Although the evictions haven’t affected Rabinal as much as other regions, people are worried. Mayan campesinos make little cash and typically own a small plot of land for both housing and crops. They are vulnerable to the health of the crops, changes in labor requirements, and changes in ownership. Land tensions have heightened of late due to the drops in coffee prices, rising costs of food, and multinational companies gobbling up land for the exploitation of natural resources. Despite strong opposition by rural indigenous farming communities, mining companies like Canada’s Skye Resources and Goldcorp, Inc., have stepped up their evictions of indigenous families in order to mine nickel and gold.[25] This is all under the protection of the State.

The 1996 Peace Accords promised agrarian reforms. Guatemala’s land conflicts were supposed to be resolved by providing a framework for land disputes, including the enforcement of labor laws and minimum wage, land ownership for poor campesinos, creating procedures for resolving land disputes, providing legal assistance and free translations into indigenous languages, and recognizing and promoting indigenous law. The land reforms were never implemented and the land disputes have been resolved by the government and the private landowners through force. House demolitions, the destruction of personal items, and violence are common means to winning a conflict. Rich landowners have a clear advantage over campesinos when land conflicts arise. They have the guns, the money, the power, the allies, and the access and understanding of the legal process. Campesinos don’t have a fair opportunity when regarding land ownership, the enforcement of labor rights, and access to the judicial system. They also have no money, no guns, no power, and no friends in high places.

Without fair access to the judicial and political systems, it will be a difficult struggle for indigenous war survivors, including the AJR. Despite testimonies from surviving eyewitnesses, inspections of massacre sites, forensic evidence collected from exhumations, and international pressure from various human rights organizations around the globe, the Guatemalan state-appointed prosecutor continues to state that it needs a stronger set of evidence in order to arrest the charged men. The genocide cases have languished in the investigatory stage for eight years. And the potentially sympathetic world community has heard virtually nothing of these struggles. Few U.S. citizens are aware of the international arrest warrants charging genocide and crimes against humanity against the high commands of former Guatemalan dictators. Few U.S. citizens realize survivors’ courageous struggle against powerful military men who planned, organized, and executed the total destruction of their communities and the murders of their loved ones.


Catalina with her 2nd husband and his daughter and granddaughter.

"What I want more than anything," claimed indigenous genocide survivor, Catalina, of Chicupac, "is justice for wartime atrocities committed against my loved ones and my community. I want to move on with my life. There are enough problems we poor people must deal with today. But I can’t move on until we receive justice for the terrible consequences of the past." To become involved in the struggle for justice in Guatemala, contact the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) at

Thaddeus al Nakba ( was an international human rights accompanier for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). A great part of the information for this article was translated from interviews and testimonies recorded by the author. All witnesses’ names were changed to protect their identity. The article was written in memory of the forgotten spirits of Rabinal.


[1]Read about the Xalala dam struggle (), the violence in Nueva Linda, and turbulence in Izabal.

[2] Created out of the 1996 Peace Accords, the CEH’s nine-volume report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence (1999), can be found online.

[3]"The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages… are neither perfidious allegation nor fragments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemalan history," concluded the CEH.

[4]To learn more about U.S. overthrow of Guatemalan democracy, read Schlesinger and Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala and William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Allan Nairn has a number of articles on U.S.-Guatemala military ties during the worst of the violence, including a 1989 article on Reagan’s death squads.

[5]Analysis at Wola and Human Rights First.

[6]See endnote #1.

[7]Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer, "State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection."

[8]Jennifer Schirmer, "The Guatemalan military project: an interview with Gen. Hector Gramajo," Harvard International Review, Vol. 13, Issue 3 (Spring 1991).

[9]FAFG is the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, formerly the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team (EAFG). FAFG applies forensic anthropology techniques in exhumations of clandestine graves to allow the relatives of the disappeared to recuperate the remains of missing family members and enable criminal prosecutions against the perpetrators.

[10]The project was partly financed by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

[11]The army would financially profit and steal tens of millions of dollars from the Chixoy hydroelectric project according to Christopher L. Bryson’s May 1987 Christian Science Monitor article, "Guatemala: a development dream turns into repayment nightmare." For more information on the connection between the violence of Río Negro inhabitants and the construction of the Chixoy dam, read Witness for Peace’s 1996 publication, A People Dammed: The World Bank-Funded Chixoy Hydroelectric Project and its Devastating Impacts on the People and Economy of Guatemala.

[12]According to local human rights advocates, it is difficult to know exactly which military officials were stationed at the Cobán and Rabinal military bases at what dates. Military records lie, are incomplete, or classified. Thus at times it was necessary to rely on the memory of witnesses and local organizations, which may not be the dates the military gives.

During the Independence Day massacre, according to an investigator of Estamos Vivos, Colonel Ricardo Méndez Ruiz and Colonel Juan José Marroquín Siliézar were the two highest officials stationed at the Cobán military base. Colonel Méndez would eventually become the Interior Minister under Montt and President Jorge Serrano Elías. Colonel Marroquín would later control military intelligence operations in Guatemala, but was sacked in 1990 by a rival official who had been awarded the post of Defense Minister. When three USAID workers were murdered under the government of General Mejía Victores, there is speculation that it was the work of Colonel Marroquín’s intelligence unit in the Presidential Security Department, Archivos, as revenge for the U.S. criticism against the Guatemalan human rights records.

[13]According to witness testimonies, Captain Antonio Solares González and Lieutenant Díaz, were the top two commanders stationed in Rabinal when the massacres transgressed. Solares is considered the architect of a number of Rabinal massacres, including the 13 March 1982 Río Negro massacre of 177 women and children and the 18 July 1982 massacre of 268 civilians in Plan de Sanchez. Despite being indicted in April of 2003 and May of 2008 for his role in the Río Negro massacre, the government has failed to capture Solares, who continues to receive his military pension. As far as Lieutenant Díaz, it was reported that army personnel or former PAC members assassinated him on 20 June 1994 right before he was scheduled to testify in a local court case involving a brutal massacre committed by the military and patrollers.

Other military intelligence officials and leading officers stationed in Cobán and Rabinal during the worst of the violence included Otto Erick Ponce Morales, René Antonio Carballo Morales, Luís Arturo Isaacs Rodríguez, César Augusto Cabrera Mejía, Luís Felipe Miranda Trejo, Juán Ovalle Salazar, Mario Roberto García Catalán, Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, José Luís Fernández Ligorría, and Juán Valencia Osorio. The scorched earth policy of the government was coordinated and executed by these and other men. There were other officials, but it has been almost impossible to find their official names.


[14]"From what I understand," stated the smiling Eleodoro, a local Rabinal human rights activist from Pacux, "Baldizon and his followers soon fell out of favor with the military commanders in Cobán. He assassinated a high number of rivals and civilians for personal gain and profit. The military commanders began to notice due to the complaints from women of the community. One day in 1982 the Army invited him and some of his closest followers with the supposed purpose of receiving new, more modern guns. They were all shot in the back of the head. They had had enough."

[15] Las Masacres en Rabinal: Estudio Historico Antropológico de las Masacres de Plan de Sanchez, Chichupa y Río Negro. The second edition, revised and amplified, was published by EAFG, 1997.

[16]Oj K’aslik / Estamos Vivos: Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica de Rabinal (1944-1996). Published by the Museo Comunitario Rabinal Achi. Rabinal, Guatemala, 2003.

[17] The author stated that such towns included Salamá (Baja Verapaz), El Rancho (El Progreso), and Tulumaje (El Progreso). Rabinal identification documents have been uncovered in exhumations in communities such as Tulmujae, leading locals to believe that there are likely bodies from the Independence Day massacre in random communities throughout Guatemala.

[18] Locals believe that a local educational institute, INEBE (Educación Básica Experimental), was built clandestine graves. A local human rights organization, the Maya Achí Association for the Integral Development of Victims of Violence (ADIVIMA), claims that there are dozens of uncovered clandestine graves scattered throughout the Rabinal municipality.

[19]The García brothers, Ríos Montt, and members of their high commands, are plaintiffs in two genocide cases; one presented by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and the other by the Menchú Foundation. In December 1999, in the wake of the arrest in London of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú and a group of Spanish and Guatemalan NGOs filed a suit in the Spanish National Court against several former Guatemalan heads of state. Shortly thereafter, the war survivors’ organization, AJR, presented their two cases (2000 and 2001).

[20]Carlos Chen died of diabetes just as he began his 50-year sentence for his role in the 13 March 1982 massacre of 177 women and children from Río Negro.

[21]For information on the newest Río Negro court case, see "Guatemala: Río Negro Survivors Identify Executioners" and "Guatemala: Five Sentenced to 780 Years for Río Negro Massacre."

[22] CEH 1999: Conclusions, Chapter II, 108-123.

[23]CEH 1999: Conclusions, Chapter II, 226-7.

[24] Lucas Tecú Xitimul rose to deputy mayor in Rabinal under Rios Montt’s FRG party.

[25] Read about the evictions and violence in the towns of El Estor and Sipakapa.