The Truth Under the Earth: The Relationship Between Genocide and Femicide in Guatemala

The war in Guatemala has never ceased. While the Peace Accords signed in 1996 demobilized some combatants and weapons – the killing, raping and torturing continues unabated. In 2009 the homicide rate for Guatemala, with a population of 13 million, is about 8,000 per year. Of these 8,000 murders approximately 10 percent are women and girls.

ImageThe war in Guatemala has never ceased. While the Peace Accords signed in 1996 demobilized some combatants and weapons – the killing, raping and torturing continues unabated. In 2009 the homicide rate for Guatemala, with a population of 13 million, is about 8,000 per year. Of these 8,000 murders approximately 10 percent are women and girls.

According to figures from Guatemala City based women’s group Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres (GGM) between January 2002 and January 2009 there were 197,538 acts of domestic violence, 13,895 rapes and 4,428 women were murdered. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that for this tsunami of violence there is a 97 percent impunity rate. One of the main reasons for near total impunity in the Guatemalan context is that the people responsible for the genocidal civil war against indigenous people in which 200,000 people were murdered and 50,000 disappeared have never, nor are they ever likely to be held accountable.

In August and September of 2009 I visited Guatemala, at least in part, to examine how the civil war has been superseded by an as yet undeclared social war, part of which is an ongoing femicide.

This journey really starts for me in early September 2009 in the Ixil triangle, which is an area in the western highlands framed by the three townships of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal. It is a fiercely indigenous region which has resisted the colonialism and brutal immiseration forced upon the region since the times of the Spanish invasion. Consequently, it bore the brunt of the genocidal ‘scorched earth’ policies enacted by the consecutive military dictatorships of Romeo Lucas Garcia and Rios Mont in the early 1980s. At this time there were more than 200 massacres and 16,000 deaths, which led to a population decrease of the region by a quarter.

I visited Finca Covabunga, which is just up the road from Chul, a bumpy, dusty, windy three hour trip through the mountains on the back of a pick up, north of Nebaj. On December 9, 1982, 75 men, women and children were massacred by the Guatemalan army. The exhumation of seven or so bodies from two graves – the rest had been eaten by dogs, birds and time – was organized by the Centre for Forensic Analysis and Scientific Application (CAFTA) and it was part of their ongoing campaign against impunity for genocide in Guatemala. In speaking with the folks from CAFTA they were not hopeful of a prosecution – there is no functioning legal system in Guatemala – but they keep on building the case anyway. Over the two days I was in the community, like everyone else I tried to find a little spot underneath the black plastic to watch the digging: a pair of gumboots here, a crumbling skull there, some paperwork in a pocket, all carefully collected, noted and packed. One of the most surreal experiences of my life is helping to clean up the site and carrying plastic bags full of clothing, body parts and personal affects of recently exhumed massacre victims to the four-wheel drive for further tests and safer storage. As the exhumation continued an old woman wept, someone let off fireworks, others cooked beans and tortillas, young boys played football and stony faced older men talked softly in conjobal, a Mayan language.

I talked and recorded survivors of the massacre. Margarheta lost her husband, animals, land and all her possessions on that day. She spent the next ten years living in the mountains running from the army. Digging up the bodies was painful for her as it brought back a flood of painful memories. I met another man, Juan, hunched over, with a tiny twisted frame, obviously in pain from years of unrelenting farm labor. He lost his whole family on that day, he kept repeating the same word ‘everything’, ‘everything’. He found it hard to walk, to talk.

A day or so after returning from Chul, I was visiting an activist friend, Nicolas, in his dirt-floored shack surrounded by his wife and eight beautiful kids. He had been unable to attend the exhumation because of other business. I played him the recordings and showed him the photos. He listened with a sharp intensity to every word. He looked at the pictures likewise, it was like he had lost something precious and he was looking for clues. He told me his grandfather and grandmother had been executed by the army. Later on, he explained he had only learned to read and write recently, after he and his people had come down from the mountains. I asked him if he was a guerilla. He replied with some sadness: ‘no, I was too young’. He was elated that people from other countries are interested in learning about and telling the story of his people’s suffering and resistance. He gave me a present, of a book, a powerful pictorial account of the struggle for memory in Guatemala. The title translates as ‘the truth is under the earth’. Indeed.

The next day Nicolas and I and a couple of other activists visited a community on the outskirts of Nebaj. It is named June 30th which commemorates the date in 2006 in which the community reclaimed land from the army – who had stolen it after eradicating the owners – and started growing food, teaching their kids and various other projects of self-determination. All these families that made up this community had been dispossessed by the ‘scorched earth’ policies of the army in the region and been living in the mountains for more than a decade. Now this community is in a low-intensity conflict with the soldiers at the army base, which is situated on the other side of the hill. What this war largely consists of is the continual harassment, rape and sometimes torture and killing of women, which usually occurs when the women go out to collect firewood in the forests.

While at the community I met a young woman of sixteen who had a six month old baby, the father is a soldier and the conception method was rape. Nothing has ever happened in regards to this rape. In June of 2009 a woman who had five young children, was raped, murdered and cut up by soldiers. Nothing will likely ever happen to the person/s who committed this heinous act – impunity for such crimes is total in Guatemala. This woman’s five children are now orphaned and being helped out for now by a much older aunt and they have no means of support. I visited these kids and the littlest one who is two, had her finger in her mouth the whole time, and she looked out the world with big accusing eyes.

After a meeting with the community and many different perspectives on what is happening – in four different languages – we asked the community if they would like us to accompany them on a wood-sourcing mission. They enthusiastically agreed, so after lunch we set off into the forest, literally to confront power and to defend memory against institutionalized forgetting. On the way we were shown the spot were the mother of five was murdered, and stories were shared by the women who heard the screams and found the body. It was about half an hour into chopping and collecting wood when first contact was made with the army. They called for back-up immediately and the community gathered. First, we eyed five soldiers in shorts and runners with machetes, ropes and bags, obviously on some sort of collection mission. They were soon joined by five more soldiers, wearing camouflage fatigues and heavily armed. They kept their distance, filmed the proceedings and generally added a malevolent presence and threat to the encounter.

The community members began to really speak their minds to the soldiers. After a while, the tension eased and soldiers and community members went on their way. As she was leaving, one older woman said to the soldiers, "I am not afraid of you. Back in the eighties and nineties we used to kill you sort of people, and we’ll do it again if we have to." The soldiers were visibly shaken by her words.


Photo from Ajtun