Life in the 1970s

Domingo Boche Estrada, 61 years of age, grew up in Antigua, Guatemala during the country’s civil war (1962-1996) and lives just outside of town today.  While he did not participate in the war, Domingo lived in fear of being dragooned into the Guatemalan Military when he was young, which was a common concern among men living in Guatemala around the age of 18.  He describes the process of forced recruitment and how he was able to avoid it in his youth. I interviewed him on September 29, 2018. Below are excerpts from his testimony, edited and translated.

There was a man, they called him Chita, like in Tarzan, and he shined shoes in the central square and had a permanent place there.  He was always at his workshop, and there were always people around him talking to him.  But when he wasn’t there, that was the signal that soldiers would soon arrive to Antigua and work with the local comisionados militares (military commissioners) to capture people for the army.

[These comisionados militares originally formed in 1938 to recruit people into the military.  Prominent members of a particular community would usually be chosen to perform this role, and they later aided in gathering counterinsurgency intelligence during the war.]

Chita was part of it, part of the recruiting.  Generally, we always monitored Chita, because when he wasn’t there that was the indication that the military was coming to grab guys, so we all communicated among each other, among us young guys, to inform each other so as not to leave our homes, because if we went out we might have back luck and be captured.

No one wanted to go into the army because there was a lot of bad talk about military service.  There was a fear of it.  There were so many stories of guys being taken to the military encampment and beaten.  They would be denigrated.  For example, the army would take a guy, strip him down and throw him into freezing water, or they would make him eat bad things, to degrade him.  If a soldier of a higher rank wanted to punish his subordinate for not doing his job well, the punishment would be severe.  I never experienced it, but the stories were legion.  So many things that were not correct.  Maybe it was a way to harden them, so when they went into the field of battle, they would apply the same attitude that had been applied to them.

In reality, there was nothing in the mind of the people about the conflict, they just heard of the suffering that the soldiers had to endure, so they tried to avoid the military.  The people had no concept of communism or capitalism.  They heard about it but did not understand what the ideas represented.  It was only when I went to the university in Guatemala City that I came into contact with these ideas.  But the people did not have any interest in being part of any one group.  They really did not know why they were fighting.

The military commissioners in town were part of the military, or close to it.  They had a lot of privileges, benefits like access to the comisiariato, a store for the military, exclusively for them, where they could go and buy boots, shoes, clothes, whiskey, a lot of imported goods at really cheap prices.

The military commissioners did the recruiting in their own pickup trucks, and they would usually operate with one or two soldiers that came from the city.  There would be as many as ten commissioners total, and they would take up strategic positions in town, where young men would pass, so when they saw potential recruits, they would attack them.  Maybe they would place themselves in the central square, or at other strategic areas, and usually they would come around the time when people went to work, because they knew people would have to go to their jobs.  The recruiters would hide, chase the young guys, and capture them.  And then they would take them to the pick-up, and there would be an armed soldier waiting.  And if the recruits tried to get away, they would pursue them and beat them with hoses that had blades tied to them.

All of my life that was happening, but when I was almost 18, I really had to hide from the military commissioners, so as not to go into the army, because that was a fear we all had, as a youth, to be captured and taken away to the barracks.

There once was a procession [a parade with strong community involvement, most often carried out for religious purposes].  Usually processions would be respected, but one day we were going along with the procession and the commissioners appeared behind it, so, because I was with two older brothers and some friends who also could be recruited, we started to walk little by little away from the procession, and then we started to run.  Unfortunately, one of our friends was captured.

But that turned out to be a funny situation.  At that time, our friend lived near the recruiting office, the office of military reserves.  It was at this office that they would take and look at the recruits, review their documents and everything, and then see if there was some defect to them, or if they could be exempted because they were married, or if they were butchers, worked in hospitals or health clinics.  Because he lived close to him, my friend knew the official there and was a friend of his.  So the official invited him to sit down and have some coffee, and then let him go.  The soldiers were mad but the official said, “ah, he’s my friend.”

Domingo’s Background

Domingo was part of a large family, being one of ten children, with three sisters and six brothers.  His father ran a bakery with his mother’s assistance.

My mom never studied.  She was from a very poor family that worked on a coffee plantation.  Later, she left, but my grandparents continued working there.  My mother, when she was playing with other children, got struck in the eye with a branch, and after that accident, she didn’t go back to school, so she could not read or write.  Also, my grandmother had trouble taking her to the school on time, and would get scolded by the teacher and my mother didn’t like it.

My father’s parents worked on a coffee plantation also, but they had a piece of land and had some cows.  My father would help his dad and take them out to pasture.

When my father was like seven or eight years of age, he was in the street playing when the police passed and asked where his parents were, and then they took him and some others to school.  The police told the teacher that they had found these kids playing in the street, so they asked the teacher to take them in and teach them, so my father learned to read and write and learned how to add and subtract.

My father stopped school when he burned his hand around the age of nine.  Because his family was poor, they cooked over the floor on stones, and he was sitting near the fire at night, and he began to nod off, and all of a sudden, he started to fall forward and burned part of his hand.  That’s when he stopped studying.

I never knew my grandparents because they died when my parents were young.  I think my dad’s parents spoke Kachiquel, because we had an aunt who spoke Kachiquel.  But since my dad moved from his home in Chimaltenango to Antigua early in life, he changed part of his customs because the culture here is different.  We really all have indigenous roots, but we lost contact with the culture.

Domingo went on to study at the University of San Carlos in architecture, but later took up the humanities to teach high school.  His brother also studied at the university, in economics. 

At the university you learned about capitalism and marxism.  We could not completely embrace marxism because of our catholicism. I was in the middle.  I was what they call a radish, red on the outside but white on the inside.  I used to argue with my brother at home because he studied economics and tended to defend capitalism more.  My mother got worried about the arguments and thought we were going to come to blows, so we had to convince her that we were not going to attack each other, that we were just having a discussion.  But most people had no idea about these ideologies.  The guys who were recruited into the military were just told that communists were bent on destroying  democracy, so they would go out and kill the guerrillas.

 

Author: storiesfromguatemala

Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a historian who resides in both Guatemala and New Haven, CT collecting oral testimony to gain insight into various historical and cultural forces. He has a PhD from Yale University in History, with a concentration in modern Latin America, and is a Fulbright-Hays scholar. He has taught at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain. Before that time, he was a reporter and anchorman in local tv news in the United States.

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