Surviving a Massacre

During the country’s civil war (1960-1996), military occupations and mass executions of entire villages became widespread, occurring most often in the department of Quiché in the early 1980s.  In the stories that follow, survivors bear witness to the personal loss and devastation that these atrocities wrought.

While innocents were killed by both sides in the conflict, the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) reported that the Guatemalan government, through its plan to suppress and eradicate the guerrilla movement, carried out the preponderance of civilian executions. After extensive research, the CEH found that units of the Guatemalan army had destroyed over 600 villages. Many of these mass murders took place in the Western Highlands where rebel activity was most acute, but also where peaceful Mayan communities subsisted through agricultural pursuits, leaving one to ponder how racism played a role in this regional holocaust.  The CEH concluded that the Guatemalan government had committed acts of genocide, sparking a national debate on whether such a term should be used.

Critics of the commission (known as the Truth Commission) have accused it of a left-wing bias, but all parties to the peace agreement agreed to its composition.  

The memories of the victims presented here derive from their testimony at the trial of the late and former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in March 2013, in which he was accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The entries tend to be brief due to the court’s limitations on admissible subject matter, but, taken together, they provide a clear picture of the trauma suffered by Ixil-speaking villagers during Guatemala’s internal war.  

In the first testimonial, 54-year-old Jacinta Rivera Brito recounts her personal travail following an army attack on her village in February, 1983. At the time, she was residing in the Nebaj region of Guatemala, where many massacres occurred.

I was living in the town of Vicalamá.  The soldiers came and chased us out of our homes, and they burned down our houses and cut down our fields. We hid and then fled to the mountains.  They came looking for us, and they surrounded us up there. 

The soldiers were on the mountain’s perimeter.  We tried to run, but because they were on the mountainside they could see us below and they shot at us.  So many shots were fired. They did not hit me, but they hit and killed my husband.  A bullet entered through his right eye and went out through the back of his head.  One of my children was a baby at the time, and my husband was carrying her.  A shot went through her hand. 

My husband was carrying all of our things so I had to leave my clothes where he was killed: my poncho, everything.  I was with my four children and my father-in-law.  I stayed hidden in a small mountain while the army came down and looked at my husband’s corpse.  I spent three days not eating, and I fainted for the lack of food.

So I stayed there in that small mountain like that, without a blanket and without a poncho. I was afraid to leave and see my husband’s body because I heard that they would leave grenades next to the dead, next to the ones they killed.  I finally left the mountain in an attempt to see my husband, but friends of his had already buried him so the dogs would not eat his remains.  

I did not have food nor clothing and I did not know what to do. I did not even have a machete to work with.  Our companions said, “let’s go elsewhere,” so I went with them to a place where they thought we could find something to eat.

I barely had any water, but after eight days we arrived at Amakchel and there, when I arrived, there was no food, so we only ate wild plants, but we did find a small plot of land to seed.

Ultimately, I got a little bit of food but still had no clothes, so I got a piece of a rag and I covered myself with that … and same with my children.  They got some thread and we sowed it and they put that on.   We had a little food then, but I would still get very tired.

Jacinta Rivera Brito entering the courtroom, March, 2013.

Jacinta Rivera spent about a year trying to survive away from her village, either in the mountains or in other towns.  She and her children were eventually taken out of the wilds and relocated to a military controlled area by army helicopter. 

To combat subversion, the government set up a number of military controlled zones where residents would be moved, called “destacamentos” (military detachments).  They could also be relocated to more elaborate settlement camps known as “model villages.”  These areas were formed to make sure members of the local communities did not become guerrilla recruits.  Refugees found in the woods would often be transported to such places.

We were happy when they (the soldiers) arrived, but we were sick and continued on with our illness. Even now, I don’t feel well. I am still sick.  

What I am asking is that they pay me for the blood they extracted from my husband and daughter.  What we want is that he (Ríos Montt) go to jail, because we did not steal anything. What I want now is never to see this again. One day I will die, but I have children, and this will stay with them.  

Jacinta Rivera Brito testifying at the genocide trial of Ríos Montt.

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During her testimony in the same trial on March 21, 2013, 66-year-old Catarina Sánchez Solís discussed her escape to the mountains after the army occupied her village, Vajilá, in Acul, Nebaj on April 20, 1982. During her testimony, Sánchez Solís could not elaborate on the death of her husband due to procedural restrictions.  A fuller story is therefore left untold.

The soldiers arrived —— we don’t know why they came, but they came and got my husband, Francisco Kalel. 

The army took him to the church and threw him face down on the floor and told him not to move, and not only he was there, but there were a lot of other people there and a lot of people died there.  When my husband arrived, they had said that hell was on the left, and heaven was on the right.

We left for the mountains because the soldiers wanted to kill us.  That’s why we spent so much time there.  I don’t remember how long but we were there for quite some time. My parents, brothers and sisters all went.  I eventually left the group with my father to find another location.

My sister later told me that my mother had died in the mountains when she was lying down near a large rock and was very hungry.  A bomb landed near her and she fell and got warm. I don’t know really why she died. I only know what my sister told me, that a bomb was dropped and she died startled.

Back home we had sheep and pigs that stayed there when we went into the mountains.  I only went back once to get a hen and some chicks, and then I went back into the mountains out of fear of staying in town.  Those chicks did not last long. We brought some maize with us also but it did not last long either. I had two daughters die of hunger out there, as we were in the mountains so long.  I had a two-year old and a 14-year old die that way. 

My clothes got very old and wore out, so after a while I wasn’t wearing any clothes. We didn’t have any clothes when we came back.  We also had run out of food.

Our life was greatly affected by this.  Today we suffer from illnesses.  My throat hurts.  I am sick. We want justice, and we do not want any more war. We may die some day, but we ask for justice for our children.

Former President and General, José Efraín Ríos Montt, walking to the courtroom.

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Tomás Chávez Brito, 45 years of age at the time of his testimony, recalled events surrounding the military’s massacre of his village, Sacsiguan, Santa María Nebaj, in the department of El Quiché on November 4, 1982.

The army beat my mother in the face — they made me an orphan.  The military also burned my brothers and sisters to death and killed two of my sister’s children — they were babies.  According to my uncle, the killers of my mother were wearing the uniforms of the Kaibiles. 

The Kaibiles were the Guatemalan military’s elite combat forces specializing in counter-insurgency and jungle warfare. 

We were out working in the fields and my uncle said we had to go. There were other villagers who went with us into the mountains.  I lived with my uncle out in the woods for about a year and we ate plants to survive.   

After a year we got together with some companions and we went to Cabá. And then we entered the CPR. 

Cabá is a large area of subtropical forest within Ixil communal lands. CPRs, or Communities of People in Resistance, were isolated clusters of individuals who had fled the violence of war. They were mostly unarmed civilians who eked out a living from planting corn, beans and raising livestock.

We went to Cabá and built a little house of palm leaves. There were no guerrillas there, only regular people. Later, soldiers arrived and ran after us again.  They got us and took us to the plantation. 

Chávez Brito was transported to the Perla farm, one of the largest and most extensive haciendas in the Ixil region, known today for its cultivation of prize winning gourmet coffee.  At the time of Brito’s capture, the Guatemalan government was using part of the property for a military detachment, taking advantage of the farm’s infrastructure (electricity, water, and drainage).  Such a practice, in which a military detachment was established on private property, became common during the war.  The Perla farm was also in an area that was particularly vulnerable to rebel activity. The Guatemalan Army of the Poor (EGP) had been active nearby and a few years earlier had assassinated the property’s owner, a former founder of the Anti-Communist Unification Party.

Once on the farm, Chávez Brito was forced to provide free labor.

We went to the plantation at the request of the soldiers and were there for about five months.  While we were there we worked and didn’t receive any money, only a little bit of food.  They gave us a schedule and they commanded us to follow it. They said that if we left, they would kill us.  

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The Ixil region in the department of Quiché, Guatemala.

Another witness, Inés Gómez López, testified to the trauma she experienced when she was 11 back in September, 1982, in the Ixil community of San Juan Cotzal.  At the age of 41, she publicly recounted her childhood ordeal.

The army killed my father. They shot him in the head ——  I saw it.  The soldiers came and grabbed a lot of people.  Maybe 40 to 50. They burned all our things to the ground, including our grinding stone.  Everything.

They were coming after us and I remember running.  I don’t know why exactly because I was young, but my father had told us to get going into the mountains.

We had to go fast so we only took the clothes on our back.  We had no time.

We went and hid in the mountains but the army chased us and they were shooting at us.  I was with my father’s sister, and there were about 25 people with us, including children. 

We would spend time in one place in the woods, maybe a week, then another week in another part.  We had just a few tortillas, and we ate sugar cane.  It looked like I was going to die of hunger. I was very undernourished and weak.  It was difficult for everyone.  Once, people wanted to give away their child to us, but we had my brothers and sisters to take care of, so we couldn’t help.    

We were there about a year. My little sister was born in those mountains.

Ines Gómez López and her aunt were eventually brought out of the mountains and into a military detachment.

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Nicolás Bernal Brito was 22-years-old in March of 1982, when the Guatemalan army terrorized his village, Canaquil, in the municipality of Santa María Nebaj.  In the following testimony, he recounts the events leading to his escape into the mountains, his return to the authority of the armed forces, and his recruitment into the Civil Defense Patrols.

The soldiers would come to our village every two or three days.  Once we were working in the fields when they appeared.  We know it was them because they had their uniforms on: green and black camouflage. We realized they were there and we were frightened.  There were a lot of them and they began killing people and burning all the houses. We had no idea why they killed our people, we were confused, we did not have anything, nor had we done anything.  They went everywhere, into the forest areas and around the houses, grabbing people. They would have killed us if we hadn’t fled.

A lot of women were killed because many were sewing or making masa (corn dough to make tortillas) and were unable to run like the men. I would say there were about 35 people who died, young and old.  My woman’s sister was killed, and her sister’s children also. They were 12, ten and eight years of age.  The rest were younger or babies.  

The soldiers took out the hearts of the people they killed and piled them up in a hut and set fire to it.  When we went there later we saw our family members who had been killed. We put out the fire. We took all of the bodies that had been burned, made a large hole and buried them there. 

They left us destitute. The army destroyed all our homes and set ablaze all of our belongings, so we only had the clothes on our backs. They razed our fields. They killed our sheep, our horses, our cows.  The dogs ate the dead livestock that hadn’t rotted. 

We fled to a place called Chichel (a wilderness area to the east)…. There we hid because of our fear from seeing our companions being killed.  A lot of people from our area went there to hide.  This place is mountainous and we didn’t think they could find us there.  I was out there about seven months.  We were very weak because we had no food.  We only ate edible plants.  Some people died of hunger. 

One day, they scattered pamphlets in our area, and there were some kids with us who could read, and they said that they were offering amnesty to us and that we could return.  I said I would go back because I did not owe anything to anybody and I thought I might die staying out there.  We had no food or clothes.  So I decided to hand myself in. 

When I arrived to town with my companions we received clothes and a poncho, and some food.  They also integrated us into the Civil Defense Patrols.  The idea was to prevent any outsiders from coming in.

It was not voluntary.  We had to join if we wanted to or not.  If you did not participate in these patrols, they would take you away.  All of a sudden we’d realize that some of the men were gone. 

The army said that they were the ultimate law, and if we did what we were told, nothing bad would happen to us. On the patrols, we would go out and survey the outskirts of the town with the soldiers.  The guys who patrolled were of different ages, from 12 years of age to the elderly. 

The army would grab people who were out in the woods or shoot them.  For the soldiers they were guerrillas … but they were just ordinary people. 

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Jacinto Brito Corio, our last subject, spoke of his experience in the town of Tujolóm, Nebaj in December, 1982, when the Guatemalan military brought death and destruction to his friends and family.  

I don’t know my age exactly —— I cannot read or write —— but I am maybe 60 years old.  I am here to say what happened to us in the town of my birth.  

I cultivate the milpa (a small area of crops, often maize) and was in the fields when the government sent people to kill us.  They burned down our houses and cut down our crops. We are now demanding justice.  

I remember ’82.  The soldiers took away people and killed them, and they chased others who hid.  There were about 10 families whose lives they ended.  They killed my own father with their hands and feet, and they buried him without a casket. 

There were soldiers here and there.   There were a lot of them, but there was no soldier who was Ixil because they did not understand what we were saying.  They were speaking Spanish and they could not comprehend us. 

They killed our sheep, pigs and cows, and they lit a fire and they ate them. 

After the soldiers came we had nothing, not even clothes. Everybody’s house was burned to the ground. 

We fled to the mountains, where we ate only wild plants. We slept under trees or next to large rocks. We would find ourselves in different places and joined up with other people out there who spoke a different language from our Ixil. We found ourselves together in the wilds, and we disguised ourselves and hid from the bombardments of a helicopter.  When we were in the woods, this vehicle that carried the soldiers chased us and surrounded us from above. There were children with us and older people.  They were trying to kill everyone. 

We hid there but they were always pursuing us to kill us.  If we made a small fire we would have to hide it because if they saw the smoke they would find us and destroy us.   Never could we go into a town and buy anything for fear of being discovered.  We couldn’t leave that place. Many people died of hunger in the mountains, many.  Now we want justice for them, through the law, so that this doesn’t happen again.  I want justice for those who were killed. We don’t want others to experience the sadness that we endure. 

The witnesses primarily spoke in Ixil Mayan, using a translator to make their statements in Spanish at trial.  The dates of their testimony range from March 18 to March 21, 2013.   The above rendering of their accounts represents my own abridgment and English translation.  To hear a recording of these testimonies, along with many others, see Plaza Pública: https://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/audio-de-testimonios-del-juicio-genocidio.

For a visual record of the court proceedings, see “Dictator in the Dock,” a 23-episode documentary film series by Pamela Yates (and a Skylight production directed by Paco de Onis). It can be found on Kanopy, an educational website.

At the conclusion of the trial, Ríos Montt was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, and sentenced to 50 years in prison.  The conviction was later overturned.

The late former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, at trial in Guatemala City for Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, March, 2013.

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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