A Walk through Darkness

In the previous blog entry, I presented stories by men and women who had survived the massacre of their own village, as revealed in testimony at the trial of Rios Montt in 2013.  The government’s campaign to wipe out citizens sympathetic or potentially sympathetic to the armed insurrection resulted in the extermination of entire communities and the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.  While Rios Montt (reg. 1982-1983) led the government during the height of the violence, and was later accused of committing crimes against humanity, his predecessor, General Fernando Romeo Lucas García (reg. 1978-1982), had carried out similar policies. During the Lucas regime, our next subject, María Secundina Marín López, saw her husband abducted and her village destroyed. Now 69 and living in Santa Catarina Barahona in the department of Sacatepequez, Marín spoke of her life and the trauma that befell her family.

I grew up in San José Calderas in the department of Chimaltenango. We only spoke Spanish.

For us, we didn’t have our own property.  We would go from one finca to another to work in the fields during the plantings and harvests.  We were always moving from one place to another. We only worked, that’s how I grew up.   

I had a boyfriend and I got married to him, and so I later worked at home, raising my children. 

One day in 1981, during the war, the army entered our town at 6:00 in the morning.  I was pregnant and had three daughters, the oldest being eight.  My husband was getting ready to go out into the fields and I was making tortillas for him to take with him. His name was Tiburcio Lopez Chavez. He was about 25 years old.

The soldiers entered our home and took our food, like our beans, threw it down and stepped on it and crushed it.

My husband was there, and they said they wanted him to go with them, so they took him.  Never again did I see him. We were never able to find out anything about him afterwards. 

The army would tie men up together, take them away, and put them in an empty school.  They brought a lot of them there.  And from there we don’t know exactly what happened to them, but there were many who were killed.  We think they took my husband there, but after that we don’t know what happened.

María Secundina Marín López, Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, August 1, 2021.

We looked for my husband at the school but we found nothing. I went there with my mother-in-law but there was no one there. There were only pants and shirts inside the school, and blood. But from my husband there wasn’t anything, not shoes nor clothes.  As for the others, who knows what they did to them.  What sadness. What sadness in life.

This was just a poor town.  Out in the fields we were cultivating cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, carrots.  Everything was destroyed. The animals were killed so we couldn’t eat our livestock.  We couldn’t eat that entire day. It was pure fear we felt. 

They also burned down the houses, which were made of thatch.

We don’t have any idea why they came. None whatsoever. We were not involved in the war.  I told the soldiers that I didn’t know why they were here doing that, that we hadn’t done anything wrong. They were looking for arms and they would look and look, but there wasn’t anything.

They executed so many people. I saw three men being killed and I saw others being taken away. You could hear gunshots. A lot of people were buried in the fields.

Some would hide but when they came back the army would grab them and take them away, and kill them. There was a plane flying overhead surveilling the people. We couldn’t hide. Where would we go? 

The army came with a truck and also took women away, girls too.  People later said that they threw their bodies into a ravine.

They left us alone but after that, we didn’t have any place to live. They had burned my house, all of it.

From up over there (San José Calderas), we came here, Santa Catarina Barahona (about 7 and 1/2 miles away). We went on foot to where my father was living at the time. We travelled all night and used candles to see.  Now there is light but back then all we had were candles. 

We ate from the grassland on the way:  we ate a little cauliflower, macuy ( a flowering plant known as black nightshade) chipilín (a leafy plant) and chard.  That’s what you can eat here. 

I was always trying to make sure my children were fed. They were asking for food and crying. Where are you going to find it for them?  Where are you going to go to get it? And they cry for Papa, but he is not there. You say to your children, “let’s eat,” but you are not eating to make sure they do. The tears. It’s hard. That day was tough. We really suffered.

We finally arrived at San Antonio (a town near where she lives today) and asked for lodging.

You always think they’ll (the army) come back and kill you.  That’s what you are always worried about, day after day, that they will find and kill you.  And you think, then what will happen to my children?  

There were a lot of massacres at that time.  Towns would disappear.

I raised four daughters without my husband.  We suffer that memory of what happened.  You can never forget it.

The home of María Marín López, on a steep cliff in the town of Santa Catarina Barahona.

Marín López spoke with me on August 1, 2021, in Santa Catarina Barahona.  Her narrative reflects my edits and translation.

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.


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.


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.  


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.


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. 


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.

The Generals, Part 2


José Efraín Ríos Montt (16 June 1926 – 1 April 2018) has inspired the most controversy of any of Guatemala’s generals. Assuming power in March, 1982, (following a coup d’état that removed then president Fernando Romeo Lucas García, the brother of our previous subject) Ríos Montt himself would be overthrown the following year. During his short tenure as head of the Guatemalan government, Rios Montt continued the state’s counterinsurgency strategy that resulted in the deaths of thousands of indigenous villagers, most of whom were politically neutral or uninvolved in Guatemala’s Civil War.  Estimates of the deaths of non-combatants have run into the tens of thousands with over 100,000 having to flee their homes, particularly in the departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango. Rios Montt would later be held responsible for the policy that led to this tragic outcome, and was indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. The Guatemalan government convicted him in 2013, but the case was overturned on procedural grounds.  Years later, another trial against him ensued, but Rios Montt would die before its conclusion.  

In an interview on June 2, 1982, while president, Ríos Montt discussed the allegations that the army was massacring villages under a secret government policy to wipe out the rebels.  Ironically, in the following dialogue, Ríos Montt commented on the important presence of indigenous communities within various regions of the country, the same communities he was later accused of trying to destroy in hopes of creating a more uniform national identity. He also analyzed the causes of the guerrilla movement.

We are 7.5 million Guatemalans in total. Only about 500,000 enjoy certain freedoms and rights, or privileges, but the rest of the people don’t have them. So many people don’t have a source of permanent employment.  They don’t have a school that is permanent, they don’t have a doctor, a medical center, they don’t have a highway.  So then what has happened is that those who govern have overlooked them.  They pursue ways to penetrate those areas in ways that promote their own interests, to extract whatever.  They forget about the rest of the people there.

José Efraín Ríos Montt as president, June, 1982.

The problem is sickness, poverty, ignorance, unemployment, all of it, but there is another serious problem: we are a collection of nations, with different characteristics, with different languages, with different customs.  That’s to say that we are not integrated into one family. We are a complex of different nations.  We want to create one nationality, one national identity, but that is a fantasy, that is false. We have lost our vision. We are not a transplant of Europe here in America.  We are a hybrid, we are a large mix of exploiters on one hand who continue to exploit the rest on the other.  

The Petén is a very large territory, which is still full of forests, where we could put a lot of people [to help with land shortages elsewhere], and set up reservations.  But we can’t because we would be invading other nations. Really, we are a region of different nations.  El Quiche is a nation. Huehuetenango is an area of three nations.  San Marcos two nations. Chimaltenango is a place of five nations.  They have their own languages and dialects.

There shouldn’t be any repression.  I have not ordered it.  As president, I assure you that the army is not doing that [massacring peasants in the countryside], but if you want to believe the guerrillas, then there is nothing I can do. I have permanently prohibited operations in the natural areas, and if I can’t control the army, what am I doing here?

There is no repression, there is only reaction. 

We are pledged to following the law.  The subversives want us to withdraw our personnel who are there in the mountains (as part of a negotiation).  They want them to go back to their barracks, but with what objective? Instead of putting the flag of blue and white (the Guatemalan flag) they want a red one with a sickle and hammer on it.  What would someone sitting here in my position do, take troops out so they can put up a flag there that isn’t ours? Or, leave our troops there? So, I’m going to leave my troops there.  I’m going to say, this place is for Guatemalans, and to those who don’t adhere to Guatemalan laws, you have to be judged by those Guatemalan laws. And for those who don’t surrender, I am going to shoot you. 

The excerpts I have edited and translated are from footage of an interview conducted and produced on June 2, 1982 by Pamela Yates, whose work has been crucial in documenting events of the Rios Montt era.  The full interview can be found at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDFk5uMBf7U 

The Generals, Part 1

Beginning in the 1960s, the Guatemalan government began a campaign to subdue a leftist insurrection that would plunge the country into civil war for decades.  The effort to defeat the guerrillas involved a wide-sweeping campaign to root out all forms of political dissent, peaceful or otherwise.  As a consequence, a state of terror descended upon the Guatemalan population; many in favor of peaceful reforms feared for their life.  High school and university students in urban areas disappeared with frequency, and harsh counter-insurgency operations took a brutal toll on Guatemala’s indigenous populations in the countryside.  At times, government forces viewed villages as compromised by their contact with rebels, rationalizing a military attack. In the wake of numerous investigations that uncovered several massacres of innocent people by the army, military leaders have been put on trial for genocide, accused of implementing a scorched earth policy.  Several have been convicted and remain in jail. Debates over whether government policy during the Civil War constituted self-defense, politicide or a type of ethnic cleansing continue today.  

Benedicto Lucas García, a former chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army (and the brother of then president, Fernando Romeo Lucas García ) presents his side of the story.  In an interview on November, 2015, when he was 83, Lucas García commented on the war and the strategy he deployed to crush the Revolution.  In the following dialogue, he vehemently defended his policies and actions.

All wars are terrible but no doubt God created them to diminish the number of people in the world.  If war hadn’t existed, there would have been a great overpopulation of the planet.   Like here in Guatemala, there is not enough land for everyone.  If it weren’t for war, we’d have to kill someone to get a little piece of land.  The wars, then, no doubt, create an equilibrium, and are carried out by the will of God.  If God wants it, there will be war. 

Sketch of Benedicto Lucas García in an interview in 2016, before his arrest and trial. (Cesar M.)
Benedicto Lucas García explaining military strategy, 2016.

The military maps you see around me have the topography and terrain of the country.   They were very important to us because through the maps we planned our operations. With the information we had, be it from campesinos, volunteers, or our infiltrators, we could identify the movement of the subversives and analyze those movements on the maps. We could then plan our strategy and tactics to attack and annihilate them. 

I formed special units to fight the guerrillas.  If the guerrillas moved unexpectedly, you’d have to know exactly where they went. That’s the reason we had informants, to know where to position our patrols.   What I did was to organize the land force and disseminate the troops, installing them in different areas. We formed groups of twelve men with rations for three days, located them through portable radios, and supplied them every three days by helicopter.  They would mobilize according to the information available and they would keep advancing.  They couldn’t be static like before. It was very successful.

In combat, sometimes you get the feeling that there could be an ambush where you are walking.  Therefore there is something called “reconocimiento por medio de fuego” (Recognition through fire). You shoot your guns off to see if there is a response, to ensure that no one is there. This happened in the mountains, not in towns or neighborhoods.  So you are trying to ensure your safety, but if somebody happens to be there?  I believe that God gives you the signal of where you need to go.  I really believe this.  There were times I could have been killed myself, but thanks to God I wasn’t. 

It became routine to be in combat, but it creates malice within one also.  If my fellow soldier has died, I would carry him and bury him with the honor he deserves.  But there are soldiers who get very angry, they get infuriated.  They have a need to vent, to do something about it.  But that’s when authorities have to step in.  It [violence towards civilians] happens if it’s permitted.  

If they were to tell me some soldier had brutalized and killed a civilian, I would execute him on the spot, without asking permission from anyone.  If  civilians were killed it happened without me knowing about it.  Because I controlled my people.   I kept them informed. I constantly warned them against committing errors. 

I never allowed any massacres.  A commander has to go out and control his people, and that’s why I went by helicopter to many parts of the country, to manage the situation. I had to know what was happening in Quiché, in Alta Verapaz, in Petén, Izabal, wherever the guerrilla infiltration was worse. 

I would arrive, check out what was happening, hold consultations, and then talk with soldiers away from their superiors.  And the soldiers are sincere, very truthful.  That’s why there couldn’t have been genocide.  Because these soldiers were campesinos from the villages and neighborhoods [this point is later contested by victims].  They were fighting against outsiders.  One time I heard that my soldiers had opened the belly of a pregnant woman.  How could that be? What a dirty thing for someone to say.   They should be put in jail for such lies.  Maybe a gang member could do that, someone with ink all over his body, but not decent people. 

In the army I was very well viewed upon, well respected, all my colleagues congratulate me today on facebook.  I feel honored by their compliments. 

During his time as chief military strategist, many alleged that the army was carrying out secret abductions and assassinations.

I’m not capable of killing a hen.  In combat yes, but body to body, face to face, not assassinating people. What happened in my time, I am responsible for.  But if massacres occurred, no doubt it could have happened, but they would have been done outside of my authority. I did not authorize them.  If someone did something illegal, they should be prosecuted and brought to justice.

Benedicto Lucas García being arrested. (Artistic rendition of a photo taken by La Prensa Libre, Jan. 6, 2016)

Benedicto Lucas García, along with other military officers, was condemned to twenty five years in prison in 2018 for crimes against humanity, and additional time for incidents involving sexual assault and forced disappearance.  Prosecutors have alleged that he and two other military officials designed an insurgency strategy that required the elimination of the civilian population in the Ixil region. Another trial against him for genocide is pending.

The above testimony represents my own edits and translation from an interview produced by Plaza Pública and directed by Alejandra Gutierrez and Julio Serrano. The interview, from which the excerpts are based, first appeared in Plaza Pública on August 26, 2016.  It can be found at: https://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/benedicto

A Garifuna Voyage

Tomas Sanchez, organizer and president of the Garifuna parliament in Guatemala, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Tomas Sanchez is a community activist in the town of Livingston, Guatemala, which lies at the mouth of the Dulce River and at the edge of the country’s lush Caribbean coast. This area makes for robust fishing, a common occupation among locals, and an astonishing natural beauty marked by a superabundance of migratory and native bird  life.  It is also home to the Garifuna people of Guatemala, who have maintained a distinct culture and language for centuries.

Garinagu (the plural term for Garifuna) have a remarkable history, yet few scholars have explored it with the attention it deserves, leaving many questions yet to be fully answered. What we do know is that the culture first formed on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in the 1600s, some 2,000 miles east of Livingston, when former African captives came to live amongst the area’s native communities. Indigenous settlements had developed years before from an interaction between Carib and Arawak people, who  were among the first groups the Spanish encountered when they landed in the Caribbean in the late 1400s.  How Africans mixed with these communities and adopted a language based largely on Arawak is a mystery.

Some believe the Garifuna community began when a slave ship went aground on Saint Vincent in 1635 (perhaps followed by another years later), with Africans escaping and living among indigenous settlements, forging their own independent society from that point on.  (Their community, it is believed, then became a refuge for future African fugitives.)  Others theorize that indigenous raids on European slaveholders resulted in African re-enslavement under indigenous authority.  The former scenario, in which captives escaped a slave ship (or two) and then resided among native people, is the one most internalized by people in the Garifuna community, who are proud of their independent heritage.   

Regardless of how the community formed originally,  documentation shows that the Garifuna by the 1700s were an independent people who, after years of warring with the English on Saint Vincent island, were forced to relocate to Central America’s Caribbean shore around 1802.  Garinagu then spread out through the coastal areas of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize.  Today, the Garifuna make up a trans-national community whose language is spoken by 100,000 inhabitants in Honduras, 21,000 in Belize, 2,500 in Nicaragua, and about 23,000 in Guatemala, mostly in Livingston but also in nearby Puerto Barrios across the Amatique Bay. The community as a whole, including those living abroad, is believed to number about a million people.

Sanchez, a powerful defender of Garifuna rights, grew up in two different Garifuna locales, one in Belize and the other in Livingston (called Labuga in Garifuna).  His reflections offer a glimpse into the aspirations of the Garifuna people as well as his own quest to understand himself and his identity.  

I grew up with my grandmother and her companion, who was the father figure of my life. In my early years, until I was about seven, times were hard, harder than now — my children are not going through the same thing that I went through. Extreme poverty would be another way to put it. But it was also one of the most intriguing periods of my life because we were able to get by and live in a very wholesome way, without money.  We didn’t have any whatsoever.  I was raised with what we grew around the house. 

At the age of seven and a half I was first exposed to formal education, in Dangriga, Belize, which was then called Stan Creek. I went to school there from 1969 to 1976.  (Dangriga, home to a large Garifuna population, lies along the Caribbean coastline about a 120 miles north of Livingston.) 

You could travel from the port right here in Livingston to Dangriga every Friday.  I’m talking over forty years ago.  We took a small little canoe with a small engine, like 15 horsepower, a very risky trip between here and Punta Gorda (a town in Belize on the way to Dangriga), especially near the mouth of the Sarstoon River when it’s bubbling a little bit.  During those days it would take an hour and a half. Now, it’s a 45-minute trip.  

Going south on Main Street toward the port, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

I went there with my grandparents, the people who raised me, because, at that time, Garifuna hands from Livingston were hired to work in the citrus orchards in Belize, specifically in Dangriga. My grandfather first started as a reaper of oranges but also worked with other produce like grapefruits, tangerines and what have you.  Later on he was employed lifting boxes of oranges onto the trucks to take to the citrus company.  

On vacations, we would go back to Livingston from Dangriga, so then I would hang out with friends in my neighborhood in Livingston. This was the first 15 years of my life. Half of that was here in Livingston and half of that was in Belize, where I graduated from the only formal education I have had.

The foundation of my education was in Belize, but I came back here permanently to Livingston when I was 15 or 16.  When I was a teenager, I got involved in so many things. We are talking about 1976 to about 1980.  I was very aware of the civil war activities here in Guatemala, but I was really a rebel without a cause. 

Sanchez never joined the guerrillas, remaining neutral during Guatemala’s civil conflict.  He did, however, act to protect the local Garifuna community from abuses by military personnel. 

We were approaching 1980 then. We put our lives on the line by literally taking away guns from soldiers who were patrolling our town.  They would drink and get stupid on the streets of Livingston and just intimidate people with their guns, and I didn’t go for that.  I started organizing; I would talk with friends and we would agree to go on a rampage and take away weapons, to send a message to the others.  

I came with a rebellious spirit and something would tell me the soldier was against what was going on, and I would just follow that voice.  But first, we would investigate; if he’s on duty and not drinking, we would respect that, but if he was on duty and drinking, and after a couple of drinks he started intimidating people with his guns, then we would move in.  I was never armed, but I would instigate a fight just to take his guns away.

Sometimes a soldier would be on the streets and be going into a bar, bobbing and weaving, so I would just go and wait in a dark spot and knock him down and take away his gun.  I would make sure he didn’t wake up until I was gone.  I would just choke him to the point where he couldn’t breathe any more, to knock him out.

Usually, though, the soldier would be sitting at a bar and would put his gun down somewhere nearby.  We would sit watching him as he was drinking there, understanding that the first thing I would go for was his gun, so I’m gonna’ spot where it is. I would sit next to him and ask him what he was doing, knowing that could provoke a reaction. At this point I already had a few guys around me  — I wasn’t going to go by myself.  I knew that if I could hit him in the head with a bottle before he reached for the gun I could dominate the game, which is what I would do.  That was my way of fighting back with my group. 

Ok, I was stupid (laughing). 

I had to migrate to the United States because if I had been caught and doing all of this, I wouldn’t be here today telling you any of it. My mom was living in California and heard about what I was doing, so she accumulated four hundred dollars, sent it to me, and that’s what I used to leave Livingston to go to California.  I literally left on the second of February, 1980, and got there on the 18th of February, so I arrived in two weeks and two days, traveling by bus and by train.  I was able to catch a bus to Guatemala City, and from there you could go easily to Mexico City, and then on to the United States. 

You get to meet a lot of people going north, thinking about the same dream that people still have today, that the United States is a land of milk and honey, a promised land where dreams are met or can be achieved, where people have a white picket fence, a white house and a dog called Spot.

Part of my way of thinking was formed in the United States, not really here in Livingston. It’s during my time in the US that I became aware of my identify, as being from a culture that is unique in so many ways.  We’re still in the making, we’re not done yet as Garifuna.  We’re approaching a time, shall I say, for us to start sharing our story, to start writing, telling people what it’s like from the eyes of the Garifuna. 

Main Street, northward, a short walk to the Amatique Bay and the Caribbean Sea, Livingston, July 15, 2021.

I came back from the United States here to Livingston the 23rd of January, 2001, so I have been residing here for the past 20 years.  I’ve gotten myself involved in the community from the bottom, from the base.  I’m a community activist now. I don’t fight any more.  I don’t look for the soldiers.  I’m an indigenous leader who was once a part of this mess (The Guatemalan Civil Conflict), but along with others is now talking about building a new route where we can all travel together towards justice and peace.

In December of 1996,  following 35 years of armed conflict, the government of Guatemala and the revolutionary command (URNG) signed a peace accord under the auspices of the United Nations.  This agreement incorporated previous commitments to improve Guatemalan society and outlined a strategy for a longstanding peace.  

The treaty was renowned for recognizing the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, among them the Garifuna, and declaring them essential in the building of a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual country of national unity.  It also gave those uprooted by war the right to return and live freely in Guatemala.

You have to remember that there were 36 years of war in Guatemala and many of our people became scattered throughout the world, and some of them are coming back.  These are groups that have been part of our history, some of them have been in Peru, some of them in Mexico, I don’t know where, but they had to leave their land and run away or they would be killed.  Politically, we were caught in the middle.  If you didn’t obey what the government was saying, you were a Communist, you were killed, just because you had the guts to speak against the government.  I couldn’t speak then the way I do now.

In the 80s, there were at least 19 settlements in the name of the Garifuna people, on each side of the Amatique Bay (in particular, Livingston and Puerto Barrios.)  The military came at the time, wanting to buy their land, but only symbolically, because they weren’t giving them shit, and if you did not accept their symbolic gift then you and your family could end up floating in the ocean, in the Caribbean Sea. 

Corruption still exists and is in the spirit of our politics, and in other countries  where we live.  As we speak, our brothers and sisters in Honduras are fighting to preserve their land from the government and tourist companies, particularly from  Canada, that would like to make Cancuns out of the areas that belong to the Garifuna people.  They also want to convert Livingston into one of these touristic areas.  That’s a double edged sword. 

As an indigenous group, our land should be sacred to us.  It’s our territory.  That’s where we find the wild animals and trees to make the drums with.  We need the ocean for the turtle shells.  The Garifuna is a civilization.  

We also want to be part of the modern civilization but with everything that comes with autonomy.  We want to call the shots.

The peace treaty was signed the 29th of December, 1996, but there is nothing tangible in the hands of the Garifuna people from the state of Guatemala.  Most of the time we are just used as pawns.  What sells the most is the folkloric representations, like Garifuna dancing, the shaking of the ass.  But there is nothing that we have that is tangible.  

Under the peace agreement, public funds were to be channeled to social investment and to broaden opportunities for indigenous groups held back by discrimination, specifically the Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna. The treaty also promised an economic policy that would optimize growth, prevent processes of economic exclusion, and attack unemployment and impoverishment. 

The document’s high hopes and dreams have not been realized.

We want equal decision-making, and we want financing from the resources of our territory.  I don’t know how many yachts and fancy boats go in to this bay every day, but are they using anything from that activity to educate the Garifuna people?  Let’s get back something from our resources and let’s put that into education, let’s put that into health.

We also need to work together to form our own institutions. We are beginning to talk about establishing an institution for the Garifuna people of Guatemala that would have a headquarters, a base to address any issue that regards the well-being and future of the Garifuna people. 

Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

We are also beginning to talk about an academy for the language of the Garifuna people in Guatemala.  We didn’t speak Spanish in my day. I learned Spanish along the way.  

When I was in Belize, people felt shame in speaking Garifuna, and when I came back to Livingston at 15 my identity had been torn completely into pieces. Some of us still have our language intact, but I think we are the last generation that is holding on.  That’s why it’s so important for me to go out there and spread the word. 

My third son was born a couple of houses from where I was born but he was not raised with the language.   Being an activist, I lost track and didn’t teach him Garifuna at home.  I want to be part of the team that is creating this new road where we have to leave it so clear that the language will be understood.

Children playing outside their homes on the Caribbean side of town, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Sanchez’ quest to revive the language, especially among the younger generation, is part of a greater effort to illuminate the richness of Garifuna culture and history.  Considerd the community’s first blogger, Sanchez has exposed readers to much of Garifuna society, its spiritual side as well as its daily reality.  What emerges from Sanchez’s writing is a belief that the Garifuna are on an historical journey, one in which the mission of past generations is carried on by those of the present and future.

I can speak on behalf of what the dreams of my ancestors were.  They were the ones who paved the way, and I am just a conduit.  In 1802, Marcos Sánchez Díaz came; he is the spiritual guide and founder of Livingston. There are articles on my blog where I state that Marcos Sánchez Díaz held my hand.  He held my hands tight when I would blog. I haven’t blogged since the 14th of August, 2019, and I don’t know if I will pick it back up. It depends on what he tells me, and what the spirits say.

When I was growing up, everything was spiritual at home, but I did not understand then what I do now. We have a mixture of different beliefs. We have beliefs about our ancestors from Africa, their connection with water or their connection with land, their connection with stars, connection with the dead.  In our culture the dead can manifest themselves through the body of a living person, and they can come to you in dreams.  They can come to you in different ways that you might not understand in the moment, but later you put the pieces together. 

I’m just part of this journey that began more than 224 years ago.  The fact remains that the Garifuna were here from 1802, and today we are still crying out against discrimination, injustice. We want to create a route towards justice and peace for the Garifuna people.

We don’t want to shed any more blood for land.  Over two hundred years ago they took our land and killed our people. We were on the verge of genocide.  They did this in Saint Vincent, and that’s why we came here.  There were Garifuna people fighting for their land, and the ones who didn’t succumb landed here. 

Our ancestors used to have knowledge so profound that they could travel these waters day and night just by looking at the stars. They were feared and revered people in canoes. We, whom you see today, are the current generation of these people.

Tomás Sanchez, speaking in front of the Amatique Bay, July 15, 2021, Livingston, Guatemala.

This narrative evolved from an interview I conducted with Sanchez on July 15, 2021.

For background on Garifuna history and culture, the following works are extremely enlightening:  Christopher Taylor, The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival, and the Making of the Garifuna  (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012); Michelle Ann Forbes, “Garifuna: The Birth and Rise of an Identity through Contact Language and Contact Culture” (PhD diss., Univ. of Missouri, 2011); Élmer Mauricio Enríquez Bermúdez and others, Discriminaciones (El Salvador: Fundación Heinrich Böll, 2020). Also noteworthy is a first-hand account of Livingston in the 19th century by Alfred de Valois, Mexique, Havane et Guatemala. Notes voyages (Paris, 1861), re-published in Spanish as México, Habana y Guatemala: Notas de Viaje (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2015). 

Sanchez’s blog can be found at: http://garifunareality.blogspot.com

The Revolutionary

Yolanda Aguilar grew up in Guatemala City during the 1960s and ‘70s in a politically active family; both her parents advocated for peasant and worker rights.  In an interview in 2015 at the age of 51, Aguilar discussed her upbringing and her own involvement in politics during Guatemala’s civil conflict.  In the following narrative, she reveals her motivations for activism and discusses her resistance to the political and social system, her arrest and torture, and how she re-constructed her life in the wake of intense trauma.


Both my parents and the nuns at school gave me a profound social sensibility. My parents were very Catholic, ardent believers — my mother would do penance in the processions, and when I was young, I went to a school taught by nuns.  They talked about poverty and the inequality within the society, and that had an effect on me.  It was a pretty advanced school for the time. We are talking about the late ’60s to about 1975, ’76. I had a lot of friends and that community was important to me.  

My mother worked as a bilingual secretary but over time her Christian impulse led to a feeling of indignation, and she began to conduct workshops in front of unions and peasant organizations.  I would travel with my mother when she spoke to workers and campesinos (small farmers or peasants) and I became very conscious of their problems. 

As a child, I read a lot of novels from the Soviet Union, books published in the 1970s that were very well known, books that discussed what they were constructing in that part of that world.  I remember the first one I read was Mother, by Maxim Gorky. (This novel was actually written in pre-Soviet Russia in 1906, and portrays the hardships of a woman factory worker.) These books had an important impact on me.  They emphasized the importance of simplicity and rejected luxury and the grandiosity of riches. 

I had a very happy childhood and received a lot of love.  I was the first child of my parents’ marriage and the first grandchild on both sides, so I was indulged.  My grandmother was also an important person for me; she took care of me when my parents worked.  I think having a childhood with so much love provided me a foundation that strengthened me throughout my later years. 

My parents went to the university and studied law.  They both were committed to working to improve the political system, which was corrupt and created an unequal society.  My father was a teacher and a very happy man.  He actually played the guitar and sang  — his father, my grandfather, was a well known marimba composer.  

I would say my childhood ended in 1975 when I was eleven years old.  Both my brother and father were killed in that year. 

My father had begun living in Costa Rica in exile, but he would come back on weekends to see us.  Once when he was home, he was taking my brother, who was four years younger than I, to his soccer game.  The two of them went in my mother’s car, but someone had taken the breaks out, so they had an accident in zone 9 in Guatemala City.  My brother went through the window and died instantly, and my father lived for about an hour.  We found out when some people from the funeral parlor knocked on our door and I answered, and they gave me the news so they could offer their services.  I was the one who had to tell my mother.

After that I think my mother went insane with grief. The murders made her more determined than ever to involve herself in the struggle against the system.  I think her work in politics helped her to survive the pain.  First, she got involved in the PGT (Partido de Guatemalteco de Trabajadores – the Guatemalan Workers Party) and then started participating in the FAR (las Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, an armed revolutionary organization). From that point on our lives changed completely.

My mother began living clandestinely and would sleep in different homes, so my grandparents ended up taking care of me in their house. I saw my mother very little after that.  When I did see her it wasn’t really a parent-child relationship any more.  It was more like we were compañeras in the struggle. 

When my mother became more militant, she transferred me from a private school that was very middle class to a public one, since we were fighting for the people.  It was a radical change in my life.  As an adolescent I soon began to participate in the student movement. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I needed to help the workers, and of course I assumed this responsibility because it was the work of my family, like a duty.  

I was recruited by the FAR at 13 years of age. I was the youngest but very enthusiastic.  We were all studying Marxism. What I did most was post bulletins and communications around my school to help recruit people.  

Studying became much less important than my revolutionary activity, which involved organizing and participating in marches with peasants and workers.  If the police tried to disrupt our protests or grab us, we were ready with molotov cocktail bombs.  They were made of gasoline and we would light them and throw them, but only when the police and the repressive forces arrived. We threw rocks too.

That was our life, that was my life. I was in it one hundred percent.  But you now, I was barely a teenager supporting my mother, doing it because of what had happened to my father and brother.  

In 1976 I entered high school, and soon after, in ’77 and ’78, we experienced some of the harshest repression in Guatemala city, because there was a huge increase in organizing activity by workers and campesinos.  There was really a strong outcry against the injustices being committed.  

We were of course affected by changes going on in the world. The Cold War was raging and there was the block of socialist countries and other places where people were constructing a more equitable future. Cuba was right next to us and what they were doing there was an important influence. There were other strong leftist movements in many parts of Latin America: there was the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and the Salvadoran Revolution, so we really had profound hope. The protest music of that time was becoming popular, and it energized and encouraged us to keep struggling. We really thought we could change humanity and the world. We thought that the workers and peasants would take power, and we fought for that. 

Sometimes I would come home at one, two, three in the morning after helping workers learn to read. My poor grandmother suffered in fear for me.

                                                          Torture and Recovery

Warning: The following section is sexually violent and graphic. It is intended for adults only.

One day we were trying to get some campesinos out of prison, handing out fliers to people.  I gave one out to a guy who made a call, and the police arrived.  I could feel my adrenaline.  We knew we were in danger, but we also were confident in our cause. They took us all in a large blue bus and I didn’t really know what was happening to me; I was 15-years old.  

They forced me out of the bus and into a smaller vehicle, and they tied my hands and feet and began to take off my clothes.  It didn’t seem real. They took me to a place called la judicial (a police station), and that was in August of 1979.  That place had a bad reputation; it was known for its torture and violence, and people often didn’t leave from there.  

I remember the entrance, like a large gate that opened like a wolf’s mouth.  They put a hood on me and started to beat me.  I have diffused memories of all of this, but I remember that they took me to an office where people were typing on type-writers, and inside there was a chair, a desk with a radio on it, and I sat in a seat, naked.  A lot of people appeared dressed like bureaucrats.

Then they took me to a room where there was nobody, just a device that played ranchero music at a high volume.  A lot of men began to kick me. They put hot cigarettes on my breasts, and began to ask me questions. For instance, if I knew América Urízar, my own mother, which was silly, but I denied knowing anyone. 

Of course I knew them all and they knew that I knew everyone, so why were they asking me these questions? I wasn’t in a position of power, I was just 15. Every time I would deny it they would beat me and threaten me, and tell me that if I wouldn’t talk, the treatment was going to get worse. It was blow after blow. 

I had the idea that we the tortured were more powerful than those who were torturing us, that we could withstand them and defeat them, like heroes or martyrs.

In that place where they beat and kicked me, there was a cold floor, and I remember being on the floor.  The only thing I could see was that there was a man on top of me every time I opened my eyes.  I was there lying down and feeling that cold tension on my back, with my eyes closed, and returning to see someone else.  I remember that there was a long bar along the wall of the room, like for ballet dancers, and around the bar various men were waiting their turn.  

There was a moment when I felt very wet.  I had never had sexual relations before; there was semen, blood all around.  I think I fainted a lot, and then I would come back awake.  

When it stopped they put a plastic hood on me.  I couldn’t breathe. There was something in it like an insecticide and it was strong.  I felt like I was being asphyxiated, that I was going to die.  They would take off the hood, then put it back on me, then take it off again.  I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue to live.  

They finally removed the hood and took me to a room to ask me more questions.  At that point, I wasn’t very rational, I was just feeling pain all over my body.  The only thing I could say was that I didn’t know anyone they were asking me about.

I went to some small rooms, and somebody was there hanging, like in a crucifixion, and he was dying, bleeding.  They cut off his penis in front of me.  It was a terrible thing. And many years later, that would stay in my memory, that guy shouting.

My mother and family were of course looking for me.  My grandfather on my mother’s side, Augusto Urízar, was a military man, and he knew the chief of police, Valiente Tellez.  For some reason, perhaps because of the search they conducted and the resources they put into it, my grandfather was able to talk to him.  

My grandfather went and asked him if he knew anything about me, and I could hear them because I was in the back as they were talking.  My grandfather described me, and Valiente Tellez said, “no sorry, we don’t know anything about her,” and I was there listening and I could not say anything.  My grandfather left, and I realized he had denied I was there.

Then Valiente Tellez talked to me and told me, “we are going to let you go, but you are not going to say anything about what happened to you here, because if you do, we will kill you.”  They took me out of there, and I was really bad physically; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t talk.

I was then brought to a detention center for children and there were kids there who had prostituted themselves.  When I arrived, the woman in charge was a child abuser and had been violating the children, and she had that intention with me.  But I arrived in such bad shape that she couldn’t rape me. 

I stayed there for two weeks.  There was a community of kids who were imprisoned for different reasons.  Some wanted to defend me, others wanted to abuse me. There was a sense of protection among many of the girls. 

My mother finally arrived, found me, and we left. 

After that I went to my aunt’s house in complete secrecy.  It was traumatic, I had trouble sleeping. At one point I stopped talking, but in about a day I started to talk again. 

What I did lose was my sight.  At first it was one eye, then a little later it was both. I couldn’t see for three months.  One reason was because of the inflammation from the beatings, but the other was that my body and brain were shutting down and didn’t want to see anything.  That was a new experience and very difficult, but I managed it as much as possible. Maybe I didn’t want to see because it would remind me of what had happened in some way.  But I would see everything again when I was dreaming. 

It was difficult for me to be in Guatemala because of the repression and terror that had been developing in the country. I left for Mexico on the 31st of January, 1980, the exact day the Spanish embassy was taken over in Guatemala.  (A group of Maya farmers from Quiché occupied the Spanish Embassy to protest various assassinations and disappearances in their communities. In response, security forces stormed and attacked those inside the embassy, causing the burning of the building and the deaths of over 30 people, including Spanish diplomats.) 

When I went to Mexico, I immediately regained my eyesight and saw the embassy take-over on television.  That says a lot about how the body and mind experience and deal with the trauma of violence. I regained my sight because I wasn’t in Guatemala anymore.

After staying in Mexico I went to Cuba, where I lived for 2 years.  There the doctors told me I needed peace and tranquility, not all the pills I was taking for the injuries to my eyes.  I stopped taking all medicine (which included medicine for epilepsy) and I went to live with a Guatemalan family in Cuba.  I began to live a new life.  I dressed like them, talked like them, and I started to experience tranquility.  I was looked after by doctors and I started to process everything. 

Also, it turned out that I was pregnant and I didn’t realize it.  I got an abortion — I did not tell anyone, and went through it alone. 

                                                              The Return

  I came back to Guatemala by 1983, and went to the Petén with the rebels. It was an extraordinary experience. There were no social classes or hierarchies — we were just who we were and all the same. There was a profound solidarity.  We were constructing another type of society, another world, with shared responsibilities.

I was in the Petén five years and I was able to see my mother there.  Later, my mother was coming back to the Petén from Mexico. A lot of people, including myself, told her not to return because of the danger.  

She was captured on the border of Guatemala and we don’t know anything more about her.  We don’t know exactly what happened. 

Aguilar traveled to Europe where she campaigned to raise awareness of her mother’s disappearance, and received an award in Vienna on her mother’s behalf, the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights. Eventually, Aguilar broke with the revolutionary group in the Petén, went back to Mexico, and began living in exile with a compañero whom she had met earlier.  She became pregnant and bore a daughter in 1989.  

With the birth of my child, I rediscovered my ability to laugh.  It changed me. I realized that I wanted to return to my house in Guatemala because my grandmother was still living and I wanted my daughter to have family around.  At that time, my grandmother knew I was alive but did not know where.  

In 1992, when my daughter was 2 years old, I came back to the house I had left years ago. The furniture was in the exact same place; my grandmother had not moved anything, but she had photos on the walls of everyone who had died: my brother, my father, my mother, my grandfather.

Once back in Guatemala, I went to work at a legal office for human rights, examining cases of violence towards women.  There was so much sexual violence, it was a universal problem. From 1992 to 1996, I began to receive formal complaints from women who had been raped. They would arrive, tell their story, cry, but that was it.  There really was no mechanism for them to receive justice.

I don’t know in what moment, but after hearing all those stories, I knew I had to tell what had happened to me.  When I did, I was offered work at REMHI though the Catholic Church, a job where I would document the testimony of other women. 

REMHI was an organization formed to collect the testimony of human rights victims during the Guatemalan Civil War. (It was known as the Historical Memory Project of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Human Rights Office)

As I became familiar with testimonials from the armed conflict, I felt the pain of all of them because my story is the story of all these women.  I never thought that my experiences would be so connected to others, especially with respect to the war and the violation. It was a monumental revelation.  I would read the testimonials and I would stay in bed for two weeks afterwards; I was inheriting their pain, and that pain was mine also.

My job was to read the testimonials, systematize the most important elements, and write a report about it.  I realized that it was important for these women to have others value their stories, and no one had really done that.

At REMHI, there was a Japanese woman who translated the report, and she told me that there was going to be a large event in Japan concerning the sexual violations committed against women in Asia during WWII.  She pressed me to go and to give a talk, and after a lot of hesitation, I agreed to do it.  When I finally spoke, I told the audience that I was not there to talk about cruelty, which they already knew about, but rather about how we could overcome the effects of the violence.  

I didn’t want people to see me as a victim. I only wanted to discuss the strength of women, the power within our beings. That’s what I saw in my grandmother, my mother, and in myself.  That strength is what has allowed us to survive.  

I remember that there were three or four days of discussions on the rapes occurring during the Second World War. These women were so old, many in their 90s, and they were discussing what had happened to them for the first time.  They were called “comfort women.” 

This phenomenon was essentially a form of sexual slavery carried out by the Japanese military. In December, 2000, activists held The Women’s International Tribunal in Tokyo, a public conference to denounce sexual crimes and to promote the adoption of international laws prohibiting violence against women in wartime.

What moved me so much was that there were so many women from all over the world willing to discuss their violations, from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, in whatever part of the world. I remember thinking, “wow, these women have waited 50 years to talk about this.”  And I thought, “we can’t wait that much time.” 

I came back to Guatemala with a friend and we talked about how inspired we were to do something in Guatemala like they had done in Japan. We began to work with women who had been victims of violence, and we spoke with up to 100 survivors, who talked about their personal losses, about being raped, their healing and everything they had done to survive.  These women came from different areas of the country and spoke different languages, like Quiche, Cachiquel, Maam.  There were also women who had been displaced, who spoke Spanish.   

It took us more time to document these narratives because the wounds were still raw and it was difficult for women to go public.  We ultimately translated and transcribed the accounts and synthesized them into a single work.  The whole effort took about eight years. I directed it for four. 

The book that emerged is titled: “Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado.” After working on the project, Aguilar moved to London in 2006 and then to Spain to study for a masters in “self-understanding, sexuality, and human relations.”

It was a degree that led to doing therapy and to working with other people. 

I realized, though, that I wasn’t only studying the subject matter, but I was also working on myself.  I had so much pain in my life but no idea how to process it. I lived in Spain nine months alone studying.  During that time, I performed rituals, like symbolically burying my mother, to heal. I cried more than I ever had in my life.

I finished my masters, returned to Guatemala and began to work with groups of women, to help alleviate their suffering. I believe that even in the most difficult situations, in the most terrible chaos, and in the deepest crises, we can leave our pain behind and move forward.  

I would say to the following generations of women that wherever you are, we are capable of building another world, in our daily lives, in the relationships with people around us, in spite of the conditions that have come to us. 

The world was not born to make war and to kill.

This narrative was based on a videotaped interview with Yolanda de la Luz Aguilar Urízar conducted by Katia Orantes, 26 Feb. 2015, in Guatemala City.  The above entry represents my translation and editorial abridgment of the interview, done to promote awareness of recent Guatemalan history, a non-profit endeavor.  It is presented with Aguilar’s permission. 

I researched this interview in April and May, 2020, at the online archive of the Guatemalan Genocide produced by the USC Shoah Foundation in partnership with the Fundación de antropología forense de Guatemala.  Interview segments included: 2-5, 26, 30, 33, 38, 49, 51, 55, 57, 66, 70, 75, 79, 83, 87, 88, 91, 92, 98, 102, 106, 110, 113, 125, 130, 133, 135, 139, 157.  Excerpts can only be reproduced or used under “fair use” and “fair practice” principles.

The Texan

Thirty-five year old Carlos Cordero grew up in Dallas, Texas, where he was working and raising a family, when one night authorities discovered that he had been born elsewhere.  Six months later, after spending time in a detention center, he was flown to the country of his birth, Guatemala, where he is currently setting up a new life. 

My daughter was actually inside my apartment when I got arrested.  It was during her spring break and I was going to take her back to her mom the next day, but I never got the chance. 

I had been working as a bartender at a restaurant called Lava Cantina, which also serves as a concert hall in North Dallas, and I had come home from work late at night. I was actually in the parking lot of my own apartment complex in my car, listening to music, when an officer approached me.  He was trying to figure out what I was doing, and I told him that I was just sitting there listening to music before going up to bed.  At the time I had a grinder on me, which cuts up marijuana.  He asked what it was and I told him that it was something to grind up herbs, and then he started to ask me more questions, and he asked for my driver’s license. 

But I don’t have a driver’s license.  I can’t obtain one.  

My mother decided to go to the United States from Guatemala when I was four years old — I think she saw an opportunity to come to the States because most of my family, like my grandmother and uncles, were already living there.  So that’s when I came.  When you come to a place when you are four, it’s basically like being born there, but in my case without any other rights.

I was always worried about driving without a license ever since I was young.  Of course, I had gotten stopped before but they would just write me a ticket for no license.  I even had insurance on the car I was driving, but I couldn’t get a license.  I couldn’t even get a Texas ID with my passport or my consulate card.  So, that was always in the back of my mind, thinking that maybe something might happen one day, but since I grew up in Texas and it was my home, it never completely dawned on me that it was gonna’ happen like it did.

So I gave the officer my consulate ID, which is from Guatemala, the only form of identification I had at the time, and that’s when he proceeded to ask me if I was a US citizen, so I had to tell him I wasn’t because I didn’t want to lie to him. 

After his arrest, Cordero would be shuttled through a number of local detention centers by police and officials from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. 

I was first taken to the Lewisville jail in Denton county (north of Dallas) where they put the ICE hold on me so I could not leave.  That’s where it all started.  I talked to the judge the next day: immigration had 48 hours to come get me from the Lewisville jail, and if not, they were gonna’ let me go.  

There was actually a guy in there that ICE never came to get and he left after the 48 hours had passed, so I was thinking I might be able to get out. They came 47 hours later.

They eventually took me to the Bedford jail where I talked to immigration again, and they asked me if I wanted to sign my paperwork to be deported, and I said that I didn’t want to sign anything.

After that, they proceeded to take me to a holding facility in Cleburne, Texas in Johnson County.  There was a jail there, but in another area they kept detainees like me.

The only clothes I had were those I was wearing the night I got arrested, but when they booked me in they gave me the jail uniform.  For me, I had a beige brownish outfit, but they also had green ones and red ones, which were for people charged with more serious crimes.  They also had four different holding tanks to separate people. They separated the greens and the reds from the browns.

It wasn’t the cleanest place for sure, and they actually had us in a holding facility with like 70 other people, all of us in one room, in bunk beds.  It was a crazy experience for sure.  They kept me there for six months.  

Carlos Cordero, Antigua, Guatemala, October 22, 2019.

One of the worst things was trying to get sleep; there are so many people in there, and not everybody goes to sleep at the same time.  At all moments of the day and night there is always somebody awake, some noise going on. Some people sleep during the day because they are up all night, either talking or playing cards or doing whatever, and then they sleep during the day while the people trying to sleep at night are awake and making noise.  

They would wake us up around 5:00 for breakfast, then at 11:00, and then dinner was at 5:00.  I think the most I ever slept was three or four hours at a time, and that was only when I was really tired. 

For beds, they just give you a little mat to place on top of a metal frame. They do give you a blanket and a plastic pillow, but the beds themselves are really thin, so sometimes you have to wait for another person to be released and ask them to give you their blanket so you can stuff the bed to make it more comfortable.  There were a lot of people who got severe back pain from those beds because they were just too hard on their backs.  

The hardest part, though, was not knowing what was going to happen with the rest of my life. You’re just waiting there, basically to see the judge so she can determine what is going on with your case.

They have a courtesy officer in the tank at all times but they never gave you any information.  The ICE officers for the most part came in maybe once a week and I would try asking them what was going to happen, what the process was, and they just basically said I had to wait until I got to see the judge.   It wasn’t very useful information.

I was detained three months before going to my first court hearing, to find out what my options were, so those first three months were really hard.

Communication with your family is also very limited. You’re not allowed to have a cell phone or any possessions.  No computer, no internet. The cheapest way to talk to your family is to buy phone cards through the commissary and use their system, but they only sold you ten-dollar phone cards and each phone card only lasted 16 minutes. 

Cordero has a 14-year-old daughter through his first marriage, and a 5-year-old son through his current relationship of 8 years. 

When I was detained, my family was able to come visit me only on the weekends, either Saturday or Sunday, and if they showed up at any time after one o’clock, they wouldn’t let ’em in, so the hours of visitation were from like 9:00 am to about 3:00 or 4:00 pm, but my family had to get there at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning to be able to actually get in to the detention center to come see me. They would have to wait at least three or four hours each time, so a couple of times, you know, they didn’t quite make it.  My son was with them, and, if you have a five-year old, you know they can’t stay three or four hours in one place without crying, and not knowing what’s going on.

During visitation, it’s kind of like jail. We are not in the same room and we have to talk on the phones.  You can see your family through the glass, but you can’t touch them, you just have to talk to them through the phone system that they have.

How did your family adapt to your absence?

My family did not take the whole ordeal very well.

During the time I was detained, my mother actually had a small break-down at work.  She had to go to the hospital because her blood pressure was too high, and she had a minor stroke.  Luckily she was at work, and they took her to the hospital where she was taken care of.

My spouse had been taking it really hard as well.  She wasn’t used to raising my son by herself, and not having my income to help her out, she had to move in with her aunt because she couldn’t afford the place by herself.  

She was working as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office, but they gave her short-term disability because she was getting a lot of anxiety attacks, and a lot of depression from the situation that we had been going through.  She was having a lot of chest pains and trouble breathing. Her doctor told her she needed to go on short-term disability to be able to get better, to get healthy.  Hopefully soon, within the next month or so, she can start working again.

My son was just crying and asking where I was and wanting to see me.  There was a lot of stuff that I really don’t think a five-year old could handle. They don’t really understand what is going on.

So my son had to go to play therapy, which actually helped him out a lot.  It’s basically a way for kids to express themselves, their anger and sadness, to talk to someone besides their mom.  Me being personally raised by a Guatemalan mother, we don’t really think therapy is good for anything (laughs), but you know I was like, “let’s see how it goes and see if it is good for him,” and I think it helped him out tremendously, because he definitely had a lot of things to let out.  

Then my daughter, whom I have with my ex-wife, I think she got pretty depressed.  She started failing in school. She started not even turning in her work. I couldn’t really talk to her unless I bought a phone card and spent a substantial amount of money. I think it was hard for her, just a sad phase in her life. 

It wasn’t until I got to Guatemala and was able to talk to her every day, to tell her that everything was going to be OK, to cheer up, and that she still had to live her life, then she started to do better in school.  

But my family generally really didn’t take it too well.  Of course, when someone is missing in your life, you don’t realize how important they are to you until they’re gone.  I think a lot of that happened when I was away. 

What happened with your case?

I had a lawyer that I contracted and we were gonna’ try to fight for me to stay.  There is a thing called “cancellation of deportation” that I could have qualified for because I met many of the conditions:  I had to be in the United States for at least 10 years and would have to have US citizen children or someone who could vouch for me saying that I was their father and that they need me in the country. I had all of that.

The only problem was that I had gotten arrested and convicted seven years before for possession of marijuana, a gram, and because I had that on my record I didn’t qualify for the “regular cancellation of removal.”

So we then decided to go a different route, to fight for the NACARA cancellation instead, which was a special type of cancellation of deportation that is rarely being used today.  

Under NACARA, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, certain Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Eastern Europeans can still apply for a “Suspension of Deportation,” a form of relief from removal that existed until 1996.  It allows people to avoid deportation by showing a continual presence in the US for seven years, good moral character, and the prospect of extreme hardship upon removal. If granted, the NACARA Suspension of Deportation gives the applicant a green card, and with it permanent resident status in the United States.  You may not have a felony conviction on your record, which Cordero did not have, having been arrested on a misdemeanor.

My lawyer didn’t find anything in the laws that would disqualify me from the NACARA petition.  The judge didn’t know much about it, and allowed for a final court date to be held in Dallas. 

Unfortunately, the US government had found a similar petition to mine, which was denied on the grounds of a felony conviction for cocaine possession, but mine was only a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession.  The cases were completely different in that regard, but the judge determined that they were similar enough to rule against me. 

That’s when the government gave me the option of “voluntary departure.”  It’s better than actually getting deported because if you are deported you can’t legally return to the US for several years, and it’s a federal crime if you do so before the given time.

Either way I had to leave the country, and if I wouldn’t have taken the voluntary departure, they would have deported me anyway.

My mom is the one who motivated me to fight my case and see if there was any opportunity to stay in the United States. After the first there months of being detained, I was just ready to throw in the towel and let them deport me, ’cause I wanted to get out of that place.  So, for that part, I thank her because at least I know that even though my petition got denied, I didn’t just give up, that I fought to stay.

After the judge made the ruling against me I went back to the detention center for another three weeks.  If I had been from Mexico, they would have had me on a bus the next day, because a bus goes to Mexico every day, but since I was from Guatemala, I had to wait to actually talk to the Guatemalan Consulate for them to give me a travel document, so it took more time. 

They finally transferred me to Louisiana where all the flights were going out to Guatemala.  We got there by bus, a six-hour ride in handcuffs.  It was the worst. Your legs are shackled, and your arms also. The bus had a bathroom in it, but If you had to use it, you had to use it with handcuffs on.  You can’t just take that stuff off.  The entire bus smelled like pee the whole time.

After my time in detention, I was just ready to finally get to Louisiana and get on the flight to Guatemala. I don’t know if I was just glad to know what was going to happen with the rest of my life, but it’s more like I just finally got through it to be able to be free again — to start to do something to be able to see my family again, eventually.

The flights come out of a military base in Louisiana and are filled with people who are being sent back, either voluntarily or by forced deportation. I met all kinds of different people from all over the United States in that place where we were getting flown out. But I was just there one night, and we flew out the next day.

Can you describe how it was to be out of detention?  

It was a good moment, I was finally free, but I have to say that it was good and bad: I was no longer detained, but at the same time I was being sent to Guatemala, where I don’t know anything.  It’s like going to a brand new country that I have never been to and starting all over again from nothing.  I didn’t really know where to begin and I had to figure out what I was going to do. Luckily, my family in the United States is helping me out here and there with some money. And luckily, I still have an uncle who lives near Guatemala City, in Villa Nueva, who was gracious enough to let me stay with him. So, at least I had somewhere to be, somewhere to stay. 

I’ve only been in Guatemala now for about a month and a half, and the plan is, since I’m not married to my spouse (a US citizen), to get married here in Guatemala so we can start the process of getting me legalized to go back to the States. She has to get her passport and my son has to get his passport too to come over here.  The whole thing is very money consuming; I didn’t realize how expensive US passports were.  

Luckily I’ve found a job bartending here in Antigua (a town outside of Guatemala City famous for its tourism and colonial architecture).  I’m just trying to get on my feet, find an apartment to rent and save enough money to be able to start my life over. 

When I was living with my aunt and uncle in Villa Nueva, they were letting me stay there for free, but there wasn’t really that much opportunity to find a job nearby, unless I decided to get a job in the heart of Guatemala City, which was probably an hour bus ride away each day, and I think the only jobs that were offered me were at a call center. Since I really didn’t have that much experience doing that, I decided to come visit Antigua to see how everything was over here, and I decided that there was more opportunity to find the kind of job that I had been doing in the States than to actually work at a call center.  So, by bartending here in Antigua, I’m hoping to pay my bills doing what I have been doing throughout my life.

What is your view of what is going on with respect to immigration in the US right now?

I think just recently law enforcement has really been cracking down. I’ve been stopped before by police, and they’ve always asked me questions about the license and registration, but I think not until recently was I asked if I was a US citizen, and now it just seems like that’s one of the questions they’re asking every time they see someone like me, an hispanic person.  They immediately start asking if we are citizens, if we have papers, and I think nowadays, it’s just getting worse.  Cops are trying to pull you over for anything.

I’ve met a few people who were just catching a ride to work, and the police pulled them over and interrogated everybody in the car, and found out that none of them had papers, and immediately they arrested all of them and took them to immigration.  Eventually they got deported, just because they were catching a ride to work.  They weren’t doing anything wrong.  I also know a guy who got pulled over for a burned-out light on his license plate, and they ended up arresting him and didn’t care that his daughter was with him, and he had to stay in jail for ten months, and eventually they ended up deporting him too.  So I think they are finding any excuse to deport somebody nowadays, and I don’t think it was like that before.  

In my case, for instance, I used cannabis, I would say because it helps me with anxiety and to relax, and I do not consider it an every-day thing.  It was illegal in Texas, but, say, if you go to Colorado or Washington, it’s legal.  So if I had been there, maybe I never would have gotten deported, but just because I lived in Texas, they denied my petition.  I just think they are looking for any little reason to deport anybody now.  It’s kind of scary.

It makes me wonder what is going to happen next, if it’s going to get worse.  No one really knows what’s going on right now in the United States. It’s a different mentality, especially with the current president putting so much emphasis on stopping immigration, and even saying he’s going to build a wall.  That causes a lot of people to have that mindset, like “hey, deport everybody,” or “he looks Hispanic, ask him for papers.”

There are even people who have papers, who have a visa, they have a green card and their rights are getting taken away, and they are being deported as well.  

It just doesn’t really feel safe to be an immigrant, to look different or talk like somebody who is not from the United States.  It’s difficult not to be afraid because you feel like you’re going to get questioned — that’s how it is over there right now.

My entire life has been in Texas and I consider myself a Texan.  I grew up in north Dallas and went to school in Richardson where I graduated from Richardson High.  (The exact area was a little poorer and more run down than other parts.  There were a lot of Mexican people there, Latinos generally, black people.  We actually had a lot of Kurdish people there also.) 

During high school I did a work program and that’s when I got into the restaurant industry.  My first job ever was at Jack-in-the-Box, and I was there for a few years and became a shift leader, like a supervisor.  After that, I worked at a restaurant named Chucks.  I don’t know if they are all still open, but I did everything there; I was a cook, a dishwasher, a cashier, a manager.  That’s pretty much the industry I’ve been in my whole life.  Later, I started serving and bartending.  

Before I got arrested, everything was good with the family.  We were in the process of buying a house and had plans to actually move in together with my mom, so she could have a room, and that way we could stop renting like we’ve always done. 

Then I got detained.  In my case, they just didn’t care that I didn’t have a choice of being in the United States when I was four;  I was there my whole life and graduated high school and have children. 

To them that didn’t matter.

Our discussion took place on October 22, 2019, in Antigua, Guatemala. Cordero is currently working as a bartender at La Sala in Antigua.

The Weaver

Hilma Florentina Sagché Ordoñez, 49, is a resident of Santa Catarina Barahona, an indigenous village in Sacatepéquez.  She is an experienced tejedora, a weaver who hand-makes huipils, a traditional one-piece dress. She also makes servietas, an embroidered cloth that can serve as a napkin, a table setting, or a covering for freshly cooked tortillas.  All of the woven materials are known as “tejidos.”  

The wearing of the huipil is a proud pronouncement of a local tradition as well as a marker of an indigenous identity, and patterns and designs vary from community to community.  A characteristic that additionally highlights this more traditional style of life is the ability to speak a Mayan language. There are 23 Amerindian languages spoken in Guatemala, 21 of which are said to be descendants of proto-Mayan, the language of the inhabitants of the Mayan empire a thousand years ago. In Hilma’s village, Kachiquel Maya is widely spoken.

Both my mother and father spoke Kachiquel so we grew up speaking it. We speak Kachiquel with family and friends or on the street.  I spoke Kachiquel to my three children so they speak it, but there are some parents who don’t speak Kachiquel to their children, and you can see the difference.  We also learned Spanish in school, but that was easy because we hear it all the time. Thank goodness we speak both Kachiquel and Spanish.

It was my mother who taught me originally to weave.  The most difficult is to do the main drawing on the blouse, the main picture, that is the hardest, and when I wasn’t understanding it, my aunt would come and help me.  She taught me a lot. I eventually learned how to do everything and I have the designs in my head.

It takes about two months to make a huipil.  One feels happy after it’s completed, because then you can receive money and buy what you need. A servieta will go for 100 quetzales (about 13.5 US dollars), and a huipil will sell for 1,500 quetzales  (a little over 200 US dollars).

Hilma Florentina Sagché Ordoñez, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 5, 2019.

Thanks to God, life is tranquil and we have everything in this town.  My husband works in carpentry and sometimes helps haul trash for the municipality.  There is also demand for the weaving. I sell what I weave here in town, but I used to sell through my aunt, who would market the materials in other places. Unfortunately, she died two years ago of cirrhosis at the age of 54.

Some young women like to weave and will carry on the tradition, but others don’t.  My daughter, for instance, she is a teacher, and she was never interested in it.  I would try to show her and she would be indifferent, and I would ask her what she would do if she were out of work without knowing the craft.  She would just say, “Hey, I don’t like to weave.”  She would ask me, “Who invented this stuff?” (Laughs)

But later she went and worked selling the huipils at artisan shops.  Weavers would bring their wares to her for her to sell them, and how she could sell those clothes!  She would get contracts with store owners in Antigua and Puerto Quetzal (on the Pacific Coast) to sell the tejidos, and thank God she was so good at it.  She would just put on her pants and t-shirt, or her blouse (non-traditional dress), and do business. Everybody wondered how she did it.  She now lives in the United States, in Los Angeles.

There have been people or companies that are producing huipils and other articles that are made from a machine, and we don’t really know who they are.  About a half year ago people began to buy these clothes because they were cheaper.  They were very tough, very hard.  The people making them were not from here and all of the local weavers were being undermined. Fortunately, the government enacted a law of protection to help us, to prevent the mass manufacturing of the huipil.  Otherwise a lot of people would have no source of income.

Woman dressed in traditional style, Antigua, Guatemala, October 27, 2019.

I know a woman who was in a bad situation, she had children and no way to make money.  She asked me to teach her how to weave, and I taught her, and within a few months she began to make a huipil.  She now knows how to do it, and thank God that woman is now working.  She was so appreciative and told me that because of it she is eating, and that without learning it she would not have been able to feed her children.  She wanted to pay me back somehow, but I am Evangelical and know the word of God, and I told her that she did not have to do that.

Hilma Sagché at her loom, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 5, 2019.

I interviewed Hilma Sagché in Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala on July 5, 2019.  My translation.

Running from Gangs

Forty-five year old Silvia Menéndez and her family recently fled their home in El Salvador to escape the country’s gang violence, which has become ubiquitous throughout the country. Now living in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, Menéndez is struggling to find ways to carve out an independent life — to find the means to clothe and feed her family. 

The gang presence is deeply rooted and inescapable for most of El Salvador’s population, and the very poor are especially vulnerable. Bands of marauding youth emerged in El Salvador during the country’s civil war (fought from 1979 to 1992) and have gradually expanded since that time. While their original formation developed in part from groups operating in the United States decades ago, the gangs in El Salvador today reflect a purely home-grown phenomenon. 

Mostly young men and teenagers from the poorest areas of El Salvador dominate these organizations, called pandillas in Spanish, and frequently come from broken homes or abusive families. Most have dropped out before completing middle school and have very limited opportunities in the mainstream economy. 

A sense of excitement has been cited as a reason for their participation, but many factors contribute to their motivation for joining, such as the ability to acquire jobs and resources, find protection, form friendships, improve self-esteem, and avoid family conflict.

Most gang members have faced criminal charges, with murder and extortion being the most common, in that order. In fact, a requirement for membership often involves committing homicide. Assaults, armed robberies, kidnappings, and rapes are other acts often carried out by these criminal bands. Participation in such activity can incur profound personal risk, as police and security forces pursue the pandilleros in response to their criminal behavior.  Most gang members have spent time in prison, and, in fact, a good portion of the leadership actually operates behind prison walls.  

The largest of these organizations is the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13), followed by the 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18), which has become divided into two rival groups: The Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) and the Sureños (Southerners).  These gangs are enemies of each other and are responsible for much of the violence in El Salvador, as they struggle over territory and control of illicit enterprises. Also operating are smaller groups like the Mirada Loco, Mara Máquina and Mao-Mao.  

The MS-13 is thought to be the largest and most organized, with a well developed hierarchy and chain of command. Over the last two decades, the MS-13 has assumed authority over many of the neighborhoods in El Salvador and, in equal measure, has expanded its control over the lives of its members.  It has done so largely through the threat of murder, or murder itself. 

Menéndez, born and raised in the municipality of Coatepeque, is originally from the western part of El Salvador, just east of Guatemala. She has two sons, ages 25 and 10, and a daughter, age 19. Her story is one of terror, escape and deprivation.

We began escaping threats when I was living in a municipality they call El Congo, within the department of Santa Ana. I was there because I once met a lady who had a business there and needed somebody to work for her, and I told her that I would go with her, but I was only nine-years old when I started. While working, I was able to keep going to a school until I was in eighth grade. The woman who employed me had a restaurant and I helped her cook and clean.  I also took care of her children.

Later I had children of my own and have three.  In that time, the area wasn’t so dangerous. Over the years, about 10 or 11 years ago, it became very bad in El Salvador generally. The gangs started to arm themselves in all parts of the country. To raise adolescents became very difficult. The Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs were fighting over their territories, in all the neighborhoods.  So from the Congo, we left for Ciudad Real (about 15 miles away). But there it was also very dangerous, so we were escaping one place for another and could not find a secure neighborhood where I could protect my children.  There is no safe place in El Salvador.  

When the gangs see teenagers, they try to convince them to join their group.  They surround them in the street and even wait for them at the exits of the schools. They sometimes follow them and assault them if they refuse to join. As a consequence, many teenagers are not able to leave their homes because they find gang members wherever they go.  On every corner there were groups of gang members, so it was very hard for my kids to leave the house.

The father of my first two children died at the age of 26, so I had to be the sole provider, and would have to leave my elder son alone closed up at home when I went to work. To lessen the risk, my mother would take him and the other kids to school, and my two oldest children have managed to get their bachillerato (similar to a high school diploma).  But their lives were nothing more than going to school, going home and staying inside. 

That’s how it had to be because a lot of times when my elder son would go out of the house, the gangs would surround him and beat him up.  Recently, he came to me  and said, “those guys want me to go with them,” and they wanted him to go to places to smoke marijuana, and because he didn’t want to go, they would wait to attack him. He said sometimes the gangs killed people and expected new gang members to do the same, and at other times the police would be chasing them down. He did not want that life.  

My son said that the gangs were going to kill him for sure, and me as well.  In fact, the gangs left a note under our door saying that if we didn’t leave the country, they would kill my son and everyone in his family. They would kill all of us.

Thank God, I had a sister living in Guatemala, and I managed to communicate with her and she told me that if we wanted, we could come to her place. So we went.

We left the country only with some clothes so no one would suspect that we were fleeing the country. We would have to start from zero.

When we left, we took a bus to the border at San Cristóbal (a town along the Pan-American Highway between El Salvador and Guatemala), but I had a problem: I did not have the documentation I needed to take my younger son out of the country since I needed his father’s permission. I did not say anything because he may not have granted permission. I could not leave my son behind and of course we could not stay. That has been the hardest part, that my younger son cannot see his father.

When we arrived at the border and got off the bus, I started talking to a man who by chance was out shopping on market day, and I told him the problem. This man said that if it were discovered, the authorities could take my child away and arrest me, so I asked him if he could help me get my son across the border.  He said that there were people where they exchanged currency who could do it. These people, well, they call them coyotes, and they help in cases like this. I was introduced to one and he said, “pay this much and I’ll get the child across the border so you don’t have problems with immigration.” The coyote told me that that was his job. 

So, I gave him the money (about 50 dollars), but I did not have confidence in just one man with my son.  My daughter said, “Mami, you cross the border and I will go with my brother so he doesn’t go alone,” and that’s how we did it.  

I passed through immigration with my elder son and we waited on the other side of the border. I felt desperate because I did not know this guy.  I was very fearful and had many bad thoughts, and I sat there wondering what I would do if he didn’t come.  I asked God to bring them soon, and thankfully in about an hour this coyote got them over the border, and they were fine.

Afterwards we got on another bus to go to Guatemala City. But even there, the ayudante del bus (the bus assistant who charges the passengers) told me that I might have problems without papers for my son, and to give him a certain amount of money so he could convince the police not to do anything if they stopped the bus.  He told me that further up there was a retén (a place where police randomly pull vehicles aside to check papers like a driver’s license and registration, a common practice in Guatemala). He said there the police might take the child away. 

Others told me not to give him anything, that he was a coyote also and just out for the money. But I paid him to avoid problems, 200 quetzals (about 26 dollars). I was very worried about what could happen.

Thank God we were never stopped and we managed to arrive at the capital.  The guy who charged me never returned my money.  He only said that we were lucky that we weren’t pulled over. When we got to Guatemala City my brother-in-law was there waiting for me with his family, to take us to Ciudad Vieja.

Silvia Menéndez, Antigua, Guatemala, October 23, 2019.

The problem in Guatemala, though, is that it is very difficult for us to find work. No one wants to give you a job if you are not from here.  You are considered undocumented.  You don’t have past working experience here in this country, you don’t have recommendations, you don’t have connections. You knock on doors and the only thing they tell you is that you have to present papers. Thank God for my sister’s help, but the situation is hard because she and her husband are also people of scarce resources.   

About the only thing I can do here is work for myself and open a small business in front of my sister’s house.  I began selling pupasas and beer, but the male customers wanted something more from me and it became abusive, so my older son and I agreed to shut the business down.

Recently I talked to an owner of a clothing store and she said, “Oh, I can get you work here and I’ll pay you so much,” and I was so grateful.  It wasn’t a lot: 1,000 quetzals a month (about 130 dollars), but it was something.  Well, I worked a month for her, but she did not pay me the money she owed me.  So, I ended up working for nothing. She just said her costs were too high to pay me. Obviously, I was working because I needed to earn money, not just because I wanted to be there. (Laughs) 

It is very sad, though, when your children ask you for something to eat and you don’t have anything to give them, and I can only ask God if he can help me find work. When I was at the clothing shop and wasn’t paid, my children understood the situation and accustomed themselves to eating once a day.  It is very difficult.  

Menéndez has recently opened a small clothing shop in front of her home in Ciudad Vieja — in hopes of providing for her children.

This interview was conducted on October 23, 2019, and represents the author’s translation.

My introduction owes much to Kimberly Green of the Latin American and Caribbean Center and Jack D. Gordon of the Institute for Public Policy at Florida international University, whose fine research is presented in “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” https://lacc.fiu.edu/research/the-new-face-of-street-gangs_final-report_eng.pdf

From Kachiquel to English: One Man’s Vision

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, 39, grew up in a family of 8 children in Santa Catarina Barahona, a town of about 3,500 residents in the department of Sacatepéquez. Most of the community’s inhabitants speak Kachiquel Maya and maintain a culture somewhat distinct from Guatemala’s Ladino population. In this narrative, Sagché speaks of the particularities of having an indigenous identity, his involvement in local politics, and why he plans to start a school to teach English to local youths. He begins by reflecting on his father’s migration to the US, and how that event has impacted his life. 

When my father was young he had land but no more than to grow maize and beans for the family. He needed more money so he left for the Guatemalan military when he was 22 years old, and there he began to study and learn music.  Because of his aptitude, he learned to play many instruments, but particularly the marimba, and he became a music instructor within the armed forces.  He also earned money from playing in bands, but it was still not that much.  My mother weaved clothes in the traditional style to bring in more income, but it was just not enough.

When I was eight, the military offered my father an opportunity to perform music in San Francisco, California.  He agreed and accompanied former soldiers to represent Guatemala in the Guatemalan embassy.  At the beginning he thought it was just a trip, a temporary opportunity to play, but one of the representatives told him he could stay in the United States if he wanted, and he would get a visa.  Obviously, he wanted to be with his family, but at the same time, financial necessity was bearing down on him.  He could provide for us much better in the US, so he stayed in the States.  We always communicated with him, but that was the last I saw him.

My father settled in San Rafael, CA and was there for 25 years.  At the beginning, I think it was hard for him because he did not speak English and that limited the work he could get.  And of course, the rent was high and the food expensive, he had to buy clothes, and he had to go study English, which he learned eventually. Along with playing in a marimba band, he worked in a hotel doing different jobs.  He worked in the kitchen or as a waiter, or in pubic relations.  

My father died in the US seventeen years ago of stomach cancer.  We could not afford to bring his body back, only his ashes. Later, when my mother died, we put her body in a nicho (a small edifice with spaces for the remains of the dead), and put her with my father’s ashes. We could say that they were finally rejoined.

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, Antigua, Guatemala, July 1, 2019.

If my father had stayed here in Guatemala, the truth, I don’t know what would have happened, but with such a large family to support, I doubt it would have been anything positive. As it was, we never lacked for the basics, thank God, because my father sent money to us.  We were even able to buy a lot of property.  In fact, we all received a piece of land and I live on it today alongside my brothers and sisters.  There were other pieces of land that were bought as well. 

But growing up that way was tough for me.  Imagine a ten-year-old without his father.  It was even harder for my mother because, well, let’s just say she was not only a mother but had to be a father also. She had to discipline us, and there were a lot of us children.

I was a little bit restless at school, and that was just part of my character.  I fought with some of my classmates, but I managed to get through and I finished high school. I didn’t go to university for economic reasons, but what really helped me was English. I was able to study English in the capital and in the town of Antigua, and I later got work because of it.  Learning English opened doors for me: to know more people and to communicate better is a very important part of life, and that is the case in politics also.  

Sagché became active politically some ten years ago and recently worked in the mayoral race in Santa Catarina Barahona.

I first participated in a campaign because, truthfully, politics always brings opportunities.  It’s like a bridge to some type of work in the government or elsewhere.  In the last campaign, I was an organizer, and I have to say, this time it was different.  Perhaps because I have matured a little bit, I saw it

Hector at Santa Catarina
Hector Sagché on his family’s land. Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

not as a way to gain something, but to get to know people and to get to know them well.  Through organizing, I could get closer to people in the community and to exchange ideas, and to think about how to make life better.  

The social part is very important in politics. There are many candidates with good academic preparation, licenciados (college educated), but at times they don’t win because they don’t manage to get to know people.  In contrast, there are some in my town that are not as well educated, but they win because they are able to meet and form relationships with so many in the community.  You have to have a lot of friendships.

Unfortunately, many people don’t believe in politics because there is so much corruption in it, and that’s why its reputation is so bad.  Some of the leaders take advantage of their position and are just there to enrich themselves.  In the last campaign, it was clear that it was not clean.  Not only in my community, but in the country as a whole, there are politicians who profit from those who are most in need; the candidates  give them a bit of money in exchange for their votes.  These people really need the money so they accept it, and that money is corrupt to begin with.  It’s extra money that has come in to someone already in office, perhaps as part of a construction contract between a firm and the government. In that last campaign, there was a lot of corruption, but, as I say, it’s not only in my community, but in Guatemala generally.  The national hospitals are an example.  Sometimes there aren’t enough doctors, and they say they don’t have the funds to supply them, but it is generally known that that is because people in high positions have taken the money. 

Having said that, I believe politics itself is good. You can change things in the community because through interacting with people, you become aware of people’s needs.  If you manage to get into power, and your commitment comes from the heart, you can help people.

Sagché reflects on the distinct characteristics of his community, and how coming from his town has affected his experiences and shaped his identity.

My parents always communicated in Kachiquel so I grew up speaking it.  Also, in primary school, they gave us classes in Kachiquel, and they would go over the writing and the correct pronunciation of the language. Different communities have their own pronunciations for certain words, but the Ministry of Education has a standard one, and it is slightly different from ours, at least for some words like “to walk,” which we pronounce, “P’in.” Our neighbors say, “p’en” and the Ministry of Education says, “P’enon.”

Our town is right next to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, where they also speak Kachiquel. Despite the fact that we are neighbors, there are variations in the language. In my opinion, the differences mark the communities’ identity.  It’s a way we distinguish ourselves.  If someone pronounces something differently, you know where they are from, you can identify that difference very rapidly. Also, there is a change in the culture and style as you move throughout different communities.

One of the features of my town that we are proud of is that we have clean, natural water in our houses and in public washing areas and it is free to our residents.  There is even a fountain in the park that people can drink from.  They say we are blessed because of it.   We have enough water not only for us but for our neighbors, who pay us to supply them our water. So this is part of our identity.

I would also say that many people from other places have chosen to live here because they like the atmosphere, including the good water and fertile land. The people are peaceful and we normally don’t have problems with violence.  There may be small crimes or arguments, but it’s not a dangerous place to live. It’s nice to be here in this town.

Town square with the fountain, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 1, 2019.

Unfortunately, because of the long-term consequences of the Spanish conquest, many of our customs have diminished.  Right now, frankly, more Spanish is spoken than Kachiquel.  The majority of the people in my town of course can speak Kachiquel, but the number is going down.  

Still, in my community, some of our customs have been maintained, like the creation of tejidos  (garments made from weaving threads) and there are many tejedoras (weavers).  They make the huipil (a one-piece slipover dress decorated with embroidery) and sell it or wear it.  It’s one custom that comes from our ancestors, and it has been maintained.  Another is the food dish, pepian, which we still eat.  (Pepian is a meaty spicy stew thought to have been fused from Mayan and Spanish cuisines.)

Other Guatemalans might know something of my background because I identify myself from the community I’m from, Sta. Catarina Barahona, and people might know that that is an indigenous community.  Also, my last name might sound strange to them because it is Sagché, so there again they might know that I am indigenous. 

On one hand it’s fine because I can identify where I am from and everyone can identify themselves.  The sad and negative part is that in my country there exists a lot of discrimination.  For example, when I worked in a call center in Guatemala City, some who were from the capital believed themselves to be better.  They call themselves ladino or urban mestizo, sometimes as if to say that it is superior to someone who is indigenous.  

But there are several types of discrimination. If you are poorer, they discriminate against you, if you haven’t studied, they discriminate against you, if you are indigenous, they discriminate. This hinders us from advancing as a country because people need to be united. Discrimination is always going to exist and it still exists, but the best way to eradicate it is for the people to change from within, because many say they want a better country, but what are they doing?  No one says that they are going to change their own attitude. 

I would like people in general to be broader minded, to be a little more visionary. Even in my town, If someone starts a new project, say a new business, it can be very difficult.  Some will support it, but others will ask: “what are you doing?” A few people don’t want others to get ahead or they don’t want anyone to do things differently. 

 If we lack for something it’s education.  Some kids end up going to school only up to the 6th grade because of economic necessity. Many large families with limited resources can’t afford the materials needed for their children’s schooling, like supplies, uniforms and lunch money.  As a consequence, several children leave school to go work and contribute to the family. So we need to promote more sources of employment in the community, to give people the opportunity to send their kids to school for longer periods of time.

I would really like to help kids with scarce resources, to help them learn a little bit of English.  In my community, many people find it very expensive to learn English so they don’t have that possibility.  For that reason, I am working on a project to give classes in English, and to give scholarships to students, principally children and adolescents, because they are the future.  English is important in graduating from high school, but the kids here are not going to be able to study it because they don’t have the opportunities here in this location.  Neither do they have the money to travel somewhere to study it.  So I think it would help a lot to establish a school and subsidize their learning of English in this town, so they wouldn’t have to travel outside.  All of that money for transportation is an expense.  

Santa Catarina Barahona is only a few miles from the town of Antigua, a popular tourist site with throngs of foreign visitors as well as foreign residents influential in the community. This milieu has led to a number of vending opportunities for indigenous people in the area as well as a connection to a broader world.

I feel that language study is so important because within it you study a culture, the mind changes, one is more open.  For example, the youth here, by learning English, could speak to someone from Europe and through that interaction they would hear new ideas.  But they are not going to be able to achieve that if they don’t know the language.  The school I am starting is called Escuela de Inglés de Comunicación Excepcional (Outstanding Communication English School). We need instruction to make our youth more capable, but we need the funds to do it. I am hoping to raise money to offer scholarships.

There are many people without a lot of education who have a lot of children, and there are a lot of single mothers, so their own resources become diffused, making it harder for them to maintain their children’s education. I think that helping them to study English is going to induce them to think in different ways and more positively.  To think in terms of potential.  This is what we lack.  

Perhaps in the past it was different because there was so much land then, so having 10 kids, you could still give them a plot of land.  But actually, now, in the community, the residences are getting smaller and many people now rent, so everything has changed.  This educational part is vital and one of the reasons I am forming this project.  I could connect with other educators who could come and give talks to women, to parents who are studying here, so they could become exposed to new ways of thinking.  That is how I want to help the community.

School children in the central square. Sta. Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

This narrative was produced from an interview carried out in Antigua on July 1, 2019, and reflects the author’s translation.