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:

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: 

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: