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.

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.