Massacre in the Guatemalan Jungle

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Dianne Feeley

Massacres in the Jungle Ixcán,
Guatemala, 1975-1982
By Ricardo Falla (with forward and epilogue by Beatriz Manz)
Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993, 224 pages, $15.95 paper.

RICARDO FALLA RECORDED what the witnesses recalled in detail and faithfully reconstructed the truth of the massacres that took place in the Ixcán Grande of northern Quiché, Guatemala in the spring of 1982. This remarkable book spotlights the Guatemalan army’s campaign against the people and documents almost 800 killings.

A Guatemalan-born Jesuit priest and anthropologist, Falla first went to Ixcán to gather testimonies in 1983-84. He returned to carry out pastoral work with the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) in 1987 and stayed until 1992, when, during an army offensive, his files were discovered.

Falla presented his findings to the XVII International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association in Los Angeles during September 24-26, 1992 and the book was published shortly afterwards in Guatemala. It immediately sold out its press run. Thus when the military found Falla’s files in a cave, they attempted to discredit the book by asserting that the author was a guerrilla commander. At this moment Falla left the Ixcán and took out a full-page ad in the Guatemalan press, stating who he was and denouncing continued army persecution of a civilian indigenous population.

Massacres in the Jungle is divided into two parts. The first, dealing with the army’s selective repression in 1975-81, sets the stage for the second, which details the army’s scorched earth policy and draws conclusions based on the data. Charts showing the army’s movements and lists of those killed fill the book. As Falla notes, his book does not tell the complete story, merely the situation in the eastern part of Ixcán, and, of course, it does not deal with counterinsurgency programs over the last dozen years.

The heart of the book speaks of the military’s escalating violence against a civilian population, which began with abductions and quickly jumped to selective massacres. Bodies are disfigured and displayed in order to instill terror. The repression reaches its height with the massacres in La Nueva Concepción, Cuarto Pueblo, Xalbal and Piedras Blancas. There is no distinction between men and women, children and adults, no attempt to distinguish between those sympathetic to the guerrillas and those opposed to the insurgency. Falla summarizes, “The army regarded the local population as an infected whole, and the possibility of there being any healthy cells was discarded; thus the massacres were genocidal.” (104)

Racism and Counterinsurgency

As Falla points out, racism made the counterinsurgency particularly vicious. The conflict raged between a ladino-controlled army and the corporate indigenous community that was relatively newly constructed. That is, the community was a multilingual society created from peasants and semi-proletarians who migrated to the jungle in the late 1960s. They were primarily indigenous people, although not solely. Falla hypothesizes that the army in the field and the government in Guatemala City had a stereotype of the indigenous communities that enabled them to carry out the massacres: Indians are like children, who easily fall prey to the deceit of others; Indians are by nature treacherous; Indians are worth less than “normal” human beings.

This racism helps to explain the systematic torture that weaves both periods of repression together. In the beginning, the torture is individualized and has specific purposes — to terrorize others, to obtain information, to inhibit activity against the army. Therefore the places of torture are hidden: pits in the military outposts, tunnels where prisoners are kept, the room in the military barracks in Santa Cruz del Quiché that was thickly coated with blood, the crematorium of freshly butchered bodies in Playa Grande. Racism also explains how soldiers can become torturers: butchers who lick their bloody knives after each execution and mockingly refer to their victims as “delicious chicken.” Through dehumanizing the population such brutality becomes possible.

But at the height, torture was no longer individualized. It had no purpose other than to feed the army’s rage and to manipulate the organizing activities of the population. The counterinsurgency plan was not to exterminate the population — after all, remarks Falla, the indigenous are the country’s work force. Rather, in the context of racism, the “control and search” operation became “control and massacre” quite naturally.

But Falla does not write simply to record the truth. As a person who sees faith as promoting the liberation of the poor, Falla also looks to the witnesses and survivors. What truth do they have to reveal? What seeds come out of such destruction?

Falla lays out his perspective in greatest detail in Chapter 3, where he deals with torture and abduction. He explains how these violent methods are used by the state to break a prisoner’s identity and loyalty, but then demonstrates how many of the poor and weak were able to successfully resist.

In his concluding chapter Falla returns to the theme of resistance. Those who escape, who have lost everything but their very lives, are capable of rebuilding. They have survived, they possess knowledge, they seek justice. And the basis for their new life lies in their deep understanding of solidarity and community, whether living today as Communities of Population in Resistance in the jungle, as refugees in Chiapas, or as internal refugees in the slums of Guatemala City.

ATC 53, November-December 1994