Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians

Indian reform demands brought violent responses from the army and allied death squads, leading some Indians to join guerrilla forces and others to flee into exile.

Summary of Event

Since the sixteenth century Spanish conquest of the Americas, relations between indigenous peoples and the mixed-race descendants of the conquerors have been volatile. Land and human resources that once were controlled by indigenous peoples became spoils for the conquerors, thus denying many Indians access to socioeconomic rights. In Guatemala, the political arrangements heavily favored the interests of the mixed-race Ladino population. Throughout most of the modern era, military figures presided over this political system in which the generally poor indigenous people were excluded from effective participation. Between 1978 and 1985, indigenous peoples and reform advocates in the Ladino community challenged this system through both peaceful and violent means. Comprehensive and violent suppression of this challenge by the Guatemalan army and its civilian allies was accomplished by gross violation of Indians’ civil rights, by use of internationally banned torture, and by breaking up Indian social and political organizations. Guatemala;death squads
Human rights abuses;Guatemala
[kw]Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians (1978-1985)
[kw]Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians, Guatemalan (1978-1985)
[kw]Indigenous Indians, Guatemalan Death Squads Target (1978-1985)
[kw]Indians, Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous (1978-1985)
Guatemala;death squads
Human rights abuses;Guatemala
[g]Central America;1978-1985: Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians[03090]
[g]Guatemala;1978-1985: Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians[03090]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;1978-1985: Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians[03090]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;1978-1985: Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians[03090]
Lucas García, Romeo
Ríos Montt, Efraín
Mejía Víctores, Óscar Humberto
John Paul II
Barrio, Próspero Peñados del

Political instability has long been the norm in Guatemala. In the late 1960’s in eastern Guatemala, several thousand Ladino peasants perished when guerrilla insurgents were suppressed by army units and allied death squads. The acute violence of 1978 to 1985 decimated non-Indian unions, cooperatives, and reform advocates among the general Ladino population, but the greatest element in the tragic Guatemalan political violence from 1978 to 1985 was its focus on the indigenous or Indian population.

Grievances over denial of Indians’ socioeconomic rights set the stage for confrontation. By the mid-1970’s, under pressure from population growth and economic change, many indigenous communities had begun to assert themselves, demanding in diverse ways that their interests be respected. More than five hundred cooperatives had been formed to enable members to pool resources more effectively to compete in the marketplace. Others had formed Christian “basic communities” within which literacy was taught and religious texts read for the purpose of enabling members to work together to change conditions and advance social justice. Essentially, this grassroots activity focused on economic grievances. In 1978, indigenous life expectancy (forty-four years) lagged fifteen years behind that of Ladinos, Indian incomes were barely 58 percent of that of Ladinos, and Indian infant mortality was 70 percent higher than for Ladinos. In a society where 82 percent of all children experienced some form of malnutrition, Indian children were most likely to go hungry.

Some among the indigenous had been strongly influenced by Roman Catholic activists. The key political movement of modern Latin American Catholicism, the Guatemalan Christian Democratic Party (PDCG), however, had little influence in Guatemala until the 1985 election of its leader, Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, as president. In the 1978 to 1985 period, more than three hundred PDCG activists and leaders were assassinated. Catholic activists in the indigenous community increasingly were driven to adopt nonelectoral tactics to bring pressure for change.

Signs that military rulers had opted to repress Indian protests became visible in May, 1978. Indians from the Panzós municipality, Alta Verapaz department, joined about eight hundred others and marched to present petitions objecting to army seizures of nearby Indian lands to local government officials. More than one hundred perished when army troops opened fire on the marchers. After this Panzós massacre, Defense Minister Otto Spiegler Spiegler, Otto publicly blamed clerics for Indian unrest; the Catholic missionary who led the marchers was deported. Detailed death lists naming others soon appeared, and pro-army political parties called on the people to judge communists, who were said to include religious people. These were not idle threats. One month after the Panzós massacre, activist priest Father Hermógenes López López, Hermógenes was murdered. He was the first of more than a dozen priests to die between 1978 and 1985.

Both religious rights and rights to free association clearly were under attack. Leaders of Indian cooperatives, Catholic basic communities, and other organizations were victimized. Members of these Indian self-help organizations were frequently targeted by death lists, violently abducted by anonymous armed men, or killed outright. Thousands of Indian children were orphaned as populations of whole villages fled into the mountains to avoid army massacres. Fear broadened and intensified as guerrillas committed reprisals against Indians who collaborated with army authorities. Once tranquil, the highlands became killing fields, with tortured and dismembered corpses littering paths and highways.

The Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;Guatemala and its followers were especially hard hit by army and allied “death squad” atrocities. As the violence peaked in 1981 and 1982, Catholic Father Stanley Rother, Rother, Stanley a missionary committed to organizing assistance to the orphaned Indians near picturesque Lake Atitlán, was murdered in his church sanctuary. The Catholic bishop of adjacent Quiché department fled the region as many church properties were confiscated or desecrated by the army. In such a situation, without the moderating guidance of ordained clerics, some victimized Indians sought revenge.

Other Indian activists, inspired by the apparent successes of revolutionaries in nearby Nicaragua and El Salvador, voluntarily chose to join offshoots of existing armed guerrilla groups that had appeared in 1961. Most who turned to guerrilla violence did so after relatives or neighbors fell victim to soldiers or private pro-army death squads. Four separate guerrilla forces recruited angry survivors and savagely killed favored targets (landlords, local officials, and army officers). By 1981, the guerrilla and counterinsurgency violence had polarized the nation as most Indian areas fell into near civil war. Action was most intense in Quiché, Huehuetenango, Sololá, Alta Verapaz, San Marcos, and several other largely Indian departments. Rates of assassinations, wholesale massacres, and guerrilla violence rose there between 1978 and 1982. Other Indian departments, such as Totonicapán and Chiquimula, remained virtually free of a guerrilla presence and also suffered fewer incidents of army and death squad violence.

Abductions and killings directed against the Indians divided army commanders after Pope John Paul II sharply criticized military rulers during a 1983 visit to the nation. This tension contributed to the overthrow of Protestant dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt by Catholic officers in August, 1983. After coup leader General Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores ended secret trials and public executions, the official Catholic voice remained in opposition to all forms of brutality and continued to call for social reforms. In well-publicized papal letters and through numerous criticisms aired by the Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference, especially those by its chair, Archbishop Próspero Peñados del Barrio, the Catholic Church demanded that human rights be respected.

Military rulers formally relinquished control to the Cerezo administration in January, 1986. By then, 75,000 Guatemalans of both major ethnic groups had perished and more than 38,000 others had been kidnapped and were feared dead. By any measure, the events of 1978 to 1985 were the most intensely violent in all of Guatemalan history.


Disruption of normal life in Guatemala’s indigenous areas was comprehensive, went well beyond that endured by nearly all non-Indian communities, and left a large imprint on the nation. Of more than four hundred villages destroyed in the army counterinsurgency campaign, nearly all were in indigenous areas. In several cases, whole communities were annihilated in the process: For example, at the San Francisco plantation, Nentón municipality, Huehuetenango department (near the Mexican border), more than 350 people were massacred by the army in late July, 1982. Many of the distinct Indian subcultures so decimated no longer exist.

The events of 1978 to 1985 significantly affected public attitudes. Even among civilian government officials, distrust came to reign. A disgusted Vice President Francisco Villagrán (who later resigned and fled into exile) in 1982 stated: “There are no political prisoners in Guatemala—only political murders.” Fear of the army remained widespread throughout the 1980’s and formed a serious barrier to realization of the human right to free association, especially in the western highlands. Army occupation of large areas of Quiché, Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz, San Marcos, and Sololá departments continued for more than a decade and transformed Indian society. Civil defense patrols substantially restricted rights to travel freely and to work outside government supervision. These organizations also undermined traditional authority in Indian communities by sowing suspicion and creating dependence on nearby military administrators. After the greatest guerrilla threat ebbed, remaining rural military bases undermined civilian officials’ authority and inhibited realization of Indians’ rights to self-government and to free movement within the nation.

The events also created large numbers of displaced persons, further eroding the distinctive indigenous cultures. In 1982, the Bishops’ Conference of the Guatemalan Roman Catholic Church stated that nearly one-seventh of the national population had been displaced from their home areas, including more than 100,000 who had fled Guatemala for Mexican sanctuary. Tensions between the Guatemalan army and these exiles exacerbated foreign relations, producing minor skirmishes between the nations, and led to United Nations assistance to the refugees. These migrations were sympathetically chronicled in the 1984 film El Norte. In some cases a semblance of a new community evolved, as was the experience of Kanjobal Indians from San Miguel Acatán municipality, Huehuetenango department, who reconstituted a Guatemalan community in the United States at Indiantown, Florida. For most Guatemalan Indians, the violence shattered a world, and the civilian governments of Guatemala since then have failed to recreate it.

The events of 1978-1985 had great impacts on the whole Guatemalan social and political system, not only on the indigenous peoples. Army victory, pursued without reservation or negotiation, had been achieved by 1985. The brutal excesses involved in the victory, however, had exhausted the army and had repulsed the public. Systematic use of human rights violations to eliminate both armed and peaceful challengers carried high costs. With legality in tatters, corruption had flourished, alienating much of the Guatemalan business community. International isolation in response to human rights abuses produced cuts in foreign aid, complicating economic recovery. These and other factors in 1985 and 1986 led ruling generals to abandon governmental offices they had held for nearly thirty years.

Electoral participation was unusually high as common people, Indian and Ladino, exercised long-denied rights to self-government, choosing reformer Cerezo to lead them. Momentum toward realization of socioeconomic rights through reform policies under his civilian Christian Democrat administration, however, waned after two unsuccessful military coup attempts in 1988 and 1989. Neither the 1986-1991 Cerezo administration nor its more conservative Serrano successor proved fully able to end political violence, though army massacres virtually ceased and overall casualty levels from assassinations and kidnappings fell. Civilian administrations also initiated peace negotiations with the guerrilla movements in 1987 as part of the Arias Peace Plan for Central America. In December, 1996, the government of Guatemala and the Guatemalan resistance signed a peace agreement under United Nations auspices. U.N. military and medical observers were subsequently deployed, as demobilization of guerrilla combatants began. Refugees were repatriated and democratic elections were held. The country has enjoyed a period of relative peace and democratic political life since the adoption of the Peace Accords. Guatemala;death squads
Human rights abuses;Guatemala

Further Reading

  • Bizarro Ujpán, Ignacio. Campesino: The Diary of a Guatemalan Indian. Edited and translated by James D. Sexton. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985. Fascinating oral history of Indian life in villages around Lake Atitlán, 1977-1984. Balances the leftist bias in the Menchú volume cited below. Translator provides excellent explanatory notes. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Bowen, Gordon L. “U.S. Approaches to Guatemalan State Terrorism, 1977-1986.” In Terrible Beyond Endurance? The Foreign Policy of State Terrorism, edited by Michael Stohl. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. Thorough analysis of Guatemalan violence and the varied U.S. role during the Carter and Reagan presidencies. Contrasts sharply in tone and interpretation with the Jonas volume cited below. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • Davis, Shelton, and Julie Hodson. Witnesses to Political Violence in Guatemala. Boston: Oxfam America, 1983. Brief collection of dozens of transcribed first-person accounts of carnage in the Guatemalan highlands between 1978 and 1982. Includes testimonials from refugees, aid workers, priests, and others.
  • Delli Sante, Angela. Nightmare or Reality: Guatemala in the 1980’s. Amsterdam: Thala, 1996. Well-researched work on the history of the “dark decade” of civil war and state terrorism. Focuses primarily on the displacement of thousands who escaped the violence in Guatemala.
  • Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. Provides a revealing look at the history of the struggles between the indigenous Indians and Mayan elites.
  • Jonas, Susanne. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. A leading Guatemalan analyst among leftist American academics takes an interdisciplinary approach to the interpretation of a crisis that she views as continuing. Includes extensive documentation and index.
  • Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú, an Indian Woman of Guatemala. London: Verso, 1984. First-person testimonial of a Guatemalan Indian woman’s childhood and family life during violence and radicalization. Jarring and graphic in places. Offers no documentation, but the events described have been authenticated in reports by Amnesty International and other reliable organizations. Includes glossary of Indian terms.
  • Taylor, Clark. Return of Guatemala’s Refugees: Reweaving the Torn. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. Examines the lives of the refugees after their return to their homeland. Includes bibliography and index.

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