This narrative was take from an interview that I conducted with a retired member of a guerrilla group called ORPA in Guatemala in August of 2015. The subject asked that his name be changed, but for clarity we will call him Armando. Armando is Mayan but he does not speak any Mayan languages. This narrative explores some of the historical and social causes for the Guatemalan Civil War. None of the opinions expressed in this interview are my own. Certain places and names were changed to protect his identity, but these are Armando’s words. This is his interpretation of his life and of history.
So I’m assuming you know the classical story about the Guatemalan Civil War. You probably know that it started in 1960, and that it didn’t start off as an ethnic conflict, but rather as a conflict within the same military. You probably know that the war started with officers that were educated at the School of the Americas in the United States, at the Panama Canal, and in Guatemala. The first major military officers to come out in rebellion were Luis Trejo Esquivel, Turcios Lima, Alejandro Ibarra, and company. These officers rebelled against their superiors and their rebellion had a lot to do with what the military had done in response to the counter-revolution in 1954. In the years prior to 1954, Guatemala had ended the military dictatorships that had dominated Guatemala for decades and they instituted what people call the democratic spring for ten years. But then because of the CIA interests, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was removed. The CIA had a lot of interests in Guatemala because the United Fruit Company was staffed by important American government officials like the Dulles brothers. They wanted to gain back the lands that the democratic governments had given back to the people. The new government backed by the CIA, gave back those lands to the United Fruit Company and plantation owners, but now there was progressive sector of the military that rebelled against this redistribution of land.
The military began to fight within itself, and this progressive part of the military went to seek refuge in the eastern part of Guatemala. That’s another important thing to mention, the first guerrilleros were white. In the beginning the guerrilleros were called canchitos or white people. They had blonde hair and blue eyes. There are still some guerrilleros in that area today. Some of them are still frustrated. Then the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeles, were formed. They were a real combat group and they had been a faction of the Communist party in Guatemala. The party was never combative; they were just ideologists. The ideologists were of the ladino or mestizo race, but they had a lot of differences among themselves as well.
At the time people, mainly young people were looking to do something. I really identify with those that were looking for something new, but that’s from my own perspective. I can’t talk about what my comrades were looking for, because some of them had a profound revolutionary consciousness, they knew many things about western philosophy, Marxism, and socialism. But I believe that the majority, I’m talking about the common person, knew nothing about those idiocies. We grew up in a medium where we were repressed because of our identity and we were rebels.
I don’t know if you’ve realized this but a lot of people in Guatemala call indigenous people naturales, that’s a very common way of referring to Mayas. What does that have to do with the question of identity, I will tell you? The Catholic priests that came to baptize the Mayas, called those that refused to get baptized naturales because it was believed that those that got baptized were supernatural beings because they would be able to go to heaven. So there was a sense of rebellion there, and when I discovered that, I never felt prouder to be called a natural. But I prefer the term Maya. We were at odds with a state that was monoethnic, monocultural, and monolingual. I was a part of the generation that was not allowed to learn my language because I grew up in a city. My Maya brothers who grew up in rural communities were allowed to speak and learn their languages.
Not knowing my language was a conflict that I had within myself and it contributed to my rebellion. Initially we didn’t have a political movement or ideology that addressed that conflict. Later on a new army was formed, we called it the guerrilla for poor people. Factions of it developed, and one of those groups was called ORPA. ORPA initially worked for seven years in secret before becoming public. It was risky to get involved with them, but I wanted to get involved.
One day someone contacted me, and I become a part of the urban resistance of ORPA in Quetzaltenango. We were first trained politically, and then militarily so we would take certain actions in the city. But they lied to us. I believed that we were all truly comrades, that we were family, that I had been born to my family incidentally and that the people I was working with were my true family. We said that we would give our lives for each other, and so one agreed to give their life for the cause, but it wasn’t true. In 1982, the military kidnapped a comrade that I was very close to, and the first thing that my superiors told me was to clean my friend’s house so traces of them wouldn’t appear in his house. Then they disappeared, in spite of the fact that we had established contingency programs to prevent people from within our group from talking to military officers. But instead of facing the military officers they disappeared. I saw one of them five years later. It turned out that they had escaped to the United States! They went to enemy territory!
After they disappeared other people from our cell started to fall. I remember one comrade, her pseudonym was Carla, she was arrested by the military shortly afterwards. She was tortured and raped, but she never talked. Then there were comrade Everardo, and comrade Miguel who fell too, but they didn’t talk. Thanks to them we are alive. But it’s important to highlight that we were the butlers of the group, we were the butlers of the resistance because we never had any important leadership positions in the movement. We were the butlers. If someone need a car at seven o’clock at night I went and found one among my family members. If someone needed food or water, I would bring it. I also transported people from rural areas into the city, and I recruited more people. We were told that we were the eyes and ears of the organization. People talked a lot about the ears of the military, and we were the ears of the guerilla. But I think that one thing that was never really discussed in the guerrilla was the theme of identity. The cultural and political identity of indigenous people was never discussed. It was never discussed. It was just a class struggle. I always make a joke and say that I wasn’t a Marxist, I was a Marxistoid because the Marxism that I was taught was distorted.
I was also trained in the realm of propaganda and intelligence. There was a big emphasis on learning how to react if a comrade was kidnapped. The military tried to kidnap me on January 6, 1982. For some reason they weren’t able to take me, I was very lucky. I ran into any alley, and the military officers that were following me weren’t able to fit the car and they couldn’t shoot at me because there was a lot of people, so I was able to run away. A short while later, for two months, a convoy of cars that we called Jeeps, started to park in front of my house, and they would point their guns at my house. I thought they were coming to get me. My wife suffered a lot during that time, because whenever we would hear noise she would grab our children and hide. I said to myself that I wouldn’t let them take me alive, and I would point my gun at them and wait for them to knock down my front door. We were in that state for two months, it’s hard for me to communicate the terror that I felt.
During those two months I was looking for a comrade of mine that had disappeared. I went to various places with his father to identify corpses and to live the terror that so many people in my country faced. There were dead bodies everywhere. That caused a psychological crisis in me. I always remember when I went to Totonicapán to identify corpses because corpses appeared there all of the time, and I saw my comrade laying on the floor. I hugged the cadaver, and I said it was him, but his father said that it wasn’t him. I insisted that it was him, but his father insisted it wasn’t him. He knew him really well because the young man had had a motorcycle accident and he had an aluminum plate, but that cadaver had nothing. It wasn’t him. That was how the conflict was affecting me psychologically.
Just after the Peace Accords were signed, I bumped into a former classmate of mine. He told me that they had found his brother, Commander Xavier in Jalapa, who had fallen in one of the last battles of the war. He told me that they had been looking for him, and that he believed that after the signing of the Peace Accords that he would appear. I also had hope that people who had disappeared during the war would appear, but they didn’t appear. Only two people reappeared. Two of my comrades who had disappeared, reappeared. People who had been in exile also returned. One of my friends named Jacobo was living in Costa Rica for 18 years in exile. While he was in exile, the military was trying to look for him, and they killed three of his brothers.
Afterwards, I started to talk to comrades in other places and the most important thing for us was to talk about identity. In my old age, I have taught courses on Mayan cosmology and Mayan philosophy, and I have been frustrated by how Mayan traditions have become distorted. For example, whenever there is a protest, there’s a Mayan ceremony, but that was sacred for us. Culture is manipulated and it’s used for political interests. Political interests are everything in this country. Even the guerrilla was tainted with them. This became especially clear to me after the war.
After the war ended, they were exhuming the bodies from the last battle in Jalapa from a mass grave made by the military. I went to perform a Mayan ceremony for Commander Xavier whose body was going to be exhumed. He was a member of the ORNG, a guerrilla group that has since become a political party. At the cemetery I saw something that still hurts me until this day. There were poor people people turned to sh*t who were carrying flags that said ORNG and “Long Live ORNG” outside of the cemetery. They were screwed and malnourished. Suddenly these luxury vans approached the cemetery they were being driven by the commanders of the ORNG. They were bringing the people with the signs breakfast. The food that they were handing out was miserable. They gave them small pieces of bread and cauliflower, but they didn’t even give them a sauce or meat, it was just that. That’s what they gave the people who had been in the last battle.
The mass grave was huge and it took a long time to exhume every body. I remember one of the bodies they brought out was inside of a plastic bag; the military didn’t have the decency to buy her a wooden coffin. She was wearing a blue sweater, many of the bodies that I saw that day had blue sweaters on. They kept on looking for more bodies inside of the mass grave. Commander Xavier’s mother was looking for a body that was wearing boots. Once they found the body the women fainted and cried, and she wouldn’t stop hugging it. But it turned out it wasn’t him, and she had to wait a little longer. They took out the body of another sergeant, before finally taking out Commander Xavier’s body. We recognized him because he was really tall and well built. It was a really emotional moment, and once they found his body I performed the Mayan ceremony.
After that they took his body to the URNG headquarters. I went to the headquarters with the URNG caravan, and crowds of people would approach us yelling “sons of b*tches, assassins, murderers, thieves”. That was the perception people had of us. I think the URNG never took the space to establish profound sympathy among the local populations, that never worried them. The URNG was preoccupied with the class struggle, and with Cuban and Soviet influence. They even sent people to train over there. They wanted me to go, but I decided not to because my family needed me. They wanted to send me to Czechoslovakia, but I said no. I had a debt I needed to pay in Guatemala. I have never regretted that decision.
I guess that explains the general environment, and why I got involved. I was looking for something that the state wasn’t capable of giving me. The state wasn’t capable of recognizing that my people were people who deserved dignity from a cultural, social, economic, political, and religious stand point. The guerrilla promised us that space, but it wasn’t the space that we were looking for. We were looking for the state to recognize the dignity of its people.
When I was growing up, people said that Communism was going to divide a big house, and give one half of it to the people. That wasn’t true. That hasn’t occurred in any place, but that was the fear of the right and of the military. I think in the end what we were looking for was the recognition of human dignity and opportunities for everyone. You see that the United States triumphs, the majority of people who go to the United States work and do things. Look at how much Guatemala has changed because people have left to develop themselves with dignity. That hasn’t happened here. Looking at the next elections, I don’t think there will be a profound change. The only alternative is to continue insisting that things change. We need to fight in masses rather than individually. The people that have managed to create better lives for themselves have been able to do so because of their individual actions. Very few have managed to make it because of cooperation and scholarships. Our society continues to be a society of injustices; I think the Mexicans are doing much better than we are. Mexican society assumed mestizaje without a problem.
If you look at all of the monuments in Mexico City, there are many monuments to indigenous people. Here no. Even today it’s still controversial to say if Tecun Uman existed, and to talk about Mayan culture. We were a society that was permeated by another culture, a dominant culture. In spite of that I don’t think everything has been bleak. I insist that that things are changing, it hasn’t been dramatic, but things are changing. To think that a Mayan can now hold a high ranking position was impossible years ago, but now there are at least some. The idea is that at least some people have made it, and they can make a better future for us all.
I’ve had long discussion with my friends about having a Mayan president. They wanted Rigoberta Menchu to be president in 2012, but I told them that wasn’t going to happen. They looked at me as if I was some sort of monster. I told them that it wasn’t going to happen by 2020, because Mayas are still conflicted within themselves. One of the goals of the guerrilla should have been to create a larger ideological and social consciousness among Guatemalans. Unfortunately, there have been many struggles that have been started by the left and polarized by the right that have led to stark political and ethnic divisions. Mayas and mestizos. Rich and poor. I think that if we continue to create those divisions we will never be able prosper.
We need to integrate each side and work together to move this country forward. If we have to hold hands with the ladinos, and the ladinos have to hold hands with the Mayans then so be it, but we have to do it with dignity. There are smart people on the right and there are smart people on the left, and the problem is that both sides believe that the other cannot contribute. But I believe we can work together.
I also don’t think that the guerrilla was truly Marxist. We were socialists. Marxism has always been at odds with Mayan culture. We used to talk about communists, then terrorists, now we talk about narcos. In Latin America there have always been denominated groups of people that go against the ideals of the state. Maybe there are people who still truly believe in the revolution and in the guerrilla, but I think that what we were truly looking for were ways to increase access to opportunity so people could live dignified lives.
The problem was that the military had been profoundly indoctrinated and polarized. I believe that the military class always had a lot of privileges and it still has many privileges. Look at the case of Rios Montt. But there is something important to recognize, indigenous people were always the base of the military and of the guerrilla. The ladinos and the rich were always the heads of the military and the guerrilla, and they don’t want to lose their privileges. The military has created many new rich people, and many of them now have land in Petén, and a lot of them are involved in the drug trade. They don’t want to lose their privileges and we have passed that desire onto our government, look at Otto Perez Molina and Roxana Baldetti. They get into office and try to get as rich as possible, and then the next person does the same thing. But the problem is that when we try to seek justice, it means that they have to lose their privileges. They defend their privileges with their nails, and they do that by killing people. But again, I think that the spirit of the people, of the poor people who joined the revolutionary struggle was to look for a dignified life, a dignified life for everyone. The goal of the guerrila wasn't to kill people, it was to create an equal playing field.
There’s a book that I read that talks about how Guatemalan society is divided into five levels, and there are two levels that are underground. He says that the gangsters and the illiterates belong to the bottom two levels, as well as the people that are condemned to poverty. At the top there is a small group of people that is still privileged and that still designs the state for its own benefit. The United States supports that group.
The United States began to penetrate into the northern triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) more fiercely in the 1950s and 60s. Rockefeller used to say that he was amazed by how our countries had their own culture, their own health care system, their own clothing, their own technology, their own religion, and that we didn’t need him. He thought that our countries would never be a market for the United States, that’s when the economic struggle begins and the United States starts to make our countries into markets for their goods. The United States would never buy refrigerators, washing machines, and other products that were made in Guatemala, and there was never a large market for those things in Guatemala in the first place. However, the only way to change the demand for those products in Guatemala was to change Guatemalan culture through international development.
Afterwards, the penetration of evangelical churches began in Latin America. Once the Catholic Church stopped serving American interests in Latin America, they introduced Pentecostal churches. That’s why you see Pentecostal churches all over Guatemala. What those churches do is divide people. People don’t think for themselves, and they think that they will go to heaven, and that everything will be fine, but that’s just not the case. Both your mind and heart have to be healthy. The United States is responsible for the introduction of those churches, but they aren't all bad. I do think that the United States has changed.
I have to say this frankly, history has been hard on the United States and they have been obligated to repair things, and to reevaluate their actions. But one thing is clear the United States supported the Guatemalan military heavily. If they had cut their support, the military would have fallen. However, if you think about what was happening at time, Cuba had fallen and so had Nicaragua, then El Salvador and Guatemala were in the midst of two wars, so there was a fear of a domino effect. If El Salvador and Guatemalan had fallen, there was a fear that Mexico would fall as well. The United States could not tolerate that.
I think that the United States hasn’t been able to establish a policy that encourages self-determination among peoples, and for them to establish systems that encourage their own development. We need the government to care about its people. The United States does a good job at that, but the problem is they do that at the cost of impoverishing other nations. However, I want to highlight that’s the American government, not the American people. American people are good.
A lot of people refer to the Guatemalan Civil War as a genocide because so many Mayans died in the war, but in my opinion that is irrelevant. The point is people died. To prevent the triumph of the guerrilla people were killed. It’s also important to mention that the guerrilla also killed innocent people. They weren’t saints either. However, the majority of people who died in the war were Mayans, but that has more to do with the fact that Mayans have always been fighting for a better life. But things have changed because after the war poverty and misery caught up with the ladinos. There are some successful indigenous academic and businessmen now too. There are some powerful indigenous elites growing everywhere. However, discrimination towards indigenous people hasn’t gone away. But the good thing is that culture is dynamic and it changes. Cultures conditions and it establishes rules, but in spite of that Mayan culture is still alive, and you can see it all over Guatemala. I often am surprised when I see indigenous women wearing their garb walking to the university. They are proud to be Mayan, and that always makes me very happy. Things are changing, for the better.