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Excerpts: summary of report on Guatemala’s civil war

Tragedy of armed confontation

With the outbreak of the internal armed confrontation in 1962, Guatemala entered a tragic and devastating stage of its history with enormous human, material and moral cost. In the documentation of human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation, the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) registered a total of 42,275 victims, including men, women and children. Of these, 23,671 were victims of arbitrary execution, and 6,159 were victims of forced disappearance. Eighty-three percent of fully identified victims were Mayan, and 17 percent were Ladino.

Combining this data with the results of other studies of political violence in Guatemala, the CEH estimates that the number of persons killed or disappeared as a result of the fratricidal confrontation reached a total of more than 200,000.

Historical roots

The Commission for Historical Clarification concludes that the structure and nature of economic, cultural and social relations in Guatemala are marked by profound exclusion, antagonism and conflict -- a reflection of its colonial history. The proclamation of independence in 1821, an event prompted by the country’s elite, saw the creation of an authoritarian state that excluded the majority of the population, was racist in its precepts and practices, and served to protect the economic interests of the privileged minority. ...

The Cold War; role of the United States

The CEH recognizes that the movement of Guatemala toward polarization, militarization and civil war was not just the result of national history. The Cold War also played an important role. While anti-communism, promoted by the United States within the framework of its foreign policy, received firm support from right-wing political parties and from various other powerful actors in Guatemala, the United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in its strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed toward reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors that had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.

Anti-communism and the National Security Doctrine (DSN) formed part of the anti-Soviet strategy of the United States in Latin America. In Guatemala, these were first expressed as anti-reformist, then antidemocratic policies, culminating in criminal counterinsurgency. The National Security Doctrine fell on fertile ground in Guatemala where anti-communist thinking had already taken root and from the 1930s had merged with the defense of religion, tradition and conservative values, all of which were allegedly threatened by the worldwide expansion of atheistic communism. Until the 1950s, these views were strongly supported by the Catholic church, which qualified as communist any position that contradicted its philosophy, thus contributing even further to division and confusion in Guatemalan society.

The internal enemy

During the armed confrontation, the State’s idea of the “internal enemy,” intrinsic to the National Security Doctrine, became increasingly inclusive. At the same time, this doctrine became the raison d’être of army and State policies for several decades. Through its investigation, the CEH discovered one of the most devastating effects of this policy: state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the violations documented by the CEH, including 92 percent of the arbitrary executions and 91 percent of forced disappearances. Victims included men, women and children of all social strata: workers, professionals, church members, politicians, peasants, students and academics; in ethnic terms, the vast majority were Mayans.

The Catholic church

Only recently in Guatemalan history and within a short time period did the Catholic church abandon its conservative position in favor of an attitude and practice based on the decisions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Episcopal Conference of Medellín (1968), prioritizing its work with excluded, poor and underprivileged sectors and promoting the construction of a more just and equitable society. These doctrinal and pastoral changes clashed with counterinsurgency strategy, which considered Catholics to be allies of the guerrillas and therefore part of the internal enemy, subject to persecution, death or expulsion. Whereas the guerrilla movement saw in the practice of what was known as “liberation theology” common ground on which to extend its social base, seeking to gain the sympathy of its followers. A large number of catechists, lay activists, priests and missionaries were victims of the violence and gave their lives as a testimony to the cruelty of the armed confrontation.

A disproportionate response

The magnitude of the State’s repressive response, totally disproportionate to the military force of the insurgency, can only be understood within the framework of the country’s profound social, economic and cultural conflicts. Based on the results of its investigation, the CEH concludes that from 1978 to 1982 citizens from broad sectors of society participated in growing social mobilization and political opposition to the continuity of the country’s established order. These movements in some cases maintained ties of a varying nature with the insurgency. However, at no time during the internal armed confrontation did the guerrilla groups have the military potential necessary to pose an imminent threat to the State. The number of insurgent combatants was too small to be able to compete in the military arena with the Guatemalan army, which had more troops and superior weaponry, as well as better training and coordination. It has also been confirmed that during the armed confrontation, the State and the army had knowledge of the level of organization, the number of combatants, the type of weaponry and the strategy of the insurgent groups. They were therefore well aware that the insurgents’ military capacity did not represent a real threat to Guatemala’s political order.

The CEH concludes that the State deliberately magnified the military threat of the insurgency, a practice justified by the concept of the internal enemy. The inclusion of all opponents under one banner, democratic or otherwise, pacifist or guerrilla, legal or illegal, communist or non-communist, served to justify numerous and serious crimes. Faced with widespread political, socioeconomic and cultural opposition, the State resorted to military operations directed toward the physical annihilation or absolute intimidation of this opposition, through a plan of repression carried out mainly by the army and national security forces.

The CEH has confirmed with particular concern that a large number of children were also among the direct victims of arbitrary execution, forced disappearance, torture, rape and other violations of their fundamental rights. Moreover, the armed confrontation left a large number of children orphaned and abandoned, especially among the Mayan population, who saw their families destroyed and the possibility of living a normal childhood within the norms of their culture lost.


The CEH’s investigation has revealed that approximately a quarter of the direct victims of human rights violations and acts of violence were women. They were killed, tortured and raped, sometimes because of their ideals and political or social participation, sometimes in massacres or other indiscriminate actions. Thousands of women lost their husbands, becoming widows and the sole breadwinners for their children, often with no material resources after the scorched earth policies resulted in the destruction of their homes and crops. Their efforts to reconstruct their lives and support their families deserve special recognition.

The Kaibiles

The substantiation of the degrading contents of the training of the army’s special counterinsurgency force, known as Kaibiles, has drawn the particular attention of the CEH. This training included killing animals and then eating them raw and drinking their blood in order to demonstrate courage. The extreme cruelty of these training methods, according to testimony available to the CEH, was then put into practice in a range of operations carried out by these troops, confirming one point of their decalogue: “The Kaibil is a killing machine.”

Forced complicity in the violence

The CEH counts among the most damaging effects of the confrontation those that resulted from forcing large sectors of the population to be accomplices in the violence, especially through their participation in the Civil Patrols (PAC), the paramilitary structures created by the army in 1981 in most of the republic. The CEH is aware of hundreds of cases in which civilians were forced by the army, at gun point, to rape women, torture, mutilate corpses and kill. ...

The CEH has noted particularly serious cruelty in many acts committed by agents of the State, especially members of the army, in their operations against Mayan communities. The counterinsurgency strategy not only led to violations of basic human rights, but also to the fact that these crimes were committed with particular cruelty, with massacres representing their archetypal form. In the majority of massacres there is evidence of multiple acts of savagery, which preceded, accompanied or occurred after the deaths of the victims. Acts such as the killing of defenseless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts, were not only actions of extreme cruelty against the victims, but also morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated these actions.

The responsibility for a large part of these violations, with respect to the chain of military command as well as the political and administrative responsibility, reaches the highest levels of the army and successive governments.

The excuse that lower ranking army commanders were acting with a wide margin of autonomy and decentralization without orders from superiors, as a way of explaining that “excesses” and “errors” were committed, is an unsubstantiated argument according to the CEH’s investigation. The notorious fact that no high-commander, officer or person in the midlevel command of the army or state security forces was tried or convicted for violation of human rights during all these years reinforces the evidence that the majority of these violations were the result of an institutional policy, thereby ensuring impenetrable impunity, which persisted during the whole period investigated by the CEH.

Acts of genocide

The legal framework adopted by the CEH to analyze the possibility that acts of genocide were committed in Guatemala during the internal armed confrontation is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 9, 1948 and ratified by the Guatemalan State by Decree 704 on Nov. 30, 1949.

In consequence, the CEH concludes that agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people that lived in the four regions analyzed. This conclusion is based on the evidence that, in light of Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the killing of members of Mayan groups occurred ... serious bodily or mental harm was inflicted and the group was deliberately subjected to living conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. The conclusion is also based on the evidence that all these acts were committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” groups identified by their common ethnicity, by reason thereof, whatever the cause, motive or final objective of these acts may have been.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999