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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Beatriz Manz
University of California Press, 311 pages, $24.95
Understanding the genocide in Guatemala

Reviewed by MIKE SMITH

The most recent genocide in the Americas began in 1982 and, for the next three years, caused the largest mass migration in the hemisphere of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, the vast majority Mayan Indians, poured into Mexico to escape the genocidal scorched-earth campaign executed, with the aid of U.S. armaments, training and dollars, by the Guatemalan military. Another 80,000 were disappeared or murdered. Thousands of refugees were settled in refugee camps in Chiapas, Campeche and Quintano Roo, Mexico, while others settled themselves on the large plantations where they lived and worked as undocumented refugees.

Professor Beatriz Manz at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent 30 years studying a mostly K’iche’ Maya community, Santa María Tzejá, in the remote Ixcán region of Guatemala. Her fascinating book Paradise in Ashes, while a portrait of a small village, is also a landscape of the larger Guatemalan society. Professor Manz places the genocide and massive flight in the context of Guatemalan history and economics as well as the Cold War.

With masterly brushstrokes, she portrays two Catholic priests who play important, although supporting, roles in this drama.

Although a majority in Guatemala until very recent times, the Maya have been economically marginalized by 500 years of repression. Most were either landless peasants or subsistence farmers unable to feed themselves and their families by working their tiny and exhausted parcels of land that often dot to impossible heights the steep volcanic slopes. Trapped in a latifundia (large landholder/feudal) system that had changed little since medieval times, they were forced to chambear (work seasonally) on the large plantations. At their mountain villages they were loaded onto cattle trucks and hauled to the large plantations on the coast, where for about a dollar a day they harvested the coffee, cotton and cardamom.

Herded together on these plantations, they slept in barn-like structures, ate bad food, drank dirty water and often got sick. Dysentery and diarrhea were common, and having no latrines, they had to relieve themselves in the fields among the coffee plants or cotton. These fields in turn became fertile breeding grounds for the armies of flies that contaminated the food and water. The workers often spent such large portions of their wages on medicines that there was little left over for essentials such as clothes, soap, oil, seeds and tools to work their own plots of land.

To escape this economic dead end and the pervasive racism in Guatemala, a few Mayan Indians, assisted by international groups such as the Catholic church, Wings of Hope and even the U.S. Agency for International Development, began to colonize the jungle in the Ixcán region. Santa María Tzejá was one of the villages founded in the dense rain forest. The Guatemalan military, which would soon hold the modern record for murder, rape and torture in the hemisphere, disapproved of these new communities and the independence and dignity achieved by the colonizers. The genocide, when it began, was most severe in the Ixcán.

In the early 1960s, the Catholic church sent conservative, even fascist-supportive priests from Spain to Guatemala to participate in the worldwide struggle against communism. Appalled by the extreme poverty of the majority Mayan Indians, they began to rethink their worldviews. Many quickly returned to Spain. Anticipating the Second Vatican Council, others stayed and new priests came to help the impoverished Mayan population free itself of the feudal system that kept them in virtual serfdom. One priest in particular, Fr. Luis Gurriarán, realized that this situation was a result of colonialism and racism. He opened schools and taught the poor to organize and form cooperatives. He helped them to help themselves, and he was a central figure in the founding of Santa María Tzejá.

In 1980, because of the Guatemalan military’s campaign of terror, the bishop of El Quiché, Juan Gerardi Conedera (later murdered by the military because of his leading role in the research and publication of Guatemala: Never Again, Recovery of Historical Memory Project), closed the diocese. When the diocese reopened in 1985, the government did not permit Fr. Gurriarán to return. He then lived and worked with the Communities of Populations in Resistance, the communities who remained in hiding in the jungle. Instead, Fr. Tiziano Sofia was the first priest sent back to the Ixcán. Fr. Tiziano was an autocratic, top-down figure. He came to be well known in the Ixcán for his eccentricities as well as his combative spirit. While he did not inspire love in the people, he did inspire respect because he stood up to the military. As Professor Manz states, “Despite his pronounced idiosyncrasies, Tiziano may have been the right priest for that period. His combative spirit and willingness to test it, gave the people some confidence. Tiziano made it clear to the officers that he had no problem with the military ordering soldiers, but civilians fell under his purview.”

On Feb. 13, 1982, the Guatemalan army invaded Santa María Tzejá. In a beautiful piece of writing, Professor Manz foreshadows this event early on in her book:

Near the Mexican border a serpentine path meanders through the dense, verdant rain forest of northern Guatemala, skirting tall mahogany trees and brown hanging vines, traversing the undulating terrain toward the remote village of Santa María Tzejá. Landless Maya peasants from the highlands made the difficult weeklong, 150-mile journey to settle the village in 1970, building a new life with little more than sweat, hope and a few antiquated hand tools. Twelve years later ... a long column of soldiers traveled that twisted path, weighed down with combat gear, in the languid heat. Their feet sank in thick mud. The late-afternoon sunlight reflected off their automatic weapons. As they proceeded, hidden sentries from the village watched with deep apprehension.

However, the people of that community were organized and prepared. They had an emergency plan: The village was divided into sectors and everyone was to flee to certain prearranged spots in his or her sector when the invasion came. Nearly everyone escaped the initial onslaught and hid in the jungle. Several days later the troops found a small group of women and children hiding in the jungle. They massacred all but one who escaped by hiding under a tree. When they finally finished riddling these women and children with bullets from their automatic, made-in-the-United-States weapons, they mutilated their bodies.

Professor Manz follows the founding of Santa María Tzejá, its organization as a cooperative, the military invasion and subsequent flight. As the community hides in the jungle, pursued by the military and Civil Patrollers acting as guides, they become divided. Some are captured and tortured, some give themselves up and are tortured. Those who survive the torture return to Santa María Tzejá, which is reorganized along the model village system developed by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Gone are the freedom and dignity, present are the soldiers and terror. New settlers (nuevos) who support the military and old (antiguos) are hostile to and suspicious of each other.

The majority of the villagers managed to escape capture and remained hiding in the jungle. A few fled to other parts of Guatemala, a few joined the guerrillas, and, after 13 months of hiding in the rain forest, always hunted, often nearly captured, many escaped in a long odyssey to Mexico.

The last two chapters of the book, “Reunification” and “Treading Between Hope and Fear,” tell the equally dramatic story of the return of many of the people from the refugee camps. These retornados (returnees) are organized and therefore successful in their negotiations with the now civilian, democratic Guatemalan government (guided by the military that constantly looks over its shoulder). Unlike other communities of retornados, the people of Santa María Tzejá got their land back. They have formed a cooperative -- an organization always looked upon as subversive by the military -- and have rebuilt their community. However, as the title of the last chapter makes clear, their situation is still precarious. They are like birds busily feeding in the fields, seemingly content but ready to fly at the sound of that first heavy boot step.

Paradise in Ashes is a good read and essential to anyone who hopes to understand what we can only hope will be the last genocide in the Americas.

Mike Smith lives in Berkeley, Calif., and is director of the asylum program for the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a coalition of church organizations founded in 1982 to advocate for, protect and support refugees and immigrants.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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