Kaibil Balam

I opened the book I’d been reading for the past few days at the page I’d left off. The next section was entitled “La masacre de Kaibil Balam (27 de febrero)”. I was taken aback because I, in fact, was laying on the concrete floor of a one room cinder block house in Kaibil Balam, a tiny town in the wet forest of Ixcán, el Quiché, Guatemala.

Two of the girls from my host family (ages 10 and 12 perhaps) asked me what I was reading and laid down to read with me. I asked their mother if it was OK for them to read the true story of the terrible violence and she said yes, that it was important for them to know. Soon their mother and father sat down as well and we read together about the day the Guatemalan army came to Kaibil Balam. They burned down every building and murdered the 13 people who couldn’t get away into the forest fast enough. One woman and her 5 children were thrown alive into the cardamom oven. When the girls read the list of names of the victims aloud, their parents recognized the name of that woman. Her sister lives right around the corner.

Hugo, the father, was 8 years old on February 27, 1982. The mother, whose name I’ve forgotten, was 7. Hugo recounted his experience that day. When the army arrived, he and his parents and siblings sprinted into the forest. They didn’t carry anything with them. They’d already heard about the massacres in other villages the previous weeks. Neither they nor any of the other villagers would return to live in Kaibil Balam for 8 years, when the violence had dissipated significantly.

At some point, relatively soon after fleeing Kaibil Balam, Hugo’s family was in Barrillas, Huehuetenango, Guatemala, when the army came again. His parents pushed hard on the door and everyone was silent, so the soldiers who tried to barge in would think the house was locked and empty. It worked. The soldiers didn’t shoot through the door and moved on. From there, Hugo’s family was able to move on and spent the next 8 years living semi-nomadically in safer parts of the country, finding work where they could picking fruit for US supermarkets or on coffee plantations owned by the wealthy. His family (and his wife’s) came back to Kaibil Balam in 1990 to rebuild and make a new life.. Most of those who escaped never returned. A large number fled to refugee camps in Mexico, while others lived or died with the “Communities of People in Resistance” who scraped out an existence for years in the mountains,barely eating and occassionally falling victim to murederous army raids.

What the hell happened in Guatemala? Briefly, and I know this history only partially: There was a resurgent guerrilla movement in Guatemala beginning in 1965 (an earlier guerrilla movement had been crushed in ’66), opposed to the military/civilian dictatorship, the oppression of the large indigenous population, and the incredible economic inequality and exploitation. As in other countries, the guerrilla concentrated its efforts in the remote parts of the country where it could hide and grow, and where the ethnically discriminated and marginalized population would be most likely to support its efforts, whether by joining the guerrillas, giving them food, or providing them with information about the army’s activities. This, combined with the deeply engrained racism and distrust toward the indigenous population, was enough for the army to treat these entire ethnic groups as enemy combatants. The army’s strategy changed several times from 1975-81, with kidnappings, torture, building of schools and hospitals, and assassinations of suspected supporters (and a US missionary). In 1982, however, the guerrillas were gaining ground in much of the country, their ranks buffeted by optimism after the successful Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979. In 1982, then, the army switched tactics. They began to murder the entire population of various indigenous regions, mostly in the north of the country. The death toll of the massacres is difficult to calculate, but 50,000-100,000 massacred civilians seems like a common estimate. In the Ixcán region (where Kaibil Balam is), it seems clear that the policy of massacring and forcing out the population had another goal as well. The land there is particularly fertile, and the army’s higher-ups and the country’s ruling class wanted it for themselves. Today, indeed, they own a great part of it. The war would down in the early 90’s, with peace accords signed in 1996. The guerrilla certainly didn’t achieve the victory and just society they risked their lives and their families’ lives for, but the peace accords ended the military’s complete, brutal control over the country and brought free (though certainly not fair) elections. Noble Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú helped negotiate an end to the conflict with at least some positive effects for the population.

The book I was reading is called “Massacres in the Jungle” by Ricardo Falla.

I can’t leave out a particularly salient part of the book for me. One morning, before a massacre, the troops were feeling apprehensive, more about the possibility of the guerrillas coming to the defense of the village than about the mass murder they were about to committ. The lieutenant gave them a speech to ease their fears. In this speech he reiterated several times, “Don’t worry, boys, the USA’s got our backs.” According to the witness, this affirmation of imperial support for ethnic cleansing succeeded at buoying the morale of the troops.

Now, the US government cut off official support for the Guatemalan army during the Carter administration (77-81), so the US has less obvious culpability here than in El Salvador or Nicaragua, where the US directly trained, funded, and strategized with right-wing, civilian-murdering death squads. (Much of the training happened at the eerily-named “School of the Americas” in Georgia.) I don’t know how much, if any, covert support the US gave the Guatemalan military during the time of the massacres, but the lieutenant’s speech clearly wasn’t misinterpreting the general position of the Reagan administration towards Central America.

Now, in 2014, Guatemala has a president who was a general in the murdering armies of the 80s. People in other parts of the country, and especially young people, don’t know much about the massacres. The army claimed that many of its actions, from massacres to blowing up radio towers, were committed by the guerrillas. Mostly only the people who were there and those whose army friends admitted things know the truth. The media had no access to these regions and, as usual, functioned as an echo chamber for government functionaries. How familiar is the reporting structure, “A spokesman for President Lucas claimed guerrilla forces massacred hundreds of villagers last week in the northern part of the department of el Quiché,” without further comment? (Note: that’s a hypothetical example; I don’t have any news reports from the 80s at my disposal.)

After we were done reading, Hugo asked me where I got the book, which he’d never heard of, and asked me passionately to make sure I got the word out in the US about what happened there. So here’s this blog. I gave the book to a middle-class white Guatemalan software designer my age in the capital who has progressive views but knew almost nothing about the massacres.

Now, in 2014, Hugo’s family has a better life. The kids go to 6 years of school before they start working full-time. The school is bilingual in Mam, their first language, and Spanish, their second. Hugo walks 2 hours through the rain forest with his machete to the land he rents from a large landowner to tend his corn, for subsistence, and cardamom, to sell to provide a small income. Prices and yields vary, and it seems like he averages about $3,000 a year between the cardamom and occasional sidework in other people’s fields where he makes 40 quetzales (about $6) a day. Of that, he has to pay 2,000 quetzales per harvest (6,000 qetzales, $1,000 a year) in rent to his do-nothing, deed-holding landowner, who is very likely a beneficiary of the land theft that accompanied the massacres in the 80s. His wife does all the work around the house and also joins him for parts of many days in the fields (also requiring the 4-hour round trip walk). The biggest issue in their lives is that she has a disease (maybe cancer?) that leaves her sick and weak often. The hospital in Playa Grande is far away and low quality.

In the dark, they return, bathe in the brook that runs behind the house, and go to sleep in beds protected from mosquitos and malaria by colorful bed nets given to them by an NGO.

– Adam
posted from Managua, Nicaragua