Why you need to know about Guatemala’s civil war

The World
Retired military officers, from left, Luis Alberto Paredes, Byron Humberto Barrientos, Ismael Segura Abularach, Benedicto Lucas, Gustavo Alonzo Rosales and Carlos Augusto Garavito sit in a cage

Today is the 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace accord that ended Guatemala’s civil war.

Most Americans don’t know much about this 36-year conflict. We should. It’s one of the most brutal in Latin American history. According to a truth commission report, more than 200,000 people were killed — most of them indigenous, more than half a million were driven from their homes, and many more were raped and tortured.

We should know about it also because the US was an important actor in almost every stage of that war, including the bloodiest. 

In 1954, the CIA helped overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected president, who supported land reform to benefit the largely indigenous peasantry (at the expense of the US-based United Fruit Company and other private interests). Six years later, a rebellion to overthrow the military regime kicked off the war.

Battles were waged between the military and leftist guerrillas, but increasingly the military targeted anyone seen as sympathetic to the rebels, including Catholic priests and nuns and entire indigenous villages.

Documents later declassified revealed that the US consistently supported the military in spite of being well aware of its human rights abuses.

In the late 1970s, the atrocities piled up. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter tried to pressure Guatemala’s government to stop the abuses. When that failed, in 1978 he barred all Defense Department sales of military equipment to Guatemala. And in 1980 he extended the ban to commercial sales. Still, preapproved shipments continued.

Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan became president, and Carter’s efforts were undone. Consistent with his Cold War stance in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Reagan was tough on leftists in Guatemala. He met with Guatemala’s evangelical pastor president, General Efraín Ríos Montt, who had come to power in a coup, and asserted that the former army chief of staff was committed to reforms and democracy. In spite of the embargo, financial support and military advising continued, while US allies – especially Israel – provided military equipment. And in 1983, Reagan lifted the US embargo.(5) Within weeks, CIA cables – since declassified — were reporting increased military abuses.

Those years, the early '80s, were the most horrific of the war, and in 2013, a Guatemalan court found Ríos Montt, whom Reagan once called “a man of great integrity,” guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide against the Maya Ixil people. The conviction is now on appeal.

Antonio Caba Caba was a young boy in the Maya Ixil village of Ilom in the early ‘80s. He remembers when the military raided. He was among a group of children that soldiers brought to see the corpses of massacre victims, as a warning. Then their homes were burned.

Survivors were relocated to a farm, where they faced starvation. After a year, Caba Caba and others returned home, where they were allowed to stay on one condition: that they serve the military. It’s a fact that would haunt Caba Caba for years. He says he had no choice but has still sought God’s forgiveness. He wishes others would do the same.

It’s been a long struggle for Caba Caba and others to recover physiologically and materially from the horrors of the war. Many of the hundreds of thousands displaced in the conflict have never been able to return to their homes. Many have tried to resettle in other parts of the country and to make a new life for themselves on unwanted and scarcely fertile land. Many only saw hope in traveling north and trying to reach the US.

Caba Caba stuck it out in Ilom, where he began to manage a church. He has sought justice in the courts, gathering evidence, testifying in court, and helping other victims in an international trial in Spain and then in the genocide trial in Guatemala City.

He also blames the US. He’s convinced his village would never have been destroyed had it not been for US military aid. 

I asked him if he wanted an apology from President Barack Obama. He said no. (President Bill Clinton already expressed regret over it in 1999.) What he wants, he said, is legal action against perpetrators, including those overseas. And there was something else.

Caba Caba had risen before dawn to travel five hours on two buses to meet with me for our interview. I asked him why speaking with a US journalist was worth all the trouble. 

He said he really wants Americans to know what happened to Guatemalans during the armed conflict, and to be more understanding when the economic hardship of today forces Guatemalans to flee, yet again, and to try to find a life across the US border. 

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