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Massacre in Santiago Atitlan: A turning point in the Maya struggle?

Massacre in Santiago Atitlán: A turning point in the Maya struggle?

ON 2 DECEMBER 1990, THE Guatemalan Army opened automatic weapons fire on an unarmed crowd of between 2,000 and 4,000 Tzutujil Mayas from the town of Santiago Atitl n in highland Guatemala, about 100 miles west of the capital. Fourteen people, ranging in age from 10 to 53, were killed; another 21 were wounded. Two weeks later, as a result of massive popular pressure and national and international outcry, the army was forced to vacate its garrison, and Atitl n became one of the few Guatemalan communities of more than 10,000 inhabitants to not have a military base.

What occurred last December 2nd could well have become just the latest incident in a chain of political violence that has claimed 50,000 to 100,000 Guatemalan lives since 1980. Instead, the massacre has had far deeper and wider repercussions than anyone could have predicted. It represents both a breakthrough in a decade of fear and intimidation in Atitl n and a catalyst for unprecedented criticism of the military both within Guatemala and around the world.

To understand the exceptional potency of these 14 deaths, as well as the nature of the interests working to contain their long-term impact, it is essential to consider Atitl n's recent history. The timing, location, and nature of the massacre are also critical for appreciating what elements converged to transform a local tragedy into an event with much broader implications. Moreover, subsequent events provide hints regarding the possibility that meaningful social changes can be effected in a country whose military has penetrated virtually all aspects of society.


Many Atitecos (as residents are called) claim that the legacy of local violence was prefigured in June 1980, when the recently formed guerrilla group ORPA (Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms) began open and successful recruitment of townspeople. The following month, strangers in civilian clothes began asking questions, and in early October, the Guatemalan Army commenced its occupation. Scarcely two weeks later, two Atitecos disappeared. By the beginning of December, the total number of disappeared had risen to 10. The number of victims soared in 1981, including 16 massacred in a nearby coffee plantation and the murder of the resident Catholic priest, American Stanley Rother. La Violencia had come to Atitl n.

Throughout much of the 1980s, guerrilla operations in the southern Lake Atitl n region were common. Their cause evoked at least some sympathy. As a result, consistent with their strategic targeting of Indians elsewhere (Carmack 1988), the Guatemalan Army began a crude but effective program of matching regional guerrilla activity with direct retribution on the Atitecos. Atitl n's visibility precluded establishing a Development Pole - the name given the army's resettled villages, within which all activities could be tightly controlled (Cultural Survival 1988) - but not the stationing of a garrison and harassment of towns-people. While this strategy worsened basic opinions about the army, it also led to wider resentment of the guerrilla presence. Due in part to continued guerrilla actions, hundreds of Atitecos were killed by the army; estimates range as high as 1,700 (Cockrell 1991:4).

As this brutal counterinsurgency progressed, the frequency of guerrilla actions diminished. By the time that Vinicio Cerezo became Guatemala's president in 1986, violence in Atitl n had subsided to perhaps one killing per month. Following a particularly brutal spasm of terror in 1987, it again subsided to the seemingly endemic levels characteristics of the region's low-intensity warfare. In early 1990, however, a new wave of violence began, setting the stage for the December 2nd massacre.

The overwhelming evidence indicates that most robberies, kidnappings, and killings were engineered by the army - creating terrorism to blame "terrorists" - as a way to justify its continued presence (Carlsen 1990). This strategy can be illustrated by the case of one Atiteca whose husband, a comisionado (military-commissioned civilian authority), had been killed several years earlier by ORPA. To support herself, the widow washed clothes for the army. Given this history, it seemed logical that her killing was the work of the guerrillas. But, in fact, shortly before her murder several soldiers approached a 19-year-old neighbor and instructed him to deliver a message to the woman, ordering her to appear in town. On her way to town, the woman was shot. Shortly thereafter, the unfortunate messenger was arrested for subversion, and soon joined the long list of Atitecos who have been disappeared.

In staging such acts, the Guatemalan Army was able to disseminate information bolstering its claim of continued rural "terrorism." These types of events are also used to derail legally mandated negotiations with the guerrillas. The burning of several highway department trucks on the road between Atitl n and Panajachel, for instance, very nearly undermined pending discussions between the representatives of Guatemala's major political parties and guerrilla leaders. Lost on journalists covering the story was the fact that the initials EGP that had been painted on the trucks belonged to a guerrilla organization (the Guerrilla Army of the Poor) that operates in a different part of the country.

The army violence created an atmosphere of utter terror in Atitl n, as is evidenced in the words of one Atiteco: "Upon stepping out onto the street, a smile comes to my face. If anyone asks me how I'm doing, I say `great.' And if they ask me what I think about some incident, my reply is, `I don't know anything about it.' I then tell them, `If you want to find out, you should talk to the family. I'm just on my way to pray at the church.'" The "see nothing" logic embedded in this confession is a sensible survival strategy. There is, however, a fine line between hopeless terror and courage born of desperation; for Atitecos, that line was crossed in the late evening of 1 December 1990.


On the face of it, there is no single reason why the incidents of that evening should have had the effects that they did. Considering how many times similar things had happened, the specifics seem almost incidental. Five soldiers from the local garrison, including its commander, had spent the afternoon drinking at a cantina. At around 7:00 P.M. the group moved on to another bar; there, three of the soldiers beat a few clients. For the next few hours, the by then inebriated soldiers roamed the streets, abusing passerby, firing their guns, and attempting to break into a cantina and a private home. One of the drunk soldiers wounded a 19-year-old Atiteco.

At this point, events took a significant turn. Rather than simply returning to their homes, aroused neighbors spread out through town, waking the mayor and the mayor-elect and ringing the church bells for more than an hour. Several thousand Atitecos gathered in the town plaza, where they were informed of the soldiers' night on the town. The years of abuse and frustrated anger triggered something in the gathering crowd, who decided to march to the base to protest, led by the mayor and the mayor-elect. Armed solely with white flags, the crowd approached the base, where a soldier addressed them: "What is happening, people? What is your problem? We can resolve it." As the mayor-elect, Salvador Ramirez, began to speak, one of the soldiers fired into the air, whereupon other soldiers started firing directly into the crowd.

Eleven people were killed on the spot, and three more died from their wounds. The most seriously injured survivor, a 17-year-old, remains paralyzed in an Oklahoma City hospital.


Community response to the massacre was immediate and overwhelming. When Guatemala's human rights ombudsman arrived in Santiago Atitl n later on December 2, he was met by a outpouring of denunciations, as if a floodgate of emotions had been opened following a decade of deathly silence. Less than 24 hours after the killings, 15,000 thumbprints and signatures had been collected on a petition demanding that those responsible be investigated, tried, and punished, and that the army base be removed immediately.

Resulting investigations were as prompt and thorough as any ever conducted in Guatemala. The mass funeral of victims was attended by at least 50 reporters. The ombudsman's report, issued five days later, publicly censured the army as an institution, named the officers responsible, and called for removal of the garrison. The Catholic Archdiocese Human Rights Office concluded that the army was guilty of crimes of genocide, and recommended compensation to families of those killed or wounded as well as major changes in army policy. Even the usually timorous Guatemalan Congress unanimously passed a resolution calling for the military to leave. In the wake of such unprecedented outcry, the army pulled its 600 troops out of Atitl n on December 20.

Several factors figured prominently in this outcome. Guatemala was in the final days of a closely watched presidential election runoff between two civilian candidates, so electoral politics stimulated willingness to openly address the massacre. Furthermore, with 20,000 inhabitants, Santiago Atitl n is the largest community on Lake Atitl n and a highly visible tourist destination. It also lies directly across the lake from the busy tourist town of Panajachel. And in contrast to the difficulty of holding the military accountable in most cases of violence - attributable only to "unidentified armed men" - thousands had witnessed the Atitl n killings.


Where open expression hitherto would have brought reprisals or death, Atitl n residents now are vocal in denouncing both the massacre and the repeated atrocities that preceded it. They speak of their years of "slavery," when doors were closed at 6:00 and reopened in the morning to news of who was the latest victim. As people sensed the strength of their unified voices, the paralyzing fear that had gripped them for 10 years evaporated; in the same way, such fear gave way to collective outrage over death squad abuses in the neighboring Tzutujil town of San Pedro (Paul and Demarest 1988).

Evidence of community solidarity is everywhere in Atitl n. Black flags or ribbons drape most houses and shops. Catholics and Protestants now come together on the second day of every month for a unique blend of commemorative religious service and civic forum. Over-optimistically perhaps, the mayor declares that "here we have no religious divisions" - remarkable for a community previously rent by religious factionalism.

New forms of maintaining order and protecting hard-won freedoms have also been created. Security patrols composed of men carrying only whistles and white flags conduct nightly rounds, or rondas, directed by a Committee for Security and Development comprised of representatives of all cantons, churches, cooperatives, and other groupings in town (including non-Indians as well as Indians). During one meeting, the committee unanimously rejected an offer by the local contingent of national police to participate in the vigils or to supply the townspeople or patrols with arms, and then went on to discuss how to remove the police, as the army had been. Ensuing discussion focused on the propriety of sending sons or hiring replacements for the rondas; out of this a consensus emerged that since they were all Atitecos, everyone should serve, "even the millionaire and merchant."

New freedom of movement has also rejuvenated an impoverished economy, as men plant again on fields long abandoned because farmers feared being abducted by the soldiers for being in "guerrilla territory." One man had not tilled a cornfield for eight years, ever since soldiers in blackened faces had interrogated him there about his compañeros and hung his brother from a tree. Greater mobility is undoubtedly a factor in the increased coffee harvest this past season.

Despite the heady events of recent months, Atitecos recognize they are walking a tightrope. Civilian leaders publicly reiterate the town's "neutrality," calling on both the Guatemalan Army and guerrilla forces to cease operating in Atitl n or within a 25-km "security perimeter." They urge caution and unity, knowing that informers remain in their midst and that divisiveness exposes weaknesses and potential avenues for the army's return.


The Guatemalan Army is acutely aware that in leaving Santiago Atitl n it risks the erosion of the fear by which it rules elsewhere. Thus it comes as no surprise that on two consecutive days last May, well-armed army patrols entered Atitl n, ostensibly in pursuit of "aggressive elements" (Scott 1991). One patrol came within two kilometers of the town center before being met by about 1,000 unarmed civilians. This is not likely to be the last test of the town's resolve, nor of the publicity that results, and few doubt the army's willingness to provoke or stage an incident.

The army's initial response to the scrutiny over the massacre had been predictable: those questioning its version of events were "enemies of the army." However, faced with mounting criticism, the army took the unprecedented step of running newspaper ads saying that it was a friend of the human rights ombudsman and had a similar mandate to defend fundamental human rights. After conducting its own investigation, the army removed the Atitl n garrison "as a gesture of good will." But, knowing that withdrawal could be interpreted as weakness or set a precedent for demands that bases be removed elsewhere, the army immediately stepped up warnings that no place is off limits. Said one spokesman, "By law, we have the responsibility to protect every part of the national territory" (Scott 1991). The army has specifically emphasized that Santiago Atitl n would remain under military authority since it is in a "zone of conflict."

Rather than moderating its policy, the army seems to be redoubling efforts to assert its presence as a natural part of rural life - regardless of the fact that its "permanence" is really only 10 years old. In fact, it continues to play the dominant role in the economic restructuring of the highlands, the effect of which, as intentional policy or indirectly through de facto military control, has been to greatly reduce indigenous political and economic autonomy (Smith 1990).


Nearby Maya communities have closely monitored the course of events in Santiago Atitl n, realizing that the Guatemalan Army wants to retain a foothold in the lake region. Troops have increased patrols in neighboring hamlets and villages, fully outfitted with submachine guns, Galil rifles, and grenades, as well as piñatas for the children and leaflets proclaiming how "the people trust in their army." Incredibly, where respectful fear for soldiers had been the norm, most people now ignore them. "They want to scare us," said one elderly woman, "but we're not afraid." When calling a meeting to request the stationing of troops in one lakeside village, soldiers were greeted by jeers, firecrackers, and shouts of "Assassins!" In another town, no one showed up when a similar meeting was scheduled. The candidness that has followed in the wake of the Atitl n massacre includes even children. One four-year-old was observed touching a soldier's weapon and asking, "What is this? Is this for killing people?"

The courage of Atitecos was not lost on the rest of the country either, especially when Atitl n's mayor and mayor-elect appeared on national television to explain that the December 2nd massacre was just the latest in a series of violent episodes suffered by the town since the army established its base. The discussion that ensued marked virtually the only time that criticism of the army had been interjected into national political debate. The nation's newspapers raised heretofore taboo questions: Why were civilians less fearful of encounters with guerrillas than with soldiers? Is Guatemala's development really sustained by the military doctrine of national security? Is civilian power simply a fiction in the face of military impunity? Normally muted politicians spoke of the "the dirty war," of the need to reduce troop numbers, and of how Santiago Atitl n signaled popular desire to achieve peace through nonviolent means.

Internationally, the Atitl n massacre was widely condemned. The US State Department cited it as one reason for the suspension of a $2.8 million military aid program to Guatemala. It also entered into its strongest assertion to date of Guatemalan Army responsibility for human rights violations: "Reliable evidence indicates that security forces and civil patrols committed, with almost total impunity, a majority of the major human rights abuses [in Guatemala]" (US Department of State 1991:6341).


Post-massacre events in Santiago Atitl n have been encouraging to other indigenous communities in Guatemala, perhaps most noticeably in that they have opened space for discussion of the army's presence elsewhere in the highlands. It is not coincidental that the language and demands for political rights elsewhere are similar to those that surfaced in Atitl n. Already other communities have stepped up assertions of constitutional rights in order to refuse participation in the "voluntary" civil patrols that are, in fact, army-run. Quiché Indians spoke of Atitl n when urging newly elected president Serano to stop similar massacres in their region. The threat that Atitl n represents to the army is thus one of example: that a civilian populace can successfully mobilize against a powerful military force. (In July the adjacent town of San Lucas Tolim n threw out the army and national police following an incident of violence in which a resident was killed by a soldier. In June and July protests aimed at removing soldiers were increasing in nearby communities such as Solol .)

The experience of Santiago Atitl n holds further lessons for our understanding of social movements. The popular outpouring reveals the possibility of bringing terror under control without resorting to a violent uprising. As an example of the potency of social action as a unique avenue for change, it may reinforce political forces pushing for democratization while perhaps casting doubt on the efficacy of armed struggle. The case of Atitl n also demonstrates how sociopolitical awareness can crystallize around a tragedy. Although their situation remains tenuous, Atitecos are currently dealing with significant issues relating to their rights as indigenous people. Such rising ethnic consciousness, viewed along with the slow but steady growth of Maya intellectuals and professionals nationwide, is cause for optimism.

Nevertheless, whether the Atitl n massacre represents a watershed in the Maya struggle for economic security and social justice, or merely a window of temporary euphoria and hope, cannot be foreseen. Certainly claims of a "new era" in Guatemala are premature, given the virtual omnipresence of forces arrayed against openness and autonomy. The country's violence has hardly diminished: 11 compesinos were killed in a single incident in northern Quiché in mid-February 1991, and 19 bodies turned up throughout Guatemala in just the first weekend of March. Rather than undermining the hegemony of the Guatemalan Army, the massacre may instead have underscored just how deeply embedded the military structure is in rural Guatemala.

The ultimate fate of Santiago Atitl n is, as it has always been, only partially in Atiteco hands. Over the past decade, residents have become more adept in everyday resistance (Scott 1985). They must now combine this skill with more public manifestations of control developed since the massacre if they are to successfully maneuver within their tight political space. What Atitecos fear most is that as memories grow faint, the protection afforded by the outside world will wane. "We need your attention and your prayers," one man implored. "We know what will happen if the army comes back."

How You Can Help

The Guatemalan Army has demonstrated its desire to remilitarize Santiago Atitl n. Whether it succeeds depends both on the continued solidarity of Atitecos and on outside pressure. Letters of support for the people of Atitl n, and of concern for human rights in Guatemala, should be directed to your own Congressional representatives, as well as:

Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair House Foreign Operations Committee

44242 Russell Bldg., rm. 433

Washington, DC 20510

Representative David Obey, Chair Senate Foreign Operations Committee

2462 Rayburn H.O.B.

Washington, DC 20515

President Jorge Serrano Elías

Presidente de la República de Guatemala

Palacio Nacional

Guatemala City, Guatemala


Establishing an exact figure is difficult, in part because official records were destroyed several years ago when ORPA guerrillas bombed Atitl n's municipal building. The vast majority of violent deaths can be attributed to the army troops stationed in Atitl n, and the minimum figure is certainly more than 500.

The fates of Carlsen's three closest Atiteco neighbors are illustrative. The sister-in-law of his house's caretaker was raped, tortured, and murdered. The sister of his next-door neighbor suffered the same fate, her infant was found crawling in the dirt next to her body. And the husband and brother-in-law of his next closest neighbor were disappeared.

The town's refusal to form civil defense patrols was taken as further evidence that Atitl n continued to be a guerrilla stronghold. In fact, guerrilla military operations have been virtually nonexistent in the lake area in the last two years.


Carlsen, R.

1990 Report from Santiago. Report on Guatemala 11(4):4-5.

Carmack, R., ed.

1988 Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Cockrell, C.

1991 Popular Pressure Forces Army Out of Santiago. Report on Guatemala 11(5):4-5, 13.

Cultural Survival

1988 Counterinsurgency and the Development Pole Strategy in Guatemala. Cultural Survival Quarterly 12(3):11-17.

Paul. G.D. and W.J. Demarest

1988 The Operation of a Death Squad in San Pedro la Laguna. In R. Carmack, ed. Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis, pp. 119-154. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Scott, D.C.

1991 Guatemalan Town Insists It's Still Off-Limits to Army. Christian Science Monitor. 30 May.

Scott, J.C.

1985 Weapons of the Week: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith, C.A.

1990 The Militarization of Civil Society in Guatemala: Economic Reorganization as a Continuation of War. Latin American Perspectives 17:8-41.

US Department of State

1991 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990. Washington, DC: US Department of State.

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