By Louisa Reynolds
A plain, white, cement cross, marks the spot, next to the bridge that one has to cross to enter the tiny village of Chel, ensconced in the Guatemalan highland department of Quiché, where 95 Mayan Ixil civilians were brutally slain on April 3, 1982.
There is no plaque, no flowers, no names engraved in stone, just a humble reminder of the men and women who were shot and hacked to death with machetes and the infants whose tiny bodies were thrown against the rocks by soldiers from the Gumarcaj Task Force.
The massacre is described in detail in “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” the report produced by the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, after the Peace Accords were signed in 1996.
By the early 1980s, the municipalities known as the Ixil Triangle: Santa María Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul and San Juan Cotzal, in the highland department of Quiche, had become one of the main stages for the EGP guerrillas’ insurgent operations.
“The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea,” said dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982, in an attempt to justify his brutal onslaught against the Ixil population in an effort to drive out the rebel forces.
Guatemala’s president-elect, retired army Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, was one of the commanders of the Gumarcaj Task Force, stationed in Chajul, where 26 villages were totally or partially destroyed, there were 10 massacres, 317 unarmed civilians were killed and 9,000 people were displaced.
This year’s election results reveal a shocking finding: a majority of voters in the three Ixil municipalities chose Pérez Molina in the first round. However, this result was reversed during the second round, on Nov. 6, when those voters favored opposition candidate Manuel Baldizón.
Ties to multiple massacres
In March 1982, one month before the Chel massacre, another atrocity was committed, this time in the municipality of Rabinal, in the northern department of Baja Verapaz, Civil Defense Patrols, as the paramilitary forces were known, murdered 70 women and 107 children.
Rabinal voted for Pérez Molina’s right-wing Patriot Party in the first and second round, in two consecutive general elections. This appears to confirm a disturbing trend: some of the Mayan populations that bore the brunt of the army’s “scorched earth” policy, support a candidate who actively participated in that bloody chapter of Guatemalan history.
Juan Dionisio Marcos de León, a Mayan youth leader from Nebaj, was born a year after the massacres in the Ixil Triangle but is well aware of his people’s history. He said that paradoxically, many people in Nebaj regard Ríos Montt as a hero. “They’re grateful to him for building a road that runs through the area and they don’t realize that it was built to facilitate the entrance of the troops, not to benefit the Ixil people,” said de León.
The family members of those slain by the army tend to choose non-military options such as the ruling UNE party. The rest tend to vote for whichever candidate doles out the most handouts from food baskets to building materials during political rallies, regardless of whether this is a retired army general who murdered their people.
Why the shift?
But why did the three Ixil municipalities vote for Pérez Molina in the first round and Baldizón in the second?
Political scientist Renzo Rosal, of Rafael Landívar University, says that wartime atrocities did not create an anti-military consciousness among the indigenous populations affected due to the generation gap between the voters of today and those affected by the armed conflict. “The new generations want to look to the future, history is like a shackle that they’re trying to shake off,” he said.
Fifteen years after the Peace Accords, the Education Ministry has yet to include the armed conflict and its causes in the syllabus. As a result, a new generation of Guatemalans is unaware of its own history.
Former paramilitaries still have a strong grip over local political structures and many indigenous populations are strongly conservative due to the influence of evangelical churches that often preach that the poor are to blame for their predicament, adds Rosal.
Edgar Gutiérrez, Bishop Gerardi’s main collaborator in producing the Recuperation of Historical Memory, or REMHI report, an effort led by the Catholic Church to record human rights violations committed during the armed conflict, agrees.
“The massacres tear apart the life and history of these communities. But what happens after that? Who wrote history during the next 30 years? In most of these areas, the army constituted itself as the new authority and repeatedly told people: “We’re the ones who rescued you. The guerrillas duped you and then abandoned you to your fate,” said Gutiérrez. “Years after we published the REMHI report, I returned to the communities where we interviewed people and they talk about the past with the same bitterness. The only difference is that today they add new grievances such as government corruption, the inadequateness of the compensation schemes set up after the war and the gang problem. “They don’t connect the horrors of the past with the significance of voting for Pérez Molina,” he added.