This summer I focused on the violence in Rabinal, a municipality in the department of Baja Verapaz, during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala. Specifically, I focused on what the content and production of the GAM’s intake forms in the disappearances collection can tell us about the complexities of violence in Rabinal.
I was introduced to the violence in Rabinal while reading the case files of Emiliano Alvarado Reyes, a Maya Achi man, in the GAM’s disappearances collection. His case stood out to me because up until that point I had only read cases about individuals who were disappeared in Guatemala City and whose family members identified them as Ladino. I was interested in learning what an archive based in Guatemala City could tells us about the violence that took place in the highlands. Additionally, Reyes’ case was the first one digitized that was not about a disappearance. He was murdered in 1981 when he left his community of Chixoy to buy medicine in the central market of Rabinal. His family members knew when, where, and how he was murdered–they even knew where his body was buried. I became interested in why this case was included in a collection about disappearances and if there were other cases that also complicated the categorization of “disappearance”.
When Maya Achi authors have written about the armed conflict, they eschew victimization. The opening pages of the book Oj K’aslik Estamos Vivos explain: “dentro de la reseña histórica que presentamos en estas páginas, optamos por una visión que trata de no victimizar aún más el pueblo maya-achi” (Museo Comunitario 13). I want my research to be faithful to this methodology. In addition to outlining some of the complexities of violence, I seek to explore what the intake forms can tell us about how Maya Achi communities manifest agency and resistance in spite of state violence.
State security forces targeted Mayan communities during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict that lasted from 1960 to 1996. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), of the 42,275 fully-identified victims, eighty-three percent were Mayan and seventeen percent were Ladino. The CEH concluded that state security forces committed acts of genocide against four Mayan communities, including the Maya Achi in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. (CEH) Though the state justified using violence against indigenous communities to eliminate insurgency movements, it took on a racialized form through the massacres and “scorched earth operations” that ravaged the Guatemalan highlands in the early eighties. The scope of who was considered the internal enemy was widened to include not only militant insurgents, but also civilians from specific ethnic groups, namely indigenous Mayans. (CEH) This violence fit with racist ideologies present since colonialism.
State security forces, including the patrullas de autodefensa civil (PACs), committed mass human rights violations against the Maya Achi in Rabinal in the wake of this racialized violence. In the late seventies the state-owned Instituto Nacional de Electrificación (INDE) used funding from the World Bank to construct the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. (Nakba) Throughout the construction of the dam, the INDE failed to consult the Maya Achi community residing in the land surrounding the Chixoy River, a community that in 1981 was 81.86 percent of the 22,733 inhabitants of Rabinal. (CIIDH 64) This would result in the forced displacement of Maya Achi communities from their ancestral lands.
Though Rabinal was located at the crossroads of three guerrilla fronts, there was never a strong guerilla foothold in Rabinal. (Museo Comunitario 92) Despite this, state officials conflated opposition to the dam with participation in the guerilla. (Museo Comunitario, 83) State security forces committed massacres in the communities of Rio Negro, Canchun, Los Encuentros, Rabinal (cabecera municipal), La Ceiba, Panaca, Chichupac, Plan de Sanchez, el Sauce, Agua Fría, Xeabaj, Xesiguan, Pichec, Nicambaj, y Coyaja. (CIIDH 69) By the time the reservoir was filled in January of 1983, the community of Rio Negro alone had witnessed five massacres. (Museo Comunitario 84)
The perpetrators of violence were often Maya Achi men. In indigenous communities throughout Guatemala, men over the age of fifteen were forced into patrullas de autodefensa civil (PAC). The army created these paramilitary groups to fight guerrillas and discourage participation in revolutionary groups in rural communities. (CEH) In Rabinal, the military would arrive in buses at the central market and force the young Achi men who were there selling their products into the buses. (Museo Comunitario, 104) Though Achi men were forcibly mobilized to inflict violence against their own neighbors and community members under the guise of “protection” from guerillas, they also became victims of state violence themselves. Some of the cases I read denounce state violence against non-subversive members of the community and members of the PAC who were often perpetrators of violence themselves. Less common but still present is the violence perpetrated by members of revolutionary groups. The existence of these intake forms that denounce violence committed against and by multiple forces highlight how these intake forms challenge the state violence vs. subversives dichotomy.
It is important to note that the cases from Rabinal in the GAM disappearances collection are not based on first- person testimonies. They are almost exclusively comprised of intake forms, which were used by the GAM to expedite the process of documenting important information relating to disappearances. The intake forms had to be structured in a way that allowed the GAM to extract precise information from loved ones that was going to be helpful for them in fulfilling their mission. Thus, we can never get the complete story by merely reading these intake forms for what they are: impersonal, bureaucratic sites of knowledge production intended to serve the GAM’s mission of delivering justice. When the framing of someone’s lived experience is categorized and broken down into more specific questions that answer Who? What? When? Where? whoever is providing their testimony is not granted the space to insert their emotions. The monotonous nature of bureaucratic intake forms obscures pain.
Though intake forms are rigid and warrant answers to specific questions, we see the family members of the victims of violence resist telling only part of the story in an effort to document what is important to them. In all of the cases from Rabinal, the last page of the intake form is turned over and used to provide a narrative description of the events. These narrative descriptions reveal that in Rabinal, disappearances were only one form of violence, as one person was often victim of multiple forms of violence. Army officers from the military base of Rabinal, for example, committed two violations against Selestino Exitricoc Rodriguez, a member of the PAC. One morning they forcibly took him from his shift and punished him by tying his hands and hitting him all day. He was released that same night and was able to return to his home. Fifteen days later, however, he was forcibly taken from his home one night while he was sleeping with his family. He was never seen again.
In addition to violence against family members, Maya Achi working with the GAM reported other forms of loss which also highlight lived experiences that were important to them. For example, the wife of Francisco Alvarado-Coloch reports the disappearance of her husband, who was captured in the central market of Rabinal. Additionally, she reports “después de la muerte del señor Francisco los robaron una yunta de Bueyes y una mula y los Robaron 30 quintales y los patrulleros me pidieron dinero para comprar armas”. Though this does not constitute direct violence against a person, the loss of animals, land, and other property was important to many in Rabinal because their livelihood often depended upon these assets. We are able to see how important it was for people because there is no question on the intake form that calls for an answer about loss of property, yet we find that people bring this up in conjunction with the violence committed against their loved one.
The Rabinal cases in the GAM disappearances collection include likely victims of massacres, which further nuances the category of “disappearances”. These cases differ from discourses about massacres that highlight numbers because we are able to learn about individual people. Though manifested in depersonalized intake forms, we get a name and a description of the last time they were seen.
Investigations conducted by the CEH, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, and the Museo Comunitario Rabinal Achi agree that on September 15, 1981 anywhere from 200 to 800 people were massacred in Rabinal. According to the Museo Comunitario Rabinal Achi, this massacre is the least documented and took place two days after the EGP’s failed attack on the military base in Rabinal. (Museo Comunitario 199) What we do know is that the Guatemalan military took advantage of Maya Achi rural communities’ mobilization into the central market to celebrate Independence Day. The celebration began in the morning and by noon, the massacre had begun.
Four cases from the GAM’s disappearances collection have violations that occurred on September 15, 1981. According to Mateo Alvarado’s wife:
(In this case: At about 7 am the victim was on his way to the central market in the municipality of Rabinal. He was going to sell his livestock at said market, and after he sold his livestock, he went to make some purchases with his wife. His wife headed home and while the husband was making purchases, the victim was alone in that moment. It was in that moment that he was disappeared but no one knows what happened.)
Given what we know about what was happening at the central market in Rabinal, it is highly likely that Mateo Alvarado was massacred. Note, however, that his wife does not say that he was massacred, opting instead for saying that he was disappeared. Could my knowledge as a researcher and my inclination to label him victim of a massacre obstruct the wife’s memory of her husband? How can we balance our biases as researchers with respecting how survivors of massacres choose to remember their loved ones?
Not only did I find traces of resistance in the content of the intake forms, but also in their production. Almost without exception, when asked to detail the steps taken following the violation against their loved one, family members responded with variations of the following: nothing, we were too afraid. Considering that the vast majority of violations in the cases from Rabinal took place in the early eighties, it is telling that it wasn’t until the late nineties that family members felt safe making any sort of denuncias. I argue that even in the late nineties, the political climate in Rabinal presented imminent dangers to those working with the GAM. In August of 1994, right around the time that these intake forms were produced, the following message was sent to the US embassy:
Despite these intimidations, family members still traveled to Guatemala City, about one hundred kilometers south of Rabinal, to speak with the GAM about the human rights violations committed against their loved ones. It is likely that the travels may have placed financial strains on family members. The opportunity to seek justice after living in silence for so long, however, most likely outweighed these obstacles.
Though time constraints hindered me from completing more close reads of these cases, I believe that their existence within this collection is invaluable not only for research purposes, but for the preservation of historical memory. As Jesus Tecu Osorio, a survivor of the Rio Negro massacres, notes at the beginning of his book, “que nuestras hijas e hijos, nuestras nietas y nietos la conozcan [la historia sangrienta] y no se olviden de ella” (Tecu). As survivors of state violence begin to leave this world, their narratives are not guaranteed preservation. The archive, by nature, provides tools to resist forgetting. The cases from Rabinal in the GAM disappearances archive are important because they document the complexities of these histories of violence. How they could be used by communities in Rabinal remains to be seen.
Centro Internacional para Investigaciones en Derechos Humanos. Quitar El Agua Al Pez: Analisis Del Terror En Tres Comunidades Rurales de Guatemala (1980-1984). 1996.
Einbinder, Nathan. Dams, Displacement, and Development: Perspectives from Rio Negro, Guatemala. Colegio de la Frontera Sur San Cristobal de las Casas, 2017. Equipo de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. Las Masacres En Rabinal: Estudio Historico Antropologico de Las Masacres de Plan de Sanchez, Chichupac, y Rio Negro. 1997. Guatemala-Memory-of-Silence-the-Commission-for.Pdf.
Museo Comunitario Rabinal Achi. Oj K’aslik = Estamos Vivos: Recuperacion de La Memoria Historica de Rabinal (1944-1996).
Nakba, Thaddeus al. “Guatemala: The Forgotten Spirits of Rabinal.” Upside Down World, 26 Aug. 2008, http://upsidedownworld.org/archives/guatemala/guatemala-the-forgotten-spirits-of-rabinal/.
Schmidt (ProPublica), Krista Kjellman. Guatemala: Memory of Silence, The Commission for Historical Clarification Conclusions and Recommendations https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/357870-guatemala-memory-of-silence-the-commission-for.html. Accessed 9 Aug. 2018.
Tecu Osorio, Jesus. Memoria de Las Masacres de Rio Negro: Recuerdo de Mis Padres y Memoria Para Mis Hijos. 2002.