Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Indigenous Peoples' Rebellion in Central America: A Remembrance of Things to Come?

[While a lot of attention has been focused on Honduras lately, I'd like to reflect on those years not long ago when the indigenous peoples of Guatemala decided they had to take up arms against a series of brutal dictatorships.

Guatemala remains a powder keg.]

Toward the end of the 20th century and, perhaps, for the first time since the Spanish Conquest, the indigenous peoples of Guatemala were once again taking up arms against the government. As a result, some U.S. State Department officials were afraid that, by their example, Guatemala’s indigenous peoples would show their cousins in neighbouring Mexico the road to revolution.

It was an observation that wasn’t lost on at least one indigenous member of the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP) – the Guerrilla Army of the Poor whom I interviewed at the time. When the interview took place, 1980, the EGP was Guatemala’s largest guerrilla group.

“We are fighting for our survival, for our way of life, against a corrupt government that wants to destroy us and our culture,” said the young guerrilla fighter. “We Indians have to fight together. I’ve been to Mexico, on my way to the United States. I know how the Indians there live. We can’t help them now. But we will after we win the revolution here.”

Little did anyone know that before the century ended, an armed group calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation would emerge in Chiapas in 1994 and declare war against the Mexican state. However, I don’t know what influence the earlier indigenous guerrilla movement in Guatemala had –and has -- on the Zapatistas.

Although armed insurrection among Mexico’s estimated 30 million indigenous peoples was still a vague, rarely expressed possibility in the last half of the 1900s, by 1980 certain facts could no longer be ignored. And if these facts were not acted upon, the spectre of an indigenous revolution would continue to haunt Mexico. For example:

• 17,000 Nahua and Otomi who lived in the mountains of Veracruz had to eat raw worms to keep from starving to death. In 1979 30 of their children had died of hunger.
• About 150,000 indigenous peoples in Mexico were forced off their lands because of their inability to obtain credit to buy seeds and farm equipment.
• On June 15, 1980 the Mexican Army killed at least 47 indigenous peoples in Chiapas during an attempt by impoverished peasants to claim land for their own. By September of that year, hundreds of families, fearful of similar treatment, had fled into the hills and forests.
• Though the average per capita income of Mexicans was more than $1,100 per year, the indigenous peoples of Chiapas worked 16-hour days on large ranches for wealthy latifundistas (large landholders) for less than $1 a day. Conditions were similar to those of the 19th century, when Mexicans of European heritage exploited indigenous peoples and took their land, according to Mexican anthropologist Ricardo Pozas Arciniega.
• Early in 1980 seven Mexican bishops had denounced the increasing number of killings of indigenous peoples and peasants – estimated to be in the hundreds – by the army, police and latifundistas in the states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Veracruz and Chiapas.
• Thousands of indigenous peoples in the state of Hidalgo formed organisations to present a united front against the government and local strong men.

The Mexican government adopted several political postures toward the country’s indigenous peoples over the years, from denying their existence to token displays of support, said Francisco Rojas Cuevas, adjutant director of the country’s National Indigenous Institute. Rojas then recounted some statistics about the country’s indigenous population.

Approximately 1 million indigenous people did not understand Spanish, he said. The indigenous population was divided into 56 ethnic groups, the largest of which was formed by the 1 million who spoke Nahua, the language of the Aztecs. The second largest ethnic group was made up of indigenous people who spoke Maya, or one of the closely related languages, and live, for the most part, in southeastern Mexico. Indigenous peoples in parts of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras also speak Maya.

In 1932, the indigenous peoples of El Salvador began what has been called the first attempt at a communist revolution in Latin America. More than 30,000 people were killed during the uprising. After the army emerged victorious, the indigenous peoples, fearful of further repression, stopped speaking their native languages and never again wore their traditional clothing. But El Salvador’s indigenous peoples achieved a kind of notoriety at the same time they almost lost their culture. For the country’s guerrilla movements toward the last decades of the 20th century took their inspiration from that bloody uprising half a century earlier.

Nowhere, however, were the indigenous peoples of Central America as militant as in Guatemala. There, they not only joined existing guerrilla groups, but more significantly, formed their own, all indigenous revolutionary organisations.

Squatting in a small, hot, humid room behind a church, a university-educated Quiche man and 15 other Guatemalan indigenous men and women from surrounding villages were planning an armed insurrection. They had already made arrangements to get arms and training from the EGP.

“This is a separate organisation,” said the EGP guerrilla attending the meeting. “We will help them all we can, but it is their organisation. They are not responsible to us.”

Meanwhile, in Guatemala City, sitting in the air-conditioned office of the daily newspaper, La Prensa Libre, the managing editor said rumours were spreading throughout the city about an all-indigenous group calling itself Gregorio Yuxa.

“If this is true,” said the editor, “it would be the first time that the Indians of our country have formed their own revolutionary organisation. Up until recently, we didn’t even think they would join the other guerrilla groups, such as the EGP, much less form their own organisation.”

Because of the assumed passivity of the indigenous peoples, their growing militancy caught not only Guatemala by surprise, but the U.S. State Department, as well. In 1979, then-assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Viron P. Vaky, told a congressional subcommittee that Guatemala’s guerrillas were “isolated from the large but unassimilated Indian population in rural areas.”

But Vaky’s September 1979 testimony contradicted a secret U.S. intelligence report prepared five months earlier. That document did not appear in the subcommittee’s report. In the classified document, intelligence officials SAID Cuba was “impressed with (the EGP’s) initial success in recruiting members of Guatemala’s Indian population.”

The indigenous resistance to the government was highlighted during the occupation of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980 by peasants from villages in the Quiche province. Their villages had been under military occupation since 1975, when the EGP killed an influential local landowner. The occupants in the embassy were part of a delegation of 89 indigenous people from the province who had come to the capital three weeks before to protest what they called “army atrocities,” including the disappearance of more than 100 local peasants.

Earlier, in October 1979, another delegation of indigenous people had gone to Guatemala City to register a protest about the army’s abduction and presumed murder of nine peasants over a two-month period. They were sent home with the promise that an investigation would be conducted into the matter. The investigation was never conducted, while 60 more peasants from the area were reported to have been killed between November 1979 and February 1980.

The plight of the indigenous peoples received worldwide attention when the Guatemalan police stormed the occupied Embassy. A fire started during the attack and killed 39 people, mostly native people. One of the two survivors, Gregorio Yuxa, was kidnapped from his hospital bed and killed by right-wing terrorists the following day. The recently formed guerrilla group carried his name.

Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala over the government’s handling of the embassy incident.

Meanwhile, the army’s counter-insurgency drive in the Quiche province continued to cause increased friction between the army and the indigenous population. There were complaints that soldiers raped native women, terrorized the towns and villages, and made arbitrary arrests. To counter the Guatemalan army’s increasingly bad image among the country’s 3,574,800 indigenous peoples – 54% of the population – the government resorted to an extensive advertising campaign to portray the soldier as “the Indian’s friend.”

But the public relations blitz fizzled, in part because most of the propaganda was disseminated through television commercials depicting friendly gatherings of soldiers and indigenous peoples. Most indigenous peoples, however, did not own television sets. Most did not even have electricity.

The EGP selected Quiche province as its centre of operations because of the widespread land conflicts, and the continuing turmoil over police and army brutality in the area.

The conflicts over land arose from the fact that in most of Quiche the land is in the hands of a few landowners. One part of the province had more widespread land distribution, but even there it was dominated by a few large coffee plantations, and landless indigenous people were a source of cheap labour.

The lot of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples worsened since 1970, with many small tenant farmers forced off their land by large landowners. With an eye on the rising price of coffee on the world market, the area’s latifundistas moved to increase their profits by producing a bigger coffee crop with the land obtained from the tenant farmers. In addition, the more landless peasants, the more available cheap labour for the coffee grower to choose from.

When the army occupied Quiche in 1975, the soldiers found ready collaborators among the area’s landowners and labour contractors. They were quick to identify suspected EGP sympathizers, who were then handed over to the army. They also enlisted the aid of the ladinos (mixed indigenous and European heritage), who often owned small plots of land, as spies in communities where it was thought there was guerrilla support.

“The ladinos in Guatemala are afraid of a race war,” said an EGP guerrilla. “They have exploited the Indians for centuries and now they are afraid of us. But it is a struggle of the Indians, the poor ladinos and the workers against the government. We try to stress that to our people.”

Until 1979 the army’s method of curbing guerrilla activity was to arrest or kill anyone suspected of being sympathetic to the guerrillas. The tactic was used successfully against guerrillas during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The insurgents were routed.

But by the late 1970s, the army began to recognize that their strong-arm tactics had become increasingly counterproductive, as they received progressively less cooperation from the indigenous population. In early 1979 the military decided to modify its tactics. A permanent army garrison was set up in Quiche, and in July 1979 a major “civil-military” campaign was started.

Since then, the army strategy aimed at winning over the local population by sending in doctors, dentists and free food and medical supplies.

The indigenous population, however, remained suspicious of the army and the government it represented. They cited dozens of cases of government repression.

Among them were:

• Peasants in two towns – San Marcus and Huehuetenango – left their homes in record numbers because of a wave of kidnappings they attributed to the military police.
• A peasant leader was kidnapped in the northern province of Peten in February 1979, another in Guatemala City toward the end of the year.
• Sixty peasants in another town in Peten were accused of being guerrillas. Several were arrested.
• Two peasants – assistants to the local priest – were kidnapped in Guatemala’s south coast and carried away in cars with government license plates.
• Men “dressed like soldiers” assaulted a village in the eastern province of Zacapa.
• Two workers at the Palo Gordo sugar mill, in the western part of the country near the Mexican border, were kidnapped.

In addition to the increasing numbers of indigenous peoples joining guerrilla groups, entire villages rose up against their occupation troops. For example, in the village of Senahu in the northeast, a group of indigenous woodcutters – men and women – attacked a police patrol that was carrying off one of their friends on charges of violating the forestry law. In another case, two youths were picked up by the Treasury Police for distributing subversive material. More than 300 people in the village of Chalva surrounded the police and forced them to hand over the youths. On another occasion, 200 indigenous people from the village of Chajgual surrounded the city hall at Santa Maria Cahabon, demanding that six peasants jailed for defending their land be freed.

Obviously, the discontent of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples was widespread.

“We’re not fighting for communism or capitalism or socialism,” said a young indigenous guerrilla. “We’re fighting for our survival.”

To help them with their struggle, the indigenous peoples counted on the support of Marxist-oriented guerrilla groups such as the EGP and sympathetic elements of the Roman Catholic Church.

“We just can’t stand idly by and watch these people get slaughtered,” said Father Donald McKenna, a 30-year-old Irish priest who served his parishioners in Quiche for two years. As an advocate of the theology of liberation, McKenna, who was on the government’s death list, was convinced that the church had to take the side of the poor and that “if we have to fight alongside the Indians, so be it.”

As the revolution in Guatemala escalated, indigenous people were increasingly being driven farther and farther north. Many of them were forced to seek refuge in neighbouring Mexico, whose border with Guatemala is virtually open.

Weapons were being smuggled to the EPG using the same routes that had been used for years by gunrunners and drug smugglers. Some Guatemalan guerrillas were already using the Mexican border as a refuge from government forces.

But there was good reason to believe that the traffic in guns and guerrillas would not affect only Guatemala. As refugees and guerrillas brought with them the latest reports of the Mayan revolt in Guatemala, sharing experiences with their Mayan cousins in Chiapas, Quintana Roo and the other states in Mexico’s southeast, the indigenous peoples of Mexico took notice. The Zapatista movement was a beginning.

The final chapter has yet to be written.


  1. I think history is beginning to repeat itself in a lot of latin american countries but with a backlash towards America and those in power, the industrialists.

    In El Salvador a lot of peasant and working class people (be they indigenous or ladino or white) are divided in whether they are supportive of America or against it. The recent historic FMLN election is symbolic of that.

    Its now becoming an issue of economic oppression of rich and poor not necessarily dictated by ethnicity or race but of political pursuation and the people's frustration of the ever increasing gap between the have's and the have not's.

  2. that was a very interesting read. Thank you. I'll be checking your blog from now on.