Guatemala: Bones Tell Story of U.S.-Backed Massacres

Revolutionary Worker #912, June 22, 1997

In many places in Guatemala, archaeologists and anthropologists are digging up the earth and uncovering the past. But these scientists are not looking for artifacts from the Mayan communities of many centuries ago. They are digging up bones that tell of the horrors that the people of Guatemala suffered over the past several decades. The excavations are unearthing secret graves containing the remains of the victims of mass murders carried out by Guatemala's U.S.-backed military and death squads.

One such excavation site is at the village of San Martin Jilotepeque in central Guatemala, where many people "disappeared" in the 1980s after being stopped at a military checkpoint. According to recent news reports, 35 skeletons have already been discovered from a well that the scientists are excavating. Freddy Peccerelli, an official of the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology which is overseeing the digging, said: "Local people tell us this well could be as much as 100 feet deep, and our team hasn't dug down even a quarter of that distance. So we are not going to know for certain how many bodies are in there until we get to the bottom."

The bones are brought to a makeshift morgue so that people can try to identify the remains of relatives missing since they were taken away by the military or simply disappeared many years ago. The Miami Herald reported on the scene at the morgue on a recent day, when about a dozen women had come to search for the remains of their husbands: "Rifling through the plastic bags containing fractured skulls and tattered clothing, the women cried when they recognized the shirt or sandals worn by their husbands on the day they disappeared."

Another digging site is at the village of Agua Fría about 100 miles northwest of Guatemala City. Last February, forensic scientists uncovered the bones of 167 Quiche Indian men, women and children there. These were all that remained of the population of an entire village wiped out by the Guatemalan army. According to those who saw the massacre, the government troops attacked the village, killed the people and set fire to the bodies in a mass grave. One scientist said, "From a forensic point of view it will be very difficult to identify the victims because the army burnt the bodies."

Agua Fría was one of more than 400 Indian villages completely destroyed by the government's armed forces during the early 1980s.

At Rio Negro, in central Guatemala, the remains of more than 100 children and 80 women were found. In the Petén jungle in north Guatemala, scientists have dug up skeletons with unmistakable signs of torture--their hands and feet were tied behind their backs with rope, which also wound tightly around their necks.

The scientists say that whenever they start digging at a particular location, the local people approach them and point out several other mass graves nearby that need to be excavated. Fernando Moscoso Moller, the director of the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology, said, "People have estimated that there are 400 of these clandestine cemeteries spread all over the country, but that is absurd. There are many, many more than that, the result of a systematic policy of extermination."

More than 150,000 people have been killed by Guatemala's military and death squads in the past four decades. The skeletons now being dug up give stark testimony to the long and gruesome record of U.S.-backed murders in Guatemala.

U.S. Coups and Death Squads

U.S. imperialist presence in Guatemala dates back to 1906 when the United Fruit Company grabbed 170,000 acres of the best farmland. By the 1930s, United Fruit Company was the biggest landowner in Guatemala. The Guatemalan government gave United Fruit all kinds of concessions--such as tax exemptions and guarantees of low wages--that allowed the company to make enormous profits.

In 1954 a bourgeois nationalist government headed by Jacobo Arbenz began carrying out some reforms, including taking over some of the unused land held by United Fruit and distributing it to peasants. The U.S. immediately engineered a coup to overthrow Arbenz and replace him with Colonel Carlos Castillos Armas, who was trained at the U.S. Command and General Staff School in Fort Leavenworth. The CIA coup began a wave of reactionary violence--thousands of people were arrested and many tortured, and large tracts of land were given back to United Fruit and other big landowners.

After the coup, anti-government guerrillas began operating in the mountains. The Pentagon set up a counterinsurgency base, and the Green Berets trained Guatemalan officers. By the late 1960s as many as 1,000 U.S. Special Forces were taking part in a massive counterinsurgency. The Guatemalan military carried out "search and destroy" missions, rounding up villagers and sending them to concentration camps. These and other tactics were borrowed directly from the war that the U.S. was carrying out at the same time against liberation forces in Vietnam.

The notorious White Hand and other death squads made their appearance around this time. The U.S. had a clear hand in this development. Colonel Webber, the head of the U.S. military mission in Guatemala, said that he had urged the Guatemalan military to adopt "the technique of counter-terror." The death squads were a key part of this "counter-terror." Agents working out of the U.S. embassy advised and trained a Guatemalan army unit known as G-2--which carried out torture and assassinations and dumped bodies in secret graves.

Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio, the man hand-picked by the U.S. to head the vicious counterinsurgency in the late 1960s, became known as the "Butcher of Zacapa." In 1970 he became the president of Guatemala. Arana said, "If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so."

In 1982 the "born-again" Christian fascist General Ríos Montt came into power. He was the military chief of staff during the Arana regime and was personally responsible for the massacres of many villages. Ríos Montt announced on TV that he was ordered by "my god" to head up the new military junta. His real "god" was in Washington, D.C. The Reagan administration told Ríos Montt that it was looking forward to a "friendly and fruitful" relationship.

With this blessing, the Guatemalan military and death squads embarked on a new frenzy of mass murder in the countryside. Ríos Montt carried out a U.S.-directed "pacification" strategy known as "beans and rifles." One component was the distribution of food to those who collaborated with the military. A Guatemalan military officer explained, "If you are with us, we'll feed you. If not, we'll kill you." The other component was the conscripting of peasants into "civil defense patrols"--which served as village snitches and shields for the government troops in battles with guerrillas.

Still Seeking Justice

In December 1996 the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) signed an agreement to stop the war. The URNG was formed in 1980 from a merger of several armed groups. The peace agreement is being promoted in some quarters as a "new beginning" in Guatemala. But the agreement will not bring a fundamental change in the power relations in Guatemala. It does not change the situation where a small class of exploiters and oppressors, backed by U.S. imperialism, controls the politics and economics of society--and where nine out of ten peasant families have too little land to grow enough food to survive on.

Nor does the agreement bring full justice to the many victims of the brutal U.S.-backed criminals. Under the agreement, a "truth commission" is supposed to look into human rights abuses committed during the civil war. But the commission has no power to take any action--or even to name individual government and military officials responsible for the crimes.

The uncovering of the mass graves is a huge task--but the scientists and others carrying out the excavations are getting little funding from the government and must scramble for funds. Freddy Peccerelli from the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology said, "At the rate things are going, we have enough work to keep us busy for the next 100 years. There is no way of telling when this is ever going to end."

In San Andrés Sajcabajá, 38-year-old María Chach Ujer is one of the villagers watching anxiously as bones are dug up. She last saw her husband in 1982 when he and five others were taken away by members of a civil defense patrol. She said bitterly, "It's not fair that my children have had to go hungry and grow up without their father and that I have had to leave them and go to the coast to work in the harvest to make the money to keep us alive.

"We have suffered, while the men who killed him laugh in my face when we pass on the street, and sit in their fine houses with their wives and children, enjoying their soup and drinking their milk."

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