By definition, genocide is the most extreme form of racism that includes the physical destruction of an ethnic group. During the period between the 1970s and 1980s, the Mayan people in Guatemala were the target of a brutal genocide that was primarily perpetrated by the state under a terrorist and racist policy designed to strengthen and protect the economic and political power of the country’s embattled social elite.
Known as the Guatemalan Genocide, the event occurred between 1981 and 1983 and was actually part of the 1960-1996 civil war in the country, which started when the Mayans became victims of prejudice, racism, inequality and hate crimes, which gave them enough consciousness to militarize. The genocide began when the war got too heated and had built up enough tension to provoke the state to orchestrate the massacres of Mayans across Guatemala.
The United Nations (UN) made several attempts to create peace between the rebel insurgents, Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) and the Guatemalan Government, and they eventually succeeded. It was until 2001 the people of Guatemala charged a government and military official of murdering men, women and children, with witnesses providing verbal confirmation and evidence of the massacre, though the witnesses still received death threats from the perpetrators of the genocide and their supporters.
Guatemalan Genocide Statistics
On the 18th of July 1982, Guatemalan President, General Rios Montt, explained his blunt domestic policies to a country that was enduring four decades of civil war. In his statement, he said, “If you are with us, we’ll feed you; if not, we’ll kill you.” His 2-year rule then indeed saw his paramilitary death squads killing tens of thousands of mostly indigenous people in Guatemala who insisted to feed themselves, including hundreds of villagers at Plan de Sanchez who were victimized just hours after the president’s remarks. This genocide episode became part of the Silent Holocaust that grew out of 36 years of internal armed conflict between the Guatemalan Army and different guerrilla groups. According to the 1996 investigation by the Commission for Historical Clarification on acts of violence and human rights violations linked to the period of armed conflict, such a military confrontation led to high human cost for the country’s society as a whole. Nevertheless, 83% of the victims were Mayan civilians who predominantly consist of older adults, women and children.
The investigation also found out that the country’s state forces were responsible for 91% of the total genocidal acts and human rights violations, while the guerrillas only accounted for around 3%. The Guatemalan Army introduced 3 genocidal campaigns, namely “Model Villages”, “Scorched Earth” and “CPR Persecution”, between 1981 and 1983, clearly demonstrating the cruelty and racism that were inherent in using counter-insurgency forces.
From 1979 to 1980, the number of killings each day increased from an average of 20 to 30 to an estimated 30 to 40, which equaled to an estimated 5,000 deaths in 1980 alone. These numbers rose even more up until 1983 when the actual genocide went.
As for the death toll and damage caused by the genocide, it was said that the country’s army destroyed 626 villages, killed and made missing more than 200,000 people, displaced an additional 1.5 million and drove more than 150,000 refugees to Mexico. All in all, the death toll exceeded those of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and Argentina combined. In the war, government forces, which were supported with training and financing from the US, committed over 90% of the human rights violations.
Guatemalan Genocide Facts
To fully understand the Guatemalan Genocide, it is best to understand the important facts behind it.
1. Reason for the Genocide
The Guatemalan government used its Army to start a systematic campaign of suppression and repression against the Mayan Indians, as it claimed that this indigenous group was working towards a communist coup. The genocide was then called the Silent Holocaust.
2. Killings, Torture and Rape
During the war, children were beaten against walls or thrown alive into pits, where the killed adults were later thrown. There were also torture and rape, where many of the victims were impaled or had their limbs amputated, and then left to die slowly, while others were disemboweled or doused in petrol then set alight while still alive. S for women, they were routinely raped while tortured, and the wombs of those who were pregnant were cut open. Those who are widowed could scarcely survive the trauma, with the existence of sexual violence in the memory of everyone in the community having become a source of collective shame. Though it was not the main idea of the genocide, women were often raped before being killed, and many who survived were tortured.
3. Effects on the Survivors
After the Guatemalan Genocide, the survivors’ lives were greatly affected, where most of them lost their families, so they did not have anyone to return to. Many Mayans were no longer able to return and make use of their villages and towns, as these were destroyed under the Scorched Earth policy, where soldiers would burn down houses, farms, sacred places; contaminate water resources; and kill off any farm animals.
4. Role of the Aggressors
As the government viewed the Mayan Indians as second-class citizens, it believed that they were collaborating with the civil war guerrillas. With this justification, the government proceeded with its attempt to terminate the Mayans. And because the soldiers were under control of a dictator, they did not have any say about the things that were going on.
5. Role of the Military and State-Supported Militias
In June 1994, the UN brokered peace accords, allowing the Commission for Historical Clarification to deal with human rights abuses. In the commission’s detailed report, it stated that the state-supported militias and the military were responsible for most of the violence and concluded that most human rights violations took place by order or with the knowledge of the highest authorities in Guatemala.
6. Response from the International Community
There were many through which the international community responded to the genocide, including one where they sent commissioners to travel to the country to gather witness statements to decipher the actions of the government, where witnesses were protected by the UN.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.