Interviews: Witness to Massacre

Marcie Mersky

Edited from an interview by Patricia Flynn and Mary Jo McConahay in September 2001.

Marcie MerskyMarcie Mersky

The Roots of Conflict

Guatemala had a very long history of authoritarian rule, with a small attempt right after the end of the Second World War to establish a democratic government, what's called in the country a democratic spring. That experiment was brought to an end by a coup financed and organized by the United States government, through its intelligence apparatus. That really led to a series of military governments, direct military rule, for the next several decades. That was in many ways the background and context in which this armed conflict unfolds.

The reason why the U.S. would intervene clandestinely through its intelligence forces in Guatemala had to do with seeing the new democratically-elected Guatemalan government as a threat to large economic interests from the U.S. who were very active in Guatemala at the time. I'm thinking particularly of the United Fruit Company, which was a very important actor in the Guatemalan scene at that point, and the relationship between high officials of that company with high officials in the U.S. State Department at that time. That's a very important factor that helps us to understand what the U.S. government perceived to be at stake at that point.

I think as a U.S. citizen it's so hard to confront, but in Guatemala the very first mass disappearance occurred in 1966 when more than thirty political union leaders were kidnapped and disappeared during an operation which was largely designed by U.S. intelligence personnel who had been sent to Guatemala to train the Guatemalan military in counter-subversion techniques. That really set the stage for how the armed conflict would play out over the next years, and it eventually developed into a state policy of repressing political opposition, a vision of an "internal enemy" who had to be eliminated.

By the late 1970s, by 1977 in fact, the human rights situation of the country had gotten so bad that the U.S. government decided to cut off new military aid to Guatemala. But this, of course, came after almost two decades of U.S. military training [of Guatemalans] in counter-insurgency tactics and strategies. Much of that training took place in the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia or in Panama as a part of the [U.S.] command operations that were based in Panama for so long. Part of the military aid that came through different channels (not always formally established channels but approved by the [U.S.] Congress) included helicopter parts, which were very important in the tactics used against Indian communities. So official military aid is cut off in 1977 by the U.S. government, but in fact there's a large backlog of promised aid in the pipeline as well. [So there were] really parallel policies of the U.S. government toward Guatemala. One was its official cutting off of military aid in 1977, which was sustained throughout the 1980s because of the human rights situation, and another was an active policy of diplomatic support even in the years when acts of genocide were being committed. You have President Reagan coming to the region and saying that the Head of State General Rios Montt was getting a "bum rap," that he was misunderstood.

The Truth Commission

I've lived and worked in Guatemala over the last 23 years, in residence for about 16 of those. I've worked in research and policy development, rural development (especially related to environmental issues), and I've worked on the human rights situation, documenting human rights violations and trying to seek different ways in which to redress them. I worked on both the Church's national study of political violence in the country, as well as in the official Truth Commission that was set up as a part of the peace accords.

I was in charge of one of the regional offices [of the Truth Commission]. We were out basically every day taking testimonies from people in the communities that had been most affected by the years of armed conflict, who had suffered the burden and the brunt of those actions. The overwhelming repetition of one story after another saying the same kinds of things lends enormous confidence and credence to those results. There's something in the very intense, almost, demand in the way people tell their stories that says, "You must believe this, you must believe what I'm saying, because it really happened." I think this is because the events that people lived through are so incredible... almost unbelievable, in terms of the levels of brutality and inexplicable violence in [comparison to] people's daily experience beforehand.

The Truth Commission concluded that throughout the period of the armed conflict there was a consorted policy of human rights violations directed against what was considered to be an "internal enemy." That internal enemy was different at different points in the 34 years of the armed conflict. At some points, the internal enemy was configured as opposition politicians, or as union leaders, university students and leaders, people with an oppositional voice.

Later, in the period from 1981 to 1983, as there becomes (in some respects) a peasant and Indian uprising in sections of the country, the state directs its policy of mass violations of human rights at those communities. [When you say] that the acts of violence were the result of state policy, that is to say they couldn't be considered simple excesses of bad officers. In fact, the situation was so concentrated in that respect, especially in the period of 1981 to 1983, that the Truth Commission concluded that there were acts of genocide committed against certain of the indigenous groups in the country. That was demonstrated using the International Convention on Genocide, a very strict parameter for qualifying different acts as acts of genocide. This was the conclusion of the Commission based on very extensive on-site investigation, taking testimony over the course of eighteen months from more than twenty thousand different survivors, family members, and other people in the regions where these events took place who could demonstrate very clearly that they had taken place and why.

The Truth Commission concluded, based on this independent research, that 93 percent of the human rights violations were committed by the state or forces very closely linked to the state, like civil patrols. The civil patrols basically included all adult men over the age of sixteen to eighteen, especially in rural areas. They were structured as paramilitary forces for local control under the direct command of the local military commanders. So, 93 percent [of the acts] were committed by state forces of one kind or another, 3 percent by guerilla forces, this to say by insurgent guerilla forces, and another 4 percent the Commission simply couldn't identify. It could prove that the event had taken place, but not who had actually committed the violation. About 85 percent of the identified victims were Indian people, but the list of victims includes people from all walks of life: Indians, peasants, students, professors, lawyers, doctors, workers, housewives, Catholics and Protestants. So that it really covers the range of people who make up Guatemalan society.

"Never Again": The Catholic Church Report

The Catholic Church, a couple of years before the Truth Commission began its work, began a separate independent investigation of what had happened during the years of the internal armed conflict. It produced a report called "Never Again." I worked on the first phase of that report in setting up the investigative fieldwork operation, which took testimony throughout many diocese of the country, working through church structures and community structures. It came to very similar conclusions as the Truth Commission, that there was a systematic pattern of mass violations committed against very large sectors of the population, with many of the violations focused on Indian communities. Oftentimes entire Indian communities were the object of these human rights violations, so it wasn't just individual cases of selective repression but really large-scale massacres that affected literally hundreds of Indian communities across the country.

Within 48 hours after the Church presented its report, the Bishop who had overseen the entire project, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered in his own parish house in the dark of night, in a crime that has now been shown to have been directed by military and former military people.

Breaking the Silence

One of the things that these projects documenting human rights violations have sought to do is to break the silence around these events. I think maybe at one point the perpetrators felt that by having mass raids and trying to hide the bodies, they could hide the voices as well -- that those voices would be buried along with the people who were killed in the massacres. I think that's been one of the really important functions both of the Church's project and Truth Commission's, to bring those voices back to life. The exhumations that have gone on [are] another way that the voices have been brought back in a different form, not in the form of words but the remains of people, their bones, which for a forensic anthropologist actually speak in ways that sometimes words don't capture.

One of the interesting things about taking testimonies from middle-class professionals in Guatemala City is that oftentimes their testimonies to the Truth Commission were framed in fear. So that one of the first things that people would say was, "I am very afraid to be telling you this, you have no idea how hard it was for me to convince myself to come in, because I am afraid," and that persistent fear is a part of daily life even though the mechanisms of terror aren't being applied today.

For so long this society was silent about what was going on. There were all different kinds of censorship -- of the press, or the fear itself acted as a kind of censorship -- and so in some places, particularly in the cities, oftentimes young people don't know what happened. Or sometimes their parents are in denial about what went on in the country. I think one of the really big challenges in the future is how not only to make the figures known, but really for young people to understand how this happened, why it happened, what was at stake and who was responsible, not only in terms of the direct commission of terrible acts but also in terms of whose interests were being served [and] to have some understanding of different kinds of complicities.

The history of the armed conflict and the consequences to date is not available in the school curriculum. Unfortunately, while there are a number of different institutions and social organizations that have worked very hard to get the history into textbooks, they have been unsuccessful so far.


The signing of a peace accord is really only one very little piece in the puzzle of how societies come to terms with terrible things having been done to people for many years. The conflict here didn't drop out of the sky. It wasn't a plague that dropped on people. It was based on very deeply-rooted conflicts and patterns of exclusion, on people not having access to very basic things like food and education and work and political expression. Until those conflicts and differences are really dealt with in meaningful ways, [there will not be] a solidified peace, a peace that really means something in people's everyday lives.

I think that's another of the lessons of this post-conflict period -- maybe I wouldn't call it a post-conflict period as it's often called, but a post-war period. You learn that there are many different kinds of peace. There's a formal peace which is based on two forces signing a peace of paper. [That's] very important. I'm not trying to belittle that. But there's a peace that has to deal with people feeling that they have some kind of security for themselves, for their own development, for their own realization as human beings and for their children. Will their children be part of a better world, will they have a possibility of contributing to that world or will they be weak participants, materially weak, politically weak? That's a different kind of peace.

If there's not a simple explanation for the war, [then] there's not a simple explanation for peace or how you build it. It involves rethinking this society and learning new ways of acting. It defies simple recipes. While actions like exhumations, or having people who were a part of opposing forces sit down at a table and talk to each other, are important pieces of some notion of reconciliation or peace-building, they're simply that, pieces.

[We need to] address what underlies that armed conflict in the first place: political participation, economic rights, cultural rights, social rights [and] recognition of the value of the lives that were lost. One of the things that I've tried to communicate lately to people is how important [it is] that part of the counter insurgency [policy was] seeing "the other" as the enemy constantly.

People whose lives were lost -- the victims of these violations -- were often seen to be criminals and there was a wide acceptance of the criminalization of the victim. I think it's very important now to decriminalize those people whose lives were lost. One of the ways that this society has dealt with the post-war coming to light is to see victims as a private problem of each family. In a sense, then, you have a privatization of the loss. As if the loss of some 200,000 lives was not also a loss for the society as a whole, but rather each mother, father, sister, brother or child's loss on an individual scale. As if those 200,000 lives didn't mean anything in terms of the country's potential toward the future, as leaders, as thinkers, as producers or as creators. I think until there's a deprivatization of the pain and of that human loss and the society really understands as a whole what it lost, it's very difficult to think about reconciliation in any meaningful or deeper way.

What I fear sometimes is that the consequences of the war, what's left of it in people's ways of dealing with each other, thinking about each other, in their own personal pain, may take more time to get over then the length of the war itself. The effects of the terror remain in many places still -- in rural communities especially and in indigenous communities -- but not only there.

Related Links
Read "Guatemala: Memory of Silence," the report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (the Truth Commission).
Read "Guatemala: Never Again," the report of the Catholic Church's Recovery of Historical Memory Project (German, French and Spanish available, English coming soon).

Marcie Mersky has lived and worked in Guatemala for the past 25 years. She was field coordinator for the Catholic Church Project Report on Guatemalan Historical Memory (REMHI) and coordinator of the Final Report for the U.N.-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification. She is currently Transition Manager for the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala.