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Guatemala Civil War 1970-1982

Urban killings increased spectacularly after the formation of the Council of Anticommunists of Guatemala (Consejo Anticomunista de Guatemala—CADEG), the New Anticommunist Organization (Nueva Organizaciori Anticomunista—NOA), and the Organized National Anticommunist Movement (Movimiento Anticomunista Nacional Organizado—MANO, Mano Blanca, or White Hand), which were only some of the groups said to be made up of off-duty policemen and army officers.

Mano Blanca achieved its greatest notoriety perhaps when its vigilantes tortured and murdered Rogelia Cruz Martinez, a former Miss Guatemala, who was rumored to have leftist sympathies. Another Mano Blanca victim was Yon Sosa's sister, who was not and never had been a guerrilla.

In 1970 Yon Sosa, fleeing into Mexico to escape pursuit, was killed by a Mexican army patrol. His loss staggered the insurgents and their cause as had the earlier loss of Turcios Lima. The two rebels had exhibited leadership qualities and military talents that have not been matched by their successors. Also in that year, running on his anti-guerrilla record and a law and order platform, Arana Osorio won the presidency. During the campaign the new president uttered the statement that was associated with his name from that time on, that is, that he would turn the country into a vast cemetery if that were needed to bring peace.

In March 1978 General Lucas Garcia won the presidency in yet another fraudulent election. Before Laugerud turned over the reins in July, however, his presidency was stained by the Panzos Massacre. A large group of Indian peasants had assembled in the town square of Panzos, in Alta Verapaz, to protest the loss of their ancestral lands to developers. Nervous soldiers of the PMA, who had surrounded the square, opened fire on the unarmed crowd; they killed more than 100 Indians, making no distinction among men, women, or children.

The shock incurred by the news of the massacre brought over 100,000 demonstrators into the streets of Guatemala City. Frightened by the magnitude of the demonstration, the government allowed it to run its course, and it ended peacefully as the crowds dispersed at the end of the day. A few months later when tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest increased bus fares, the authorities were prepared to handle large numbers; mass arrests took place, hundreds of demonstrators were wounded by police and army gunfire, and 40 people were killed. The reaction to the bus fare demonstration set the stage for officially condoned violence at a level theretofore unknown.

Under Lucas Garcia the security forces waged war against anyone to the left of center on the political spectrum, and the regime decided where the center lay. An article in the New York Times of May 3, 1981, asserted that "from the evidence, killing alone does not satisfy the revengeful motives of the security forces. The coroner in one of the capital's four morgues said that two out of every three bodies brought to his morgue bore signs of torture. Virtually all of the murder victims found in the countryside are manacled and indicate beatings, facial disfigurements or violence to the sexual organs."

The victims of the death squads were leaders or potential leaders — lawyers, teachers, journalists, priests and nuns, union organizers, peasant activists — but the killing often appeared to be random and indiscriminate, and the number of innocent victims escalated at an alarming rate. In eliminating the so-called leftist enemy—all branded "communist" by the government — the security forces also killed leaders of the moderate center, such as Alberto Fuentes Mohr and Manuel Colom Argueta.

By 1979 the regime was not even making a pretense about who was responsible for the political murders. Fuentes Mohr was machine-gunned by soldiers in uniform on a main street of the capital in the middle of the day. The gang that eliminated Colom Argueta in the same fashion wore civilian clothing, but a helicopter hovering over the scene of the assassination left little doubt concerning the identity of the gunmen. Despite condemnation by other governments, international organizations, religious bodies, and human rights groups, the bloodletting continued. The supposed objective of fighting communism, which had been barely credible for several years, no longer had any validity; the true objective had become the elimination of opposition of any political persuasion, even including right-wing colleagues who incurred the displeasure of the leadership.

The disdain of the Lucas Garcia regime for normal foreign relations was demonstrated on January 31, 1980, when the police stormed the Spanish embassy to evict Indian squatters. A group of Indian peasants from Quiche had occupied the embassy and had taken the ambassador and his staff and visitors hostage, a gesture intended to attract attention to the atrocities committed in their villages by army troops in pursuit of guerrillas.

The Spanish ambassador, Maximo Cajal y Lopez, believed that the situation could be resolved peacefully and pleaded with the police surrounding the embassy to withdraw to allow him to deal with the Indians. Instead the police stormed the building. A Molotov cocktail carried by one of the occupiers was thrown or dropped, setting a fire that destroyed the building and almost everyone in it. Ambassador Cajal y Lopez and Gregorio Yuja Xona, an Indian peasant, escaped the inferno and were taken to a hospital for treatment of burns. The next day Yuja Xona was kidnapped from the hospital by a gang of armed men; his bullet-riddled body was later found at the gates of a university. Fearing for his own life, the ambassador sought and received sanctuary in the United States embassy.

Although the Panzos Massacre and the Spanish embassy affair were probably the most publicized incidents of the government's violence against its citizens, political murder and assassination in the city and indiscriminate killing by army troops in the countryside had become routine. Guatemalan newspapers reported daily body counts. As the term of Lucas Garcia drew to a close, even some army officers had had enough, but their complaint was against excessive corruption rather than excessive killing. In any event, they deposed the offending president and installed a junta.

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Page last modified: 11-08-2017 14:54:18 ZULU