The Panzós massacre was the first large-scale slaughter of what ended up being a 36-year long armed conflict --a conflict that pitted a relatively small guerrilla force against a much larger and better-equipped army, many of whose generals were trained at the infamous School of the Americas. On May 29, 1978, a few hundred Q'eqchi subsistence farmers peacefully assembled in front of the municipal building in the town of Panzós, in Alta Verapaz, a remote, largely rural department with a predominantly indigenous population, to present a set of demands to the mayor. They were protesting moves by large landowners to oust them from land they had occupied and worked for over 100 years, although like many Maya and poor Ladino subsistence farmers, they lacked legal title to the land. They were led by a forceful woman known as Ma Maquín. Soldiers opened fire and killed between 50 and 100 people, including women and children. Ma Maquín was reportedly one of the first to be hit by the army's bullets. Her granddaughter, who was at her side, is one of about 200 people who survived the massacre; I was fortunate to hear her speak at an event commemorating the 43rd anniversary of the massacre in 2011.
Panzós is an important historical antecedent of today's state-sponsored violence, and not only for the use of force. While the land that was in dispute in 1978 had been considered of little value, by the 1970s, substantial deposits of nickel and petroleum had been discovered, and local elites were eager to obtain the land in order to profit from the exploitation of its natural resources.Not incidentally, the outgoing President of Guatemalan, General Kjell Langerud, had substantial landholdings in Alta Verapaz. The President-Elect of Guatemala at the time of the massacre, General Romeo Lucas García and his defense minister, were both from Alta Verapaz and owned large properties there, and were likely to benefit handsomely from the extraction of nickel and petroleum. Also presaging today's conflicts over land and resources, foreign multinational capital was also involved: the Guatemalan government had granted the oil concession in Alta Verapaz to the Basic Resources - Shenandoah oil consortium. Basic Resources was an international conglomerate based in Luxembourg, and Shenandoah Oil Corporation, based in the U.S. (the sources on Panzós simply refer to Basic Oil-Shenandoah; in some quick research I was able to find a Shenadoah Oil Corporation based in Oklahoma, and a Shenandoah Petroleum Corporation headquartered in Texas; I didn't dig deeply enough to see if the two companies are related or which one was involved in Guatemala). The right to work the nickel deposits was granted to EXIMBAL, a corporation established by the Canadian International Nickel Company in partnership with a U.S. multinational, the Hanna Mining Company. These concessions reflected a decision by the Guatemalan government to actively court foreign investment (at the same time that army and paramilitary groups were regularly murdering student, peasant, union and other community leaders).
To place these policy shifts in context, it is important to note the deep structural inequalities in Guatemala at the time of the armed conflict -- inequalities that persist to this day. An extremely small fraction of the population -- around 2% -- owned 70% of the land. This in a country where the majority of the population made its living (so to speak) through agriculture. In many ways, land distribution was at the heart of the peasant organizing in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that brought down the heavy hand of the state.
To return to the historical thread I was tracing, the Panzós and Spanish Embassy massacres ushered in the bloodiest years of the armed conflict. After a massive guerrilla campaign in 1981, the Lucas Garcia regime launched a counterinsurgency campaign that directly targeted civilians; the intent was to separate the guerrilla from their civilian (largely indigenous) base. In 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt took power in a coup d'etat and continued (and expanded) the scorched earth campaign that left somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people dead or disappeared. While the war did not officially end until 1996, most of the killings took place in the early 1980s. 200,000 is the ballpark figure contained in the U.N. and Catholic church-sponsored truth commission reports issued a few years after the war's end, although some scholars dispute that figure. Some argue the death toll was substantially higher; others say it was probably somewhat lower. Over 80% of those killed were indigenous (mostly Maya, and smaller numbers of Xinka and Garifuna). According to the U.N. sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, 93% of the deaths were at the hands of the armed forces, 3% were attributed to the guerrilla, and the remainder were unknown. And clearly the numbers are important in the post-war "reckoning" (the title of another excellent book by anthropologist Diane Nelson, who delves into the significance of the numbers, what gets counted, and by whom -- and again I am grossly oversimplifying a very complex and elegant analysis). The figures give lie to the often repeated arguments that the army and the guerrilla were equally culpable. These arguments have been stated so often and in so many forms that even survivors of what were clearly government massacres have internalized them. "There were killings on both sides; both the army and the guerrilla did a lot of bad things." But I will leave that aside for now.
There are several ways in which the armed conflict helped set the stage for what is happening now. The bulk of the army's operations were concentrated in the largely indigenous western highlands. The department of Quiché, where I have done much of my research, was the site of over half of the 644 recorded massacres. In addition to the 200,000 dead or disappeared, close to a million Guatemalans were displaced by the war. Some sought refuge in other parts of Guatemala less affected by the conflict. Others fled to Mexico, Belize or the United States. Some made multiple moves. This past weekend I met a man who was originally from Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango, who now lives in the Ixcán -- a large and sparsely populated municipality (township) in the department of El Quiché, bordering Alta Verapaz. He and his wife had originally fled to the Ixcán, then sought refuge in Mexico, where they lived for 13 years, and returned to the Ixcán after the Peace Accords.
The large number of internally displaced and refugees, however, needs to be teased apart for a deeper meaning. These massive movements of people away from their native villages and towns meant that people abandoned their homes and modest landholdings (those who actually owned land; debt-peonage systems were still in place in many highland communities. The family of one of my New Bedford Maya friends paid "rent" on the land they farmed by working for several months of the year on the coastal plantations owned by the landlord. The land, of course, had originally belonged to Maya farmers but since they had no legal papers proving their "ownership", a wealthy landowner was able to claim ownership). While many of the IDPs and refugees stayed where they had fled, others returned after the war, only to find that their homes and landholdings had been taken over by the military, or handed over to local elite supporters of the military as a reward (or otherwise appropriated by local elites). Returnees were sometimes able to re-purchase their own land from those who had usurped it (often at inflated prices and usurious interest rates), but often forced back into debt peonage or renting lands to farm. Or they became internal migrants, moving to Guatemala City and the outlying areas to find work in maquiladoras, or as market or ambulatory vendors, or domestic servants. Or to the regions where there was large-scale export-oriented plantation agriculture. Or they migrated out of the country. In other words, the war resulted in a substantial redistribution of land that further exacerbated the already extremely unequal pattern of land ownership.
In addition, it is worth noting that the scorched earth policy literally wiped many villages off the map. According to Father Ricardo Falla, a Jesuit priest who is also a noted anthropologist and one of the earliest eyewitness documentarians of the armed conflict, and other writers, the army's massacres acquired a predictable pattern, that included the systematic torture and killing of townspeople (including gang rape of women and girls), accompanied by the destruction of crops and livestock, plus burning homes. In several hundred instances (many sources give the figure of 626), the villages were completely obliterated and most have never been rebuilt.
The war also created a culture of impunity, as all of the civilian institutions of government were subservient to the military, and most civilian institutions of civil society as well. Catholic church leaders, including lay catechists, were persecuted and many killed; to further weaken people's faith in the church (Rios Montt and some of the other military presidents were born-again Christians), churches were taken over and turned into torture, rape and killing centers. The war normalized violence and since there was really no way to speak out against the slaughters without risking being slaughtered or disappeared oneself, it seemed as though the military could do what it wanted with no consequences. Many of those who spoke up were forced into exile, or suffered worse, often gruesome fates (with tortured and mutilated bodies, or body parts such as heads left in highly visible places as a warning).
The war thus normalized violence and also eroded faith in governmental institutions, as neither the police nor the legal system provided any shield or recourse. To underscore the lack of any autonomous state institutions, the police force was renamed the Military Police, and functioned as another arm of the military. Although one of the provisions of the 1996 Peace Accords was the reorganization of the police as a civilian police force, many of the higher-ranking police officers have military backgrounds. This has been borne out by my personal experience with local police in El Quiché (I've been able to confirm that several of the captains and other officers -- most of whom are middle-aged and Ladino -- have military backgrounds).