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Perpetrators: specialization, willingness, group pressure and incentives. Lessons from the Guatemalan acts of genocide



This article focuses on the perpetrators of acts of genocide, and seeks to understand the construction of a willingness to kill. Based on interviews and archival research, it explores the historical context of the Guatemalan army high command as it planned and launched a series of operations that transformed counterinsurgency into acts of genocide. The research supports the chain of command arguments that were important in the verdict against General Ríos Montt, but also explores military policy and procedures that, from the mid 1970s, laid the groundwork for that transformation. How were young and mostly indigenous and illiterate soldiers, with a low level of indoctrination, transformed into genocidal perpetrators, committing massacres against indigenous peoples and other non-indigenous communities? I argue that the decisive factors were group dynamics, particularly specialization and a complex relationship between incentives and personal ambitions for a career inside the armed forces. There were also other factors, constant for all troops, which contributed to defining the adversary and constructing the willingness to kill, including racism, indoctrination, division of labour and the development of the guerrilla war. The article examines a complex set of interactions running in both directions along the chain of command, but focuses most intensely on the last step in that chain, on those actually involved in the massacres committed in the rural areas.
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Journal of Genocide Research
ISSN: 1462-3528 (Print) 1469-9494 (Online) Journal homepage:
Perpetrators: specialization, willingness, group
pressure and incentives. Lessons from the
Guatemalan acts of genocide
Manolo E. Vela Castañeda
To cite this article: Manolo E. Vela Castañeda (2016) Perpetrators: specialization, willingness,
group pressure and incentives. Lessons from the Guatemalan acts of genocide, Journal of
Genocide Research, 18:2-3, 225-244
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Published online: 28 Jun 2016.
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Perpetrators: specialization, willingness, group pressure and
incentives. Lessons from the Guatemalan acts of genocide
Manolo E. Vela Castañeda
This article focuses on the perpetrators of acts of genocide, and
seeks to understand the construction of a willingness to kill. Based
on interviews and archival research, it explores the historical
context of the Guatemalan army high command as it planned and
launched a series of operations that transformed
counterinsurgency into acts of genocide. The research supports
the chain of command arguments that were important in the
verdict against General Ríos Montt, but also explores military
policy and procedures that, from the mid 1970s, laid the
groundwork for that transformation. How were young and mostly
indigenous and illiterate soldiers, with a low level of
indoctrination, transformed into genocidal perpetrators,
committing massacres against indigenous peoples and other non-
indigenous communities? I argue that the decisive factors were
group dynamics, particularly specialization and a complex
relationship between incentives and personal ambitions for a
career inside the armed forces. There were also other factors,
constant for all troops, which contributed to dening the
adversary and constructing the willingness to kill, including
racism, indoctrination, division of labour and the development of
the guerrilla war. The article examines a complex set of
interactions running in both directions along the chain of
command, but focuses most intensely on the last step in that
chain, on those actually involved in the massacres committed in
the rural areas.
This article focuses on the perpetrators of genocide and seeks to understand the construc-
tion of a willingness to kill. Based on interviews and archival research, it explains the his-
torical context of the Guatemalan army high command as it planned and launched a series
of operations that transformed counterinsurgency into acts of genocide against indigen-
ous communities. The research supports the chain of command arguments that were
important in the verdict against General Ríos Montt, but also explores military policy
and procedures that, from the mid 1970s, laid the groundwork for that transformation.
The research is based on the authors experience as a legal expert for the Guatemalan
Public Ministry for the 2011 trial of those accused of carrying out the 7 December 1982
massacre in the hamlet of Las Dos Erres
in El Petén. There, a unit of the Guatemalan
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Manolo E. Vela Castañeda
VOL. 18, NOS. 23, 225244
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army called the Kaibil patrol, along with regular troops, killed at least 201 people. The trial
was one of the rst cases heard in the new High Risk Court, established through the Inter-
national Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to address the acts of geno-
cide that took place in Guatemala between 1981 and 1983. In August 2011, three former
soldiers, Daniel Martínez Méndez, Manuel Pop Sun and Reyes Collin Gualip, and an ofcer,
Carlos Antonio Carías López, were found guilty and sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison
(thirty yearsimprisonment per death plus an extra thirty for crimes against humanity).
This trial, along with the 2008 trial for the 1982 Río Negro massacre, which also focused
on lower-level perpetrators, was important in setting the stage for bringing charges
against the high command, including the March 2013 trial of Generals Ríos Montt and
Rodríguez Sanchez, also heard by the High Risk Court.
The Dos Erres case is somewhat anomalous among the massacres carried out during
the genocidal phase of the war, as the victims were ladinos, or non-indigenous people.
But, as I will argue below, the philosophy behind it, the training that made it possible,
its modus operandi and even the role of what I will call radical racism, are the same as
in the hundreds of massacres targeting indigenous communities that were found to con-
stitute acts of genocide. These acts raise the question of how young and mostly indigen-
ous and illiterate soldiers, with a low level of indoctrination, were transformed into
genocidal perpetrators, committing massacres against indigenous peoples and non-indi-
genous communities alike. Beginning with the privileged access I was granted through my
role in the Dos Erres trial, and subsequent more far-ranging research, I suggest that the
process of creating perpetrators was intimately linked to some rather banalprocesses,
including specialization and a complex relationship between incentives and personal
ambitions for a career inside the armed forces. Dening the adversary and constructing
a willingness to kill also included racism, indoctrination and a division of the labours of
killing. Throughout the course of the research, it became increasingly clear that such
group dynamics were central. I also explore the set of factors that allowed the everyday
forms of such group dynamics, centuries of racism, decades of military training and
various strategies of state counterinsurgency to rather suddenly ip into acts of extermi-
nating violence. Despite the Constitutional Courts controversial vacating of the Ríos Montt
verdict, he was found guilty of ordering acts of genocide. But he could not have done it
alone. Accordingly, this article focuses on the ground troops, the last step in the chain
of command involved in the massacres committed in the rural areas.
Frameworks: explaining perpetrators
Four explanatory frameworks have been developed to understand how perpetrators were
created and what allowed them to do what they did: (1) they were simply following orders;
(2) the command lost control of the ground troops; (3) the power of indoctrination; (4)
First, from below in the military chain of command, it is argued that soldiers were
trained to obey without questioning. The troops had no choice; everyone had to
complyencapsulates the argument, because disobedience brought immediate conse-
quences. Obedience seems to have served as a source of imaginary legitimation for the
tasks that were imposed, at the same time that it was a sort of shock absorber for
blame. If the upper echelons decided what one had to do, then, given their superior
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rank and position of power, they also provided an assurance of impunity. However, there
were orders that could not have been communicated to all the soldiers, and the ofcers
further up the chain of command were well aware of this. As has been discussed in relation
to the Holocaust, I also found that this interpretation served as a justication for those
further down the chainthat those further up are the guilty parties, not them
suggesting more calculation than fear.
Second, those higher up in the military chain of command argue that the savagery of
the actions was unintended. The soldiers lost control, massacring innocent civilians in a
sort of frenzy because they were seeking revenge for their losses in the war. Perpetrators,
subject to a sort of panic, ew into a rage and unleashed bestial actions against anyone
they encountered. For the chain of command, the massacres constitute a breakdown in
military discipline. With this justication, they wash their hands of blame and claim that
the lower ranks must bear the responsibility. But the Dos Erres massacre contradicts
these assertions. Although it was an operation launched as punishment for a recent guer-
rilla ambush in the area, it was carefully plannedas were the majority of massacres, as
argued by the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarication (CEH).
killing and other violations of human rights were part of a strategically planned policy
that was translated into actions following a logical and coherent sequence through
time and space.
A third interpretation focuses on indoctrination, in the ideas instilled in the troops
through their brutal training. I suggest that this explanation would be important to
explore in analysing the high command, ofcials with decades of experience in the military
institution and who began their careers during the height of anti-communism with the
counter-revolution of 1954.
However, while they planned the operations and gave the
orders, they were not the ones who personally took the lives of people during the mas-
sacres. This was the task of the troops, and in my research into the various lower layers
of the armed forces, the men who actually carried out the massacres (which also included
virtually untrained members of the civil patrols), I found their training and indoctrination,
for the most part, to be rather supercial.
A fourth explanation focuses on racism and emphasizes its founding role in the Guate-
malan nation-state and its deep roots throughout Guatemalan society. One cannot deny
that racism played a role in the massacres, but as a framework we still need to explain
exactly how this ideology worked through each of the different strata of the chain of
command and why, given its power, it had never been expressed as genocide before
This research draws on the case of soldiers involved in the massacre committed in Dos
Erres on 7 December 1982, extended to better understand the larger forces at work. I inter-
viewed a number of regular soldiers, the bottom link in the chain of command, as well as
the Kaibiles, the military special forces unit formed in 1975 and named for a Mayan resist-
ance hero of the sixteenth century.
I am interested in both the ordinary men and the
unique and exceptional elites because both functioned on the ground, and both are
important if we are to understand the level of soldier who actually held peoples lives in
his hands. These are the men personally enmeshed in the whirlwind of this particular
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kind of war, one that demanded they attack unarmed civilians, women, children and the
elderly. I came to nd that the Dos Erres massacre was exemplary of a methodically carried
out government policy.
This study is based on oral histories, interviews with former soldiers and with ex-guer-
rillas, survivors, family members of the victims and people living in neighbouring commu-
nities. Serving as an expert witness in the Dos Erres trial also gave me access to the entire
archive of documents gathered by the prosecution. The jewel in the crown was the oppor-
tunity to carry out in-depth interviews with members of the military unit that carried out
the massacre who were participating in the Public Ministrys witness protection pro-
gramme. This exceptional access, however, also entailed some serious limitations. While
they provided powerful rst-hand accounts, it was difcult to get past the ofcial story
they had developed through the judicial process. But drawing on this valuable material,
I was able to carry out other interviews with military ofcials and soldiers, all of whom
had assumed different positions in the chain of command between 1981 and 1983 in
different areas of the country. This was only possible by promising them complete con-
dentiality so, like all the sources cited here, they will be identied through pseudonyms.
While not ideal, I believe what will be of interest to readers is less so and so said this
than gaining a better sense of what actually happened during that difcult historical
I begin with historical context and then address the role of racism in the acts of geno-
cide before turning to the perpetrators and attempting to illuminate the workings of
group dynamics and other factors that they say caused them to act as they did.
Historical context
Between 1963 and 1986 (and even a bit beyond), the army was the governing institution
of the Guatemalan state. With the 1954 counter-revolution, which overthrew the reformist
regime of Colonel Jacobo Árbenz, the United States undertook a process of guiding and
abetting the Guatemalan military. The repression of those dissidents within the armed
forces who resisted this process, including the ofcers who headed the 13 November
Movement of 1960 (which sowed the seeds of the guerrilla struggle), culminated in the
coup détat of 1963. This led to increased militarization of the country, extrajudicial
executions and civic action. By August 1967, in part with the aid of US trainers brought
directly from Vietnam, the army had virtually destroyed the armed guerrilla movement
in the rural areas of eastern Guatemala.
This defeat led to a process of rethinking and
reorganizing among the left, which opened the second cycle of the war. By the mid
1970s, the expanded guerrilla organizations were operating in most of the country. The
central and north-western highlands, with the highest concentration of small indigenous
villages, became the epicentre of a large-scale peasant and indigenous mobilization,
which established relations with the small guerrilla units. Combined with the increasingly
connected urban movements of students, religious groups, workers and people living in
the marginalized areas (and the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979), many people
began to hope (or fear) that Guatemala would become the next revolutionary victory.
Throughout this period, the army continued selective killings of trade unionists, students
and other leaders, and developed some of the rst death squads, all while receiving
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support and training from the United States (Ríos Montt trained at both Fort Gulick in the
Panama Canal Zone and at Fort Bragg, North Carolina).
In November 1981, the army high command held a meeting at the Guatemalan Air
Force headquarters and agreed to create a new rapid deployment force. This was the
beginning of a transformation in the armys counterinsurgency strategy that continued
and intensied after the 23 March 1982 Ríos Montt coup, which in turn reorganized the
state and the high command of the armed forces. A group of ofcers who opposed the
separation of politics and war was retired. The new idea was for the army to open some
space for politicians to take back certain policy initiatives, primarily in the capital city,
with the corollary being they could pursue the war as they saw t in the countryside.
They reorganized the armed forces based on phased deployments and began to concen-
trate larger quantities of troops in specic regions. From a brigade model, in which patrols
were carried out in territories under specic jurisdictions, they created a new intermediate
control unit, the rapid deployment force, with its own leaders, its own staff and a high
command composed of the heads of the brigades and companies. This decision
marked the beginning of the genocidal acts that were carried out in Guatemala.
This deployment strategy began in the centre of the country, from the capital of Gua-
temala City, and headed north-west, covering the departments of Chimaltenango, El
Quiché and Huehuetenango, until it reached the border with Mexico. It allowed the
state to reassert control over territories and people who had, supposedly, switched loyal-
ties to support the insurgents.
By the end of 1982, this strategy had accomplished its
goals and the guerrillas had lost their social bases. The small insurgent armies were
pushed deep into the mountains and over the border into Mexico, although they
remained almost intact. In this way, the army felt it had saved the state from what
could have been an indigenous and peasant rebellion from below.
This counterinsurgency strategy entailed a human catastrophe of enormous dimen-
sions. In some 626 villages, state forces and other paramilitary apparatuses committed
and thousands of displaced people (estimated between 50,000 and
200,000) sought refuge in Mexico, while more than a million were displaced within the
Massacre is the word used in Guatemala to describe what happened in the com-
munities, but it does not just mean arbitrary execution. It also refers to rape, mutilation of
corpses, torture and cruel treatment, forced disappearances, kidnapping of children,
pillage and destruction of goods, animals and food stores, all of which subjected survivors
to conditions that endangered their physical survival. This led the United Nations Commis-
sion for Historical Clarication to conclude that Guatemala had committed acts of geno-
cide against the indigenous peoples, including the Maya-Qanjobal, Maya-Chuj, Maya-
Ixil, Maya-Kicheand Maya-Achi (these are ve of the twenty-two Mayan indigenous com-
In the verdict against General Ríos Montt, these same activities of mass rape,
the transfer of children and the creation of unbearable conditions, in addition to the extent
and horror of the killing, were cited as proof of the intent to destroy, in part, the Maya-Ixil
who refused to submit to army domination.
How did the army create the soldier who carried out the greatest mass murder in the
contemporary history of Latin America? What changes were necessary at the troop level to
make them able and willing to carry out this counterinsurgency strategy? Were these
everyday troops carrying out these orders or do acts of genocide require a special kind
of soldier?
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The role of racism
The young men who carried out these acts of genocide were not just deployed differently,
through the new organization of the rapid deployment force; they were also being
instilled with ideas. The discipline necessary for combat relies on a mix of punishment
and belief. Soldiers must struggle to survive but they will also carry out orders if and
only if they are convinced of the moral certainty that their sacrices and possible death
are for a greater good, a cause. They need their commander to tell them what they
need to hear: that they are ghting for something larger than their mere existence.
With this indoctrination, the army created a perception of reality that ensured their sol-
diers would hold rm in the theatre of operations, and not suffer the moral disintegration
that might lead to acts of insubordination. They managed to legitimate the exercise of
terror. The indoctrination transformed ofcers and soldiers into fanatics. But this did not
require a particularly deep immersion in anti-communism. Rather, simply, war itself
acted as a powerful reinforcement of belief, depending on small phrases that dened
common sense in a particular moment, that identied an enemy and ensured that what
one was doing to them was justied.
The indoctrination condensed deeply rooted cultural features like Guatemalas invete-
rate racism (see below), as well as the ideology of anti-communism consolidated at the
state level with the counter-revolution of 1954. There were nationalist codings, as well
as Roman Catholic theology of the conservative bent. The developing doctrine of National
Security, based on the idea of protecting the state against internal enemies, gave a promi-
nent role to the armed forces. Connected to the larger Cold War processes linking the
armed forces of Latin America, a key provision was the idea that legal, political dissidence
overlapped with such internal enemies, providing legitimation for the use of violence
against all political adversaries.
A somewhat reductionist idea of racism has been used to explain acts of genocide in
Guatemala. At some points, it starts to seem like anything can t within its parameters.
But when we turn to concrete occurrences, it may not explain very much. Our solidarity
with the struggles for justice for indigenous peoples should not lead us to accept
causal explanations that have not been carefully backed up by evidence. Emotional invest-
ment does not preclude careful investigation into the worthiness of the arguments. I
believe we need very specic understandings of the role racism plays in acts of genocide
if we are to truly understand its role in the current conditions in Guatemala as well as in
other cases, in other times and in other places.
Racism was an important and necessary causal factor but I do not believe it is sufcient
to understand what actually occurred during the years of massacre. It forms part of the
explanation but what role did it play as a cause? If we propose racism as the single
reason for acts of genocide, we have to ask ourselves why such an event had not occurred
in Guatemala before 1981. If we are to interrogate the causal mechanism, the question
remains: was racism the only reason there was genocide? This brings us to a brief consider-
ation of Guatemalan history.
The logic undergirding the colonial regime was based on labour and evangelization.
Racism, the belief in the superiority of some distinguished from the inferiority of others,
goes backin the case of Guatemalato the colonial order. This was based on a combi-
nation of extraction of metals and forced labour based on the extraction of taxes,
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sometimes mitigated by ecclesiastical humanitarianism (although the Church was often a
competitor for indigenous labour and tithes). In Guatemala, given the scarcity of metals,
many peasants moved between their smallholdings and the labour demands of intensive
agriculture to shape the heart of colonial rule. And thus, a racialized universe was created:
the indigenous village, the plantation and the tax collector. Everyday racism was founded
in the forced labour of indigenous peoples, while justifying their subordinate position in
politics and their economic exclusion. Forsaking the spiritual component, the liberals of
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued to emphasize labour as the civilizing
pathfor indigenous peoples.
Death, often caused by illnesses associated with their ter-
rible economic and social conditions, was a side-effect, not the intent, of domination.
Racism coiled close to the bases of state formation and the implantation of forms of capit-
alism. Forced labour, enclosure of lands and human displacement, the creation of planta-
tion economies, all were based on a racial hierarchy that the state recognized and
But unlike other genocides such as those in Armenia, Germany, Bosnia or Rwanda, in
Guatemala there was never an elite proposing the elimination of indigenous peoples,
nor were there organizations or groups organized specically to kill indigenous people
of any particular ethnic group.
The idea of massacring indigenous communities in a sys-
tematic fashion was something new in 1981. Never in the past had indigenous peoples
faced a threat of this scale. I am not sure that these two separate phenomenathe vio-
lence endured by indigenous peoples for centuries based on conditions of exploitation
and domination, and the violence of acts of genocidecan be fully encompassed by a
single word like racism. We would need to explain the process through which one type
of racism, what I would call the deep-rooted or structural kind, is transformed into a
radical racism entailing the destructionfollowing the UN genocide conventions
languagein whole or in part of an ethnic or racial group. This requires a more
complex explanation than has heretofore been attempted.
To begin to construct such an explanation, I address the view from above, with the high
commands decision to plan the counterinsurgency operations, as well as the way the war
was unfolding at that particular point in time. But we also need to see from belowto
investigate soldiersdecisions to comply with the orders. This brings us to the routinization
of brutality and the brotherhood that comes from bloodletting. We need to understand
these double processes: from below, how to explain that indigenous soldiers participated
in massacres of their own kind, in ethnic terms, obeying orders they received from ladino
ofcers? And from above, how to explain the role of high-level authorities, primarily
ladinos, who created plans that implicated the troops under their command in a series
of massacres against indigenous villages?
Three kinds of racism
Given that racism is not a singular phenomenon, it is necessary to analyse some of its var-
ieties. In exploring the relations between acts of genocide and racism, I nd it useful to
distinguish three different types, which should help to clarify the continuum ranging
from social discomfort through racial discrimination and social exclusion to territorial seg-
regation, and from there through selective to massive and indiscriminate violence, the
kind that leads to acts of genocide.
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There is a type of everyday racism with which all Guatemalans live as part of the gulf
that divides indigenous and non-indigenous people. It is part of every interaction
between them. This form of racism works throughout the different strata of the popu-
lation, from the upper classes and oligarchs to working class ladinos, in the cities and in
the small towns.
This type of racism is shot through with expressions of distaste and dis-
crimination, ideas of superiority and inferiority, paternalism and a certain exercise of vio-
lence. For all its pernicious effects, this type of racism does not alone create genocide.
Another kind of racism began to emerge in the late 1970s in the analyses of the war
being developed by the military high command, and here we nd a complex and volatile
mix of ideas. Centuries-long assumptions that indigenous people were inferior also carried
phobias based on ideas of biological characteristics. These now began to connect those
indigenous people with guerrilla organizations. If indigenous people accepted the insur-
gency, it was not because they were thoughtful, rational actors, who saw their interests
reected in revolutionary goals, nor was it because they were politically organized. It
was becausebeing inferiorthey were duped. This kind of racism was not composed
only of hatreds and prejudices; it now carried with it an interpretation of a developing
organizational process. This is a unique formation, unlike other kinds of racism towards
the indigenous populations of the Americas. This kind of racism, what I call radical,
began to make it thinkable to actually eliminate indigenous peoples living in areas
where the insurgency held sway. While I analyse this further below, I suggest that in the
analyses of the war developed by the military high command in the 1970s, these historic
biologicalphobias began to seep into the insurgency as a whole. Unlike in the 1960s
when the guerrilla movement was almost entirely ladino, at this later point the unques-
tioned assumption that indigenous inferiority made them both easily manipulable and
brutish and uncontrollable combined with the sense that much of the highland area
was both indigenous and subversive to transform the ideology and practices of the
There was a third kind of racism that emerged between everyday racism and the radical
kind, which I call spectator racism. It is found among those citizens who refuseddespite
the gravity of the eventsto notice the terrible violations of human rights occurring
between 1981 and 1982 in Guatemala. For them, the indigenous population was inferior,
dispensable. Part of this wilful blindness was also due to the segregation of indigenous
people, often isolated in inaccessible areas, something I also address below. This form
of racism contributed to the production of apathetic and passive citizens, indifferent in
the face of this extreme violence.
Knowing how to use a powerful ideological poison
Racism was nothing new in Guatemala or within the army. It was more of a cultural code
that, with the war, the military began to deploy in a new way. It took advantage of the
divisiongeographic as well as moralthat separated the indigenous from the ladinos.
With the acts of genocide, this moral abyss placed indigenous people outside the
human obligations of the ladinos, a condition that helped to facilitate their murders.
What would have happened if the massacres had not occurred in isolated and distant
regions and instead in department capitals, primarily populated with ladinos? Would
the military planners have been able to cross the line into genocide? Probably not.
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The key to the role racism played in the Guatemalan genocide is in the high commands
interpretation of the indigenous and peasant rebellion. This was central to the way that,
from within the military institution and through its propaganda mechanisms, the strategic
situation of the war was presented. Their use of racism to carry out acts of genocide
required the important step of reinforcing a distinction between the good indigenous,
loyal to the nation and on the armys side, and the bad indigenous, traitors who had
been deceived and were committed to a great evil, the subversion of the state.
In the words of a soldier named Martín Ramírez, Most of the civilians who died were
pure indigenous. All those people died because the guerrilla fooled them.
The guerrilla deceived those Indians.
For the high command, the fact that they were
so easily manipulated was proof of indigenous inferiority. Racism underwrote this dichot-
omy: some are inferior and othersusare superior. These inferior people have been
injected with the evil of subversion and something must be done to bring back the
sense of order that has been lost. The constant repetition of the idea that Indians
allowed themselves to be deceived by the guerrillabegan to take on apocalyptic dimen-
sions and to weave together the various strands that justied the states response.
entiation is a key element in creating the willingness to murder someone else, and was
erected on these ideological bases. They were not simply guilty of being Indians but for
their political and ideological support for the insurgency. The adversary presented in
the armys propaganda was less based on prejudices of inherent inferiority (logically,
this would be problematic for the majority indigenous troops) but more on a semiotic slip-
page from everyday racism to an almost biologized otheras the inferior, dangerous sub-
versive. As Moses argues, this may be less a radical hate crime based on race than a
security crime interpellated by racial categories.
This might explain why the military
did not limit the war to guerrilla troops but instead concentrated on the civilian popu-
lation, which in turn, pragmatically, was easier to nd. This may also be how they were
able to transfer the idea of threat from armed resistance ghters to indigenous peoples
more generally, and from them to other, even non-indigenous populations (as at Dos
Erres) and from there even into departmental capitals and Guatemala City, where selective
terror targeted primarily ladino militants.
The indoctrination consolidated the belief that the civilian population was involved in
something evil. An ofcer, Amílcar Rabanales, said, The civilian population was converted
into the enemy, that which had to be fought. Here we see what undergirded the soldiers
violence. He went on, I saw the young troops, twenty-three, twenty-two years old, rmly
determined to ght and attack, they clearly saw the civilian population as an enemy.
Because they were collaborating with the guerrilla they were against the army, against
the country.
From inside, breathing racism
I now turn to the assemblage of racial stereotypes that contributed to the creation of this
abyss between ladino military ofcers and indigenous soldiers and their indigenous
victims. These forms of racism are a long-standing part of everyday life but such represen-
tations of the Other were transformed as they began to overlap with the category of
enemy. The soldier Martín Ramírez expresses the type of racism disseminated through
the military as an institution: I myself, an Indian, call other Indians Indians. Self-identifying
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with this insult is part and parcel of the treatment that trickles down from the ofcers to
the primarily indigenous troops:
You see how the ofcers think, that that guys an Indian, that other guy is an Indian, Indian
here, Indian there, it becomes a word everyone uses, like a virus, it just gets hammered
into your head, over and over. Even the worst-off Indian calls you an Indian and it almost
makes you laugh, because you say to yourself, why is he calling me an Indian when hes
more Indian than I am?
The soldier Federico Cristales remembers asking an ofcer why they did not accept Indians
in the ofcer training school (the Politécnica, where Ríos Montt was trained). The answer
helps us to understand the racism concentrated in military ofcialdom:
He said, If someday you visit the Politécnica, check out the lists of graduates on the walls.
Youre not going to nd any names like Pirir, names of Indians are never there. Only Perez,
Mazariegos It would be shameful if a name like Popsoc appeared on those walls. Indian
names stain the race. Thats when I realized that the ofcers bring those ideas from their train-
ing. At the Politécnica they put that stuff in their heads that they are studying to be high-class
ofcers, not Indians, but pure ladinos.
The soldier Rocael López describes another example of the depth and breadth of the
racism disseminated through the armed forces:
There was a sub-lieutenant who was just all the time, Indian this, Indian that, just Indian,
Indian …’.Hed say to a soldier, Here, look, do this or that thing, and if the soldier didnt
hear and asked him to say it again, the ofcer would start screaming, You disgusting dirty
smelly Indian! Just do what I told you!All the ofcers were like that, only Indian, dirty, repul-
sive, appalling, animal. Thats how they treated us.
Sergeant Julio Roca was company brigadier, meaning he was in charge of a unit, supervis-
ing supplies, assigning tasks, dealing with wages and promotionsin other words not just
any soldierand he said, The word Indian was used incessantly by ofcers. This word was
branded into their heads, every soldier was just an Indian.
For young indigenous men, total immersion in this world radically challenged the basic
foundations of their identities. As an example, the soldier Federico Cristales said, In the
department capital of San Cristóbal Verapaz everyone is Poqomchi, everyone. By blood,
I know I have indigenous heritage. Because everyone is indigenous there. But he also
said, Us, my father, my family, we dont speak a language. I think Im ladino, because I
dont know another language. After his military training, this young man no longer
knew how to present himself, if he were indigenous or ladino. Over and over again in
the interviews, I saw how the mens indigenous identity had been displaced by a more
powerful identication, one that would help them to survive the kind of daily battering
they endured in the militaryan ideological identity. Now, deeper than their indigenous
roots, these young men identied as soldiers. It did not matter if back there in the moun-
tains the enemy looked like them, or that those who commanded them did not. The
enemy that had to be sacriced was no longer fully human; their deaths were not crimes.
The geographic theatre of war, which was also an effect of the historic spatial segregation
and exclusion of indigenous peoples, was also a factor in the acts of genocide that
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occurred in these hard to access locations. This, along with strict control of the press (see
Nelson in this special issue), meant that no one thought anyone would ever nd out what
had happened. The ofcer Amílcar Rabanales said:
The area where the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [EGP] operated [in the north-west highlands] is
very complicated in terms of geography, no roads, completely isolated, you had to go in by
foot, no vehicles could make it. The state was completely absent and so were any means of
He contrasted this with the south coast, where another insurgent group, the Organization
of the People in Arms (ORPA), was operating but which was much better connected and
closer to major towns. The army did not carry out massacres there. I think the geographic
situation and the lack of media attention made the army even more violent.
As in other cases of genocide against unarmed populations, when the powerful believe
they completely control the society, they seem to feel Who will ever know?Rabanales
said, Those who were doing it, they thought, no one will ever nd out. No one will
notice. But sooner or later things always come out. There are always witnesses, there is
always someone who will testify.
Racism, isolation, kill orders
In the end, these racial and geographic formations and assumptions took concrete form in
specic military strategies. Ofcer José Víctor Aguilar shows how the conviction that those
Indians in those mountains were the enemy turned into plans and orders:
In the rapid deployment force Gumarcaaj, we heard a lecture from an ofcer and the thing I
remember most strongly was when they showed us a map and said Look, this whole moun-
tain range from the Cuchumatanes north, all of these people are guerrillas. They are collabor-
ating, they are part of the guerrilla. They were basically saying that in that whole area anything
that moves is the enemy. Meaning anyone you nd there you have to kill them.
Another ofcer, Julián Domínguez, said, They made it clear that this whole area was under
EGP control. From the Ixil Triangle north, you are ghting everything there. There was no
differentiation. It was all enemy. The annihilation orders encompassed entire populations
within a territory, which I believe explains the tenor of the counterinsurgency campaign.
Radical racism, focused on victims living in isolation from any sort of human rights or even
civilian monitoring, and knowing how to take advantage of such a situation, began to take
on material form through orders, operational plans and the design of counterinsurgency
campaigns that led to committing acts of genocide.
Yet this still does not fully explain
the behaviour of the actual troops on the ground, to which I now turn.
At the time acts of genocide were carried out, the high command of the Guatemalan army,
those serving in a planning capacity, were part of a generation developed in a climate of
virulent anti-communism. They had begun their careers around 1954 (Ríos Montt gradu-
ated from the Politécnica in 1950) in a world formed by a coalition among the oligarchy,
the Roman Catholic Church and a military high command strongly supported by the
United States that was intent on undoing social reform, especially agrarian reform. Anti-
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communism cemented the alliance between the upper classes and the military, becoming
the ideological mortar sustaining the entire political order.
These upper echelons of ofcialdom were never going to directly dirty their hands with
massacres. They planned the operations that led to massacres, supervised their execution
and accompanied the lower levels of ofcers, maintaining their morale, tolerating and
encouraging their behaviour. Upper-level ofcials enjoyed a certain distance from the
troops at their command and what they were doing. The military is a bureaucracy.
So, who carried out the massacres? The lowest ranks, the ground troops, the soldiers.
They were very young, between eighteen and twenty-three years old, the majority indi-
genous, mostly illiterate with Spanish as a second language, and they were forcibly
recruitedor as people say, grabbed for the base.
This is how the army made men.
It started when new recruits arrived at the Center for Training Replacements (CAR)
housed at the Infantry Brigade headquarters in Jutiapa. For three months they underwent
the tiger courseto transform them rst into recruits, then into soldiers. Military training
was fast. After that, they were assigned to a platoon. Here, ethnic, linguistic and geographi-
cal origins did not matter. There was no attempt to create ethnically homogeneous groups
that might be used against other ethnic groups. All such identities were to be erased. The
man was a Guatemalan soldier and a member of his platoonthose were the only iden-
tities that mattered. And thus the forces that carried out acts of genocide were created.
The platoon offered another form of training, more connected to operations on the
ground, under the command of the sub-lieutenant, their commander. He was the connec-
tion between the majority indigenous soldiers and the majority ladino command struc-
ture. Although separated by the gulfs of hierarchy and ethnic and linguistic difference,
commander and soldier were young men of similar age. Recent graduates of the Politéc-
nica were in charge of deploying their troops in operations, training them and maintaining
their morale.
The intimacies of daily living are total in such institutions. Platoons became the primary
group, the entire world for these young men and the mutual solidarity this produced
made them function with a high degree of cohesion.
They shared extreme experiences,
facing death together with each ones life depending on others, so much so that any lack
of discipline became an affront to each mans responsibility to each other. Altruism, loyalty,
daily sacrice, kindness, all were presented in military speeches and rituals as performed in
the name of Guatemala and western civilization, but in reality were an effect of group
bonding. Symbiotically, as these primary ties transformed a boy into a soldier, the experi-
ences of combat forged a chain of moral obligations to the other members of the platoon.
As a total institution in Goffmans sense,
armies destroy the moral autonomy of their
members. Central features of this process are separation from the normal world, standar-
dized physical appearance (haircuts, uniforms), establishing clear-cut hierarchies that are
instantly visible, rigid routinization of everyday life and strict control of time, the modalities
of training, large and spectacular collective rituals, constant disciplining through arbitrary
but always looming corporal punishment, the demand for cleanliness and extreme phys-
ical effort, and, more specic to Guatemala, a prohibition on using indigenous languages.
Goffman calls this organization of experience framing, and it occurred through the
platoon, which acted as a kind of machine that came to work smoothly yet entirely unre-
lated to any individual members decision making. Amílcar Rabanales said:
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Unlike other institutions where one might hold on to a certain independence or autonomy, or
make decisions for yourself, the army just absorbs you. They put you in a small unit, the squad,
which is run by a corporal, who is a member of the troops. When you become a member of the
squad, part of a platoon, you become, well, like a number, a person whose identity has to mould
itself to the organizations personality. You might not agree with something but you just have to
bear it and you have to conform, and act like everyone else is acting. Its a system in which the
soldiers almost stop, well, thinking, I mean you cant really stop thinking, but they were so regi-
mented, every minute, every hour, every day, told what they had to do. You just dont have
much alternative. You might desert or resist, but most just bear it, they stay inside the system.
Specialization, the in-group
In a concrete sense, what was going on? Did every soldier who received this training par-
ticipate enthusiastically in the massacres? Or were they forced to do it?
We know that the army practised a division of labour during the massacres. There were
those in charge of gathering the residents in the centre of the hamlet and locking them up
in the church or school to make sure no one escaped. There were others sent to guard the
perimeters to keep out any guerrilla incursions. They also captured anyone found on the
outskirts. Depending on the circumstances, there might be others in charge of taking
those slated to die to another area where they were executed by still another, specialized
group called the shock troopsor the slashers.
Ofcer Rabanales described these small groups dedicated to killing:
In such situations [the massacres], I am sure there were many soldiers who did not participate.
They were there but they did not re, they werent really engaged in what was going on. In a
unit, the majority didnt participate, it was really a small group. Within each unit there was
always a more radical group. From within the platoons, among the troops, they would seek
out the ercest soldiers, those who were really violent, and they pushed them to become
harder, even more radical.
How is a military unit organized to carry out a massacre? Soldier Martín Ramírez said, The
only thing different were the positions each was assigned to. There were specializations.
The ofcials who supervised each operation:
considered each person. What type of man was he? If hes ready to kill in cold blood, then he
makes the grade. They are put in the group that will carry out the executions. They know there
are people who just arent good for that kind of thing and they are put in other groups. It
wasnt just anyone theyd go grab and say, Hey you, youre going to kill here! No, they are
carefully picked out.
The story of the massacre at Dos Erres follows this pattern. The Kaibil patrol gathered
around the well, where throughout the day they methodically killed the victims. The
other soldiers who were part of the operation had different jobsgathering and guarding
people and the perimeter, bringing people to the wellbut none of them killed anyone. If
the butchers were carefully chosen, how did this process work? What role might their indi-
viduality play? Was participating in this joba choice?
Willingness and incentives
Pulling apart the layers of the onion, it seems clear that those who participated in the mas-
sacres did so voluntarily. No one forced them. Killing was a process of self-selection. So
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what was happening inside the platoons to create radicalized units where men willingly
took the lives of others with their own hands? I suggest several possibilities: group
pressure, incentives and even a certain dispositionsome seemed to nd pleasure in
this labour.
Group pressure
A platoon is a swarm of hierarchies, operating in many directions. In the chain of
command, not everything ows from top to bottom. In addition to ties that go up,
between a soldier and his superior, the ofcial in charge, soldiers also experience horizon-
tal pressures from other soldiers. And their ofcer in turn is subject to pressures from
further up, from his captain and those above him, and also from below, from his own sub-
ordinates. In addition to analysing the platoon as a unied machine, it is also important to
attend to the smaller groups inside it, formed through afnities, camaraderie and friend-
ships among equals. I suggest that key to the process of self-selection was the relation
between the platoon commander and smaller groups of soldiers within it who were
willing to act more perversely. The soldier Jorge Roldán remembered that soldiers:
had to show who we were. Watching us, the bosses would say, Oh, yeah, that ones good, no
doubt hes good at killing. So soldiers want to look good, they want to stand out, from killing.
They arent going to say no, I cant. They have to or else theyre good for nothing.
The soldier Mateo Salazar said the ofcers look down on you, but if youre the type who is
willing to kill then they are very kind to you. This is part of the selection process, as people
decide to participate or not.
The promotion system is also a mechanism transforming a simple soldier into a link com-
mitted to the chain of command. Some perpetrators saw their ferocity as a way to move
up, to make a career. The army becomes the source of economic and other resources but it
is also a place to enjoy personal recognition and to exercise power. The ofcer Julián Dom-
ínguez said:
I started as a second string soldier, but your behaviour, your bre
is what helps you become
rst class, a squadron head. And among them its divided too, into alpha and bravo groups.
Alpha was in charge of the corporals and the bravo of the rst class soldiers. It was an impor-
tant responsibility to be a rst class soldier. You have military possibilities, you can become a
And ofcer Mario García Orozco said:
Every three months there were two or three losses, so this creates the hope of promotion,
becoming a corporal or sergeant. Theres a vacancy and so they evaluate among the four cor-
porals who will move up. And its not just in terms of rank and prestige but there are also econ-
omic benets.
In terms of salaries, Martín Ramírez explained, between 1976 and 1978, the second rank
soldier got Q26 a month, rst rank got Q28, the corporal Q31 and a sergeant Q32 or Q35,
Later, the army added bonuses. As ofcer Julián Domínguez remembers, this was
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to improve morale by sending Q100 to a soldiers mother or wife and to contribute to
economic developmentin the highlands. And, as some soldiers moved up the hierarchy,
they could begin to distribute favours to those below. The soldier named Salazar said that
those who were willing to kill ensured a closer relation to the ofcers so that they started
pulling people up with them, this colonel or that one, theres a better job with him.
In 1981, the army realized it needed to grow quickly and urgently stepped up recruitment.
Ofcer Domínguez remembered the crisis conditions they were experiencing: No one was
volunteering anymore, not even semi-volunteers. The ones we grabbed by force were
deserting from the training centres almost as soon as we got them there.Ofcer
Méndez said that in 1981 the Defence Ministry proposed a way to increase numbers to
then president Fernando R. Lucas García but he did not act on it. After the Ríos Montt
coup in March 1982, however, the order went out for a thirty-three per cent increase in
troop size. One way they achieved this goal was to call on all former soldiers, mobilizing
this reserve force by offering them an increased salary. As another incentive, they allowed
these men to choose the military zone they wanted to report to so as to be closer to their
families. This option brought a sudden increase in more hardened soldiers, as most had
served up to thirty months already. Méndez said, The response was immediate and
swift and the army increased its presence throughout the territory.Ofcer Domínguez
said, These better-prepared units were sent to the coast and north, into the Quiché
The leaders of these units were experienced sergeant majors, not recent graduates of
the Politécnica. By this point in the war, they had lost so many lower ofcers that there
werent any sub-lieutenants to command platoons, said ofcer Julián Domínguez. They
were relying on sergeant majors who had reached a certain level of training and identi-
cation with the state. They received six months of training and they shared dormitories
with their troops but they ate with the ofcers and were allowed to enter the ofcers
club, as well as getting leave time similar to the ofcers. They enjoyed bonuses
between Q300 and Q500. But this form of recruitment also became a serious problem
for the army. Domínguez said the veterans brought in from the reserves were:
like regular soldiers, they didnt have any benets or insurance, and [with the sudden inux]
logistics were a nightmare. There were no provisions for bivouacking, everything was done on
the move and this created a lot of problems, especially during the rainy season. And they
werent being relieved, some spent almost an entire year in constant combat.
This led to increasing problems of insubordination, as these older men, who had experi-
enced a different army in the past, increasingly questioned the leadership of the ofcers
and the sergeants running things.
The rapid deployment forces created in 1981, which became increasingly important to the
counterinsurgency project under Ríos Montt, built on and created a more intensive way to
disseminate a project, philosophy and mode of subject formation that the army had begun
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to develop with the creation of the Kaibil special forces in the mid 1970s. As mentioned
above, soldiers who stood out for their bloodlust and ferocity were encouraged to re-
enlist, and undertake special training in the jungles of El Petén at a camp called the Inerno
or Hell. These troops embodied a whole different level of identication with the state project
and an intensive esprit de corps, increased by their sense of being the elite of the elite ght-
ing forces. Members of the Kaibiles usually served around nine years, including doing
administrative work in the school, while others rose to positions in the Presidential Guard
or even in the army high command. Following their trajectories, we see a pattern of long
and decorated military careers.
The rapid deployment forces forged new leadership
through small combat units, as has been noted, but also through the kaibilizationof the
ground troops. When comparing the number of Kaibil platoon commanders to the total
number of platoon commanders between 1981 and 1982, it is rather small, perhaps 300
who had gone through the infamous Inerno. It would seem insufcient to signicantly
impact the course of the war. Nor did the Kaibiles really form a unit that functioned in a coor-
dinated manner separate from the other segments of the military. I argue, instead, that their
contribution came in a different form: the dissemination, through short courses, of the Kaibil
form of warfare, through this entire new structure of the rapid defence forces. Courses in
irregular warfare, designed and taught by Kaibiles, were given to all the commandos of
these units. Ofcer Juan Carlos Galvez explained:
There is a phenomenon in the army that was the kaibilization of all the courses. The tech-
niques that the Kaibiles learned in the Inerno were developed throughout the whole army.
They carried the seeds and transformed all army training in the same direction.
Ofcer Mario García said, With this Kaibil soldier, this killing machine, this was dissemi-
nated through the whole institution, taking on other names, through the other courses
called things like Cima, Cobra, Halcones, Kaibilito, Kamikaze, Kikab, Quachic, Sinacán,
Tohil, Tzul-Taká, and Xinca.
This form of war, building on the other aspects I have
described above, as well as the by-then mythic gure of the berserker Kaibil, and the
lived experiences of the war at that momentof high losses among both troops and of-
cersdid radically change military practice. This complex of causes is what transformed
everyday racism into the radical racism that could attempt to destroy in whole or in
part anyone associated with the subversion. These were primarily indigenous people,
but not only, as the victims of Dos Erres show.
The self-selection of those who participated in the massacres left others, who were also
making decisions within this milieu, at the margin. Seen as weak, they turned to a sort of
unwritten rule that let them stand to one side. But there was not the slightest possibility
that they might denounce the crimes. This is one of the great silences in the history of Gua-
temala. Not a single soldier has dared testify to the atrocious events that they lived through
in those years. How difcult it must be to carry this silence. And why has it been so total?
As was argued in the courtroom during the trial, the Guatemalan army high command,
headed by General Efraín Ríos Montt, is responsible for the change in strategy that created
the rapid deployment units and their kaibilization. They are responsible for planning the
massacres that constituted acts of genocide against indigenous peoples. The testimonies
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collected here from army ofcers and soldiers corroborate those of the survivors and wit-
nesses who testied in the case brought by the Maya-Ixil people. At Dos Erres, as in mas-
sacres across the highlands, we see an operational form that was standardized across
space and time: the selection of the target, the careful planning beforehand, the prep-
aration of the perpetrators, the way the army arrived in each village and gathered the
inhabitants, separating them by sex and age, the quick interrogations to gather what infor-
mation they could before killing everyone, the division and specialization of those who
carried out different tasks, including the killing, the pattern of impunity and the following
silence about the events. None of these are extraordinary elements. They are common pat-
terns in every massacre and may, in turn, help us to understand other cases involving acts
of genocide against the Maya-Qanjobal, Maya-Kicheand Maya-Achi.
The institution created a willingness to kill at the same time that it drew on group
dynamics, strategies of specialization, incentives and personal ambitions. The massacres
became possible through mixing the effects of propaganda and indoctrination with guer-
rilla warfare, racism and the isolation of the victim communities, as well as decisions made
by military elites who, for decades, had forged their careers in a climate of violent anti-
communism. These factors, coinciding in time, served to mutually intensify each other,
leading to acts of genocide in Guatemala. Racism was already there, sown throughout
the various layers of white, mestizo and ladino society, but with the war it took on new
dimensions. It stopped being what I have called everyday racism and became something
else again, radical racism.
All of this combined brings us to an explanation that is simple and extraordinary all at
once. Simple because we had understood that at the moment of actually carrying out any
military operation the platoons divided the labour. But the explanation is also dramatic
because to carry out acts of genocide the high command did not have to force these
young men to act as they did. These groups of soldiers decided freely that the cruelty
of the killing they carried out was something they had to do. And they acted that way
with people with whom they had more ties, as the majority were indigenous, than they
did with those who gave the orders. They attacked their compatriots, following orders
that came from others.
Yet these are not people who were mentally ill. They were people who did what they
did as if it were a job; some even seemed to experience pleasure. When the work was n-
ished, they went back to their lives as if it were nothing. The people I interviewed all
seemed to have regular lives, simply former soldiers now doing everyday jobs. They
were not monsters; they were and are normal people, caught up in circumstances that
they ended up using to their advantage.
Guatemala, this small country, has taught a monstrous lesson in the history of human-
ity. To study this barbarity and to try to understand it in all its complexity is the least we can
do to try to learn from what happened to us as a society.
Translated by Diane M. Nelson
1. Dos Erres means Two Rsand refers to the initials of the two men who founded the
2. In March 2012 another court sentenced former soldier Pedro Pimentel Ríos to the same.
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3. See also Manolo E. Vela Castañeda, Los pelotones de la muerte. La construcción de los perpetra-
dores del genocidio guatemalteco (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2014).
4. The study of the perpetrators of genocide begins with the 194546 Nuremberg trials. Through
the International Military Tribunal, for the rst time in history, state actors who had engaged in
killings were publicly charged and found guilty through judicial proceedings. My work is
indebted to the questions and theoretical debates that draw on those experiences. Christo-
pher R. Browning, Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the nal solution in Poland
(New York: Harper, 1998); Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitlers willing executioners: ordinary
Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Vintage, 1997); Omer Bartov, Hitlers army: soldiers,
Nazis, and war in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Omer Bartov,
The Eastern Front, 194145: German troops and the barbarisation of warfare (Basingstoke: Pal-
grave, 2001).
5. The peace accords negotiated by the government and the guerrilla federation, the Guatema-
lan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), agreed to create the CEH as a rather limited truth
commission(thus the awkward title of historical clarication rather than truth). It was
carried out under the aegis of the United Nations and published a twelve-volume report in
6. Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH), Guatemala, memoria del silencio. Conclu-
siones y recomendaciones, 12 Vols. (Guatemala City: CEH, 1999), 5: p. 51.
7. On anti-communism in Guatemala, see Deborah J. Yashar, Demanding democracy: reform and
reaction in Costa Rica and Guatemala, 1870s1950s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
1997) and Manolo E. Vela Castañeda, Armas, masas y elites. Guatemala, 18201982: Análisis
sociológico de eventos históricos (Guatemala City: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias
Sociales [FLACSO], 2008).
8. Marta Elena Casaús Arzú, Genocidio: ¿La máxima expresión del racismo en Guatemala? (Guate-
mala City: F&G Editores, 2008).
9. The Kaibiles were regular soldiers who distinguished themselves for their ferocity and became
professionals who rose through the ranks, receiving advanced training and the highest
honours, and who could then, in turn, apply to become special forces trainers themselves.
They were soldiers who had experienced the debasement of a special kind of war: guerrilla
10. Regis Debray and Ricardo Ramírez, Guatemala, in Regis Debray (ed.), Las pruebas de fuego, la
crítica de las armas, trans. Felix Blanco, 2 Vols. (México City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1975), 1:
pp. 249339.
11. Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Terror in the land of the holy spirit: Guatemala under General Efrain Ríos
Montt, 19821983 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
12. The war began in February 1962 when a small guerrilla force attacked a military outpost. It
continued with varying intensity until 1996 when a series of peace accords was signed.
13. See Manolo E. Vela Castañeda (ed.), Guatemala, la innita historia de las resistencias (Guatemala
City: Magna Terra Editores, Secretaría de la Paz, 2011).
14. CEH, Guatemala, memoria del silencio, 3: p. 252.
15. Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales en Guatemala (AVANCSO), Política institu-
cional hacia el desplazado interno en Guatemala (Guatemala City: AVANCSO, 1990), p. 11.
This study found that eighty per cent of the people in four departments were displaced by
war, entailing seventeen per cent of the entire population of the country.
16. CEH, Guatemala, Memoria del silencio, 3: pp. 314416. There was a heated debate within the
CEH over using the term genocide, resulting in extremely careful wording that claimed acts
of genocideoccurred, but only in selected areas at specic times.
17. Vela Castañeda, Armas, masas y elites, pp. 92124. Francisco Leal, La Doctrina de seguridad
nacional: Materialización de la guerra fría en América Del Sur,Revista de estudios sociales,
No. 15, June 2003, pp. 7487.
18. Gustavo Palma Murga and Juan Pablo Gómez, Romper las cadenas. Orden nca y rebeldía cam-
pesina: el proyecto colectivo de la nca La Florida (Guatemala City: AVANCSO, 2012).
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19. Matilde González-Izás, Modernización capitalista, racismo y violencia. Guatemala, 17501930
(México City: El Colegio de México, 2014).
20. The closest we have to this type of formulation was the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-
century liberal elite programme, based on ideas of white supremacy, that the solution to the
Indian problemwas ladinizationor kill the Indian but leave the manthrough assimilation
and positive eugenics, such as importing Europeans to improve the race.
21. On the role of racism in Guatemala, see José Ramón Gonzáles Ponciano, ‘“Esas sangres no
están limpias. Modernidad y pensamiento civilizatorio en Guatemala (19541997), in Clara
Arenas Bianchi, Charles R. Hale and Gustavo Palma Murga (eds.), ¿Racismo en Guatemala?
abriendo el debate sobre un tema tabú (Guatemala City: AVANCSO, 2004), pp. 144.
22. Marta Elena Casaús Arzú, Guatemala: linaje y racismo (San José, Costa Rica: FLACSO, 1992); and
La metamorfosis del racismo en Guatemala (Guatemala City: Cholsamaj, 2002).
23. Much more research needs to be done on this sense of conformity among the population that
witnessed the acts of genocide. We know that this was already a traumatized society due to
decades of state terrorism. And beyond the violence, the army had designed and carried out
as part of its counterinsurgency repertoirecampaigns of psychological warfare and inten-
sive control of information. By 1981, the entire society was enmeshed in fear, in a sense that
anything might happen, that anyone and everyone was at risk of crossing an uncertain line
into horror. Participation in workersorganizations, political parties, any criticism of the
regime, being part of friendship networks that might include a dissidentevery aspect of
life became rife with risk. Many people ended up opting to not know what was going on.
Was this conformity or indifference? People just hoped to stay alive, to act as if acts of geno-
cide did not surround them on all sides.
24. By human and moral obligationsI refer to a basic sense of compassion between human
beings. The idea of a moral abyssreferences the distance created between two or more
social groups due to racist prejudices. Helen Fein, Accounting for genocide: national responses
and Jewish victimization during the Holocaust (New York/London: The Free Press/Collier Mac-
millan, 1979); Jeffrey Herf, Comparative perspectives on anti-semitism, radical anti-semitism
in the Holocaust and American white racism,Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 9, No. 4,
2007, pp. 575600.
25. This is a colloquial term for indigenous people. The word indio or Indianhas a much harsher
valence and functions as a slur and insult. To understand the implications of the discussion
below of how ofcers use the word, imagine yourself as a Black person watching a Quentin
Tarantino lm. Because Mayais a term developed after the war, I do not use it here.
26. This and all other quotations are from interviews carried out between July 2005 and February
27. Not everyone, even within the army high command, accepted this reading of the indigenous
masses allowing themselves to be fooled by the subversion. There were some who connected
the problems to the discourses of development and who understood the strength of the guer-
rilla coming from the terrible precarity in which most rural communities lived, as well as the
way guerrilla promises that anything was possible contrasted with decades of unfullled state
pledges that never managed to bring visible concrete results to local communities. In the early
1980s, however, these voices were dismissed and even denounced as subversive. With the
1983 Mejía Víctores coup détat against Ríos Montt, these projects became more hegemonic.
28. Dirk Moses, Revisiting a founding assumption of genocide studies,Genocide Studies and Pre-
vention, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2011, pp. 287300, p. 293.
29. National Security Archive, Operation Soa: documenting genocide in Guatemala, Electronic
Brieng Book No. 297, 2 December 2009, available at:
NSAEBB297/ (accessed February 2016).
30. The process by which, between 1944 when an urban movement unseated the dictatorship of
Jorge Ubico, and 1952 when the agrarian reform law was passed, the ideology of the Guate-
malan elites transformed from conservative to anti-communist, deserves more attention.
31. Grabbed for the basewas how the army recruited its human resources. Local military com-
missioners were given a quota of recruits they had to ll every three months and they would
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go into the streets and literally hunt down young men, forcing them into pick-up trucks and
delivering them to the nearest military base. Vela Castañeda, Los pelotones de la muerte,
pp. 148150.
32. Throughout the war, the number of losses never appeared to affect the cohesion of these
primary groups, not even in 1982 when more than 500 soldiers and ninety ofcers were
lost in combat (these numbers come from an ofcer, Guillermo Méndez, who was in charge
of the annual review of operations for the high command). The concept of the primary
group is from Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz, Cohesion and disintegration in the Wehr-
macht in World War II,Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1948, pp. 280315.
33. Erving Goffman, Asylums. Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates
(Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961).
34. Ricardo Falla, Masacres de la selva. Ixcán, Guatemala (19751982) (Guatemala City: Editorial Uni-
versitaria, 1992), p. i.
35. Fibreis a term used throughout the Guatemalan army to refer to men showing admirable
levels of speed and efciency, to acknowledge work well done.
36. Between 1976 and 1981 the value of the Quetzal, the currency in Guatemala, was Q1 to US$1.
37. As the war wound down, the martial arts of this special forces unit were in high demand,
including by the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, which recruited former Kaibiles to design
and impart training courses for their private armies. Diego Enrique Osorno, La guerra de los
Zetas. Viaje por una frontera de la necropolítica (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2012); Ricardo Ravelo,
Zetas. La franquicia criminal (Mexico City: Ediciones B, 2013).
38. Several of these names reference indigenous groups, deities or heroes.
The author wishes to thank Diane Nelson and Liz Oglesby, the editors of this special issue, for their
enormous help in clarifying the ideas of this article. I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers;
they did extraordinary work, examining every paragraph in precise detail. My book, Los pelotones de
la muerte. La construcción de los perpetradores del genocidio guatemalteco, was dedicated to the per-
sistent and tenacious work of Aura Elena Farfán, founder of the human rights group GAM (Grupo de
Apoyo Mutuo), and FAMDEGUA (Familiares y Amigos de Detenidos Desaparecidos de Guatemala).
Finally, as this work was my dissertation, I always strive, in my daily performance as a sociologist,
to remember the lessons of my thesis director, Professor Vivianne Brachet-Marquez. And to Lucrecia
Hernandez Mack.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
Manolo E. Vela Castañeda is professor in the Department of Social and Political Sciences, Universi-
dad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. He was awarded his PhD at El Colegio de México in 2009 and won
the Mexican Academy of Science prize for the best dissertation. Between 2011 and 2012 he was visit-
ing fellow at the Kellogg Institute, University of Notre Dame. He is a member of the Mexican National
System of Researchers and author of Los pelotones de la muerte. La construcción de los perpetradores
del genocidio guatemalteco (El Colegio de México, 2014) and editor of Guatemala, la innita historia
de las resistencias (Magna Terra, 2011). As a public sociologist, he writes a regular column for the daily
newspaper elPeriódico de Guatemala. Drawing from comparative and historical sociology, his
research topics include the analysis of revolutions, peasant and indigenous rebellions and other
social movements. He is also interested in everyday forms of resistance and the lives of workers
and ordinary people. He is currently working on Days of thunder: the cold war in Central America.
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... The perpetrators in both films responded to their condition of hysteresis through proudly demonstrating their inhumanity and vulgarity towards their memories of mass killings. This is in contrast with previous studies which have highlighted the cognitive and psychological aspects (Canet 2019), group dynamics, racism, indoctrination (Castaneda 2016) and the trauma of perpetrators (Morag 2012), which is a crucial contribution to interpreting memories of perpetrators in both films; particularly in relation to how their experiences of hysteresis interlinked with dynamic social forces in the fields of struggle, resulting in the act of inhuman mass killings. Moreover, when perpetrators have invested their lives in committing mass killings, 'the subject [perpetrators] become aware of the gravity of the situation, at the same time as society's social forces of gravity pull them to become an internalized part of that society' (Hage 2011, 85). ...
Full-text available
Using Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary films about mass killings in Indonesia – The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) – as an entry point, this article explores how perpetrators remember the past and how it is interpreted by them in the present in relation to this particular socio-historical context using a Bourdieusian approach. As represented in both films, perpetrators justified their killings as mechanisms of struggle; not only in order to accumulate cultural capital but also to reproduce ‘doxa’, which strengthens their dominant position in the hierarchical fields of struggle. Silence as doxa creates conditions for perpetrators to be able to maintain and re-justify their acts as heroic. In contrast, as shown in the films, victims remain stigmatized as villains in the history of Indonesia. This article also reveals the inequality of social positions influenced how perpetrators reinterpreted their memories of mass killings and how they survive as they grow older.
... On the one hand, it provided the first in-depth description of the demographic processes that followed an episode of mass killings in the country -one of the many massacres committed by the army in this period (CEH, 1999c). On the other, it presented unique quantitative evidence on these processes -the vast majority of studies on war-time mass violence in Guatemala have been entirely qualitative (Casaús, 2015;Brett, 2016;Crosby, Lykes & Caxaj, 2016;Grace & Sweeney, 2016;Vela Castañeda, 2016;Casaús & Ruiz, 2017;Benítez Jiménez, 2018;Schwartz & Straus, 2018). It also contributes to address the general lack of awareness of the human rights violations committed during the Guatemalan Civil War. ...
This thesis focuses on the demographic consequences of mass killings on local populations. Three empirical studies written as journal articles explore the patterns of mortality and fertility after a series of massacres in the village of Río Negro in Guatemala. The first paper was motived by the dearth of reliable numerical data on massacre-affected populations. It describes the Extended Genealogy Method (EGM), an innovative data collection approach that brings together concepts and methods from various disciplines to reconstruct the demographic history of populations for which no data are available. The EGM was applied to reconstruct the last 40 years of Río Negro’s demographic history producing complete, reliable, and high-quality data suitable for demographic analysis. The second paper focuses on mortality by studying the role of family support and ‘scarring’ effects during and after the Río Negro Massacres, which caused the death of over a third of the village’s population. The article explores four mechanisms driving mortality in the village in the short- and long-term. It presents evidence of the protective effects of networks of family support. It also shows the lingering negative consequences of the massacres on survivors – social and psychological scarring were associated with higher long-term mortality. The third paper focuses on the fertility behaviour of the survivors of the Río Negro Massacres. It discusses potential factors driving fertility after the killings, including age, gender dynamics, social pressure, and scarring effects. The paper finds evidence of a fertility ‘drop and rebound’, with young women and older men having the highest post-killings fertility. Exposure to the killings was associated with lower subsequent fertility (particularly for women) evidencing profound scarring effects. A community-led pronatalist ideology encouraged high fertility amongst survivors of the massacres. This is the first study to explore the demographic consequences of mass killings in detail.
The 2013 trial of Efraín Ríos Montt cemented Guatemala's reputation as a land of genocide. Most of the survivors who testified about army crimes during his 1982–1983 regime came from the Ixil Maya town of Nebaj. Oddly, some Nebajenses credit Ríos Montt with ending army massacres and saving their lives. This article focuses on the genocide debate in the municipio of Nebaj. It concludes that command responsibility for war crimes would have been a more effective indictment than genocide. El juicio de 2013 contra Efraín Ríos Montt consolidó la reputación de Guatemala como tierra de genocidio. La mayoría de los sobrevivientes que testificaron sobre los crímenes del ejército bajo la administración de Montt (1982–1983) pertenecían al pueblo maya ixil de Nebaj. Curiosamente algunos nebajenses dan crédito a Ríos Montt por poner fin a las masacres del ejército y salvarles la vida. Este artículo se centra en el debate sobre el genocidio en el municipio de Nebaj a través del análisis concluye que la responsabilidad de mando por crímenes de guerra habría sido una acusación más efectiva contra Ríos Montt que el genocidio.
This essay opens with one of hundreds of massacres carried out in the early 1980s in Guatemala by agents of the military state. The killing was meant to depopulate the Rio Negro valley to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Like much of the violence of the 36-year conflict, it was low-tech and carried out by civil patrollers, which is perhaps why the Guatemalan civil war was considered a “low intensity conflict” by US Army definitions: “below conventional war… employing political, economic, informational, and military instruments.” I suggest that these instruments encompass what many anthropologists call culture. While beginning with a moment of spectacular violence, the essay then traces the mundane, everyday political and economic embeddings of militarism into Guatemalan social institutions, life, conditions of possibility, meaning systems, and abilities to affect and be affected. A history of the present, it traces the paramil-itarization of the army/government in the 1960s and 1970s via the development of death squads and other clandestine bodies and illicit networks that shape state functioning today. Yet it also explores the intensities of countercultures of militarism, the networks that have forced perpetrator accountability, reparations, and state recognition of Mayan peoples and their rights to defend their territories from accumulation by dispossession.
Dominant theories of mass violence hold that strategic concerns in civil war drive the deliberate targeting of civilians. However, the causal mechanisms that link strategic objectives to large-scale violence against civilians remain underspecified, and as such the causal logics that underpin each remain blurred. In this article, we identify and explicate four plausible mechanisms that explain why armed groups would target, for strategic purposes, civilians in war. We then turn to the peak period of violence during the Guatemalan armed conflict to assess which mechanisms were most prevalent. Specifically, we leverage unique archival data: 359 pages of military files from Operation Sofía, a month-long counterinsurgent campaign waged in the northwestern Ixil region. Through process tracing of real-time internal communications, we find that state actors most commonly described the civilian population as loyal to rebel forces; violence against civilians was a means to weaken the insurgency. Troops on the ground also depicted the Ixil population as ‘winnable’, which suggests that security forces used violence in this period to shape civilian behavior. These findings are most consistent with the idea that mass violence in this case and period was a coercive instrument to defeat insurgents by punishing civilians for collaboration. The evidence from this period is less consistent with a logic of genocide, in which the purpose of violence would be to destroy ‘unwinnable’ civilian groups. Our analysis illustrates how a mechanism-centered approach based on process tracing of conflict archives can help uncover logics underlying civilian killing.
List of Tables - Preface - List of Abbreviations - Introduction - PART 1 LIFE, HARDSHIP AND DEATH AT THE FRONT - The Military Events - Manpower and Casualties - Physical Hardship - Discipline and Morale - PART 2 THE OFFICERS: BACKBONE OF THE ARMY - Introduction - The Sample - Data Analysis - PART 3 INDOCTRINATION AND THE NEED FOR A CAUSE - Introduction - Forms and Intensity of Ideological Instruction - The Enemy as 'Untermenschen' - The Efficacy of Indoctrination - PART 4 BARBARISM AND CRIMINALITY - Introduction - The Maltreatment of Russian POWs - Fighting Partisans and Murdering Civilians - Exploitation, Evacuation and Destruction - Conclusion - Appendix: Maps - References - Bibliography - Index
This work discusses the period now known in Guatemala as la violencia, when the military government under General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) prosecuted a scorched-earth campaign against the Mayan people in the name of anticommunism. Although tens of thousands of people died in the "Mayan holocaust," Ríos Montt was, and is, a born-again Pentecostal, a fact that would seem to be at odds with the atrocities that took place on his watch. This book explicates the narrative of what happened during this period of history and seeks to explore some larger and more universal themes, such as issues of historical memory, how violence alters a society, and how the Guatemalan case may fit into our understanding of what constitutes genocide. Although this period is a critical vortex in Guatemalan history, this is the first historical study of it in English. Through the use of newly available primary sources such as guerrilla documents, evangelical pamphlets, speech transcripts, and declassified U.S. government records, the work helps to complicate our understanding of what happened during Ríos Montt's rule. It suggests that three decades of war engendered an ideology of violence that cut not only vertically, but also horizontally, across classes, cultures, communities, religions, and even families. This study examines the causality and effects of the ideology of violence, but it also explores the long duration of Guatemalan history between 1954 and the late 1970s that made such an ideology possible.
Genocide studies has come a long way over the past decade, having attained a level of intellectual sobriety, academic credibility, and public recognition virtually inconceivable forty years ago. At the same time, there have been signs of convergence between the fields of genocide studies and Holocaust historiography and studies. This development can be challenging for those in Holocaust studies and historiography because the relationship betweem the two disciplines is complicated by genocide studies' claim to incorporate the Holocaust into its object of inquiry, whereas the reverse does not hold. There is a potentially subordinate situation here, or at least it can be experienced that way, even though Holocaust studies and historiography is a field with a substantial center of gravity, evidenced by the journals, book series, and research institutes devoted to the subject, such that it hardly needs to gesture to the relatively younger and smaller sibling, genocide studies. This article analyzes a recent critique of this convergence by revisiting the founding assumptions of Holocaust studies and genocide studies.
Demanding democracy: reform and reaction in Costa Rica and Guatemala, 1997) and Manolo E. Vela Castañeda, Armas, masas y elites
  • Deborah J On Anti-Communism In Guatemala
  • Yashar
On anti-communism in Guatemala, see Deborah J. Yashar, Demanding democracy: reform and reaction in Costa Rica and Guatemala, 1870s–1950s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997) and Manolo E. Vela Castañeda, Armas, masas y elites. Guatemala, 1820–1982: Análisis sociológico de eventos históricos (Guatemala City: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales [FLACSO], 2008).
Guatemala, la infinita historia de las resistencias
  • See Manolo
  • E Vela Castañeda
See Manolo E. Vela Castañeda (ed.), Guatemala, la infinita historia de las resistencias (Guatemala City: Magna Terra Editores, Secretaría de la Paz, 2011).