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Model villages and the militarization of rural society in Guatemala

It's one of those ugly euphemisms of state terror and war. Similar places were referred to as "strategic hamlets" during the Indochina wars and the concept was used throughout the twentieth century. In the Philippines, South Africa, elsewhere. In Europe they were called concentration camps. In Guatemala in the 1980s they were called model villages. An examination of these villages and the their background offers a glimpse into the horror that was Guatemala during those years.

Before one can see how things like model villages disrupted, controlled, and destroyed the rural populations in Guatemala during its long civil war, it helps to understand the background to that conflict.

After years under repressive (though friendly to US interests) regimes, Guatemala managed to rebel and install its first democratically elected president in 1944. This greatly upset the US, particularly the United Fruit Company (UFCo, today having evolved into the well-known Chiquita banana brand).1 Primarily in the banana business, UFCo was known throughout Central America as "El Pulpo" ("the octopus") because of its many arms entwined in so many countries, not only in land but in infrastructure—it was the single largest landholder in Guatemala and controlled the railroad, the electric company, and the country's main port. Between the company and wealthy landholders, there wasn't much land on which the majority of the citizens could make a living, most being forced to work in near slavery conditions for one group or the other. All while UFCo left over 80% of its land fallow. The dictators, landowners, and UFCo made sure that it was virtually impossible for union organization; people were kept uneducated, suffrage at a minimum, and dissent was squashed.

It was one of the most promising democratic movements in the history of Central America. It also made a mistake of angering UFCo—which happened to have ties to the Eisenhower administration.2 Besides making impressive gains in education, health, suffrage, labor organization, and other social areas, it was decided that the people deserved land on which to make their own living. Much of the UFCo fallow land was appropriated. It wasn't simply taken, compensation was made—made at the value which UFCo had assessed its property (deliberately far below its actual value). The company demanded much more money and the president refused.

Some of the wealthy elites and some portions of the military were also upset (loss of power and control that one assumes one is entitled to tends to do that). This laid a basis for the later coup. As is common when a social democratic government breaks away from the chains of an "El Pulpo," the easiest thing to do is scream "communist" and start to claim threats to security and stability in the region. It is true that there were a few communists in the government and a couple in low level cabinet posts, though they had hardly "infiltrated" anything. Like any good democracy, they were elected by the people. No subterfuge. No nefarious plots. But it was enough pretext to begin the charges and covert actions by the Eisenhower administration (through the CIA and proxy forces made up of ex-military opposed to the new government) that would lead to the coup in 1954.

The coup succeeded and "regime change" occurred once again (as it had a year earlier in Iran, beginning the Shah's brutal regime of terror and torture—supported for decades by the US). This led to a series of military or ostensibly civilian governments that lasted until the mid 1990s. It also created rebel guerilla forces that wished to depose the illegitimate US-backed governments, plunging the country into a 36 year civil war, during which about 200,000 Guatemalans (mostly civilian) were killed and around 50,000 "disappeared." Two separate human rights groups (one from the Catholic Church and the other through the UN) determined that over 90% of those killed were by state forces or paramilitaries run or affiliated with them.

Poles of Development
In the 1980s, the government was wratcheting up the offensive to fight the guerillas which led to many massacres of civilians. The military took a "drain the sea" approach. Since "the sea is to the fish what the population is to guerillas" (Guatemala: Never Again!) the civilian population (mostly rural Maya Indians) had to be targeted. Not necessarily for death (though "depopulation" was part of the intent) but it had to be used and controlled. Pumped for information, kept from aiding or joining the guerillas. In order to accomplish this, there was a plan to put portions of the population into so-called "model villages" where they could be interrogated, watched, and controlled. The public face of this was the claim that it was for their protection and security, though the results make clear what was happening.

The areas where these villages were set up were referred to as "Poles of Development"—more euphemistic language. The idea being suggested that they were rural development programs for the benefit of the Indian population. The Archdiocese of Guatemala's human rights report determined that 50,000 to 60,000 of the rural highland popuation—possibly as much as one-fifth of the total—was forced into one of these villages. As many as 400,000 Guatemalans fled to surrounding countries, about half going to Mexico where they lived a precarious, though, largely safer existence in the mountains. This did not mean there weren't problems with basic needs or discrimination and harassment but there are many testimonies of the aid and comfort that were given to the communities of refugees that sprung up. Even from people who had little of their own. Refugees who tried to return, even after the worst years of the massacres, were still subject to capture and occasional massacre by the Guatemalan security forces waiting on the other side of the border.

It was not as simple as 'grab up the population and shove them behind barbed wire,' there was a general systematization to it. It often began with victims of massacres or other internally displaced people (villages that surrendered to the army, for example). They would return (or be brought back) to their former village (or some other village) which would have been razed to the ground—part of what was sometimes a literal "scorched earth" policy by the army. Then they would be put to work on a "work for food" basis. Given meager rations of food, the victims were forced to build the model village they would soon inhabit (as well as feed, clean, serve, and sometimes "service" the soldiers). In some cases, people without tools would have to "rent" them from nearby villages with only their rations to use as payment. This led to illness and exhaustion, and sometimes death. Many of the Indians were already suffering from those maladies due having to hide out in the mountains and scavenge for food, some of them wounded (or coincidentally sick). Being on the run made even basic nutrition and medical care virtually nonexistant.

Meanwhile, the soldiers or Civil Defense Patrollers (PAC: Patrullas de Auto-Defensa Civil; more below) would exercise and exploit their control over the people by capricious rape and torture, beating and the occasional murder, keeping them in line. Girls would be picked up in the evening and deposited the next morning after the forces were through with them. Females who got pregnant from such encounters were living symbols of the shame and indignity forced upon the people. Children were abandoned or left with the clergy in large numbers. They would later be adopted, never knowing the hell of their conception.

One of the tortures that was used was to dig pits, fill them with water, and throw people in them for up to 72 hours. Some drowned. Some contracted pneumonia. Other times, they would be given concoctions of liquids and nonliquids to drink (mixtures of salt, oil, and soap have been reported). When the victim would regurgitate the substance into the water-filled hole he (usually a male) would be left to stew in it.

Sometimes there would be an intermediary step before the model village. This was the not quite so euphemistic reeducation camp. There, the Indians would be indoctrinated so they would know what it means to be a Guatemalan. It was the beginning of cultural genocide. Besides national indoctrination and forced patriotism, Indian cultural values and beliefs were denigrated and extinguished to the best of the abilities of the helpful "educators." Spanish was forced upon them as the only language to speak (and read or write, though many were illiterate). The day was fully regimented, food limited, and lectures on patriotism, civil defense techniques, anticommunism, and spying/informing mandatory. As one "teacher" explained:

We have to work them, to raise their consciousness. Our work is like erasing an old cassette tape and recording something new. We have to start with them like with little children. It could take months to get them ready to return to their homes. One, two, three, even six months.
(Buried Secrets)

Since most of the victims were rural Guatemalans whose families had lived in the same area or villages for generations, they had a connection to the land from which virtually all of them made their living and grew their food. That bond was traditional and cultural. The resettlement (even if it was to the former location of one of their villages) destroyed that bond. The villages were built like prefabricated slum housing arranged in grids. Concrete and metal. Wood and plastic. Often with too little land to grow enough food to support the family—or the land was barely arable or left in a condition that food could hardly grow, if at all. It broke apart extended families that once lived near each other, subverted the whole sense of community that the Mayan had established over years. They came to describe these new "communities" as "revuelto" ("scrambled").

Possessions were gone as those who had fled could not bring much with them or lost things along the way. Villages, even those left standing, were looted and vandalized. Personal or religious items, some things that had been passed down for generations and cherished, were lost forever and those that weren't could be ripped from their grasp and the whim of the security forces. The victims were completely dependent on the army and the PACs for their survival and basic needs. Plus the ever-present awareness that one's life could be taken at any time.

Life in the villages was not too dissimilar to that of the reeducation camp (though decidedly more brutal). There were regular times to assemble and be accounted for, lectures or presentations on anticommunism/pro-military topics as well as encouragement for men to relate how guerillas had mistreated or tricked them and/or how they had helped the soldiers. At the entrance and exit to each village would be a military post. Written permission was required to leave the confines of the village. Any infraction would be punished at the discretion of the forces. These were all part of the second means of control: the militarization of society, in which the victims become part of the crimes.

As an adjunct to the regular security forces, the army began forming Civilian Self-defense Patrols in late 1981 (there were some slight name changes later). Defined as a "spontaneous nonmilitary organization" (G:NA), the PAC was essentially neither—aside from not being an official branch of the military. They were organized, trained and overseen by the military. In the next two years, the ranks would swell to some 900,000 males between 15 and 60 years of age (about 80% of the male population in rural areas). There were still 375,000 members when the groups were officially disbanded in 1995 with the end of the civil war.

The army was already guilty of forced conscription and PAC recruitment was not dissimilar. There were some precautions that had to be taken. Since the PACs were somewhat autonomous (though never on too long a leash), there was always a danger of having an armed population that might begin resisting, be it through noncooperation or joining the guerillas. This is why recruitment through a controlled population was helpful. Starting with a cowed and broken community, they would use their own leaders or prominent citizens to head up recruitment and often to lead the patrols. This allowed the army to attach the new system to existing social organization—even after having broken down many of those social lines, the opportunity, even though it was within a new military structure, would allow the (false) sense that there was continuity and community.

Hardly new thinking, this is similar to the way colonial powers would show favor and arm certain groups and use the natives to police themselves.3 Giving power to a previously powerless group—particularly after breaking most, if not all of their spirit—makes them more liable to be complicit and obey orders. It should not be overlooked that it was cost-effective, as well. The army also used them as point during sweeps. That way, if and when guerillas attacked, the PACs would be hit first and the soldiers could then counterattack with fewer losses. Besides, they were just Indians.

That is not to say that everyone went willingly and sheeplike into the patrols. The men knew what the alternative would be. The army made sure to impress upon potential recruits that their lives and the lives of their families depended on their contribution to "security." The people knew that if they did not patrol, they would be considered guerillas or guerilla sympathizers and punished accordingly. It was a matter of survival. Between the fear and other social breakdown, the indoctrination would continue: "Instruction must include civic education and military training by the army" (G:NA) according to the army. It would ensure "military discipline."

Being forced into a world of violence and brutality, many of these men would gradually become as vicious and corrupt as the soldiers were. The previous victims became victimizers, sometimes killing indiscriminately. According to the Catholic church's report, PACs took part in almost one-fifth of the massacres during the civil war—when military commissioners are included, the number of "collective murders" by "irregular government forces" was closer to one-fourth of the total. The whole process at work in the villages and the PACs led to a neighbor against neighbor, everyone for himself (within the military system) society. People would turn in tips on people they didn't like or who they felt had wronged them—or even as means to curry favor with the security forces. Desire to eliminate economic, property, or other competition led to people being turned in as suspected guerillas. Then there were those who "named names" out of fear or because they were tortured. Again, a matter of survival: better to name someone else than to suffer or die (or to have your family suffer the same fate).

No doubt some of the victims were actual guerrillas or sympathizers, but this was about creating and maintaining an atmosphere of fear and dread so that they was no potential of resistance of any kind. In fact, a look at where the PACs were used supports this. The Guatemalan army divided areas into "zones." A "red zone" meant that the area was under guerilla control, a "pink zone" meant there was a guerilla presence, and a "white zone" meant that there was no guerilla activity. The PACs were deliberately designed to function in the "pink" zones rather than the areas of guerilla control. It's easier to drain the shallow part of the sea.

This is another reason why the death of innocents was not a concern (besides that the army really didn't care about the Indian population). Violence exacted on the population was useful to make sure they complied and obeyed quietly. Murder, torture, and rape set an example for what became of those who misbehaved. And those methods were used liberally and often arbitrarily (heightening the fear). Also, importantly, any infraction or lack of military discipline among the PACs was harshly punished by their superiors or the army. Over time, the limits of what would once have constituted "civilized" behavior were destroyed and the savagery of those who have no limits released. Any frustration or other deprecation could be taken out on the victims. When there is a sense of complete impotence, being put in the position where one has the power of life and death over those who remain powerless tends to lead to the barbarity reported in the interviews taken by the human rights commissions.

And there were perks. Besides being able to sate one's bloodlust, there was substantial looting of whatever they felt like taking: clothes, personal possessions, livestock. And the freedom to destroy at will. PACs were given power and standing (whether out of fear or not) in the community and favoritism from the army (which also served as a partial protection—of course, in Guatemala at that time no one was ever fully safe). And no one spoke up when the raping began. The life of the PAC members was orchestrated to create this kind of soldier, through training, indoctrination, and perhaps most importantly, participation. Once the system was in place, the army could leave a village knowing that the control over the population would remain.

Efrain Ríos Montt.
It was during this period in the early 1980s that the worst violence of the civil war took place (it rose from a total of a few to several hundred killed or disappeared per month to between one and three thousand during the Montt regime). In fact, the military "sweeps" through the countryside were called Operación Ceniza: "Operation Ashes," reflecting the way villages, crops, and land were burned as well as the symbolic sense of the term. All part of the "drain the sea" policy of the government. Leave nothing for the guerillas, even if that includes the people. Placing them in detainee camps was part of the plan.

The "president" of the time (following a military coup) was General Efrain Ríos Montt. He was a graduate of the infamous US "School of the Americas," often referred to as the "School of Assassins" given the number of brutal and unrepentant murderers and torturers who returned to their (primarily South and Central American) countries and ply their new skills at the sort of "internal security" that places like Guatemala and El Salvador are known for. Montt took over his predecessor's ruthless attempt to purge the countryside of even the slightest potential resistance or aid for the guerillas. It was he who instituted the "scorched earth" policy. Under him, deaths among the population rose well above those preceding him (and those who followed). During his first full month in office over 3,000 people were killed, an official estimate that is known to be lower than the reality.

Numbers are difficult to assess because massacres were not reported for months or years and sometimes not at all (not to mention an unknown number that no one knows about or about which no one is willing to speak). Montt informed the press (always walking the razor edge of trying to do their job and stay alive) that they could not publish anything that "may cause confusion or panic or aggravate the situation" (State Violence in Guatemala). Anyone else that spoke up about the killing was an immediate target. To this day, human rights workers Maya Indians, and forensic anthropologists are still digging up the remains. It is likely the actual scope of the horror may be worse than anyone estimated.

The public face of Montt differed greatly from the what those dying in the jungles and the mountains saw. Montt was an evangelical Protestant. A member of the Church of the Word, affiliated with the California-based Gospel Outreach and even a pastor.4 During his regime (June 1982 to August 1983) he would preempt Sunday evening television programming so he could give moralizing sermons to the nation. He also facilitated the spread of the church. At the same time, he harshly persecuted the Catholic Church as numerous priests and Catholic Action activists were hunted down and murdered. He even made sure to execute six people during a papal visit. The army and PACs would single out catechists as subversive or guerillas.

Besides a personal animosity for the church (he blamed it and its "leftist" priests for his loss in the 1974 elections) and likely a religious one (as many of the more evangelical and fundamentalist Christian denominations have), the church's lean toward "liberation theology" made it a target for being subversive and "leftist." Liberation theology was a movement that was geared toward social support for the people (which leaders of the movement felt was directed by the Bible), it involves activism in human and civil rights, land reform, and social programs for the poor (and often oppressed). These things are always considered a threat in countries where the poor must remain subservient and quiet, not asking for anything and behaving accordingly. That some members of the church were outspoken in their criticism of human rights abuses by the government, made them open season.

And in the model villages and across the countryside, the uprooting of people from access to sacred places (whether it be traditional Maya or Catholic) and the repression or worse of the Catholic clergy and lay ministers, left what the Catholic report refers to as a "religious vacuum." Into this, the evangelical Protestant churches took seed. They were deliberately "apolitical" (in that they passively supported the army and the government—both of which actively supported those churches) and would occasionally use selective elements of Maya language and tradition, making them more palatable to the victims. This looked good to those on the outside who chose not to see anything else. Montt was bringing the real Gospel to the heathens, spreading the word of Christ to those who had been led astray.

Montt's religious face and his staunch anticommunism made him attractive not only to evangelical groups in the US (who had helped finance him) but to the Ronald Reagan administration (which had its own evangelicals—and typically rabid anticommunism). Shortly after he came to power, Montt had a meeting with the US ambassador to the Organization of American States. Also in attendance were Jerry Falwell, and Reagan's Attorney General Edwin Meese and his Secretery of Interior James Watt. The Reagan also administration lobbied to get full aid reinstated (after having been mostly cut off by Congress in 1977 for human rights reasons).

The rise of the worst of the slaughter (and the creation of the PACs) had began under the previous leader (General Romeo Lucas García). At the time, the US had held back any criticism. Once Montt came to power, Lucas was vilified and Montt triumphed as a leader who would bring peace and prosperity to Guatemala. This was the man Reagan called "a man of great personal integrity" who "wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice." Reagan was "inclined to believe they've been getting a bum rap," referring to the Montt regime.5

Sadly, though unsurprisingly, Montt's leaving office (another coup) didn't end the civil war or the massacres. Nor did it end the model villages or the PACs. Or the culture of impunity that still exists in some form today in Guatemala making it nearly impossible to prosecute the leaders responsible. This "culture" even allowed for Montt to remain politically powerful as a member of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front party, including the presidency of the Guatemalan National Congress. It also allowed him to run for president—the first two times (1990 and 1995), he was rejected candidacy on constitutional grounds barring coup participants from that position. In 2003, he was able to run. This time, despite lower court findings, the supreme court was peopled with allies. Given the time and the American people's lack of historical knowledge, the US governemnt was able to state it would rather he not be elected due to his history. News reports were suitably vague on his close ties to the US government at the time of those crimes. Fortunately he lost his bid. One hopes Guatemala will heal but it'll be a long process.

1The brief history above is completely and unsurprisingly sanitized from the official history on the company's website: http://www.chiquita.com/discover/oshistory.asp

2Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his former law firm had represented the company. His brother Allen Dulles (Director of the Central Intelligence Agency) had served on the company's board of trustees. The husband of Eisenhower's personal secretary (Ann Whitman) was the top public relations man at UFCo. The US Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge was a major stockholder (as were others). The Under Secretary of State, Walter Bedell Smith (also a former Director of the CIA) was looking for a top level position in the company at the same time the plans for the coup were being put together. He was later rewarded with a spot on the company's board of directors.

3In Africa, this was often done through ethnic lines, usually choosing a minority ethnic group or tribe. This sort of manipulation and passive, if not active, encouragement toward brutality and corruption (since the natives were just being natives and cheating and repressing their own people) led to many of the postcolonial problems today which are blamed on "tribalism"—to suggest that it's some sort of inherent cultural (racial) flaw that keeps them fighting amongst themselves. It was also useful during colonial occupation to keep squabbles amongst the natives so they wouldn't cause trouble for the overseers busy extracting whatever resources they could get their hands on.

4In an odd twist, Montt's brother, Mario Ríos Montt succeeded Bishop Juan Gerardi (who was bludgeoned to death shortly after the Catholic report was released) as head of the Catholic human rights office. Efrain was also Catholic before joining the Church of the Word.

5 "Remarks in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Following a Meeting With President Jose Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala" 4 December 1983; "Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters on the President's Trip to Latin America" 4 December 1982. Documents available from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library site at http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/resource/speeches/1982/82dec.htm

Primary Sources:
Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala 1999 (expanded ed.) Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer
Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala 2003 Victoria Sanford
"Guatemala Memory of Silence: report of the Commission for Historical Clarification Conclusions and Recommendations" 1999
Guatemala: Never Again! 1999 Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (abridged English translation)
"State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection" 1999 Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, Herbert F Spirer
For additional readings and sources: Rio Negro massacres (three part writeup): 1, 2, 3, Myrna Mack, Dianna Ortiz.

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