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Guatemalan survivors revel in their history

Years after massacre, villagers have chance to see their stories validated in print.

Guatemalan Qeqchi Maya
A Guatemalan Q'eqchi' Maya leaves a church in Panzos, Guatemala, May 29, 2003. (Daniel LeClair/Reuters)

PANZOS, Guatemala — Hundreds of peasants, teachers and students packed a worn municipal hall last week to see an American author present her book about a notorious army massacre that happened here 32 years ago. They took notes and scanned the pages to see their stories validated in print. Many bought copies that, even discounted to a few dollars, cost nearly a day’s pay.

And the town’s haunting past and wary present were entwined when Maria Maquin, one of the most famous survivors, was given the microphone and urged loud opposition to a current proposal to build an army base nearby — which many fear will bring new repression by elites and their military allies. “When soldiers come, they come to kill,” she warned in terms that would have certainly made her a target in the past and could still now.

The community presentation of the book “La Masacre de Panzos” by New York anthropologist Victoria Sanford was emblematic of Guatemala’s midpoint between the violent dictatorships of the past and the still-lacking requirements of a functioning democracy.

True, the fearful silence about the past has long been broken. The book event had schoolchildren bussed in to hear a discussion on the killing that had taken place just yards away from where they sat. A few former guerrillas were there, too, and in the town square, where protesters marched against the army base, a banner of Che Guevera praised “Heroic Panzos.” But the killers have never been brought to justice. There have only been a few high-profile prosecutions of military figures for war crimes and an overall climate of impunity continues.

Panzos, a town now of about 5,400 people in the lush coffee province of Alta Verapaz, buzzed with grassroots mobilization back in the early 1970s, as workers and land rights groups gained momentum. Leftist guerrillas moved about the region.

On May 29, 1978, hundreds of peasants gathered in the Panzos plaza to petition the mayor for land reform. The mayor, known for confiscating peasant property for his own uses, had already called in an army unit, which surrounded the crowd. The troops opened fire — perhaps after a demonstrator pushed a soldier or grabbed his rifle — killing at least 53 people including women and children.

Government officials claimed the troops were turning back a peasant invasion fomented by international communists. That account served to make an example of consequences for politically active towns and helped provide a pretense for a years-long campaign of massacres in Mayan villages throughout the country, supported by large farm owners, rightist allies and an American neighbor transfixed on Cold War opposition to communism.

While the Panzos massacre shocked Guatemala and was covered in the local and international press, such violence eventually became dreadfully routine. An U.N.-backed commission formed at the end of the civil war attributed more than 600 massacres to the military. In Panzos, the army committed hundreds of individual killings. Many Mayan families fled their homes to hide in mountains for years.