Guatemalan survivors revel in their history

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.

Maria Maquin was a 12-year-old girl at the plaza in 1978, standing with her grandmother who was a leader of the protest and one of the first gunned down. “I played dead. One of the soldiers touched me and said, ‘She’s dead.’” She lived in hiding in the mountains for years after.

Mayans couldn’t risk talking about their loss until the civil war ended in 1996. Other books have been written about Panzos but survivors were electrified by the chance to host the book presentation. “It is so excellent,” said Matilde Caal, who spent her childhood on the run after relatives were disappeared in the early 1980s. Now a rural health promoter, she bought two copies to give to nephews. “They had to present it [here] so children would know what happened. Not just in Panzos but all over.”

Several students interviewed among the about 500 people packing the concrete salon said they had not heard about the massacre until this event, even though they came from towns within a few miles. Some in Guatemala, especially in urban areas, deny the extent of the scorched-earth campaign during the 35-year war.

The event was a homecoming of sorts for author Sanford, an associate professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York. She joined a team of archeologists that exhumed the mass grave from the massacre in 1997. She has participated in research and investigations in Guatemala since 1990 but had not been back since death threats forced her out in 2007.

Her book was published with help from the Soros Foundation of Guatemala and a local teachers association invited her to present it in Panzos with a panel of authors and dignitaries, including a ranking government human rights monitor. The presentation was conducted in Spanish and the Mayan language Kekchi.

“As long as a society can continue to organize, there’s hope,” Sanford said in assessing what she found in her return to Panzos. “But building a military base [there] doesn’t support an ongoing organization of civil society.”