Repression in Guatemala: Testimonies of Refugees

  • After the US CIA overthrow of the constitutional government of Guatemala in 1955, a series of repressive military dictators took over the country. Their greed drove them to push hundreds of thousands of Mayan peasants off their lands. In response, revolutionary groups sprang up to fight the oppressive dictatorships.
  • The fighting escalated in the 1980s, when tens of thousands of Guatemalans abandoned their war-ravaged communities. Most fled to Chiapas in southern Mexico, but many also took refuge in other countries, including the US. Among these refugees were twelve thousand Q'anjob'al Mayans who escaped the political violence that destroyed some 440 villages. The Q'anjob'al settled in southern Florida, in a small farming community called Indiantown, joining other Central American and Mexican immigrants.
  • US writer Allan F. Burns interviewed many Mayan residents of Indiantown for his book, Maya in Exile: Guatemalans in Florida. Map of Guatemala . Excerpts from some of those intererviews appear below
  • We don't know the exact number of Maya people who came to the US as refugees. Since 1981 the number of Guatemalan refugees inside and outside Guatemala has been estimated as being as high as 600,000, with up to 200,000 in the United States Of these, only a very few have been given political asylum. Between 1983 and 1986, when the first wave of close to 100,000 Guatemalans fled to the United States, only 14 petitions for political asylum were granted while 1,461 were denied. Both the Reagan and Bush administrations refused to grant asylum to refugees from repressive right-wing dictatorships that the US then supported.

    Views of the refugees:

  • Allan Burns: When was the last time you were in Guatemala?
  • Jose Xunche: I left on January 10, 1982, and went to Mexico for two years. I heard that the military was going to come into our hamlet. I came back in 1984. I lived near Rio Azul and every day the army would come there with a truck of guerrilla captives. They would stand at the bridge, cut them up with machetes, and throw them into the river. Half of them weren't dead but they just threw them in with the dead ones. I couldn't stay, so I left and made my way up here.
  • Rodrigo Antonio, another immigrant, talked with Julian Arturo, a University of Florida anthropology student from Colombia, about his journey from Guatemala through Mexico:
  • Well, it was for the war. There in Guatemala. In my town, I am from San Miguel. But I am from Guatemala. Well, then, when there was war there it was hard for us to leave. Also we didn't have any money. Then finally I left there, fleeing. I left without hardly saying goodbye to my family because of the fear I had of the army, the ones that were killing people. It was of the government, as we say. The guerilla was also active, killing people once in a while. But it was the army that I feared more; I feared that they would come and kill me. For example, if you went out to work there and the army came upon you, it was really easy for them to kill you, because the army could do it there. The guerilla was up in the mountains, but the army could come upon you on the road or in the milpas or wherever. This is what happened to my best friend. He was in his milpa and the army came upon him and killed him there. This is what happened to him. That's why it frightens you to live there. And that's how I came here. I hardly said goodbye to my family because I left so quickly. I came here.
  • Rodrigo's matter-of-fact telling of the personal terror in Guatemala is common in refugee accounts of terrorism. For him and others, the conditions in Guatemala can be described, but the killings and destruction of villages need no stress when told to others. Victor Montejo's Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village (1987) has a similar style of unexaggerated description: ''Before going down to rescue the captives I had learned of the death of one patrol member: the boy of fourteen. . . . It was now two thirty, and the day had begun to cloud over. The bullet-riddled bodies of the dead civil defenders remained where they had fallen. No one, not even the widows, dared to leave the group to weep over the bodies of their husbands'' (Montejo 1987:29).
  • When Rodrigo Antonio returned to Guatemala to find his family, he found himself conscripted into the ''civil patrol,'' one of the more burdensome organizations now instituted in many of the villages such as San Miguel, where Rodrigo was born. These patrols are made up of local men who are expected to give up their time to defend the villages from guerrilla soldiers. A list of every adult man is made in each village, and the men take turns doing ''guard service.''
  • Suspicious strangers are reported to military authorities by these patrols, and often jealousies or old conflicts between families are settled by a patrol member's telling the military government that the other party is ''subversive.'' In this way the current system installed by the Guatemalan government to lessen the threat of guerrilla insurgency has been transformed into a means for indulging feuds and personal conflicts. Some men pay others to take their turn at patrol. Many who now work in the United States send back money for years to pay a neighbor or relative to do their patrol duty.
  • Rodrigo Antonio: When I went back, it had changed a lot. It wasn't at all like it was when the war was going on. Now there is the patrol. You have to be a part of the patrol and not miss a day. When I went back, I had to patrol three times a week. You can't work at all. You have to be on patrol so much that you can't get any work done.
  • Allan Burns: But how did you end up here in Indiantown; why did you leave Guatemala?
  • Jeronimo Camposeco: Because I could learn Spanish. I am an Indian like everybody else. Since I was a kid I helped my father in the fields, working in the lands and working to grow milpa and bringing wood to myself. And so I had the opportunity to go to the school. Later I worked at the National Indian Institute. We were a team of people there, and we were connected with the North American Indians. And some of them were working with us in the villages, because in 1976 was an earthquake, and so some just came to work. And some of them stayed there after the earthquake until 1980. And this work, for the government, for the paramilitary groups and the death squads, and even the army was looking for all the people who were working to try to have a better life in the countryside. Because we are the people in Guatemala, we are very poor. You know that since colonial times the people in power took our lands--we only have tiny lands in the mountains, and the good lands are in the lowlands in the hands of the companies. Exporting all the products like sugar cane, coffee, bananas, but there is nothing for our consumption, so I teach the Indians how to develop their own lands.
  • Allan Burns: Did the army come for you?
  • Jeronimo Camposeco: Yes. First of all the army came and killed some of my friends and my co-workers. Even a North American Indian was killed by the army; his name was Kayuta Clouds. He was tortured. And because we worked together, the death squads found my name in a letter I sent to him inviting him to come to Guatemala. And so the American Embassy called to my office saying that I need to be careful because some people are looking for me because they found the body of Kay. After that they were looking for me. So I went to my house and told my wife and my children that I am leaving because the death squads are looking for me. So I escaped to Mexico.