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Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy.

UNFINISHED CONQUEST: The Guatemalan Tragedy. By Victor Perera. University of California. 382 pp. $27.

The war that swept over Guatemala beginning in the late 1970s is in many ways the least understood of all the Central American conflicts. Some 65,000 people were killed and, in a nation of 10 million, perhaps a million and a half were displaced. Unlike El Salvador and Nicaragua, moreover, where peace has been made between previously implacable opponents, in Guatemala the guerrillas have retreated to remote areas and proclaimed a prolonged popular war, and the army has responded with a strategy of" permanent counterinsurgency."

The worst aspect of the Guatemalan violence, however, is that it was largely directed against the country's 5 million Maya Indians. The army wound up going not so much after the guerrillas--who were armed, after all, and could fight back--as after the civilian Maya, who for the most part weren't armed and didn't fight back. Hundreds of villages, regardless of political sympathies, were razed. Children who had never seen anything more mechanically complicated than a bicycle or a tortilla grinder were bombed and strafed from helicopters and airplanes. Ultimately the army prevailed by conscripting nearly every able-bodied Indian male into civil patrols, arming them with primitive rifles and giving them the choice of murdering "subversive" neighbors or being murdered themselves. The tactic was effective. The guerrillas were driven out and Indian communities wound up internally divided, driven by fear.

A lot of questions remain: To what degree did the Maya support the guerrillas? What is the significance of the enormous growth of evangelical religion among the post-violence Maya and what does it mean for traditional Maya beliefs? To address these and other issues requires not just a journalist's eye but also the ability to "read" an ancient culture that has survived to a remarkable extent by masking its presence. Fortunately, each of two very different recently published books is in its own way up to the task.

Victor Perera's Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy is a book of highly personal reportage by a Guatemalan-born, American-educated author who spent six years documenting and trying to understand the violence that has afflicted the Maya population of his homeland. Perera has written two previous books on the region. The Last Lords of Palenque (with Robert Bruce) is about the Lacandon Maya of southern Mexico. Rites is about growing up in Guatemala City. Unfinished Conquest, however, is Perera's most ambitious work to date, one that follows, as he describes it, a "layered format of journalistic reportage, personal narrative, oral history, and ethnographic investigation." Pan of his motivation for writing the book, he mentions, stems from a comment made to him by a Maya survivor of a 1984 army massacre: "As a Guatemalan, you know that I could not tell... the full truth of what is being done to our people, for fear no one would believe me. You know as well as I do how important it is that we tell the story of our people, so that the army officers who ordered the massacres will not have the final say."

Perera's thesis is that the conquest of the Maya is not something that happened 500 years ago but is an ongoing process that has gone through several stages. He has a good ear for telling detail from this, the most devastating and disruptive stage since the first one, and is particularly good on the weird messianic outlook of the Guatemalan military. At the Politecnica, where Guatemala's officers are trained, he notes an "insidious conditioning that breeds contempt of everything Indian, as well as a visceral disdain for all intellectuals and politicians." A graduate whom Perera encounters in the field earnestly explains that "Holy Scripture" associates the birthmark on Gorbachev's forehead "with the Antichrist."

The core of Perera's book consists of extended studies of four regions--the Ixil Triangle, Huehuetenango, Santiago Atitlan and the Peten--where most of the violence took place. He visits these regions again and again, asking questions, observing, recording people's stories. What emerges is a highly readable, richly impressionistic picture of the violence and its causes. Perhaps the most powerful of these sections is the one on the Ixil Triangle, a military name for the three garrison towns--Nebaj, Cotzal and Chajul-controlling the remote region on the north side of the Cuchumatan Mountains, inhabited by 100,000 speakers of Ixil Maya. Prior to the war, the Ixils were rebellious and, at best, semi-assimilated. These qualities seem to have caught the eye of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor-- the E.G.P.--one of Guatemala's four guerrilla groups, which was looking for a platform for launching a popular war against the government. The guerrillas moved into the Ixil and the army soon followed, so that the war was fought out in the Ixil in ferocious microcosm. Every Ixil village outside of the three army-controlled towns was destroyed, and Perera estimates that between 1980 and 1985, half of those killed by the army were Ixils.

The pre-violence Ixil were dominated by longstanding resentments over stolen Maya land, and Perera's descriptions of the relations between the Ixils and their coffee-finca exploiters are straight out of B. Traven. The finca owners, who were non-Indian, routinely demanded the wives or daughters of their Maya workers as loan collateral. The Ixils, forced to farm the marginal parts of the uplands, supplemented their incomes by working on coastal plantations where they were so routinely sprayed with pesticides that the milk of indigenous Guatemalan women had the highest concentration of DDT in the Western Hemisphere. When resentments boiled over, the Ixil would-be assassin of a coffee-finca owner was caught and baked alive in the finca's coffee roaster.

In the fifties, Spanish priests from the Order of the Sacred Heart helped the Ixils organize cooperatives and unions. Twenty years later, the E.G.P. began recruiting among the Ixils. The government responded with death squads and deliberately desecrated Nebaj's Catholic Church by using it as a barracks and torture center. Soon so many people had been assassinated that the town ran out of planks for coffins. Catechists, cooperativists and unionists all fled to the guerrilla-controlled sections. By the late seventies, the guerrillas dominated almost the entire Ixil region.

Perera tells this story dramatically, but where his reporting takes off is in describing how things came apart for the guerrillas. According to Perera, the crucial event occurred in January 1982 near the town of Cotzal. A guerrilla attack on the army barracks led to an army retaliation in which sixty-four Cotzalenos were massacred. Among the massacred was the brother of an Ixil Pentecostal minister named Pastor Nicolas Toma. Angered by the guerrilla role in provoking the army, Pastor Nicolas helped the army organize a civil patrol--the first, Perera reports, in the Maya altiplano--and then used his contacts to expose the E.G.P.'s infrastructure linking Cotzal to the outlying villages. Pastor Nicolas's civil patrol became a prototype that was rapidly extended throughout the highlands until, four years later, as Perera reports, "close to ninety percent of all Maya highland males between the ages of fourteen and sixty became unpaid servants of the army."

Why were the civil patrols so effective? Why didn't the patrollers simply turn their weapons on the army that was oppressing them? Perera argues that army strategists carefully used the civil patrols to turn the Maya against each other. A Cotzal municipal officer describes to him a typical patrol in the early eighties in which lightly armed Maya civilians were forced to precede army troops into the guerrilla zones: "We were told that anyone we encountered was a guerrilla, even if it was a friend or our own relative, because only guerrillas lived in those mountains. They forced us to stop and kill anyone they pleased--even women and children; they made us cut them up with machetes, even as they knelt before us and begged for mercy. Now we are not able to look our neighbors in the eyes."

Pastor Nicolas was subsequently assassinated by the guerrillas, but an interesting question arises from his treachery. Why, since it was the army that killed his brother and sixty-three of his neighbors, did Pastor Nicolas turn on the guerrillas? This brings us to David Stoll's Between Two Armies: In the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, which is concerned with the Ixil region during the war. His book is both narrower in focus and more academic than Perera's, but Stoll, the author of a previous study of the rise of Protestantism in Latin America, writes clearly and with a refreshingly skeptical intelligence. His thesis is that despite the horrors inflicted by the army, popular support for the guerrillas was never as great as has frequently been made out. Most people in the Ixil country, Stoll observes, were "rebels against their will... coerced by the guerrillas as well as the army."

Stoll began his study of the Ixil in 1988, at a time when the worst of the violence was over. He quickly decided there was nothing new he could tell the world about the atrocities the Guatemalan government had committed against its people; instead, he decided to look at "how [Ixils] responded to the violence by manufacturing a new kind of neutralism and... space [in which] to make their own choices." Stoll adds, "Just as revolutions that win usher in staggering new problems, revolutions that lose can accomplish some of their purposes anyway"

Stoll argues that the high rate of allegiance to the guerrillas in the late seventies and early eighties came about because the Ixils had no other way to get away from government death squads. Problems arose, however, when the guerrillas adopted a strategy of provoking the army into retaliating. The hope was that army brutality would prompt people whose allegiance was wavering to join the guerrillas, but in fact, the opposite happened. The guerrillas were not militarily strong enough even to protect their followers, and as soon as it became apparent to the Ixils that the guerrillas couldn't protect them from the army's sadistic cruelties, guerrilla support began to dry up fast. Stoll argues that many Ixils became active proponents of the civil patrols because they recognized that the army was going to win and the civil patrols were the only way to bring peace to their communities.

Had the guerrillas been able to protect their Ixil recruits, the outcome might have been different, and there is no denying the appeal of the guerrillas to the Ixils. The E.G.P. made a point of communicating with the Ixils in their own language, and certainly the Ixils accepted the guerrilla argument that they had been egregiously exploited by non-Maya society. But Stoll postulates that in the end there was a fundamental difference between the ideological ambitions of the guerrillas and those of most Ixils. He argues that the guerrilla leaders were Marxists for whom class warfare was the ultimate reality and for whom the Ixils were the proletariat first, and only later Maya. "Consciousness-raising" was an important part of guerrilla political education, and Stoll maintains that "the very existence of such a model suggests distance between peasants and whoever thinks their consciousness needs to be raised." He observes that most of the Ixil poor had reformist, not revolutionary, goals.

Stoll, however, lived in a garrison town and chose a subject--Ixil reconstruction--"which could be explained to the Guatemalan army as the need arose." He himself cautions against generalizing his conclusions to cover other parts of Guatemala, but he might have considered a similar caveat against universalizing his conclusions even within the Ixil. Stoll treats too superficially the 12,000 or so Ixils who, to the present day, still live outside of army zones of control in "Communities of Population in Resistance" loosely affiliated with the guerrillas. Stoll notes that an "Ixil term of humor and respect for the guerrillas was boxnay, the Ixil word for a root that is eaten in a time of hunger and has the connotation of something hidden." A sense of the revolutionary commitment of Ixils who did stay with the guerrillas would have enlarged and perhaps tempered some of Stoll's findings.

For all this, to reduce either Perera's or Stoll's work to simple political arguments about the relationship between the guerrillas, the army and the Maya is to sell both books short. Perera's book contains a chilling account of the rape of the rain forests in the Peten, Guatemala's largest and northernmost department, in which loggers, army officers and to some degree even guerrillas all are colluding to sell off its trees and defy the almost suicidally courageous efforts of Guatemala' s tiny conservationist community. Stoll argues convincingly that the idea of the Catholic Church's being tied to the guerrillas in the Ixil is largely a myth and that the three priests who were murdered in the Ixil were killed not because they were politically active but because they were exposing army human rights abuses. He maintains, moreover, that the evangelical churches are neither as conservative nor as otherworldly as has been widely made out. He refers to them as "presentist" and demonstrates that at least one of them suffered for its alleged ties to the guerrillas while most others are primarily concerned with asserting pragmatic Ixil objectives within the narrow space allowed by the army.

But in reading these two books you're left, in the end, with a sense there's an even more disturbing aspect to the war on the Guatemalan Maya. In the 1970s, Mayanists were just learning to read hieroglyphs and as a result gained enormous insight into the culture of the Classic-era Maya as well as how much of it had been preserved by their contemporary descendants. In Guatemala, the vessels for these ancient traditions were secretive religious-political cofradias--" fraternities." These cofradias, however, not only preserved religious traditions but also generated the principales--respected elders who'd worked their way up through the cofradias--who administered Maya towns. In many Maya towns, the principales were unable to cope with the rapid changes associated with the violence and were simply swept aside. With them went a lot of religious tradition.

Perera, sensitive to this tragedy, quotes the harangue of an octogenarian shaman from the town of Todos Santos Cuchumatan who calls out the names of the four sacred peaks in which the town's guardian spirits reside. "Catechists and evangelicals come and go" he shouts, his nose six inches from Perera's face. "Even shamans pass from the scene... but the guardians of the four sacred peaks endure forever!" Perera also has a powerful chapter on a remarkable Cakchiquel Maya woman named Calixta Canek who was forced by the violence to flee to the United States, took peyote in a Native American Church ceremony, and subsequently met a Hopi medicine man who helped her decide to return to Guatemala and apprentice to a traditional Quiche-Maya shaman. Such stories help Perera's book convey a sense of how Maya traditions may evolve in the future.

By contrast, Stoll dismisses the principales as "too illierate, monolingual, aged and alcoholic to defend Ixil interests in an era of rapid commercialization." In a footnote to a section in which he describes an Ixil ecological crisis stemming from a combination of primitive agricultural techniques and explosive population growth, Stoll quotes a passage from Benjamin and Lore Colby's 1981 The Daykeeper: The Life and Discourse of an Ixil Diviner in which they describe a dawn ceremony conducted by a baalbastix, or shaman, designed to propitiate the earth after cutting and clearing a field. "It's a cuerda of souls that I've killed because I've cut the trees," the Ixil shaman explains. "Perhaps there was a small animal, perhaps there was a little snake. Perhaps there was a little bird. Lord have mercy, perhaps it was his resting place .... I cut the trunk, the tree disappeared, the bird disappeared because it fled, it no longer stayed in the tree. All for the offense of my stomach. But that's what porn (incense) is for. That's what the candle is for.... I sprinkle my pom. I place my candle on the ground before the Earth. That's all that lies in my power."

After quoting this passage, Stoll, who notes that he quickly gave up trying to learn Ixil and seems to have little sense of the larger sweep of Maya history, observes that the shaman and his "sacerdotal ethics may not be any more representative of Ixil society than Mother Teresa's are of our own." If he's right, we may have lost even more in Guatemala than we imagined.

Pete Canby's The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya will be released in paperback by Kodansha Globe this June.
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Author:Canby, Peter
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 28, 1994
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