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Public Prosecutor: Did you come to Guatemala in the 1980s? What did you do?
I first came to Guatemala in 1973 as a student of the State University of New York. I came to do my doctoral thesis research in Santa Cruz del Quiché. Later, my investigation focus changed. Based on questions asked by villages in Santa Cruz del Quiché, I went to the southern coast and Ixcán.
In 1981, I went to Mexico because I found out that 2,000 refugees had fled from Guatemalan military repression. I went to the cooperatives on the shores of the Usumacinta River and the Arbolito River to see what was happening. In 1982, I went to the Lacandon jungle to visit refugee camps, like camp Puerto Rico, to interview people and see what was happening, why people were leaving Guatemala on a massive scale. In 1982, the number of refugees had grown to 36,000 and there were already 46 refugee camps.
The United Nations opened an office to deal with the huge quantity of people coming to the Lacandon jungle. The Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR) was also opened to address the huge necessity of refugees fleeing from massacres in Guatemala. The refugees arrived in bad conditions and malnourished from living in the jungle and they decided to cross the border into Mexico because of hunger. Some arrived hurt with gunshot wounds.
Talking to refugees in the Lacandon Jungle, I found out about an even more critical situation in the Ixil region. More critical because the situation was more advanced in the Ixil region. They indicated that people couldn’t flee as refugees because of the distance
In Mexico, you found out where people had come from?
In 1982, as I said, there were 36,000 refugees mostly from the Ixcán and Huehuetenango. Aside from 36,000 in 1982, there were thousands of Guatemalans who had fled from the military that were not in refugee camps. In 1983, according to COMAR and the United Nation’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OACNUDH), there were 850,000 confirmed as Guatemalan refugees, dispersed throughout the world. As you know they went as far as the United States where there are more than 1 million Guatemalans today
Were there Ixiles?
Yes, but few. It was difficult for the Ixiles to arrive because of distance and difficult of finding ways out… According to a census conducted by COMAR on languages spoken by refugees, less than 1000 were Ixiles.
Doctor, why did you go to the Ixil region?
I heard in interviews in the Lacandon Jungle that the situation was critical in the Ixil region. I went to see if it was true.
During your visit, you interviewed a member of military?
I spoke with many soldiers and also an officer in Nebaj.
Could you determine, when you arrived in the Ixil region, if there were refugee centers?
Yes. I don’t know if they called them pre-model villages but there were places where they put the displaced who had been brought down from the mountains.
Can you describe the conditions the people lived in the pre-model villages?
It was a difficult situation. The people arrived in poor health; they didn’t know what their future held or how long would be there. Conditions were difficult physically and mentally. There was anxiety, fear and worry about the situation they were in and an uncertain future. In the case of the men, they were forced to take turns in the civil defense patrols (PAC) and had to do forced labor, like building roads. One could see… unfortunate I can’t show you a photo but I will try to describe what could be explained better visually [in a photo]…. The people were practically moving mountains, opening roadways or patrolling in the rain, covered only with a piece of plastic. They were in a precarious situation. Very hard demands made on the population.
How long were you in the Ixil region?
I was there for approximately a week in March 1983.
Did you interview refugees?
Yes, that was the purpose of my trip to the Ixil region. I spoke with as many people possible to determine if they were from there, what had happened to their communities and their crops, when they were displaced, who brought them there. I didn’t ask intense questions but I tried to determine who the people were and who had brought them to the pre-model village.
What was the attitude or behavior of the people?
Understandably, when a strange person arrives it causes apprehension, and that made it difficult to conduct interviews. So I limited my questions to focus on determining why they were there.
Did they respond with fear?
Yes, I would say it was difficult for them to respond. It was obvious that there was certain vocabulary they didn’t want to use. For example, it was hard for them to speak about the army or guerrillas. So, a typical interview might be: “How long are you here? 4 months. How did you get here? They brought us. We were in the mountains. Who brought you? They brought us.” It was difficult for them…. I have read many documents, as any academic would. In military docs for example Juan Fernando Cifuentes identified the unique relationship that Ixil people had with the military and that it had to be changed. Later, I read declassified documents from the CIA, from the US embassy and the US State Department. I read one in particular in which the CIA says that according to them, it was obvious the military had determined the Ixil population to be sympathizers to the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, EGP). This created a problem because it meant that the military could be expected to act in the same way toward the civil population as the combatant population.
Doctor, do you remember the specific places where you visited and interviewed people?
In Nebaj, Chajul and of course on the road, whenever I had the opportunity to interview someone, I would.
Those centers where you interviewed refugees, were they near a military base?
There were so many soldiers it was unavoidable. There was a center for refugees in Nebaj and I remember a place called La Pista where there were control posts. The military was present. They had an enormous presence, difficult to number but I would say there were hundreds of solider around Nebaj and Chajul.
How did you communicate, in Spanish or with an interpreter?
I spoke with those who could speak Spanish. If someone couldn’t speak Spanish, I asked if someone could translate for me.
Can the acts you were analyzing and investigating be interpreted as isolated or as systematic?
Based on all the testimonies I collected in Mexico, and the military campaigns in the Ixil region and Huehuetenango, it was obvious that there were patterns. I never had the impression that a massacre or destruction of a village or crops was something spontaneously done by the military. The similarities were such that there were certain evident patterns.
When you arrived in the Ixil region, did you interview any guerrilla?
When you were in pre-model villages, or refugee centers, did you witness psychological impacts?
Yes, they called populations to meetings, held a sort of class in which they taught populations they couldn’t be used or manipulated by the EGP. No, in fact, they didn’t say EGP, they said “delinquents”, “subversives”, “terrorists” and that there were white foreigners who wanted to take over the country. They said that the country was big and they couldn’t protect the whole country from these forces that were trying to take over the country so everyone had to help out in PACs, the work had to be forced in exchange for food. The purpose was to convince the population to ally with the military and not be manipulated by insurgents.
What did you do with the information you collected?
I wrote in publications for Cultural Survival and Harvard, or in magazines, I wrote for the New York Times editorial page. I also submitted information to Americas Watch and I was asked to give testimony before Congress in Washington DC.
According to interviews and the information you analyzed, were you able to tell who executed the massacres of families?
Yes, they said military had entered to execute massacres. Once displaced in mountains or in the jungle, the military continued to pursue them. They cut down their crops, and destroyed any type of food they had. For that reason, the families suffered greatly. They came to a moment they never before imagined; they were forced to leave their own country. They were in hiding for a long time but realized that the military was occupying more and more territory and it would be impossible to return. They also realized that there was nothing to return to – no community, no church, no school, nothing. In the Ixcán, this was very hard. I originally went there to see how farmers from the highlands were colonizing the land. The people had cleared the land there with their own hands and arms. They had called it Paradise, the Promised Land…. and everything they had built, all their hard work was destroyed in 24 hrs, in one day. It was psychologically devastating to see everything destroyed…to arrive at [refugee] camps in Mexico. They had lost their ability to work in their own fields, everything was destroyed. They had to walk for weeks from Guatemala to Mexico, that’s why they arrived to Mexico so hurt. What had been done to their country was something unforgivable.
As you can see in this photo [referring to submitted evidence], people arrived barefoot with no clothes. A group of refugees in camp Puerto Rico arrived, there were hundreds or people already there. There, they found two children nude who were so traumatized they couldn’t say where their parents were or what had happened or why they were naked. They arrived in bad conditions. Six women from Santa María Tzejá gave birth in the jungle. One lost her son, the other five were able to arrive with their babies but they were in very bad condition, with eye infections and malnourished. They were in terrible human condition
Were there also elderly?
Oh yes, there is a photo of a person who could barely walk but the hope of crossing the border encouraged them to arrive. Some were lost on the road; others arrived to the camps with gun wounds.
Can you explain the relocation of refugee camps? Were they close or far from the border?
In 1984 the Mexican government decided to relocate the Guatemalan population near the border. They brought them to Campeche and Quintana Roo, partly because, according to the interviews I conducted in Mexico, the Mexican government was worried about the Guatemala military entering Mexican territory. The Guatemalan military entered into the refugee camps and killed people on Mexican territory. The Mexican government had two options: either invade Guatemala or put troops on the border, which they didn’t want to do. However, they wanted to protect their country’s sovereignty so they decided to move the refugees. I followed the path of the relocation from the Lacandon Jungle to Campeche and Quintana Roo. Some Guatemala refugees refused to be relocated. I crossed the river from Camp Puerto Rico to visit them and asked them why. They told me they refused to leave their country.
Did you compare the Ixil and Ixcán regions?
Yes, this was always important to my methodology as an anthropologist. For the sake of comparison, I visited cotton, sugar and coffee plantations; I interviewed workers who came from the cold highlands and also plantation owners. That’s why I went to the Ixcán, to understand Santa Cruz del Quiché. I went to Zacapa, the Verapaces, Chimaltenango and Xela. I visited many communities to try to understand the situation.
Did you ever see anti-subversive propaganda?
Yes, I saw pamphlets. I have a collection that features drawings showing a terrorist with a tail and an ugly demented face. One pamphlet shows what the military did, drawings of burned houses, killed people, kidnapped children, and total destruction… evil things. I saw different pamphlets, yes.
Prosecution lawyer Pérez: Did you ask for permission to travel in 1983?
Yes. I went to a military building in Zone 1 [of Guatemala City] where I obtained permission to travel to the interior of country.
When traveling from Guatemala City to the Ixil region in March 1983, did you see any buses or cars that were stopped and had passengers taken out?
There were many checkpoints; in some there were troops watching and taking names in notebooks, asking people to show their documents. This occurred during the whole trip there and back. If one travelled by bus, the military would ask everyone to get out and identify themselves.
During this trip, did you see the same in Nebaj or Chajul?
Yes, military checkpoints were there too.
Did you see if any other Guatemalans could arrive freely in that region?
It depended on the situation. For example, there were people from churches. In the case of evangelical pastor Ray Elliot who came with others from the Unite States, Efraín Ríos Montt provided them with a helicopter and ordered that they be brought in by helicopter. Certain people didn’t need the kind of permission I needed.
My previous question wasn’t referring to foreigners, were there any Guatemalan journalists or academics able to travel to the region?
No, I didn’t see any.
Prosecution lawyer Vivar: When you mentioned interviewing people in the Ixil region, in Nebaj and Chajul, did you interview women?
Yes, in the community. On the road I interviewed men.
Do you remember if women spoke of sexual violence?
No, I didn’t ask them.
You spoke of conditions of refugees. Once you arrived in the refugee camps, what were the conditions in Mexico?
There was such a multitude of living conditions. It was difficult for COMAR or OACNUDH to deal with so many people. The refugees grew to 46,000 people, living in isolated places like the Lacandon Jungle. I had to arrive by canoe or by foot. It was difficult at first until the camps could be established, which Mexico helped achieve. They took care of providing schooling and health services but it was difficult to get to the places, made even more difficult by the huge quantity of people arriving.
When you visited the Ixil pre-model village, did you see international aid arrive?
The majority of aid that arrived came from the international community. Food was distributed by the military. I never heard them say it was from the international community, they just distributed it. I know there were sad conditions that moved the international community to send food or materials for building houses. The aid shouldn’t have been dist by the military, but by NGOs. However, the churches and military distributed it, creating a dependency on these institutions – the military and church.
Can you explain, in regards to the refugee children, whether orphans arrived?
Yes, in some cases orphans arrived. You can’t imagine the situation. I found people in the refugee camps. There was a father who had grabbed his daughter and went running as soon as the shooting began. He protected her and didn’t know for many years what happened to his wife and other children. It wasn’t until I arrived at the refugee camps that I was able to tell his wife and daughter that he had been able to cross the border. In Mexico, I was able to explain to him that his wife and his daughter had also survived.
Another example, the military arrived where a family was hidden and. The military’s arrival was unexpected and they came upon the family very suddenly; each of them ran in different directions. When the parents looked for their children, to see whether they were dead or not, they realized they were gone. They searched and searched for them. After many years they found out the children had been taken to Playa Grande and Nebaj. One child ended up in Huehuetenango and another in the capital.
I also want to say that there were newspapers publications about children; one said there were dozens of orphans in the country. It didn’t surprise me in the least.
Did you find out if there were people who died in the refugee camps in Mexico?
For example, in camp Puerto Rico, there were graves. I brought photos that show where Guatemala refugees were buried.
Defense lawyer Palomo: When you went to the Ixil region in 1983, you said you were undertaking your doctoral thesis?
No, that was in 1973…
Did you go to the Ixil region out of professional or for personal interest?
I went with the professional interest of wanting to document what was happening.
To write a book?
Did you work for an organization in 1983?
I was a professor at Wellesley College and an investigator for Harvard University.
In 1983, were you financed by Harvard?
The Ford Foundation gave me financing, and the University also. There were different ways to obtain funding for these trips.
You told us when you interviewed people in Ixil region, it was difficult because some topics were hard to talk about, for example, the military and the guerrilla. Were they afraid of both groups?
I got that impression mostly from interviews and conversations. When the military called a meeting, they never referred to the EGP by their name nor as guerrillas, they called them “subversives” or “delinquents”. In interviews, many people would tell me, “‘the military” had brought me” but they gave me the impression they shouldn’t use certain words because they were too politically strong.
Do you remember the name of the officer you spoke to?
You told us the population fled to the mountains and that those who could went to Mexico. Did you know who took these people to refugee camps?
There were different people who took them. For example, a community leader or a teacher, a person who knew the road would show the way. It could be someone who had demonstrated their leadership in the community like a health promoter or teacher.
Did you see the massacres by the military or did other people tell you?
Defense lawyer Cornejo: You told us you came to Guatemala and went to the Ixil region for one week in March 1983. After that week, where did you go?
To the United States.
Did you stay in the United States or did you return to Guatemala?
I returned in 1985.
You told us that in 1982 you had been on the Mexican border and that Guatemalan refugees crossed the border. My question is, did you see only Ladinos or other ethnicities?
This is more of an academic question and if you don’t know you don’t have to answer. Do you know in what month the model villages were created in 1983?
I understand that there were different names. Some villages, like La Violeta, apparently weren’t considered model villages, maybe pre-model villages, or displaced villages. La Violeta wasn’t really a village because it was a disaster. I’m sure it wasn’t until 1984 or 1985 that the military named them and said, “This is a model village.”
Any errors in transcription or translation are our own.
For more #GenocideGT expert witness testimonies in their entirety, listen to Marta Casaús Arzú’s testimony from day 10 here.