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How can you deny genocide?

How can you deny genocide?

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The trial against retired Generals Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Rodriguez Sanchez opened in March. Montt and Rodriguez are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. Prosecutors accuse them of the slaughter by subordinates of at least 1,771 Mayan Ixils. Although international bodies have long reported genocide took place in the Central American nation, it still remains an open-ended question for pockets of Guatemalan society. Ricardo Falla, Jesuit priest and anthropologist that specializes in the 1960-1996 civil war, attempts to answer some of these lingering questions.
Frijoles (beans) meant: To concentrate troops in communities described as sympathetic to the guerilla movement and eliminate them completely. To eliminate guerilla enthusiasts to spread terror amidst the civilian population. The fear would spread and subjugate them to army control.
The ruthless procedure was always the same. Approximately 400 solders would surround the entire community before dawn. An army helicopter would assist providing equipment and backup. The soldiers proceeded to separate women and children from men. The women were secluded inside the church and the men inside the town hall building.

Article adapted by Romina Ruiz-Goiriena.


A majority of conservatives and business elites deny acts of genocide ever took place reigniting a decades-old debate.

First and foremost, we must first analyze the definition of genocide according to the United Nations. We must then apply this definition to the events that took place in Guatemala in order to ascertain what is meant by genocide in Guatemala.

Comparing the Guatemalan genocide to the Nazi genocide could lead to a slippery slope. After all, one could conclude that there are significant differences between the two, and therefore genocide did not occur in Guatemala. There have been other case studies of genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, and other nations. In each, there are varying characteristics. But the conclusion is always the same: acts of genocide occurred in all of them.

Genocide according to the United Nations

Internationally, genocide is defined under the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide enacted on December 9, 1948 and ratified before the General Assembly on January 12, 1951. It was signed by Guatemala on January 13, 1950 under Juan Jose Arevalo government.  The convention states that crimes of genocide are internationally prosecutable whether they were committed in times of war or peace.

Article two states the following:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • (a) Killing members of the group;
  • (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Upon close examination, the article specifies the condition that must be present for genocide to take place.

Of these five, I’d like us to focus on two points  (a) Killing members of the group and (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

In Guatemala, both of these took place as two parts of the state’s continual scorched-earth policy. The first massacres took place in 1981 and 1982 exemplifying section (a). Soon thereafter, military plans were put into place to exert social control over these ethnic groups across the country exemplifying section (c). Both acts, are mutually exclusive. However, according to the convention are defined as crimes of genocide independently of one another.

There are those who insist on denying the Guatemalan genocide. However, it is precisely this reason why all of the characteristics of genocide must be explained in order to appropriate debunk its detractors.

It must first be understood what is meant by the intentionality by which such acts were perpetrated with the goal of annihilating indigenous communities. The intentionality is discovered in the planning process be it through written documents, a revision of the methodology behind the massacres, etc. After all, many were similarly executed and that is impossible unless they were part of a coordinated strategy.

Secondly, one must understand the reach or extent of the destruction. The convention states that there must be partial or complete destruction of an ethnic group. This means that there are two types of genocide; one that seeks the total annihilation of a people, as was the case of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry or the second, which consists of a partial extermination.

If one seeks to defend that genocide did not occur in Guatemala, because indigenous groups were not completely wiped out then one does not understand that genocide can be implemented partially.

Thirdly, group characteristics must be analyzed. However, it must be understood that all members are identified as civil society non-combatants. The convention goes a step further to describe genocide as a bigger crime than organized civilian massacres.

For genocide to have taken place, the population must be described as pertaining to one of the following “national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” These categories are not mutually exclusive. Additionally there are other characteristics gender, age, or political parties included in the definition.

The convention does not include a definition for what is meant by ethnic, race, religion or nation. However the Historical Clarification Commission, Guatemala’s truth and reconciliation commission ordered by the 1994 Oslo Accords, defines Quiches, Ixils, etc. as ethnic indigenous groups in Guatemala. Therefore it must be understood that political and territorial markers do not only define different ethnic groups but they are ethnic groups in their own right. Therefore a massacre in a particular village or geographic area must be understood as the extermination of a micro-ethnic group [1].

Fourthly, the genocide must also describe the reasoning behind intentionality the convention uses to explain genocide. It explicitly states the reasoning is to partially or fully annihilate a racial, national, or religious group simply for being a member of that group. For example, it is understood that European Jews were executed simply for being Jews.  It is here where genocide detractors have said that indigenous minorities like those from Nebaj were not exterminated for being from Nebaj. However the convention explains that just because the destruction of the ethnic group is for pertaining to that group, it doesn’t require it to be complete.

For example, the state can decide to annihilate a particular indigenous ethnic minority it describes as a political enemy. This does not mean the state is required to execute any member it finds. Moreover, it is in the planning of the execution where the reasoning can be deduced. This also includes cases where indigenous soldiers were trained to carry out massacres against their own ethnic group. It can be concluded they were trained to exterminate their own people.

How is this possible?

All social and political processes have multiple causes. Genocide is no exception. The reasons behind it are never singular or unique. Therefore we must understand there intentionality behind the destruction of an ethnic group can have multiple causes.

Here lies the most important point the reasons behind the extermination of a group might and can be a combination of reasons. A group can be destroyed because it is Jewish. It can also be destroyed because it represents an obstacle for the conquest of Europe. When it comes to genocide, more often than not, it is due to a variety of reasons as opposed to a clearly defined one.

Therefore, a racial or ethnic reason can also be political. A political intention does not reduce of exclude an ethnic component. For example, the army could have the intent to exterminate an indigenous group because it is considered a political enemy but it does not exclude that it could be characterized as such for belonging to an indigenous group. This invalidates the argument that there was no genocide because the army committed the massacres against a political enemy, not a racial one [2].

A racial or ethnic intentionality will not always be found in manuscripts or documents. The events themselves must be examined. We must look at the details of these massacres, why the mechanisms of torture or expressions of disgust in the extermination saying “we must put an end to them beyond the fruit of their loins.” How could this have a political motivation? The racial intent is hidden behind the immeasurable acts of horror committed.

What happened in Guatemala prior to genocide

With the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution on July 19, 1979, fear spread that a domino effect would take place in El Salvador and Guatemala. As a result the U.S. occupied Honduras in order to help thwart counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador. In Guatemala, the private sector, which monopolized the country’s economy also rejected communism and vowed to “save western Christian society.”

The army designed a combat strategy to take back the country from the urban areas outward to the mountains. After the succession of coups in the cities in 1980 and 1981, they began to implement what later became to be known as scorched-earth policies. Midway, Rios Montt, seized power in a March 23, 1982, coup, and continued the reign of terror. He ruled until he himself was overthrown just over a year later.

Today, the 86-year-old general, who left the country’s Congress in January 2012, was ordered to trial when a judge found sufficient evidence linking him to counter-insurgency plans designed to annihilate swathes of the population. For decades, Rios Montt avoided prosecution protected by a law that grants immunity to public officials.

In the indictment by the attorney-general's office said that it found evidence of “5,271 killings of Ixil residents of the towns of San Juan Cotzal, Santa Maria Nebai and San Gaspar Chajul in the department of Quiche. Prosecutors said 1,771 died in some 15 massacres between 1982 and 1983, and 370 bodies have been identified. The prosecution case includes forensic reports documenting hundreds of deaths.”

During the war, the strategy implemented was dubbed “rifles and frijoles.” But it was first rifles and then beans.

Frijoles (beans) meant:

  1. To concentrate troops in communities described as sympathetic to the guerilla movement and eliminate them completely
  2. To eliminate guerilla enthusiasts to spread terror amidst the civilian population. The fear would spread and subjugate them to army control.

It must be understood that by enthusiasts, the army considered civilian populations that would give food and shelter to counterinsurgents.

By “frijoles”, it was understood that the military would concentrate in areas where they had widespread support. They trained armed paramilitary groups to function as a parallel structure to map out and design “model communities.” The government would then pour resources into these reeducation camps to continue the reign of terror.


San Francisco Massacre, Nenton (July 17, 1982)

Nenton is an indigenous community in Huehuetenango state, 500 kilometers northwest of Guatemala City on the Mexican border. A majority of its residents belong to the Chuj ethnic group. A series of massacres began in Barillas. Some were partial and others like the one in Puente Alto exterminated 353 victims according to the 'Guatemala: Memory of Silence' report.

The army continued the siege in a nearby municipality, San Mateo Ixtatan, where the 89 residents of the small village of Petanac were exterminated. The army culminated the sweep with the execution of 376 victims in Nenton.

The ruthless procedure was always the same. Approximately 400 solders would surround the entire community before dawn. An army helicopter would assist providing equipment and backup. The soldiers proceeded to separate women and children from men. The women were secluded inside the church and the men inside the town hall building.

They rape and torture all of the women, trying to get any information about the counterinsurgents. They’re all killed after. Then the children are brought out and killed. Their organs are cut out from their bodies with pocketknives. The soldiers use rocks to strike babies heads. The men were the last to be killed.

Mid massacre, the soldiers stop to eat one of the community’s bulls. They play marimba music and rape women that had been momentarily sparred from the execution. Some survived, including three men that were able to break out of the town hall where they were being held. There were other residents that have left the town before morning for work. This massacre was not haphazard. The army had designed and executed its plan. For all intents and purposes, the vast majority of San Francisco was executed.

Around 9,000 indigenous Mayans from surrounding communities fled to a refugee camp in Mexico. But not all of them made it and were then recruited by the army and brought to reeducation camps patrolled by paramilitary forces. Frijoles was implemented.

This massacre in its entirety:

  1. There was clear evidence of intentionality as exemplified in the planning and execution of the massacre.
  2. The intent was to wipe out the entirety of all of the groups members: both men, young and old as well as women and children.
  3. All of the members were civilians.
  4. The members belong to a micro-ethnic group.
  5. There were both political and racial reasons to carry out the massacre.
  6. The dual reasoning is exemplified in the following:
  7. The totality of the extermination
  8. The expressions of intentionality, “to finish them off beyond the fruit of their loins.”
  9. The cruelty and bestiality of the killings
  10. The combination of pleasure as exemplified by the feast to conclude the massacre’s festivities.

List of partial or total massacres

The following is a list of 26 massacres. The different colors are used to distinguish the varying ethnic groups. The conclusion is one and the same, indigenous Mayans; Achies, Kikches, Ixils, Kekchis, Chujuls, Kanjobals, were the primary target.

This tells us to things.

The first was that 83 percent of those massacred were indigenous, according to the Historical Clarification Commission. The only exception was the Dos Erres massacre. However, it was still carried out with the same brutality.

The massacres in Cuarto Pueblo and Piedras Blancas in Ixcan, La Estrella in Chajul, Puente Alto in Barillas, Petanac in Ixtatan and Plan Sanchez in Rabinal executed the entirety of the populations.

The massacres in Pichec, Rabinal Arriquin and San Antonio in Zacualpa and Xalbal were partial.

If these massacres are studied and examined following the convention’s parameters, the conclusion is unequivocal: military troops perpetrated genocide against indigenous communities in Guatemala.

Manolo Vela, explained in his thesis[3],  that the extermination is linked to historical racism in Guatemala where those belonging to indigenous groups are seen as inferior. As inferior humans, they are not entitled to the same inalienable rights. And this includes the right to life. Should the country find itself in a fight against say, communism, then their lives are the clearly the most expendable.  

Population Control

Now let us examine the second form of genocide inflicted on indigenous communities as defined in the convention as “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Although this was not the most brutal it was systematic and prolonged. I witnessed the creation and implementation of these communities (Comunidades de Población de Resistencia) when I visited Ixcan following the 1982 massacres. I saw their implementation, growth and management from 1983 until 1993. Compared to what occurred in the Ixil triangle or the Kekchi area, the severity of the genocide was less. Fortunately despite the army’s grasp over the countryside, our proximity to Mexico allowed us to receive humanitarian assistance.

Other areas close to Guatemala City like San Martin Jilotepeque were subjected to similar conditions but due to their proximity to the capital, the model communities were short lived.

After the large massacres had been executed, dozens of survivors would take to the mountains and look for hiding in trees, ravines, and caves. The army continued its effort to subjugate them and created search and rescue teams composed of paramilitary members. First, they would also create inhospitable conditions in the countryside by burning crops and makeshift housing. They would sacrifice any cattle or herds. They would also destroy any clothing to force those fleeing to face outdoor conditions.

Second, they would hunt them down. "The people of this region [Nebaj] are convinced ... the Army is the murderer of the people,” wrote Col. Angel Castellanos to the Chief of Staff in a letter dated July 22, 1982 (Operation Sofia 1982: 99). Runaways were usually shot in the back. Moreover, the army considered running away was a sign of complicity with the guerrillas.

See here an extract of Operation Sofia (1982: 155). This is the report of a patrol trying to make contact with the enemy ("eno"), an alias for indigenous civilians Nebaj region. The numbers indicate the coordinates of the map. "Chocolate" is the pseudonym of children [4].


Thirdly, as army consecrated its control of population and territory, a new community sloyal to the army would be created.

Fourthly, escalation tactics were implemented to break resistent group. The escalation included the use of warplanes and machine guns to anhilate groups in hiding.

So many people died of hunger, malnutrition, and disease. Women could not breastfeed their babies, sometimes born in mountains. Children died of hunger in subsequent months of hiding in the mountains.

In his book "We saved the sacred forest," Huet Alfonso documented 61 communities of Alta Verapaz Kekchis located in "the sacred mountain,” were exterminated. Of the causualties 574 people died of disease and 619 were killed.

Therefore, these military operations

  1. Planed the destruction of multiple areas of the country.
  2. Intended to partially anhilate indigenous groups although it wanted to subjugate the entiriety of the groups.
  3. A majority of smaller ethnic minorities were characterized under the larger group, which was almost always indigenous.
  4. Had both political and racial reasons to carry out the plans and solidify its control of land, resources and ethnic makeup of Guatemala.
  5. The group was characterized as subhuman and likened to animals that needed domestication.

Conclusion: The Guatemalan Genocide

Two complementary forms of genocide took place according to the specifications of the UN convention.

a)      Genocide “Killing members of the group”

a. Total destruction: villages.

b. Partial destruction: indigenous Mayan communities

c. As far as the conditions go:

i.      Intentionality: they were planned, not spontaneous occurrences.

ii.     The group had racial and ethnic characteristics.[5]

iii.    Eliminate the group for being part of the group: we must distinguish two reasons for destruction intentionality, military and political reason also why ethnic / racial (i.e. because it is the indigenous people, the kiché, such village).

1. As described by the totality of the killing: all men and women, old men and women, adults and young adults and children were included.

2. As denoted by racial and ethnic categories ("to the fruit of their loins") both complete and partial annhilations were equally thourough in the expression of their totality and complettion. existing partial connection with the mass killings that give specificity. All goals whether partial or total were met.

3. Unwarranted cruelty: rape, torture, prolonged executions, kaibil traning (Vela 2010: 195ss).

The Guatemalan genocide exterminated entire indigenous villages and partial annihilation of the greater Mayan people.

b)      Genocide “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

a. The destruction can at times be partial

b. The conditions to create genocide:

i.      Intentionality demonstrated in the planification of massacres. Exemplified in Plan Sofía

ii.     The group was ethnic and racial.

iii.      There was a political and military reason fused in to a racial and ethnic motivation.

1. Even if the destruction was partial, executions were indiscriminate of gender and age. All men, women and children were killed.

2. As long as alleged subversives did not turn themselves in to the army, they were treated as animals regardless of the cost of life.

3. Curuelty : children were starved to death.

Finally, it can thus be concluded that the Guatemalan Genocide systematically occurred with an entire state apparatus dedicated to the creation, designing, implementation and execution of Indigenous Mayans—whether partial or complete extermination was the goal.

About the author: Ricardo Falla is a Guatemalan anthropologist and priest. He is a longtime scholar that has analyzed the 1960-1996 Civil War massacres. This essay was read as part of a symposium in 2012 organized by San Carlos University, Occidental Campus (CUNOC) in Quetzaltenango state.  


[1] Recognition of the varying ethnic groups in villages is not part of the discussion on genocide in Guatemala. Conversely, it was this strategy that was used by the army in order to break apart micro-ethnic groups is catalogued as enemy combatents. from a village is not usual in the language on the genocide in Guatemala. If they destroyed this ethnic microgroup they could destroy the center of historical social power formed interelated ethnic groups.

[2] The Nazi Holocaust also a political purpose, it was not just racial. It is discussed in the Nazi case, whether the war in Europe’s main motivation to “carry out a genocide against the Jewish people” or if it was a “colonial and territorial conquest that used Jews a political motive to acquire total control over a geographic region,” writes Philippe Breton in Les Refusants. Comment refuse –t-on de devenir un exécuteur?

[3] “The racism was widespread among soldiers, young indigenous Mayans and their vicitms. It also broke them into two groups and those who had been brainwashed by the counterinsurgency should be killed.  As soldier Martin Ramirez wrote: “As an Indian, an Indian speaks to another Indian.” This exemplified how racial categories were used to turn different indigenous Mayans against one another. (Vela 2010: 295) 

[4] In Sofia Operation plan, the names of Jose Esteban Arango Barrios and Otto Fernando Perez Molina are listed as the head of patrol “Scotland III.” They had 32 subordinate paratroopers. It states that they encountered a subversive group on August 15, 1982 that yielded in the death of four people, and 18 adults and 12 children arrested.

[5] The massacre at Dos Erres was an exception, as we said. Mestizo villages entered into the plan as part of a larger endemic practice of genocide against indigenous villages.


*The original article in Spanish was published on March 19, 2013.