Plenty International 1984
In December 1982, two Plenty Directors returned from Camp Puerto Rico deep in the Lacandon jungles of Chiapas, southern Mexico. They had been taking testimony from Mayan Indian refugees about the massacres that had driven these people from their native Guatemala. One urgent plea made by the camp representatives was that Plenty help make their story known, especially in the United States. They knew that the Guatemalan Army helicopters, which had brought soldiers to destroy their villages, were made in America.
Many people at Camp Puerto Rico spoke of their lost families and homes in an area known as Ixcán (eesh-kon). At the time we knew of it only as a region somewhere in the Guatemalan state of Huehuetenango. Fourteen months later, in February 1984, Plenty learned the full story of Ixcán. A Mayan refugee, now living in the United States, who had watched the story unfold before he was forced to flee the country, told it to us. His “crime” was to help bring a water project to his village. For this he ended up on a death-squad hit list. Now, far from home, he still looks for ways to help his people.
What follows is his story, translated from Spanish:
In the Guatemalan highlands, as families grow, the plots are divided among the sons and daughters. The land in the mother villages soon becomes scarce, then desperately inadequate. To support themselves and their families, half a million Indian laborers work on the coastal plantations for a dollar a day. The only alternative is to look for el baldio — “land without owner” — remote, undeveloped territory far from the capital. The story of Ixcán is the story of Indian pioneers in search of land and an alternative to the servitude and discrimination of life on the plantations.
“Starting back in the 1960s, a small group of people who had no land in their village left to search for more. Three men set out to scout beyond a village called Barillas. Here they were referred to Ixcán, an unpopulated mountain region further north. The men walked two days through the mountains and encountered the River Ixcán on unoccupied land. After finding a place to cross, they stayed overnight in the mountains, discovering there were wild animals about — jaguars. Over the next few days they checked out the land to see what might grow and whether they could make a living there.
“Then they went to the capital, Guatemala City, to look over the maps and see if it was unoccupied territory. They were told it was all right for them to inhabit this land — to take down some trees, and start planting. The officials gave verbal agreement for them to settle there, but no title. When the Indians returned to their village they announced their find — that it was good land and although far away, a place you could grow sugar cane, beans, corn, and fruits.
“The first pioneers included about five families. It was such tough going in the uninhabited jungles that this small group couldn’t survive. Some died trying. It was hard to adapt to the hot and humid jungles, mosquito-borne disease, and the rigors of developing virgin land with meager tools. They returned to their home village to recuperate and then tried again with a few more families.
“The next group set up a tight little camp as protection against the various wild animals of the jungle. Later they, too, went to see if they could get official title but it was not granted. Nevertheless, after a couple of years, the families had established a little village that was successful in providing food and shelter for its people.
“Word got around to other over-populated highland villages in Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and along La Costa Sur. New pioneers arrived and began helping clear the land. Sometimes it took a day and a half to cut down one big Lacandon tree, up to six feet wide with wood so dense it broke axes. But once the land was cleared, the campesinos were able to plant their initial crops: corn, beans, yucca, and malanga (arum) root. They divided the land into modest-sized parcels, knowing that others would be coming.
“By the late 1960s there were about 30 families. People helped each other in building homes and stores, developing a village from raw jungle. They had a co-op, and sold crops in Barillas, which was a two-day walk from their village. During the rainy season, crossing the River Ixcán was very treacherous and many lives were lost. Working together, the settlers started a road and built a footbridge which became, for many, the gate-way to a ‘promised land!’”
Land of the Mayans or Land of the Generals?
“Eventually it came to the Generals’ attention that the pioneers in Ixcán were doing well. After watching from a distance for some time, the Generals made their first move — presenting the Indians with ‘official title’ and claiming that the ‘land without owner’ was further out into the jungle. A Catholic priest (Father Bill Woods) in the area got word of what the Generals were doing and raised $80,000, which enabled the villagers to buy their land.
“These people prospered and began planting other crops (cardamom and coffee) for something to sell in the market, and started raising cows. The first village filled up with about a thousand hopeful Indian pioneers. They named it “Mayalan” — land of the Mayans. With Mayalan full, new arrivals formed their own co-operative and set about establishing El Pueblo Nuevo — New Village, which later came to be called La Resurrection. As more families arrived, other villages were started: Cuarto Pueblo (the Fourth Village) and Quinta Pista (Fifth Airstrip), which bordered the Mexican frontier.
“After ten years the original families of Mayalan were doing quite well, good examples of village self-sufficiency. Eventually about 6,000 people from Todos Santos, Jacaltenango, Quetzaltenango, and other over-populated mother villages were settled in Ixcán. They accomplished a great deal in a short time, setting up their new villages through collective effort in the traditional Mayan way.”
Death of a Padre
“The same priest who had helped the people of Mayalan was impressed with the bright young Indian children and wanted to set up a high school for them. He acquired cement, tin, and materials through fund-raising in the United States. Labor was to be donated by the native villagers. When the government found out about his plan the Generals ordered his elimination. Some reports say the Father’s plane ‘mysteriously disappeared,’ but it was “well-known among the people of Ixcán that Kaibiles [special operations soldiers] had shot it down. He crashed and burned. Soon after, the Kaibiles burned the collected materials.
“The year was 1976. This marked the beginning of the killings in Ixcán.
“There hadn’t been much army or government presence until the villages started becoming successful. Ten years of hard work was evident in the carefully tilled land. The Indians were beginning to be self-sufficient, and that got the attention of the Generals. No one was ‘managing’ them. When the Generals started coming around in helicopters they noticed that there was quite a development around Mayalan; a ready-built plantation with no boss.
“As they had done in Mayalan, the Generals intimidated the people of the new villages into leaving or paying for the land. The people rallied around ‘buying’ the land. This was the same story through each of the spin-off villages.
“Some men still had to work at the coastal plantations, but they would come back with seed to plant their land in fruit trees — mangos, lemons, papayas. For some of the original families their investment in fruit was already paying off after five years, and the villagers’ work on their own land became more profitable than $l-a-day servitude on the plantations.
“The plantation owners on the coast wondered what became of the people of Mayalan. Why didn’t they come back to work on the haciendas? Part of the answer was that, as the villages grew successful, they were able to hire workers from among the newcomers at double the wages of working for el patron on the coast.
“A rich rancher in the area starting clearing a huge tract of land and hired many of the men of Ixcán at good pay. He paid $3.50 a day, more than triple what the Indians could make on the coast. In the third year the army came and killed him.”
Then came the soldiers…
“This was in 1979. Around this time the first contingent of soldiers was set up in Mayalan. About 20 soldiers were dispatched to establish a base in each of the Ixcán villages. Towers were set up so the army could watch over each village.
“At first it caused no ripple in the tranquilo daily life. But soon the soldiers started to ask for villagers’ ID papers. Then village leaders started disappearing. Inquiries were answered with the response, ‘He was a guerrilla’ The people wondered, ‘What are guerrillas?’ Listening to radios, some started hearing reports about the government forces killing ‘guerrilleros’, and the people initially wondered what they might be, wild jungle animals, or what?
“By now bodies were regularly found in the River Ixcán and Rio Xalbal — bodies with evidence of strangulation or torture. People were now restricted from traveling during the night. Those found traveling at night were regarded as ‘enemies.’
“Once the soldiers started flexing their muscle in Ixcán, they began to take control of the co-operatives. They would watch for large purchases in the co-operative store, assuming they were being made to supply subversives, even though the people of Mayalan typically bought a month’s worth of goods at a time.
“More village leaders were kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated. The soldiers could justify it simply by saying, ‘They were guerrillas.’ Of course the people knew their leaders — had watched them become leaders through hard work in the community. The people couldn’t figure out why they were being lied to. They had fled to the most remote areas, only to become an isolated target.
“During 1981 the massacres began in Ixcán. Oppression had previously been intense, but now came hundreds of Kaibiles, fully armed with tanks, helicopters, automatic weapons, and orders to scorch the earth. The Generals wanted the villages of Ixcán destroyed.
“Please remember, these people were Indian peasants who had committed no crime but sought to provide for themselves and their children of their own hands. Peace, and some land, was the dream of the people of Ixcán, whose villages are now all destroyed!”