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The Quiet Revolutionaries

The Quiet Revolutionaries
Seeking Justice in Guatemala

A stirring examination of those who survived Guatemala’s civil war, and the mindset that helped them transform their society in the face of state-sanctioned terrorism.

September 2007
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218 pages | 6 x 9 |

The last three decades of the twentieth century brought relentless waves of death squads, political kidnappings, and other traumas to the people of Guatemala. Many people fled the country to escape the violence. Yet, at the same moment, a popular movement for justice brought together unlikely bands of behind-the-scenes heroes, blurring ethnic, geographic, and even class lines.

The Quiet Revolutionaries is drawn from interviews conducted by Frank Afflitto in the early 1990s with more than eighty survivors of the state-sanctioned violence. Gathered under frequently life-threatening circumstances, the observations and recollections of these inspiring men and women form a unique perspective on collective efforts to produce change in politics, law, and public consciousness. Examined from a variety of perspectives, from sociological to historical, their stories form a rich ethnography. While it is still too soon to tell whether stable, long-term democracy will prevail in Guatemala, the successes of these fascinating individuals provide a unique understanding of revolutionary resistance.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Some Background
  • Chapter Two: Access Was Not Easy
  • Chapter Three: Chronic Ambiguity
  • Chapter Four: Seeking Justice
  • Chapter Five: The Social Movement to End Impunity
  • Chapter Six: The Movement Is Fragmented by the Peace Accords
  • Chapter Seven: Identity, Rule of Law, and Democracy
  • Appendix
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Frank M. Afflitto received his Ph.D. in 1998 from the University of California at Irvine. He specializes in research on social perceptions of justice and conflict.

Paul Jesilow is Associate Professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine.


Regional, national, and international armed conflicts and more localized episodes of civil unrest have been common features of life for millions of people during the past decade. Despite the much-acclaimed end of the Cold War, ongoing military occupations, violent interethnic conflicts, and desperate living conditions are seemingly more common features of international reality than are lasting features of peace. Violence and social protest have continued in countries that had achieved increased democratic control, such as Indonesia, Rwanda, the Palestinian Authority, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq. In all of these areas, issues of justice play some role in stimulating the violence.

In this book we focus on Guatemalans, who have suffered violence and intimidation as a result of civil unrest in their country. We examine their perceptions of justice and its counterpart, injustice, and how those impressions came to be formed through their experiences with state-sanctioned terrorism. We do not center our attention on the perpetrators of the violence or the atrocities they committed or on the people they slaughtered. Rather, we focus on intimates of those who were murdered or "disappeared," that is, kidnapped, never to return; we focus on these survivors, whom we call "the quiet revolutionaries." They would probably not agree with their characterization as revolutionaries, primarily because they associate the term with their country's former armed Marxist rebels. Few of these individuals were radical before their loved ones disappeared. The actions they told us about, from their perspectives, were simply efforts to obtain justice with respect to their husbands, children, or other blood ties. But in seeking justice, many of them went through a transformation from indigent, powerless victims who turned to God for justice to radical workers who sought justice in the name of the disappeared. In this role, they were important tools in the efforts to change the actions of the Guatemalan government because it was through them that the image and memory of the disappeared were invoked as a rallying point for demonstrations. It was they who caused the world to turn its attention to Guatemala. This is true whether we are talking about our anonymous informants, whose stories appear here, or Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who wrote about the slaughter of Mayan Indians at the hands of state-controlled forces, or American lawyer Jennifer Harbury, who staged a one-person hunger strike outside the White House after her husband, a guerrilla commander in Guatemala, was murdered.

If asked, the survivors would probably deny that they were revolutionaries. They did not attempt to bring down the government. Rather, they demonstrated against state-sanctioned terrorism and the impunity granted its perpetrators. But their stories are what caught the interest of the world audience as they told tales of the disappeared and murdered. In that regard, the acts of the death squads and other paramilitary groups served as an impetus for bringing together many Guatemalans, blurring ethnic, geographic, and even class lines to form a popular movement; it was these acts of violence against the quiet revolutionaries' loved ones that drove individuals toward political action and the creation of a social movement to end impunity. We call these survivors "the quiet revolutionaries" because their goal required a revolutionary transformation of Guatemalan society—from one based on fragmentation and discrimination to a pluralistic one based on shared values.

The actions and perceptions our respondents held about justice in Guatemala were largely shaped by a thirty-six-year civil war that ended in 1996 and that, according to Guatemala's Supreme Court, conservatively left more than 100,000 civilians dead, 35,000 widows, and 200,000 orphans and destroyed more than 440 villages. Most of those killed during the latter half of the war, the period represented by our data, were in many cases poor farmers or agriculturalists slaughtered because the army blurred their rural identity with guerrilla membership. In many areas of the country, from the military's perspective, a farmer was a guerrilla or at least so likely to be a guerrilla that he or she might as well be killed. In the countryside, the army almost randomly slaughtered people, figuring that killing enough agriculturalists—most of them Mayan Indians—would terrorize people to dissuade them from supporting guerrillas and would get rid of a few guerrilla sympathizers who might be mixed in with the pool of victims. Just the fact that one was poor was often enough to make one targetable in the counterinsurgency-terror logic practiced in many areas of Guatemala.

Most of those killed by the army and its agents during the civil war were not rebels. The survivors of the state violence whose stories we report here deny that their missing loved ones were guerrilla fighters. They may have been unaware of their relatives' political and social involvement. But it is more likely that their family members had not been rebels. They were simply disappeared or slaughtered because someone, through envy or whatever motive, pointed them out as "guerrillas" or because guerrillas operated nearby and the Mayan farmers, being the poorest, most deprived sector of the national population, were most likely to be the social base of the revolutionaries; thus they were the most likely candidates for armed struggle due to their very poverty and necessity.

Guatemala has a history of oppression toward its Mayan population and a lack of democratic ideals. Indigenous peoples throughout much of the world have long been oppressed by European invaders. In Guatemala the Spanish invasion undermined the indigenous population's way of life and eventually led to the devastation of the people and their cultures. During the twentieth century, economic development encroached on previously isolated Indian areas. Conflict over democracy and social development cultivated guerrilla movements, the members of which found Indian lands to be ideal sanctuaries from which to prepare their assaults. Drug traffickers also found the isolated lands favorable for their activities. On the other side were official and paramilitary armed forces that hunted the guerrillas and drug traffickers in the jungles and highlands and that routinely murdered and otherwise brutalized innocent Maya. In Chapter One we describe this history to establish a context for understanding the state-supported violence to which the survivors were responding. We are interested in giving the reader a general knowledge of the country's history and some themes that we will discuss as the book progresses.

This research required not only traditional academic strategies and study but additionally perseverance, investigatory stealth, and ongoing deprivation of Western middle-class comforts. It often required Frank Afflitto, who did all of the Guatemalan interviews, to place himself in physical danger, to "walk" alongside informants in their daily lives, withstanding common violent occurrences and surveillance as well as the heat, cold, and hunger associated with everyday living among rural Guatemalans. In many ways the data collection more closely resembled an adventure tale than it did traditional academic undertakings, including smuggling the data out of the country. Chapter Two describes the hardships Frank endured and the strategies he used while he conducted eighty lengthy interviews in two separate field trips during 1990 and 1992. He returned to Guatemala during parts of 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1999 to conduct additional interviews and gain other information.

The Guatemalans interviewed for this book experienced much more emotional and physical pain than you or we would care to endure. Some of them as well as their family members were raped, held against their will, and tortured, and they endured knowing that loved ones were disappeared and murdered. One of the military state's goals was to intimidate them and other Guatemalans into submission, to render them too frightened to act against the terrorist apparatus.

The violence certainly created silence among segments of the population. The immunity afforded death squad members by criminal justice system agents was probably, in large part, an intended outcome of the violence. But the tactics used by the state-sanctioned terrorists had unintended effects. Most notably, they were the impetus for bringing together Guatemalans who demanded an end to impunity and the implementation of justice.

From initial chance encounters at morgues, police stations, and army barracks, as they searched for the missing or while trying to establish responsibility for the murders of those found dead, there grew a common sense of purpose among a diverse group of people. They included, to name but a few, a ladino plantation worker from Escuintla; a ladina lower-middle-class housewife from the capital city; a preliterate, predominantly monolingual, rural Kaqchikel Indian woman; an urban ladino trade unionist; and a K'iché Mayan university instructor. As the survivors sought information about their missing loved ones, they formed organizations designed to address their concerns and the concerns of constituencies that had survived similar atrocities.

The development of these communities of resistance countered the intended disruptive effects of state-sanctioned terrorism and was a first step toward building a pluralist society. The fundamental, unifying belief of these communities was that impartial law did not exist in Guatemala. From their perspective, law and justice in their country were not blind but rather served the interests of a powerful elite. Individual activities of everyday citizens were subordinate to the narrow concerns of a ruling clique. Individual freedom, prized and necessary in democratic societies, was absent from the world of individuals interviewed for this book. The law could be used in a discriminatory fashion to justify a wide variety of limitations on individual freedom. The labeling of anti-state activity as "terrorism" or "subversion," for example, allowed state-sanctioned forces to use violence against peaceful citizens.

Communities of survivors of the counterinsurgent civil war and death-squad terror arose in response to the violent repression and the cloak of impunity that shrouded the perpetrators. The communities were made up of a variety of organizations. But it is the members of these groups and not the groups themselves that are the subject of this book. We do not dwell on the particulars of the varying organizations. Our interest is in the mechanisms that led people to participate, the link between individual motivation and eventual social action.

Our focus in this book is on the empirical story of how the quiet revolutionaries experienced, managed, and responded to the fact that those closest to them were murdered or disappeared. There is also an analytic story to recount, which most importantly involves linkages among the psychological mechanisms the quiet revolutionaries implemented to deal with ongoing ambiguous situations; the formation, evolution, and manifestation of a broadly defined social movement; and the development of a collective identity. All of these elements emerge in the book, but we note them here to make clear our intention to tie together these matters.

We begin both the empirical and analytic telling of the quiet revolutionaries' accounts with the psychological mechanisms they employed to deal with their losses. It is, in many ways, the ambiguous nature of disappearances that started the quiet revolutionaries on their journeys to activism. They were unsure whether their loved ones were alive or dead, and this created a psychological quandary for them. The chronic ambiguity may even have been worse than the initial loss. They desperately sought in vain to alleviate their anxiety. In Chapter Three we argue that their search for their disappeared loved ones and their eventual pursuit of justice for the murdered and disappeared, including their participation in the popular movement, were means to alleviate their daily pain and that these steps were consistent with their culture.

In Chapter Four we are specifically interested in the formation of the quiet revolutionaries' perceptions of justice and how these judgments pushed them toward activism. Generally, perceptions of justice occupy a central role in our social and psychological life from early on. We probably all remember incidents from our childhood that we perceived as unjust. "That's not fair" seems to be a common complaint of children. While we may view much of what happens to us as inequitable, life must somehow deliver a measure of justice. We depend upon, or expect, certain levels of fairness for our own mental well-being. In general, we expect people to behave in a certain fashion, and when they do not, it threatens the most intimate areas of our psychosocial selves.

During our lives, each of us develops a mental system of justice through which we view the world. This view may be altered from time to time, depending on circumstances. Illustrative is the change in political parties that people make as they move up or down the economic ladder. What was correct and just when they were poor, for example, seems unfair now that they have money.

Justice is not a concrete ideology. Perceptions of justice may differ from one culture to another and between individuals within any society. We see this in many of the earliest known written works, both secular and religious. It can be argued, for example, that in the story of Jesus' crucifixion, his execution came about as the result of the Roman Empire's state terror apparatus exercising its authority over what it perceived as a political threat in its occupied territories. According to accounts, Jesus was accused of and tried for crimes against the state and executed alongside common criminals. The public exhibition and mutilation of the bodies were prominent components of the sentencing. From the Roman view, Jesus' execution was just punishment for his behavior. Later interpretations obviously differ from the Roman view.

Our own perceptions of justice probably affect us each day more than we realize. In some fashion, we use them to determine for us a vast array of conceptual items: whether our acts and those of others should be categorized as impartial and rational, the nature and limits of our rights and those of others, the duties we owe to others and others owe to us, and the benefits and entitlements we expect from society for ourselves and others, to name a few. Our perceptions of justice act as a filter through which we view the world. Courage, for example, is a virtue, but not when we perceive its practitioners as using it to support injustice.

In Guatemala, perceptions of justice were largely affected by state-sanctioned terrorism. The victims of the violence were primarily innocents; most were guilty of simply living in an area the army categorized as being under guerrilla control. Few of the thousands who were killed were actually rebels. They had committed no crimes under Guatemalan law. Their executions were carried out without a legal mandate. Rather, they were extrajudicially executed by government-associated forces. Moreover, prior to the signing of the 1996 peace accords, the sponsors of the violence and its perpetrators were almost never brought before a court. State agents explained the horrific deeds as the actions of common criminals, but with a handful of rare exceptions for generally high-profile assassinations such as that of anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang, no one was arrested or charged for the crimes.

The quiet revolutionaries felt they had a right to know the whereabouts of missing loved ones and to know the identities of those who had exercised the violence. Furthermore, they wanted, as one of their number noted, "trials and castigation for the assassins of the people." They felt that they were right in pursuing legal accountability for the sequesters. Their missing loved ones had been denied, from their perspective, the protection of the law, as extralegal assassinations and disappearances bypassed legal procedures. Justice could be resurrected if those same legal procedures were put to use to uncover and punish the guilty. It was important to the quiet revolutionaries to use the legal system, as opposed to vigilante activities or armed rebellion. The use of legal procedures would have allowed the written law to operate in its intended fashion and defeat impunity. The survivors' experiences with state authorities, however, only increased their sense of injustice. Their pursuits became aborted attempts, so prolonged that the legal system eventually was seen by them as anything but a tool for achieving their goals. Their pursuits were met by a string of injustices that impeded them in their searches. They argued that procedural justice did not exist in Guatemala and that the justice system was ineffective. For them, the executions and disappearances kindled a desire for legal justice, a small flame that was fanned into a blaze by the further injuries they faced as they sought information about loved ones.

Justice, for the surviving family members of the disappeared, would entail finding their relatives (or their bodies) and empowering civilian legal institutions over armed security forces. Such goals, however, were beyond the efforts of individuals and required a social movement, which we describe in Chapter Five. The quiet revolutionaries came to identify themselves as Guatemalans, due in part to their membership in the heterogeneous social movement. They saw that their interests were the same as other members of the group and in fact the same as the majority of Guatemalans. Their activities as members of the social movement and the state security forces' efforts to repress them strengthened this identity and allowed the quiet revolutionaries to claim the moral high ground. They were not armed revolutionaries. Nor were they enemies of the people. They were Guatemalans acting for the national community. Their nationalism was used to legitimate their actions for themselves and their supporters. It was an ideology that helped mobilize political action against the ruling elites and increased the solidarity of the group.

The strength of the communities to which our informants belonged lay in the empowerment of the disenfranchised through socially acceptable resistance. Such empowerment took the form of more democratic, grassroots participation in political mobilization, something that had been lacking during Guatemala's military-dominated political history. The political participation involved societal sectors that had traditionally been peripheral in governing Guatemala: rural Maya, women, urban poor, youth, the uneducated, and orphans. Many of these members, who came from once differing social spheres, found themselves in the similar situation of belonging to groups whose members had experienced terrorizing counterinsurgency repression and the impunity of death-squad institutions. During demonstrations, they demanded to know the whereabouts of their disappeared loved ones and other missing community members and for official recognition of the state's role in the formation and propagation of the death-squad apparatus. Their actions and the terrorist apparatus' responses to them solidified the ties they had to each other.

The emergence of communities of resistance defied the intended disruptive effects of state-sanctioned terrorism through unification. An essential aspect of the emergent communities' importance rests on such unification as a step toward nation building. As these disparate individuals came together and saw each other as survivors of the same suffering by the same hand, they formed communities. When they looked past their sufferings to a positive, altered vision of society, they became Guatemalans and participants in nation building. They were no longer simply women or students or union members or Maya. They now had a broader, emotional connection to a collective identity as Guatemalan. They donned the identity that the army and oligopoly had denied them. They created a pluralist national unity based on the common experiences of broad sectors of Guatemalan society as a community of survivors of state-sanctioned violence that symbolically and organizationally undermined the goal of the state terror apparatus and created an opportunity for change.

During the same period as the social movement expanded, major players in the Guatemalan civil war were discussing an end to the hostilities. The quiet revolutionaries likewise desired peace, but it was not their first goal. Ending impunity and establishing justice for the disappeared and murdered were their aims. To achieve their aspirations, they wanted the police and judiciary to be free to act in the equal interest of all Guatemalans and not merely in favor of the political oligopoly and army. They opposed efforts that undermined accountability for murder and torture. At the moment, it was unlikely that anyone in the movement would have foreseen that the peace accord discussions would result in undermining the movement to end impunity. But that is exactly what occurred. During this period, to counter the system of impunity and judicial ineffectiveness, the resistance community created a quasilegal system that involved gathering evidence of the existence and violence of death squads and security forces. Testimonies, such as the 6,000 compiled during a Catholic Church project, gave community members the opportunity to pass judgment on state-sanctioned authorities as being those guilty of the vast majority of the horrific deeds. In doing this, the community performed duties that the Guatemalan criminal justice system had traditionally been too cowardly and corrupt to perform. Survivor-based justice claims in Guatemala contributed to the establishment of an alternative, popular justice system, counterpoised to the reign of armed impunity.

However, continued impunity had dark consequences in post-civil war Guatemala. Most notable at the time was the murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi, who had been the driving force behind the Church report. And although his murderers were eventually tried and convicted, the outcome was likely associated with idiosyncratic matters such as the international visibility of the case. Lacking such scrutiny, as was the situation for trials involving less celebrated victims, the Guatemalan judicial system remained impotent.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Guatemalan criminal justice system lacked the ability and motivation to do much about crime. The system during the civil war was emasculated by the military in order to maintain impunity. The legal institutions were unable to reestablish themselves as effective units after the war ended. A partial result was rapidly escalating crime rates. Vigilante justice became somewhat commonplace in Guatemala as a result of the pervasive view that legal officials would do nothing about criminal behavior, and lynching became a common tool used by individuals to control the increased crime. Moreover, Guatemala seemed to remain in the same hands as it had been for decades. The ruling party was conservative, and its political leader, former dictator and the progenitor of the scorched earth policy, Efraín Ríos Montt, was the elected leader of Congress until early 2004. In Chapter Six we describe how the peace accords affected the social movement and the continuation of impunity in Guatemala, as well as the public's responses to growing lawlessness.

In our concluding chapter we tie perceptions of justice to the practice of rule of law and how these matters are associated with democracy. Democracy is not necessarily about elections or majority rule. It may be more about having one's interests considered than it is about other matters. Rule of law is the means by which people can come to see their interests considered. The law is a powerful thing. Laws can be used to establish rights and duties and to define differing social phenomena as legal or illegal. One perspective regarding the enactment of law sees the process as involving all members of society. It is a consensual process in which the outcome reflects the needs and desires of all society members. But law also can be seen as a political tool used by the powerful to support their own interests. From this perspective, law serves as an instrument of power in the process of competing group claims. Those who control it are able to get their way.

In Guatemala the law was the tool of a powerful elite. Individual activities of everyday citizens were subordinate to the narrow concerns of a ruling clique. Individual freedom, prized and necessary in democratic societies, was absent from the world of individuals interviewed for this book. The law could be used in a discriminatory fashion to justify a wide variety of limitations on individual freedom.

The lessons from Guatemala should not be lost on those attempting to implement democracy and its ideals in various corners of the world. The success or failure of new postwar government efforts to implement democracy in Guatemala, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere may very well depend on citizens' perceptions of how well they provide justice. Without justice, individuals are unlikely to establish a pluralistic, collective identity as citizens of the nation. Rather, they will identify themselves as members of the disenfranchised groups, whether they be the Maya of Guatemala or women or prisoners of the coalition forces in Iraq. Under such circumstances, democracy is unlikely to flourish.


“A major contribution to our understanding of grassroots human rights activism and the ways in which victims of violence can make sense of their traumatic experiences.”
Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, California State University, Long Beac


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