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Escaping the Fire

Escaping the Fire
How an Ixil Mayan Pastor Led His People Out of a Holocaust During the Guatemalan Civil War
Afterword by David Stoll

An arresting firsthand account of how a Mayan evangelist pastor led his fellow Mayas out of their guerilla-controlled homeland and into the hands of the government army during the Guatemalan civil war.

March 2010
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244 pages | 6 x 9 | 38 b&w photos, 2 maps |

During the height of the Guatemalan civil war, Tomás Guzaro, a Mayan evangelical pastor, led more than two hundred fellow Mayas out of guerrilla-controlled Ixil territory and into the relative safety of the government army's hands. This exodus was one of the factors that caused the guerrillas to lose their grip on the Ixil, thus hastening the return of peace to the area.

In Escaping the Fire, Guzaro relates the hardships common to most Mayas and the resulting unrest that opened the door to civil war. He details the Guatemalan army's atrocities while also describing the Guerrilla Army of the Poor's rise to power in Ixil country, which resulted in limited religious freedom, murdered church leaders, and threatened congregations. His story climaxes with the harrowing vision that induced him to guide his people out of their war-torn homeland.

Guzaro also provides an intimate look at his spiritual pilgrimage through all three of Guatemala's main religions. The son of a Mayan priest, formerly a leader in the Catholic Church, and finally a convert to Protestantism, Guzaro, in detailing his religious life, offers insight into the widespread shift toward Protestantism in Latin America over the past four decades.

Riveting and highly personal, Escaping the Fire ultimately provides a counterpoint to the usual interpretation of indigenous agency during the Guatemalan civil war by documenting the little-studied experiences of Protestants living in guerrilla-held territory.

  • Maps
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Exodus: August 1982
  • 2. Son of a Mayan Priest: 1960s
  • 3. Catholicism in Ixil Country: Late 1960s-Mid-1970s
  • 4. The Curse: 1975-1976
  • 5. Conflict of Cultures: October 1976-1977
  • 6. Reconciliation: 1977-1978
  • 7. Protestant Growth and the Guerrilla Takeover: February-September 1979
  • 8. Between Two Fires: October 1979-August 1980
  • 9. Targeting the Evangélicos: September 1980
  • 10. Given a Little More Time: September-December 1980
  • 11. Narrow Escapes: January 1981-February 1982
  • 12. Desperate for a Way Out: February-July 1982
  • 13. The Vision: July-August 1982
  • 14. Escaping the Fire: August 3-4, 1982
  • 15. A Taste of Freedom: August 1982
  • 16. Life in a Refugee Village: September 1982-May 1983
  • 17. Lifting up Ixil Country: June 1983-2009
  • Afterword. Tomás Guzaro in Historical Context
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References and Further Reading
  • Index

Tomás Guzaro played a central role in aiding the Ixil refugees during the Guatemalan civil war and since 1987 has been the administrator of a private hospital in Nebaj, where he served as vice mayor from 2000 to 2004. He currently oversees ninety-six churches within the Church of God.

After moving to Nebaj in 1993, Terri Mccomb and her husband got to know Tomás Guzaro while working with agricultural development programs. They still live in Ixil country, where Terri divides her time between schooling her four children and writing.


We passed through a great sadness. Whether to live or die, we had to leave. Only God could help us.

Pi'l (Felipe Guzaro Cobo)


We'd heard of the amnesty—otherwise we couldn't have left. We had to keep quiet about our plan to escape, or the guerrillas would have killed us. And if we had stayed, the army would have finished us off.

Former CCL director from Salquil who escaped with Tomás


There were two kinds of civil patrollers—good and evil.

Jacinto de Paz Corio

The distant blast of a howitzer shattered the peace of our hope-filled morning. We were resting by a mountaintop pool after an exhausting escape from several guerrilla-held villages when suddenly those few moments of peace were torn from us. We froze, our ears straining and our eyes searching the sky through the branches of the tall, old trees. Was the artillery shell aimed at us? My chest tightened in fear as the sound of the approaching shell quickly grew louder. BOOM! A deafening explosion shook the earth. Confusion set in. Children screamed in terror and clung to their parents. "They've found us!" an old woman cried.

"Get moving!" I called out, lifting my arms over my head and motioning in the direction they should run. Parents grabbed children, animals, and baskets, crying out to God as they fled. Freedom had been within grasp, but was our attempt to escape from the bloody holocaust in our homeland doomed to fail now?


The violence of the civil war consumed Ixil country, in the remote mountains of Guatemala, like a forest fire that slowly builds into a raging inferno, incinerating everything in its path. We had to escape the flames to survive. My people looked to me to lead them out, and I, Maxh Pe'l, followed the way I saw in the vision.

The vision led us to a small pool of murky water at the top of a mountain just before dawn on August 4, 1982. All night we'd followed the route I'd seen, cutting a new trail through the forest, constructing a makeshift bridge to cross a swollen river, and at times having to climb hand over hand to pull ourselves up the precipitous mountain. The long line of 227 villagers and our herds of goats and sheep stretched down the mountainside as we struggled to reach the top.

Exhausted after the all-night exodus up the steep, slippery trail, we finally stopped to sit by the pool on a comfortable layer of pine needles under the mature trees. The pine needles were still wet from the deluge the night before, and cold rainwater soaked through our clothes. Women pulled their heavy hand-woven red, pink, green, and yellow striped shawls tightly around their shoulders for warmth.

Small hoofprints of deer and wild hogs lined the muddy edges of the remote pool. Sheep and goats rushed to the water's edge eager to quench their thirst, and although the water looked cloudy, people scooped it out with their hands to drink.

As we rested we thought about what we were doing and about those who had been too afraid to join us. My father was one of them. Before I left, I promised those who'd stayed behind that once we reached a place of safety, we would return to get them. They would know it was safe to come out of hiding when they saw us waving white banners and heard us calling to them in Ixil through loudspeakers.


Our Ixil people had inhabited the lush Central Highlands for over one thousand years, making a life in the misty, cold mountains where orchids garnish green moss-covered branches in the virgin forests. Hydrangea and calla lilies grow wild along rushing streams in the valleys far below the towering, cloud-covered peaks. Women wearing ankle-length red cortes dotted the pastures of the foothills as they led their flocks of sheep to graze. Their colorfully woven blouses, called huipiles, adorned with figures of corn, birds, women, and horses, and the men's red jackets and red sashes tied around the waists of their white, hand-woven pants identified us as Ixil and testified that the land belonged to us. But now we were forced to leave.

Three years earlier the guerrillas had moved into our village and gained a stranglehold over the area, forcing every able-bodied person to join them. Some of us moved to their encampments hidden in the lowland jungles of the Ixcán, a four-day walk from my village of Salquil Grande. They trained us to fight, teaching us that killing men was just like killing dogs—that men didn't have souls and became fertilizer for the ground when they died. We didn't believe what they said and didn't want to cooperate with them, but they said they'd kill us if we didn't. Sometimes they accepted money in exchange for temporarily ceasing their threats. But, unfortunately, only people who had been to work on plantations had cash, and the guerrillas no longer permitted us to go there.

Many of us were Protestants, called evangélicos, and liked to hold church services, but the guerrillas didn't like that. They said, "You evangélicos are all liars because God does not exist, and you're thieves because you're taking up offerings from poor people. You deserve to die!" Our numbers dwindled as they carried out their threats.

The guerrillas wanted me to support them because I was a leader in the community. They said they'd give me a little time to think it over, but if I didn't cooperate with them, they'd get rid of me. I knew they were serious because they'd killed my best friend who was also a pastor.

When they realized I wasn't going to support them, they tried to kill me, but I escaped their clutches by hiding in different houses every night.

The presence of the guerrillas in our villages turned the army against us. The army believed that everyone in the remote mountains of Ixil country supported the revolution. When the army troops from Nebaj came through our village, we ran and hid. In the beginning we ran because the guerrillas ordered us to do it. If we didn't, after the army was gone the guerrillas would come out of hiding and say to the person who didn't run, "Why weren't you afraid of the army? You must be giving them information!" And then when that person was by himself in his cornfield or in his house at night, the guerrillas would kill him.

When the army saw that we always ran from them, it convinced them that we were indeed their enemies. They unleashed all their fury on us, sweeping through villages, massacring innocent men, women, and children, and sometimes burning families alive in their homes. We wondered when it would be our turn to die. Most of us didn't want to have anything to do with the war, but we were caught in the middle nonetheless.

To escape the violence, people fled to Mexico or disappeared in the mountains, hiding in caves or living in flimsy shelters made out of branches and thin sheets of plastic. Others hid close to home. Only at night—and then only if it was safe—would we return home to make a small fire and cook a meager meal.

The guerrillas confiscated our radios, but some of us had hidden ones, and we listened in secret to news from the outside. There were advertisements for stoves and dish soap and Gallo beer; it sounded like people in other parts of Guatemala were living normal lives. We heard announcements from fincas, or plantations, on the South Coast offering work cutting sugarcane or picking coffee, and we wished we could go there to work.

We also listened to radio talks given by the new president, General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was put into power after a military coup. He offered amnesty to any guerrilla who wanted to stop fighting. Since he talked like a good evangélico, we believed his promises of amnesty, food, and shelter to all who turned themselves in. If somehow we could escape undetected by both the army and the guerrillas, we believed he would protect us. We longed for freedom from fear and violence—to be safe and at peace—and we knew we'd have to risk everything to get it.

But how were we to get away? It seemed impossible. For months we'd agonized over it. Guerrilla patrols combed the mountains, blocking every known way of escape. They needed us as slaves to grow their corn and to be the soldiers in their revolution. They'd massacre us if we were caught trying to escape, and undoubtedly the government army would slaughter us, too, if they found us on the trail.

In desperation we turned to God and prayed, "Kub'aal Tiixh, we have no hope! Our lives are in your hands. Please show us what to do—how to escape!"

That's when I had the vision of an old Ixil man directing me along a way of escape through the mountains that none of us had ever known before. From the scenes that passed through my mind, I knew it would be a treacherous journey, and that it would lead us to a pool of water near the top of the mountain.


Now that we were resting by that pool, it seemed that freedom was within our grasp. The guerrillas tightly patrolled the mountains, but we had climbed all night without being detected. Massive trees stood silhouetted against the beautiful pink sunrise, and songbirds greeted the new day. As the sun rose, our hope increased. Surely everything was going to be all right!

We watched our animals graze and rested our sore legs and injured feet. More than half of us were barefoot, and the rest wore thin shoes or sandals that had disintegrated during the difficult climb. Rocks and sticks sliced into our flesh, leaving behind bloody footprints on the trail.

My three-year-old daughter played with pinecones and my wife nursed our five-month-old son while the church elders and I discussed the next phase of the journey into unfamiliar territory. The vision had led us to the pool, but no farther.

As we discussed our options, Pablo Raymundo, a sixteen-year-old newlywed, approached me with good news. "Pap Maxh," he said, using the Ixil title of respect, "my brother-in-law is K'iche'. His family used to live near here, and he thinks he knows what villages are on the other side of this mountain."

"Good," I said. "I thought we would end up going toward Nebaj or Huehuetenango, but it looks like we're going straight over the top of the mountain into K'iche' country. We need someone who speaks K'iche' to explain our situation to those we meet along the way."

"Any K'iche' village we find will have a civil patrol," Pablo reminded me. The civil patrol, a group of civilians drafted by the army to protect their towns and villages from guerrilla activity, killed almost as indiscriminately as the army.

"We'll explain what we're doing," I said. "They'll believe us when they see we've brought our children and animals with us."

Pablo nodded and turned to walk away. Suddenly he stopped. In the distance we heard a familiar "thud"—an artillery shell being launched from a howitzer. We strained to discern the direction it was headed and braced ourselves as the deadly weapon sped toward us. About thirty seconds later, the nearby explosion sent shockwaves through our bodies and shattered our hope. Several young men gathered around me as we tried to make sense out of what was going on.

"It's the army shooting at us from Nebaj!" someone shouted.

"But there is no way they could have known we're here! A messenger couldn't have made it in time," Pablo reasoned.

"Maybe a soldier saw us and radioed them," another said.

"Scatter out!" I ordered. "See if you can tell what's going on. Look in the valley behind us."

A few of the young men ran to the edge of a plateau to look back down the mountain in the direction from where we'd come. While keeping an eye on the surrounding forest, the rest of us discussed what to do. We imagined at any moment we'd see army soldiers rushing through the trees with hate in their eyes and weapons aimed at us.

THUD. Another shell was fired. At its mercy with no place to hide, we waited. The whistling grew louder. Would it be a direct hit this time? It flew over our heads and with a deafening explosion ripped into the trail of mud and flattened grass we'd created earlier that morning.

The scouts rushed back. "Pap Maxh, there's a group of guerrilla soldiers on a hill below us about thirty minutes away! Someone in Salquil has betrayed us—or the guerrillas saw us climbing at daybreak—but they're following us on the trail we made."

Everyone talked at once. "Maybe the army is firing at the guerrillas!"

"If they know the guerrillas are here, then they've seen us and are firing at us, too!"

"The guerrillas are going to catch us at the rate we're moving. The elderly and children can't walk any faster. They're exhausted."

"We've got to keep going," I said. "Carry anyone who can't keep up."

People fled up the mountain on a faint trail made by wild animals. Others ran around them through the thick forest. We desperately needed to hurry. We felt as though a ravenous monster was closing in from behind to devour us, but it was impossible to move faster. Every few yards we had to stop. People fell. Children lagged behind. Animal ropes got tangled in the underbrush. A third shell exploded nearby, increasing our desperation.

For an hour we rushed onward until we came to a high plateau on top of the mountain where hundreds of decomposing trees, having died in an epidemic, lay scattered among large rocks. We picked our way around the rocks and enormous logs while agonizing over whether or not the guerrillas were gaining on us.

Eventually we came to a green meadow with a small cemetery fenced by a low rock wall. Crude wooden crosses marked the graves.

"This is the cemetery near Pajuil Pais," Juan, the K'iche' man, informed me.

"Pray that the civil patrol will be friendly," I whispered to him.

Juan and I left the group at the cemetery and walked until we found a house. We stood outside the fence and whistled to inform the occupants we were there. A man opened the door a crack, and Juan spoke to him in K'iche' to explain what we were doing and to ask for permission to pass through the village. The man happened to be a member of the civil patrol. He eyed us suspiciously and told us to wait in the cemetery. He took a long bullwhip made of braided grass and hurried to an open spot nearby, repeatedly cracking his whip in the air and whistling loudly to alert the rest of the civil patrol.

We returned to the cemetery where the others were anxiously waiting. "The patrol is coming to talk to us," I announced to the crowd. "They want to know what we're doing. Let's be patient."

People paced, too nervous to sit down. Mothers nursed babies. Stoic faces turned downward, worrying about what might happen. María, one of several women nine months' pregnant, held her extended belly. Her baby was due, and she was in danger of going into labor. I prayed her contractions would not begin until we were in a safe place.

We waited, feeling small and vulnerable as we listened to the distant snap of the bullwhip. Chilling gusts of wind blew against us and tossed the branches of the pine trees encircling the cemetery. My stomach knotted as I planned what I would say.

Ten minutes later the snap of the bullwhip stopped. All was silent for a while. Then, suddenly, we were ambushed. About forty civil patrollers carrying rifles, machetes, and sticks rushed toward us from out of the forest.

"Don't move! Put up your hands!" they ordered in Spanish as they surrounded us. Several men had ropes draped across their shoulders. Being a patrol member was dangerous; they had to kill first to keep from being killed.

They roughly searched us for weapons, shouting and cursing orders. "Open that bag! Unwrap that baby!" Women's shawls were searched for concealed guns. Stoicism melted into silent tears. Many of the villagers believed they were going to die.

After the search was over, the interrogation began.

"Who's in charge here?" their leader shouted.

"I am," I said as I stepped forward.

"What did you come here to do?" he yelled. "Where do you think you're going? What are you looking for?"

I tried to explain. "We came from Salquil because the guerrillas are killing people and we had to get out. We've been traveling all night and only want to pass through your village and be on our way."

"Why did you wait until now to leave? Why didn't you go to Nebaj?"

"We couldn't get there without someone killing us."

"Well, you can't get through here either!" he said.

"We just want to get to a place that isn't under control of the guerrillas," I tried to reason. "We've already suffered tremendously and have risked our lives to leave."

"What do you plan to do?" he asked with suspicion deep in his eyes.

"We don't have a plan. We only knew we had to leave Salquil and find a place to work such as Huehuetenango or the South Coast. We don't know."

"What do you plan to do for food?"

"We want to work to earn money so we can buy it, but in the meantime we hope people will give us some. We can pay them after we have money."

"Why do you think that you can work somewhere else and you can't work in Salquil?"

"Because we heard on our radios the advertisements asking for workers to come to the South Coast. We can go there and pick coffee or cut sugarcane. We've been there many times. In Salquil we couldn't leave our houses to take care of our corn because that's when the guerrillas would kill us. They're taking what little food we have to feed themselves."

"Why did you say that there aren't any guerrillas here? Didn't you encounter them somewhere on the mountain?"

"No, we didn't."

"No? Lies! You are guerrillas yourselves! You planned to attack the army in Aguacatán! You're going to have to wait here until we get orders from the army telling us what to do with you!"

Some of the patrol members spoke to him in K'iche'. "Let's just kill them! They're guerrillas! How else could they have gotten this far? What are we going to do with so many? It's best to just kill them right now!" I had an idea of what they were saying because I had learned some K'iche' while working on the South Coast.

Mothers pulled their children closer. Fear stabbed them as they imagined what might happen next. It had happened to countless others. Why not us?

"We're going to wait for orders!" their leader insisted. He sent two of his men to the army base in Aguacatán, a town far down in the river valley below. It would take them all day to get there and to climb back up the mountain to where we were.

The floodgates of emotion burst open. Women and children sobbed; tears rolled down old men's tired faces.

My friend Pedro Pérez had brought his two young goats with him. They were going to provide either food or income for his family at our final destination. A patrol member eyed them greedily. He walked over to us.

"You don't need these goats anymore," he said. "I'm going to buy them from you."

He handed Pedro five quetzals. They were worth at least twenty-five.

"I don't want to sell my goats," Pedro pleaded.

"Well, you just did."

We watched him lead the goats away. There was nothing we could do.

At gunpoint they herded everyone except me into the casa cementerio, a small, dirt-floor building in the cemetery made of thin logs notched together at the four corners of the building. Dozens of old three-foot-high wooden crosses were piled against a wall on the inside. Those who practiced the Mayan costumbre religion used this place to burn incense and pray for the dead.

There was barely enough room to stand; women cried and children wailed. They were locked in among a mass of adult legs. Some of the women tried to squat down to rest, but there wasn't enough room.

They kept me outside for questioning, and I tried to defend us by explaining what life had been like behind guerrilla lines.

While the other patrol members were off talking among themselves, a few came to talk to me privately.

"Why don't you go back to Salquil?" one man whispered. "It'll be better for you there than here with the army. You can still go back," he urged.

I didn't know what to say. I wondered if he was a guerrilla sympathizer since the army forced men to be in the civil patrol. Or perhaps he was trying to lay a trap for me. Did he hope that I'd agree with him so he could prove to the others that we were indeed guerrillas? I cautiously held my ground. We had to leave Salquil to save our lives.

We'd brought tortillas with us, but they were cold and hard. The villagers crammed inside the casa cementerio asked me to beg the patrol to let them make a fire to warm the tortillas for their children. One of the patrol members standing nearby gave permission for a few men to gather wood and start three fires. As soon as the fires blazed, another patroller returned from an errand and rushed over.

"What are you doing?" he screamed as he kicked dirt over one of the fires. "Get inside! Do you want to die right now?"

Parents tried to comfort their hungry children as they handed them a few stiff tortillas to chew. Everyone was afraid and exhausted. I could tell that some people were losing hope. I heard them talking inside the casa cementerio.

"Why did we ever listen to Maxh? We trusted him and he brought us here! It's his fault that now we're going to die! We should go back to Salquil. At least there we were able to hide to save our lives."

Others defended me. "We all came voluntarily because we wanted to live and be free! If we don't get our freedom, God knows why. We must pray!"

Death and blood were familiar sights to us. If it was God's will that we die, at least we wouldn't suffer anymore. In massacres, everyone was killed. I had my wife and children with me; at least we would all die together and my children wouldn't be left alone to suffer. Looking out across the cemetery at the many wooden crosses and graves only heightened our sense of death. It was close enough to touch.


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