Today in the Americas, Guatemala's Counterinsurgency State

guatemala rios montt para el que dioToday in 1982, Jose Efraín Ríos Montt declared himself president after the departure of other members of the military junta that ruled Guatemala explicit and implicitly since the US-backed coup in 1954. Ríos Montt thought that killing large amount of Indians would win them over – the only one he won over, it turned out, was Ronald Reagan, who declared Guatemala a functioning democracy –

President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. … I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.

In reality: Ríos Montt oversaw (quite brutally it turned out) the machinery of the 1954 coup. Suzanne Jonas described this influx of violence and terror as a “counterinsurgency state,” one that existed for the sole purpose of murdering campesinos, otherwise known to the elites as “terrorists,” “insurgents” and, worst of all, “communists.” Below is a review of the Guatemalan civil war by way of three works listed below. As evidenced by the recent shenanigans by President Colom, Guatemala is still trying to reach true democratic reforms after the three decade long civil war.


Susanne Jonas. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads and U.S. Power (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1991).

Rachel A May, “’Surviving All Changes is Your Destiny’: Violence and Popular Movements in Guatemala.” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 2, Reassessing Central America’s Revolutions (March, 1999): 68-91.

Gabriel Aguilera Peralta and John Beverly. “Terror and Violence As Weapons of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala.” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 7, No. 2/3, Central America: The Strongmen are Shaking (Late Spring – Summer, 1980): 91-113.


‘The carrion birds of repression are still not satisfied:’
The Rise and Response to Guatemalan ‘Counterinsurgency State’: 1960-1996

Nobody can be complete in the mind after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself, morbidly mulling it over, trying to imagine what waking up must have been like for this indigenous man, whom they left for dead among chucks of the flesh of his wife and children and who then, many years later, had the opportunity to give his testimony so that I could read it and make stylistic corrections, a testimony that began, in fact, with the sentence I am not complete in the mind.
-Horacio Castellanos Moya

Mourners honor their dead at the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Truth Commission

Mourners honor their dead at the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Truth Commission

For Susanne Jonas, the origins of the Guatemalan crisis run deep.

…by time of independence, Spanish colonial policy had established the basic patterns of under-development in Guatemala; mono-export, extreme wealth inequalities, decapitalization (channeling economic surplus abroad to tiny local minority tied to overseas interests), lack of infrastructure, impoverished state, polarized class structure, and indigenous racism.

Arbenz strip searched on his was to exile after 1954 coup

Arbenz strip searched on his was to exile after 1954 coup

Jonas advances a theory under which one must see Guatemala to understand the last thirty years (1960 to 1990; her book was published in 1991): one of dependency and counterinsurgency – both existing hand-in-hand. Dependency fosters the rebellion of the impoverished (mostly Indian, the “87 percent majority”) who never benefited from the system, while the counterinsurgency suppresses these kinds of thoughts when they are publicly displayed. Following the coup of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 at the hands of the CIA, the axis under which Guatemala attempted to govern fell into the hands of the military, which morphed, with the aid of the United States, into “a form of institutional or conservative violence” that defined modern Central America. According to Gabriel Peralta,

the ruling class has as its disposition through control of the state apparatus, the most direct and effective means of maintaining its domination, those “special detachments of armed men” (Lenin’s phrase), the army and police. The dominated class, which aspires to gain control of the state apparatus, must at some moment of the class struggle provide for the development of its own armed forces in order to confront and eventually defeat those of the dominant class.

Through this lens one can witness the rise and response of, what Jonas dubs, the “counterinsurgency state.” Below, one will examine (after a brief introduction) the the rise of the insurgents/guerrillas/indios, the rise of counterinsurgent/paramilitary/state violence and terror, the machinations of the “counterinsurgency state” that ruled from 1960 to 1985, and the civil/guerrilla/indio/world response to such a state.


In “Terror and Violence As Weapons of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala,” Gabriel Aguilera Peralta and John Beverly argue that the origins of the Guatemalan civil war lie in the class conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the Indian peasants. Their article, published in 1980, provides one with a unique insight into the ongoing nature of the counterterrorist response that will last until 1996. Peralta believes that the foco guerrilla theory (which stresses that “popular forces can win a war against any enemy,” insurrections “create” the conditions of revolution, “the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting” and stressed the acceptance of the rural people in joining the rebellion) had much to do with the rise and response of the both the paramilitary and the guerrillas themselves. “One of the key elements [of paramilitaries] is the use of terror against the guerrilla force and the civilian population which supports it. Counterinsurgency terror constitutes a form of institutional or conservative violence in the modern world.” Thus, starting in 1966 and ending in 1980, Peralta is able to chart the “waves” of terror caused by the military government in the form of state and paramilitary repression, and analyze the rise of Guatemalans in response.

The rise of the Guatemalan counterinsurgent response can only be analyzed in the rise of the guerrilla response following the coup of 1954. Peralta believes that the civil war originated in the hands of the United States in two ways: First, it was the organizer behind the coup of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954; second, it provided Guatemalans the skills and ammo to “defend” Guatemala in 1966, where Peralta believes the rise of the counterinsurgency began. Following the coup came the rise of organized guerrillas in the form of FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes) made up of the Movimiento 13 de Noviembre (MR-13), Movimiento 12 de Abril, Movimiento de 20 de Octubre, and later, the PGT (the Guatemalan Communist Party). Socially, “the guerrilla movement in Guatemala was never very large,” Peralta writes, “but even as it grew it continued the tendency evident in its inception, that of recruiting primarily from the radicalized guatemala civil warpetty bourgeoisie of the cities and countryside.” As mentioned above, the focus in the 1960s was on “rural foco” – setting up “liberated zones” and gaining the support of the population. Repression was weak, at first. The guerrillas were able to repel the ill-equipped and ill-trained patrols sent into Izabel, Zacapa, and the Granadilla mountains. Peralta does not comment on the content of the guerrilla army or the lasting success, but it was something that moved the Guatemalan military heads to recruit the United States for support.

The rise of guerrilla activity against the military regime imposed upon its citizens in 1954 forced the military to respond to the threats in the countryside with force unequaled in Central America since la matanza – the massacre – in El Salvador in 1932. “Terror,” according to Peralta, “was introduced by US military advisory mission at the start of [President] Montenegro’s term of office in 1966.” The years of 1966 to 1968 saw the “bloody defeat” of the FAR and an “institutionalization” of the counterinsurgent terror. Guatemala reversed previous policies and began to introduce the latest military hardware with the help of the United States as well as tactics being deployed in Vietnam by the Americans. With this influx of knowledge, the period in question (1966-1968) saw the most intense forms of counterterrorism that would not be rivaled until the 1980s, out of scope for this paper. This turnaround is attributed to the wealth which Guatemala was coming into in the early 1960s in the form of nickel and petroleum, which often took the form of foreign capital exploiting the natural resources for export – and usually concentrated in areas of guerrilla resistance. The 1970s witnessed a concentration and consolidation of power “suggest[ing],” according to Peralta, “that the use of terror for social and political pacification has perhaps become a structural feature of the class domination exercised by the Guatemalan state.”

The consolidation of the Guatemalan “counterinsurgency state” came in waves. As suggested above, if 1968 saw the “bloody defeat” of the FAR, then public violence after that date was merely for show. The first wave was the initial repression from 1966-1968. The second wave came from 1968 until the election of Colonel Carlos Arana in 1970. The third wave began as President Arana reimposed the state of siege on 13 November, 1970, with the work of “communist subversion” the excuse. This wave consisted of massive censorship, illegal search and seizure, selective (instead of mass) killing of political and labor leaders. In general, the third wave was less violent than the first two. The third wave ended because it achieved its objectives – a point to be refuted by Suzanne Jonas. The fourth wave began in 1974 under Laugerud and ended in 1978. It was not clear at this time, but the Guatemalan waves of terror were quickly destabilizing the region. The waves were a way to try to consolidate the regimes, but this failed in 1982 when the government of Lucas is overthrown by the ruthless Ríos Montt. The guerrillas responded to the waves of terror with increasing ferocity as the years passed. The “climate of terror” changed and hardened, but civil disobedience continued in the forms of strikes and violence. Peralta could not tell in 1980, but the middle-class, whom Huntington warned may not be a reliable factor in the democratization of a nation18, began to steadily favor and collude with the military to disastrous consequences.


Like Peralta, Suzanne Jonas recognizes the importance of class as a factor in the counterinsurgent repression in Guatemala, but concedes that other factors (ethnicity, gender) are incorporating factors. Jonas sees the rise of what she termed “the counterinsurgency state” to be a class of an “87 percent majority” (Indians, campesinos, petty bourgeois, etc.) against a highly trained, highly funded, and ethnically immune state of terror. Like each writer, 1954 plays a significant role in the analysis of current Guatemalan civil and political life. This will be important to remember as we move ahead, although its specific emphasis will not be discussed here. Because Jonas is working with an extra decade (her book was published in 1991), I will tweak the parameters of the study of the rise of the counterinsurgency state. For all intents and purposes, the “counterinsurgent state” as we know it didn’t come to fruition until 1982, after Peralta published her initial findings.

The rise of the guerrilla movement precipitated the rise of the military consolidation in Guatemala from 1966 to 1981 – but became a counterinsurgency state following the coup of 1982. Jonas believes the rise of the guerrillas in the 1960s were in response to “the class alliance underlying the counterrevolution [of 1954]. The militarization of politics permitted the Guatemalan bourgeoisie and foreign investors to rule indirectly [forming a] top-down, authoritarian mentality that…excluded participation of all kind.” Economic inequality, the expansion of coffee and sugar production leading to the semi-proletarianization of rural workers, the rise of urban shanty towns and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 all contributed to the guerrilla mindset. This led to the formation of political parties and, eventually, the formation of FAR, the military wing of the rebellion. Like Peralta, Jonas emphasizes the US role in Guatemala’s early waves of terror. “US training, bomber planes, napalm, radar detection devices, and other sophisticated technology was decisive in smashing the insurgency,” Jonas writes, mentioning how observers recognized traits in Guatemalan army that originated in the Green Berets in Vietnam. Where Peralta’s “waves of terror,” in a sense, constituted some form of consolidation, Jonas is not quick to agree.

To all appearances, after the mid-1960s, politics had become the institutionalization of terror and resistance; ‘normal’ politics ceased, and the counterinsurgency army took over control of the state apparatus and marginalized the entire political system. Beneath the surface, this political model entered into a long-range crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. The nub of this crisis lay in the coercive character of formal politics and the virtual absence of consensual structures.

While the 1970s were a period of “economic growth,” the fortunes of few and the disasters of “modernization” and “deindustrialization” on the poor gave pause to the elite, who decided that stability must be achieved and backed the counter-military coup of 23 March, 1982.24

The forms under which Jóse Ríos Montt ruled were similar to the military rule after the victories of 1968. The consolidation of the counterinsurgency state had been underway for almost two decades. For Jonas, the “counterinsurgency state” “combines the traditional authoritarian-oligarchical state with the institutionalized apparatus created and imposed by the United States in the 1960s to prevent ‘another Cuba.’” Its goals, according to Jonas, were formation of a class-based corporate state, the annihilation of the insurgents, and (oddly enough) a pluralistic state with eventual civilian control. It’s tactics were scorched-earth – the destruction of entire villages resulting in massive casualties – with the entire population a target. The state guatemala se busca rios montt(and paramilitaries) were notorious human rights abusers. The consolidation of Guatemala was often accomplished under the calls of “genocide.” Jonas emphasizes this importance of public violence, which were “deliberately public in order to terrorize the entire population into abandoning its demands for social justice,” namely the atrocities at Panzós in 1978, when the military shot 100 dead in a peaceful protest against evictions of peasants, and the burning alive of 39 Nebaj peasants alive, protesting military repression in their village, in the Spanish Embassy in January of 1980. According to Robert Holden, “The killing’s great catalyst, advocate, and consolidator, was the modern state.”

The people of Guatemala, overwhelmingly indigenous, suffered the most.

There is no more painful chapter in the history of modern Guatemala than the events of 1980-1983. At the human level, it is a tale of wholesale slaughter and genocide by the new death squads, the counterinsurgent security forces, this time carrying out illegal violence themselves, without the facade of legal constraints. That this holocaust was almost unknown and unimagined in most Western countries, certainly in the United States, is a testament to the ‘great silence’ about Guatemala – an indifferent, at times complicitous silence, perhaps because the victims were overwhelmingly Indians.

When Lucas is overthrown, with the support of the Reagan administration, who wanted to restore aid to Guatemala, Jonas argues consolidation was complete – and in 1990, it looks to be never-ending as the war would last another six years. Violence was supposed to subsist after 1985, when civilian rule was reinstated and a new constitution was passed, which guaranteed the superiority of the military and gave it complete impunity. However, it did not take long until Guatemalans witnessed the continuation of violence in the form of periodic razing of villages in 1987 or incredible statements by the Guatemalan military, such as, “we are reversing Clausewitz: Here, politics is the continuation of war by other means.” The guerrillas did not stop after 1978 or 1985 or into the 1990s. And neither did the repression. The counterinsurgency state survived Jonas and became a useful tool for studying Central America from the 1960s until the 1990s. The Guatemalan example remained the most clear. Through the “fracture the very bases of the communal structure and of ethnic unity, [and] destroying the factors of reproduction of culture and the possibilities of survival,” Guatemala’s state reigned supreme.


Rachel May, the author of “’Surviving All Change is Your Destiny:’ Violence and Popular Movements in Guatemala,” feels that in order for one to understand the amount of blood shed in Guatemala over the thirty year civil war, one must follow the nature of political violence in Central America and its use as currency rather than just a mere reaction to insurgent violence. “Because the notion of ‘democracy’ is inextricably linked to efforts of peace and reconciliation,” she writes, “it is logical to analyze the relationship between violence and popular movements – arguably the most important examples of democratic institutions in the region.” May, writing in 1999, has the foresight of the entire civil war, which ended officially in 1996. She follows the logic of Peralta and Jonas, although stressing new forms of resistance while chronicling further governmental despotism in the early 1990s.

After the 1978 Massacre at Panzos

After the 1978 Massacre at Panzos

The rise of the guerrillas punctuated the rise of the military and paramilitary groups that would terrorize the country for decades. May looks stringently at the “rural/campesino popular organizations” which were affected by the counterinsurgency state by “internal political structure…mobilization strategies…and ideologies and tactics.” They rose against the 1954 coup and the further consolidation in the 1960s. May asserts, however, that the growing pangs for insurrection created autonomous, flexible bands of campesinos, “perhaps more democratic when confronted with violence,” that challenged the rigidity of the state. The guerrilla movement was not rural in origin, but adopted itself as a vanguard of the rural people’s. May believes the foco theory was extremely debilitating and only drew the ire of the military. Even in the 1970s, May states that the “most significant labor dispute was the teachers’ strike of 1972.” May saw the campesino response to violence as mixed, depending on the nature with which the counterinsurgency state employed its guns (violent organizations would sometimes protest peacefully and docile groups would often resort to violence). For May, the organizing of the 1960s was too mired in traditional Central American forms of expression. However, the waves of activity in the 1980s, such as the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP), while still influenced by Marx, used “its indigenista focus…to create a much broader rural/indigenous support base than had been established in the 1960s.”

From the perceived threats from the guerrillas, “the armed forces initiated their own violent response. This situation evolved into a dialectic between popular sectors and counterinsurgency.” In a sweep larger than Peralta and Jonas, May divides the conflict into two “cycles:” the first from 1958 to 1972; the other from 1972 to 1985. Both cycles “culminated in authoritative (state-sponsored) reactionary terror.” May emphasizes the 1955 labor code that pent up the workers’ anger against the state, which began with the election of Miguel Ydígoras in 1958, as one of the sources for this cycle of violence. From the ineffectual strokes, the MR-13 was formed in 1963, the PGT rose to prominence in the city’s of Guatemala, and eventually the FAR was born. But it’s goals were short-sighted and illusionary. It did not take long – by 1970 the FAR was eliminated – to dispose of the guerrilla threat. The military then became “an internally cohesive institution with an anticommunist agenda and an ever-expanding budget.” With the rise of the EGP and other community and grassroots groups, the violence of 1978 to 1982 (under Gen. Romeo Lucas) were the “bloodiest in recent Guatemalan history.” Targeted assassinations and kidnappings, torture and disappearings of leftist citizens – of which, the United States was fully aware of. The rise of the military state came to realization upon the backs of young Guatemalans.

These two cycles above display the audacity of the “counterinsurgency state” – forgoing the brief guerrilla bouts, the consolidation of the military rule began unheeded from 1958 until the war was brought to an end. Its means of holding power – reactionary terror. To May, this does not mean that the military was acting blindly or safeguarding the people. The “reactionary” she implies, is calculated and for the benefit of the ruling class – which during this time, was increasing the military establishment. So the military came to rely, as described by May, on paramilitary forces to continue the violence (between 1966 and 1970 alone, 8000 people were the victim of paramilitary violence). Despite the delegitimizing nature of public violence by 1985, when the military stepped down, the violence that concerned Jonas (her book ended in 1991) continued into the elections of 1990 and 1995, with political killings and human rights abuses by armed forces increasing. The control of the military, in May’s analysis, rested upon tacit United States supports as well as military and paramilitary terror.

The rebel response to the “end” of military control in 1985 and the signing of the peace accords and subsequent truth commission in 1996, is positive. May believes that:

The adaptations made by Guatemalan popular organizations demonstrate a positive resolve for democratic institutions that is very hopeful. Ironically, the institutionalized terror in which it emerged gave their members a particularly meaningful and profound experience of democratic participation.

In this way, May sees how the civil war came to an end – much different than how it began. The rise of the “counterinsurgency state” was precipitated on the guerrilla threat, a threat that struggled with mass mobilization and was easily targeted due to factionalism and regionalism. As the military became the only source of power in the 1960s and 1970s, it would take a new movement in the 1980s, along with the overall destabilization of Central America, to force the status quo from power. The public violence would have a disastrous effect on civil society, yet,

in the long term, popular organizations have reemerged, and each time they have been better adapted to violence and possessed of a more practical and more radical long-term strategy for changing the country’s political, social and economic structure. That is, they have become more effective and pragmatically revolutionary over time.


Military kept detailed lists of leftists, often for assassination

Military kept detailed lists of leftists, often for assassination

The inherent difficulty in comparing and contrasting the three views on the rise and response to the “counterinsurgency state” is their distance apart in years of publication. Peralta published in 1980, Jonas in 1991, and May in 1999. Two decades pass and the pictures grows larger with each year. First, all three believe the roots of the conflict lie in the events of 1954. Yet because the years are spread apart, the diversity of “waves” emphasized by Peralta (four in a decade) were reduced in number and greater in scope by the time of May’s analysis (two spanning three decades). All three found time to agree on the fundamentals of the class analysis of the violence. All three would acknowledge other factors (May more adamantly than others) but agreed that class antagonisms and extreme inequality all played a crucial role in both guerrilla and government narrative of the war. Each also sees the the disabilities of the FAR and the first round of guerrilla conflict, as well as the limitations of the foco theory.

But it was not all the same. Because of the years apart, the distinctions between the authors were quite pronounced – not just in the years of publication, but often on the framework of their contributions. There is debate on the what caused the cessation of violence. Peralta believed, in 1980, that “the regime brought the terror to a halt because it had accomplished its basic objectives.” Jonas disagrees with this. For her, the violence does not end, as the objective never ends. She saw all forms of violence (especially latter violence in the highlands) as the military “fractur[ing] the very bases of the communal structure and of ethnic unity, destroying the factors of reproduction of culture and the possibilities of survival.” The violence in the community and the seizing of land and destruction of culture never brought the tolls of the war to rest. Jonas also believes the objectives never end because of the hampering of indigenous autonomy and the government intrusion into regional markets. As mentioned above, May gives heavy weight to the indigenous elements of the conflict – both their role in the racist assumptions made by the state and their role in the organization of resistance in the 1980s. This has more to do with scholarship trends and her foresight into the conflict as it had ended, but nevertheless, the agency with which she describes the campesinos during the civil war goes beyond the approaches by Peralta and Jonas. May also expands on the role of public violence and the messages it deliberately sends to certain groups, whereas the older articles do not explore the “terror” aspect deep enough. The role of the United States also gets more illuminated as the years go by, yet Jonas is probably the most critical of the US role in the region than even May, who wrote after the war had ended.


Inherently the most thought-out and reasoned argument was the book length account of the civil war by Susanne Jonas. Yet, the most successful aspect of my entire study on the topic is the indigenous perspective offered by Rachel May. Peralta’s work is the least useful, but only because it is outdated. Structurally, Peralta’s work may be the most detailed article as she began the arduous task of differentiating the “waves” of violence from the 1960s to 1980. Both works mention Peralta (Jonas pulls handily from her work beyond the article selected for my study). Her examination of class and violence is incredibly useful for beginning a conversation about the nature of Guatemalan violence, but is overshadowed by Jonas and May. Jonas’ strength lies in her format – the book. She expands the thesis that the conflict began in 1954 further than either author, mainly because she had unlimited space. Jonas writes technically yet fluently; this is both a strength, in that reader can feel the emotion she brings to the work, and a weakness, as the reader may not understand some of the complexities. Class analysis, by no means wrong, is also both a strength and weakness for Peralta and Jonas. May succeeds in her blend of class and indigenous narrative. It became apparent that each paper is a building block, a chain stretching back to 1980. Each scholar builds upon the other as new evidence arises and scholarly interests change.

Gaudencio Atz Apir holds a photograph of himself with his wife Maria Natalia Alvarez Ajobal before she was hung in 1981 by the Guatemalan Army during a massacre in Pachay las Lomas village in Chimaltenago, Guatemala

Gaudencio Atz Apir holds a photograph of himself with his wife Maria Natalia Alvarez Ajobal before she was hung in 1981 by the Guatemalan Army during a massacre in Pachay las Lomas village in Chimaltenago, Guatemala

To grasp the rise and response of the “counterinsurgency state” in Guatemala, one will need to see class, violence and indigenous influence. Like other countries in Latin America during the 1960s, the economic conditions of the (indigenous) people may have tipped the scales for insurrection in Guatemala, but the movement morphed into something beyond the simple discourses of dialectical materialism and crude outlines of Marxist-Leninism. The movement against the “counterinsurgency state” in the late-1960s and 1970s was lost because it was not enough to unify on class terms. Lacking in the analysis of this period are: the role of Indian identity and consciousness in the 1960s (was it hidden behind the glow of, the myth of, mestizaje, or alive but organizationally suppressed?) and a more definite analysis of the US role in the formation of the Guatemalan “counterinsurgency state.” With the release of formerly classified documents this month, the Guatemalan nightmare is only beginning to be understood, especially in terms of US knowledge and acquiescence to paramilitary terror during the Reagan years. The chronological order in which this subject was researched provided the building blocks into developing one’s theory on the rise and response to the emergence of acceptable public violence and the formation of the “counterinsurgency state.” The rebel transfer from a foco-based peasant rebellion into an indigenous, 87 percent majority national movement, caught the ire of the military and upper-class elites, who developed a society around the repression of its people, those who happened to look different than they did. It would be only after considerable amounts of blood was shed (200,000 lives) that the tides would turn – the indigenous Indians have not taken back what had been stolen, but somehow, they did stop the bloodshed.


~ by Daniel on June 9, 2009.

3 Responses to “Today in the Americas, Guatemala's Counterinsurgency State”

  1. […] Networks Today in the Americas, Guatemala’s Counterinsurgency State […]

  2. […] Guatemala is still trying to reach true democratic reforms after the three decade long civil war. READ MORE => Tags: Jose Efraín Ríos Montt PUBLICAR UN […]

  3. […] Guatemala would bounce in and out of shitty military brats before settling in March 1958 on Jose Ydígoras. Due to his rule, some army officers rebelled in 1960, beginning el movimiento armado del 13 de noviembre and the brutal 36 year civil war. […]

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