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Thunder in the City: Stories From the Urban Guerrilla Movement in Guatemala, 1981

Cover photo: CIRMA

By José Cruz/El Pensativo — 

Mario Payeras recounts in sober style the dramatic story of the defeat of the urban guerrilla front of the Guatemalan Army of the Poor (EGP – Ejército Guatemalteco de los Pobres) in 1981, when two opposed military philosophies squared off in the streets of Guatemala City, sometimes clumsily, sometimes explosively.

The government army was supported by Argentine and Israeli intelligence, financed by the US government through allies like the Taiwanese military dictatorship, and led by generals who systematized a counter-insurgency strategy that deployed ferocious tactics against their own people. It eventually succeeded in protecting the privileges of the old oligarchy and the new military caste. This reactionary alliance aimed to defeat the urban front of the EGP, a guerrilla structure that, like all those of the URNG (National Revolutionary Unit of Guatemala – Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca), developed its conspiratory methods, tactical training, discipline regimen, operational strategy, and overall orientation from an uncritical assimilation of the Cuban experience.

Mario’s analyses of this and other chapters in the guerrillas’ struggle, in this book as well as another of his major works, The Rifles of October, constitute the most serious and enlightening questioning of the conceptual and ideological foundations of the Guatemalan left’s actions during the 70s and 80s. Payeras provides the keys to understanding the failure of the guerrillas’ revolutionary project. Confronting the political and military power of the plantation state with a military apparatus detached from the political action of the masses was an effort in superhuman heroism that could not, on its own, lead to victory. This is the book’s  fundamental lesson.

Even today Mario’s critical theory evokes reactions saturated with displeasure and contempt. In their moment, criticisms from Mario and his compatriots of the Octubre Revolucionario movement, which broke away from the EGP in 1984 for philisophical reasons, represented a radical commitment to moral consistency, courage, and seriousness  because they focused on self-criticism and the movement’s own errors. Today they remain a central contribution to the necessary but still incomplete examination of the proper role and direction of the Guatemalan left.

Rereading these pages fills me with nostalgia for the certainties that compelled so many to risk everything for the sake of revolution. The sacrifice and will to fight, the secrecy and the renunciation of any hope of a normal life, the faith through the intensest tests of revolutionary values, the inspiration gained from models of successful socialism, the solidarity between ordinary people and our compatriots were all real and indisputable. But in this new century they have evaporated into mist. New collections of the works of Mario Payeras have appeared just in time.

Yes, we lost. The lust for gold and its bloody brillance triumphed. With the defeat of the revolutionaries everyone lost, including those naive victors who proclaim victory after victory in invasion after invasion, as the rich hoard more and the poor suffer dearly in a global whirlwind of greed. They call it globalization and the free market. Their spokesmen call themselves liberals as in their zeal for theft they appropriate even our vocabulary. They calculate how long the oil will last, while we ask how long the injustice will last.

And we see that the problems of the city that he described still exist; inequality, racism, pollution, and violence are still problems without solutions. It is fundamentally important to study, analyze, and understand the successes and the failures of those who have already tried.