Breaking the Silence

The woman on the 25-cent coin and other voices from Guatemala’s genocide

Photo: Concepción Ramírez, the woman on the 25-cent coin.
By Natali Kepes Cárdenas, Founder and Director, REACH

On Guatemala’s 25-cent coin is the face of Concepción Ramírez, from the Maya Tz’utujil town of Santiago Atitlán. She was paid just two quetzales to become the only indigenous person on the currency of a country that is over 40 percent indigenous; she is literally Guatemala’s “token” indigenous person.

Her father and husband were murdered during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, during which 200,000 people were killed, over a million people were displaced, and countless innocent bystanders were raped, tortured, widowed, orphaned, traumatized, and robbed of their land and possessions.

Ramírez’s town suffered one of the war’s last massacres. Here is her testimony, translated from Maya Tz’utujil. It is part of a campaign by REACH (Research-Education-Action-Change) to collect testimony from survivors of Guatemala’s genocide to better understand the enduring consequences of the war and survivors’ opinions about what kind of support they need now to overcome these consequences. This campaign and its findings are discussed below.

I am my father’s oldest daughter. He was a pastor, a great man. When I was 17 years old, he was setting up a potable water system when he found out that some people were looking for a person to pose in profile for a picture for the 25-cent coin and he came to tell me to go with him. That day many people arrived, but I was chosen by the president who was in power from 1963-1966, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes.  

Before, there was tranquility. There was light and electricity in the town, human light and electricity. When the soldiers came, everyone locked themselves up in their houses. They tortured people for money. The first victim was my father. He was a pastor. He was tortured in Chacaya. They kidnapped and shot him. They said that he was the leader of the guerrillas. They found his body in Agua Escondida.

They killed my husband, Miguel Angel Mendoza. They tortured him alongside two other people, Juan Pablo and Gregorio. The day that they killed my husband, I was making tortillas when they came to tell me. I ran downstairs to see what had happened. When I saw his body, I couldn’t look at his face because he had been severely tortured. I just remember that I fainted. He was a hardworking man, a businessman. According to what people say, they killed him because when they told him to get off a bus he began to scream and ask why, telling them that he was just trying to get to work.

The soldiers came to threaten us and tell us not to cry or say anything else because the same thing would happen to us. They didn’t let me cry for my husband. I had to swallow my tears and my pain. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have any money. There was a lot of poverty. I didn’t have an education and I went door to door asking for odd jobs. We suffered without a head of household. I couldn’t provide my children with an education, which is a disgrace for a family. There were many repercussions.

They had announced that if we heard the bells that something bad had happened, and that is why many people came when they rang the bells the night of the massacre. Others, like me, locked themselves up. The next day, we found out what had happened. That morning was very difficult. It was like the end of the world. There was nothing that could console us. You couldn’t see the sun. It was a day of mourning. The whole town rose up after that night. We all signed a document to get the soldiers thrown out. We handed over the photos of people who had been murdered, kidnapped, disappeared. When we found out that the soldiers had gone, there was a great sense of calm, but in the end I am still scared.

Parque de la Paz (Park of Peace), on the site of the massacre in Santiago Atitlán. Photo courtesy of REACH.

As human beings we are easily overwhelmed by the staggering numbers of the conflict; studies show that we lose empathy when considering hundreds of thousands of victims, rather than the personal narratives of individuals.

Survivors’ voices are often lost when academics and journalists attempt to narrate the brutality and consequences of atrocities in broad strokes. (They are also belittled and ignored by those who still deny that a genocide took place, but that is a story for another day.) Further, development projects have sometimes sought to support survivors without taking into account the survivors’ own ideas about the support they need.

That’s why REACH gathered testimony from 125 survivors of the Guatemalan genocide to better understand their suffering and perseverance, the enduring consequences of the war, and what kind of assistance survivors think can best help them and their communities overcome these consequences.

Following Guatemala’s 1996 Peace Accords, the United Nations-backed Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) found that while guerrilla groups were responsible for numerous kidnappings and killings, the U.S.-backed military and government-backed paramilitary groups (including the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, or PACs) were responsible for the vast majority of the 200,000 killings, as well as for 626 massacres. 83 percent of the victims found to be indigenous Mayans. The CEH stated that the “violence was fundamentally directed by the State against the excluded, the poor and above all, the Mayan people, as well as against those who fought for justice and greater social equality.” Women were especially vulnerable and the CEH found that they were systematically targeted for rape, torture, murder, or mutilation by soldiers or paramilitaries.

Tens of thousands of children were left without their parents, and tens of thousands of women were left without their husbands. Over a million Guatemalans were displaced, migrating internally and abroad, especially to Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Those who remained in rural areas were often forced to join local PACs, which the military designed to undermine traditional community structures and destroy the social fabric of indigenous communities.

Plaque in the Park of Peace in Santiago Atitlán. Photo courtesy of REACH.

Following the war, this continued to create rifts in communities, as victims were forced to live with perpetrators of the genocide. Meanwhile, the lack of legal proceedings against human rights abusers perpetuated a culture of violence and impunity. The resulting mistrust of state authorities and rule of law prevails to this day, apparent in expulsions of police and lynchings of suspected criminals.

REACH analyzed a Recuperación de Memoria Histórica (REMHI) database on massacres to select for study three majority indigenous communities that experienced high rates of violence under very different circumstances: El Limonar, Jacaltenango, Huehuetenango; Santiago Atitlán, Sololá; and Joyabaj, Quiché. In addition to desk research and in-depth life story interviews with 125 survivors of the civil war, REACH designed a survey to collect both qualitative and quantitative data on human rights abuses and their lasting effects, as well as the types of support survivors most desire.

REACH encourages organizations to base their projects on the needs of communities as expressed by their members, and encourages individuals to learn about their history through the voices of those who lived it.

REACH’s research found that the civil war created many lasting consequences in indigenous communities, including poverty and underdevelopment caused by interruption of schooling and destruction of infrastructure; the emotional and economic consequences of the loss of loved ones; the social and economic effects of forced displacement and land grabs; and the lasting psychological and physical effects of rape, kidnapping, torture, physical attacks, threats, and witnessing violence.

Today, Santiago Atitlán, Sololá, the home of Concepción Ramirez, is a major tourist attraction on the shores of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. But in 1990, it was the scene of one of the last massacres of Guatemala’s civil war, in which 14 unarmed people, including children, were killed when soldiers fired on a peaceful gathering outside of a military base. Although the community had long been plagued by violence and attempts to divide its populace, its inhabitants bravely maintained unity after the massacre and successfully lobbied for the removal of the army and the police.

Of the 50 people interviewed in Santiago Atitlán, 66 percent were women and 34 percent were men. 71 percent reported that a family member had been killed during the civil war, 58 percent were threatened, 33 percent witnessed a massacre, 31 percent were forcibly displaced, 24 percent were violently attacked, 11 percent were kidnapped, another 11 percent were robbed of land or possessions, and seven percent were tortured.

Eighty-two percent reported that they still suffered from the loss of a loved one killed during the civil war, 80 percent continued to suffer from emotional trauma, 76 percent still felt fearful, 37 percent continued to feel the effects of loss of land or other belongings, 11 percent experienced community disintegration, another 11 percent continued to suffer from war-related health issues or disabilities, and seven percent still felt the consequences of halting their studies due to the war.

Just 12 percent had received economic reparations. Six percent had received educational services, and two percent had received psychological services.

The types of individual assistance that respondents said would best help them overcome the lasting effects of the conflict were economic reparations (47 percent), medical services (44 percent), psychological counseling (42 percent), education (38 percent), land or housing (22 percent), community reconciliation (11 percent), legal justice (nine percent), and the return of land stolen from them during the war (seven percent).

The types of community projects that respondents said would best help included assistance in creating and/or growing craft businesses and exporting their crafts (35 percent), housing (16 percent), education (14 percent), direct economic assistance to needy people (12 percent), psychological services (ten percent), medical services and agricultural technical assistance (both eight percent), loans for small businesses (six percent), and programs for the elderly (four percent).

REACH found similar results in El Limonar, Jacaltenango, Huehuetenango, a small community close to the Mexican border that experienced a high rate of violence, displacement, and migration to Mexico. There was a fracturing of the community, both between people who joined the PACs and those victimized by them, as well as between inhabitants who stayed in El Limonar and those who returned after fleeing to México.

42 percent of the 50 people interviewed in El Limonar were women, 58 percent were male. Fifty-four percent reported that they lost family members to violence during the civil war, 39 percent were forcibly displaced, 36 percent were violently attacked, 32 percent were threated, 32 percent witnessed a massacre, 14 percent were tortured, 14 percent were robbed of land and/or possessions, and four percent were kidnapped.

Regarding the lasting effects of the genocide, 57 percent reported that they still experienced fear, 46 percent reported that the war had prevented them from continuing their studies, 37 percent reported that they still suffered from the loss of loved ones, 34 percent reported effects of emotional trauma, 29 percent reported enduring consequences of the loss of land or other personal property, 26 reported persisting disintegration of the community, and nine percent reported that they suffered from an ongoing illness or disability as a result of the war.

Just 12 percent of those interviewed in El Limonar reported that they had received some form of economic reparation. Six percent had received educational assistance, and four percent had received land or housing. When asked about the types of individual assistance that they would like to receive to help them overcome the devastating consequences of the civil war, 58 percent indicated economic reparations, 36 percent indicated psychological counseling, 32 percent indicated legal justice, 26 percent indicated medical services, 23 percent indicated land or housing, and another 23 percent indicated educational assistance.

The types of projects that inhabitants felt would most help the community included potable water projects (56 percent), sewer projects (21 percent), medical services and technical aid with agricultural projects (both 12 percent), support for the municipal government (five percent), and education, housing, infrastructure, and psychological services (all two percent).

This kind of research is necessary both to understand the past, and to work collaboratively for a better future. REACH encourages organizations to base their projects on the needs of communities as expressed by their members, and encourages individuals to learn about their history through the voices of those who lived it.


About REACH: With offices in Guatemala and the United States, REACH works throughout the Americas to advance respect for human and labor rights. REACH has carried out research on human and labor rights violations in the U.S. agricultural sector, coffee harvesting in Mexico and Guatemala, palm oil plantations in Ecuador and Guatemala, illegal mining in Colombia and Peru, and the seafood sector in Ecuador. REACH also carries out annual research on labor law and violations in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. REACH is currently carrying out a 30-month project to improve recruitment and working conditions in the Guatemalan coffee sector, in partnership with the U.S. based international labor rights organization Verité, and with funding from Keurig Green Mountain and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Activities carried out by REACH for this project include hundreds of in-depth worker interviews to build understanding of labor issues and workers’ needs; trainings of hundreds of workers, government officials, NGO representatives, and coffee producers and traders to build capacity to prevent exploitative labor practices; and implementation of a Grievance Reporting and Information Dissemination (GRID) system giving workers a channel to report labor abuses and obtain information about their rights, as well as referrals to service providers if their rights are violated.


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