Explore The western highlands
High up in the Cuchumatanes, in a landscape of steep hills, bowl-shaped valleys and gushing rivers, is the Ixil region. Here Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal, three remote and extremely traditional towns, share a language spoken nowhere else in the country. These lush, rain-drenched highlands are hard to reach and have proved notoriously difficult to control, and today’s relaxed atmosphere of highland Maya colour and customs conceals a bitter history of protracted conflict.
The beauty of the landscape and the strength of indigenous culture in the Ixil are both overwhelming. When church leaders moved into the area in the 1970s, they found very strong communities in which the people were reluctant to accept new authority for fear that it would disrupt traditional structures, and where women were included in decision-making. Counterbalancing these strengths are the horrors of the human rights abuses that took place here during the civil war, which must rate as some of the worst anywhere in Central America. Despite this terrible legacy, however, the fresh green hills are some of the most beautiful in the country, and the towns are friendly and accommodating, with a relaxed and distinctive atmosphere in a misty world of their own.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, Nebaj was a sizeable centre, producing large quantities of jade. The Conquest was particularly brutal in these parts, however. After several setbacks, the Spaniards finally managed to take Nebaj in 1530, by which time they were so enraged that the settlement was burnt to the ground and the survivors enslaved as punishment. Things didn’t improve with the coming of independence: the Ixil people were regarded as a source of cheap labour and forced to work on the coastal plantations. Many never returned, and even today large numbers of local people still migrate to the coast, Guatemala City and the US in search of work.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the area was hit by waves of horrific violence as it became the main theatre of operation for the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. Since the 1996 peace accords, normality steadily returned to the area, as villagers have returned to their ancestral settlements and rebuilt their homes.
Guerrilla warfare in the Ixil
Guerrilla warfare in the Ixil
The bitter civil war of the 1970s and 1980s ravaged the western highlands, and left the Ixil devastated by the conflict between the Guatemalan army and the insurgent Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (the EGP, or Guerrilla Army of the Poor). By 1996, when the guerrilla war officially ended, nearly all of the region’s smaller villages had been destroyed and fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people had been killed, with thousands more displaced. Most of the victims were villagers, dying not because of their political beliefs but because they had been caught between the army and the EGP, who saw the creation of a liberated zone in the Ixil as the springboard to national revolution. Investigations later found the Guatemalan military responisble for of over ninety per cent of civilian deaths in the Ixil.
The 1970s: the rise of the EGP
The EGP first entered the area in 1972, when a small group of guerrilla fighters crossed the Mexican border and began building links with locals, impressing some villagers with plans for political and social revolution. The guerrillas opened their military campaign in 1975 with the assassination of Luis Arenas, a finca owner from near Chajul, who employed hundreds of labourers under a system of debt bondage. The EGP shot Arenas in front of hundreds of his employees as he was counting the payroll. According to the group, workers joined them with cries of “Long live the poor, death to the rich”. But other accounts describe how people walked for days to pay their last respects to Arenas.
These actions prompted a huge response from the armed forces, who began killing, kidnapping and torturing suspected guerrillas and sympathizers. The EGP was already well entrenched, however, and by late 1978 was regularly occupying villages, holding open meetings and tearing down debtors’ jails. In January 1979 they killed another local landowner, Enrique Brol, of Finca San Francisco near Cotzal. On the same day, the EGP also briefly took control of Nebaj itself, summoning the whole of the town’s population, as well as Western travellers, to the central plaza, where they denounced the barbaric inequalities of life in the Ixil.
The army responded with a wave of horrific attacks on the civilian population. Army units swept through the area, committing atrocities, burning villages and massacring thousands. Nevertheless, the strength of the guerrillas continued to grow, and in 1981 they again launched an attack on Nebaj, by then a garrison town. Shortly afterwards the army chief of staff, Benedicto Lucas García (the president’s brother), flew into Nebaj to threaten locals that if they didn’t “clean up their act” he’d bring five thousand men “and finish off the entire population”.
The army changed its tactics under new president Ríos Montt, using anti-Communist propaganda and conscripted civilian patrols (PACs) to ensure the loyalty of the people. Villagers were given ancient rifles and told to protect their communities from guerrillas. The army swept through the Ixil, razed fifty villages to the ground and settled the displaced in new “model” communities. With the EGP retreating to more remote terrain, Ixil people began to adapt to the army’s newfound dominance, many opting to reject contact with the guerrillas.
Hit hard, the EGP responded with desperate acts. On June 6, 1982, guerrillas stopped a bus near Cotzal and executed thirteen civil patrol leaders and their wives; eleven days later a guerrilla column entered the village of Chacalté, where the civil patrol had been particularly active, and killed a hundred people.
The army’s offer of amnesty soon drew refugees out of the mountains: between 1982 and 1984 some 42,000 people turned themselves in, fleeing a harsh existence under guerrilla protection. Others returned after years spent living like nomads, hunting animals in the jungles of the Ixcán to the north. By 1985 the guerrillas had been driven back into a handful of mountain strongholds.
Skirmishes continued until the mid-1990s, but ceased with the signing of peace accords. Since then, ex-guerrillas and former civil patrollers have resettled the old village sites and communities have been rebuilt.