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.