The Operation of a Death Squad in San Pedro la Laguna

By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University
& William Demarest

Chapter one

The Long Black Night

Many Pedranos described what happened on the fateful night of September 29, 1980. At 11:00 p.m., Francisco heard someone knock on the door. He thought it was a harmless drunk. When he opened the door, he was seized by armed men dressed as soldiers and wearing masks. Some surrounded the house, while others rushed in and demanded to know where Francisco hid his pistol. Wildly searching everywhere for a nonexistent weapon, they turned the house into a shambles. Francisco directed his wife to produce a bag with $2,000 in cash he had borrowed only a few days earlier from a development bank to help pay for the construction of a new church for his congregation, El Redentor Alianza Cristiana y Misionera. He offered the money to the hooded intruders in return for setting him free. They made off with the money, as well as Francisco, but not before snatching everything else of value—a new pair of boots, clothes, a record player, baskets of bread, four dozen eggs, and two pounds of meat.

"El Ultimo Grito," the last cry. Men wearing traje (the traditional attire) of San Pedro abduct a man at gunpoint. The abductors would have been wearing masks to hide their identity. Painting by Mario González Chavajay, 2013. Collection: Arte Maya Tz'utujil.

As the men marched off on the road to the neighboring town of San Juan la Laguna, they encountered a truck returning in the night to San Pedro. They halted the vehicle and relieved the driver and his helper of their watches and some items of food. Not until next day did the Pedrano truckers realize that the band had Francisco with them.

As soon as the men left town with their captive, Francisco's wife ran to the municipal building to tell the guards on duty what had happened. The guards were stunned; nothing like this had occurred before. it was thought that Francisco had been dragged off to Santa Clara la Laguna, the town above San Juan la Laguna. A relative of Francisco with army experience and connections went to ask the colonel in command of the military post in Santa Clara to help find the captive. The commander promised that he would make inquiries in the capital and that the man would be released if he was in the custody of the army, but nothing came of it. It was doubtful, the colonel concluded, that Francisco was being held by the army. Nor was the body ever located. For a while there was a vague rumor that it had been abandoned in Nahualá. Francisco's father went to Sololá to inspect a corpse that might have been his son's. It was not.

When asked why Francisco was a target for abduction, Pedrano informants came up with several possible reasons. First, because Francisco had openly objected to the presence of policemen in San Pedro and of soldiers stationed in the vicinity, and because he had cheered the guerrillas when they appeared in San Pedro, secret informers had doubtless turned in his name as a "subversive." In the second place, he was a prominent member of a rural cooperative. In the third place, he was sometimes seen boarding a bus early in the morning to sell his freshly baked bread, and some may have suspected him of secretly provisioning guerrillas in the hills.

"El Panadero, Nahuala" The painting depicts a baker in the nearby town of Nahuala. Painting by Matías González Chavajay, 1992.

The same wrenching scenario—a nighttime knock on the door, a capture, a vain effort to find the victim or his body—was replayed in San Pedro again and again over the next two years. People slept fitfully, fearing the sound of a footfall and finally blessing the arrival of dawn.

At the outset people assumed that the kidnapping was the work of the army, but when the third man was hauled off, it became evident that San Pedro's own military commissioners were responsible, or at least deeply implicated. Disguises and cover of night did not prevent victims' families from overhearing snatches of Tzutuhil, the local Maya language, or recognizing the voices of particular Pedranos. As time went on and the commissioners became drunk with power—and with liquor as well—their tongues loosened, divulging details within earshot of other tavern patrons, who channeled the news through the town's gossip circuits. But knowing who were responsible was not enough to dispel the darkness of what became, in one Pedrano's words, an endless noche negra ("black night").

The commissioners played a duplicitous game, doing their dirty work by night, posing as protectors by day. They feigned a guerrilla presence by firing shots and setting off bombs after dark. They painted ORPA and other guerrilla signs on walls, and they scattered guerrilla-type leaflets around. They ordered a six o'clock curfew. When it suited their purposes, they made the town electrician turn off the switch of the central power plant. Their rule was unabridged. One informant overheard a conversation in which the chief of the army reserves assured two of the local commissioners that they wielded maximum authority and could overrule the mayor of San Pedro. They had guns; the mayor did not.

On two occasions the commissioners alerted the army to a supposedly impending guerrilla attack and told people living near the forested mountainside, in the higher part of town, to leave their homes. The army landed troops on the shore beyond San Pedro. In a pincer movement the soldiers converged on the area above town, but there were no guerrillas to be caught. Once an army officer, encountered on the road to Santiago Atitlán, told a Pedrano truck driver that he feared to enter San Pedro because it was reputed to be a hotbed of guerrilla activity and that the army at one point had even considered bombing the town. In fact, however, no guerrilla groups operate in San Pedro territory, which extends up the northern, or lakeside, flank of huge San Pedro Volcano. On the southern or Pacific side of the more distant Atitlán Volcano is where ORPA has its headquarters, under the command of Rodrigo Asturias, son of Miguel Angel Asturias, winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1967, according to the Economist (September 21, 1985, p. 29).

When the San Pedro commissioners staged what was to be their final abduction late in 1982, they tried to throw villagers off their scent by leaving behind two of their own men tied up with ropes to create the impression that the commissioners had fought with guerrillas during the night and had been beaten before the intruders made off with the victim. Actually the gang had disposed of their captive by tying him to a sandbag and sinking him in the lake.

One of the many victims was a woman living in a nearby town. She was fingered by a commissioner who had asked the woman, a seamstress by trade, to sell him on credit two fine skirts for his daughter's wedding. She delivered the skirts and repeatedly asked for payment. Her payment was death. Wearing clothes typical of the town of Santiago Atitlán, the Pedrano commissioner led soldiers to her house at night. He told her to come out. She tried to escape from a window but was killed by machine-gun fire. The identity of the Pedrano is known because the victim's daughter recognized his voice and his tall, portly figure.

We inquired whether the seamstress, like the baker Francisco, might have been blacklisted as a "subversive." Well, yes, we were told. In her travels about the country to sell her clothes, she reportedly attended a gathering in Quirigua to celebrate the second anniversary of the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua. Another "error" she made, we were told, was to collaborate with the director of the short-wave radio station set up in Santiago Atitlán by the priests of Mision Catolica de Oklahoma (Micatokia) to promote adult education in the local Maya language.

The blacklisting of Pedranos apparently began at Christmastime 1979 when one of the three policemen posted to San Pedro two years earlier shot a man from another town who had come to a holiday fair in San Pedro to operate a a Ferris wheel. The policeman was drunk; he fired his gun wildly and killed the man by accident. The people of San Pedro, long accustomed to policing their own community, had been nursing a grudge against the officers for ordering them off the streets and generally pushing them around. Enraged by the shooting incident, a pack of Pedranos assaulted the trigger-happy policeman and chased his companions out of town. The names of those who led the attack, including the baker Francisco, were turned in to the army by informers on the lockout for individuals who showed disrespect for authority.

A number of the victims, however, were doomed for reasons other than presumed disloyalty. Personal vengeance was a recurrent motive. Adolfo killed his brother-in-law in a tavern. The brother-in-law was celebrating the birth of a baby boy. In the midst of a crowd and emboldened by drink, he incautiously accused Adolfo, who was armed, of involvement in the abduction of the baker. In a heated argument, Adolfo drew his pistol and shot the man point-blank in the chest. Adolfo's ire was fueled by more than alcohol and momentary taunts. The son of a poor widow, propertyless Adolfo had long been envious of the advantages his brother-in-law enjoyed as the scion of an intact family of moderate means. It rankled him that his father-in-law, for instance, would pay the son's bar bill but not the son-in-law's.

"Los Bolos," the drunks. Painting by Matías González Chavajay, 1988. Collection: Arte Maya Tz'utujil.

Adolfo argued that he did not kill his brother-in-law. He claimed, implausibly in the opinion of numerous witnesses, that in a scuffle for possession of Adolfo's revolver the other man had accidentally shot himself. The slain man's father refused to press charges, not because he held Adolfo to be innocent but because, as he told us, Adolfo was armed and because he heeded the counsel of the resident nuns, who advised him to pray and let God do the judging. In any case, Adolfo's commissioner status put him beyond reach of punishment. His chief, Jacinto, had only to assure his army superiors that the murdered man was a subversive.

On another occasion, Adolfo was angry when he learned that one of his younger brothers had been mauled by a muscular Pedrano in a bar fight. The injured brother brought charges against his assailant in the local courthouse, and the defendant was ordered to pay for the medical treatment the brother needed. But Adolfo was not satisfied, vowing that the attacker would have to pay more dearly. He did. He was captured by soldiers and became one of the "disappeared" of San Pedro.

By no means was Adolfo the only commissioner to use his office to settle personal scores. One abduction, for example, was explained as a commissioner's retaliation against a man who had married a woman who was formerly the commissioner's wife. Personal animosity was often a compounding factor, not the only cause. Thus one of the commissioners thought to have participated in Francisco's abduction is said to have had personal reasons for vengeance, as though the baker's outspoken stance, along with the reasons already listed, were not enough to spell his doom.

There seems to be little doubt that the army authorities kept a blacklist and that they were responsible for kidnappings in San Pedro. But they could not have acted alone. Insiders had to show soldiers where the targets resided in a large, crowded town with no named streets. And insiders, whether local commissioners or other Pedrano informers, had to supply the names of "subversives" for blacklisting. There can be no doubt that the commissioners collaborated with the army. The army expected them to do so.

Often however, the commissioners acted entirely on their own. In fact, more than one of our informants speculated that the baker was captured not by soldiers but by commissioners disguised as soldiers, that they were not really searching for Francisco's pistol but for his cash, and that their success created a taste for easy money. One of the two ringleaders of this first kidnapping was said to be the same commissioner who later led soldiers to the home of the seamstress who had sold him skirts on credit. That commissioner, the oldest of the group, was characterized by some as the most villainous (el mas picaro) of the lot. It was even suspected that he, and possibly other Pedranos, had a hand in the slaying on July 28, 1981, of Father Stanley Rother, the American priest in charge of the Catholic mission in Santiago Atitlán.

If a commissioner developed misgivings, he could not easily withdraw from the gang. One of our most trustworthy informants recalled that Adolfo had come to him at about the halfway point in the reign of terror. He was obviously worried about something. The two of them, both Protestants, prayed together, and they talked, but Adolfo said only that he was anxious to renounce his commission. He had gone to army headquarters in Huehuetenango and Chichicastenango asking for permission to resign, but had been refused. He said that he had also told his confederates of his wish but had been warned that they could not be responsible for him if he resigned. Unable to extricate himself from the mire, Adolfo sank deeper into it.

Another commissioner, unlike Adolfo who continued to run with the pack, ran afoul of his companions and paid for his lapse with his life. He was a butcher who failed to turn over to his cronies the money received from Pedrano housewives for the meat of a steer the gang had commandeered, claiming he had lost the money. But he became a marked man for an additional, more compelling reason. His companions learned that the butcher was tipping off intended victims to stay on guard and was beginning to leak incriminating information. In gangland fashion, he was taken for a "ride," or rather a walk on the beach near the pier at night with two of the commissioners. One shot him twice at point-blank range (the 22-caliber bullet wounds were less than one inch apart in the area of the right kidney), while the other fired shots into the air with a carbine to support their claim that they had seen a tall, blonde guerrilla jump from behind the pier and shout, "Hands up!" before killing the butcher.

A Pedrano who had just returned from military duty as a paratrooper told people that he had heard soldiers gossiping that local commissioners were to blame for the epidemic of abductions in San Pedro. By carelessly repeating what he had heard in the army, the former soldier forfeited his life. Disrespect for the commissioners' authority could be fatal. One man repeatedly defied the commissioner's curfew by drinking and walking the streets at night. He disappeared.

The appetite for easy money was readily satisfied by resort to extortion. Typically, a commissioner would approach a family man, informing him that his son's name appeared on a blacklist and offering to save the son's life if the father could produce a few hundred dollars. The money ostensibly would be used to persuade the army personnel—the commissioner had connections—to eliminate the name from the list. Alternatively, the commissioners would simply demand money from someone, under the threat of denouncing him as a subversive if he balked. Protests of innocence were unavailing. Defiance could be fatal.

Nor did payment always ensure survival. One of the wealthier citizens delivered nine hundred dollars to keep from losing a son who had openly expressed his opposition to the military commissioners. The son continued to oppose the clique and lost his life. The commissioners sank him in the lake and, as already indicated, tied up two of their own men to make it appear that guerrillas had been at work. The aggrieved father later compiled a list of forty-four Pedranos who had paid extortion money totaling tens of thousands of dollars.

"Trajedia" tragedy. Painting by Pedro Rafael González Chavajay, 1992. Collection: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Money was not the only thing the gangsters appropriated. They got a fair haul when they called late one night at the home of a Pedrano living in the coastal settlement San Pedro Cutzán. They roused the man out of bed, demanded the keys to his pickup, and drove away with it, as well as with the owner clad only in his underwear. They sold the vehicle; some claimed that it was later seen in Quezaltenango. The kidnapped man was never seen again.

The commissioners roamed widely in search of loot, picking up a goat in Santa Clara la Laguna, two hogs in Panyevar (a distant hamlet of San Juan la Laguna), and other booty elsewhere. They reached out around the lake as far as Tzununá (a hamlet of Santa Cruz la Laguna) to extort goods. They also stole cameras and other valuables at gun-point from foreign tourists who rented dollar-a-night rooms on San Pedro's lakefront. According to one inn owner, Jacinto, the chief military commissioner, once wanted him to give his daughter on loan for a month to a friend of the commissioner living in Guatemala City. The girl was the town's beauty queen that year. Her father promptly sent her off to Mexico. Of course, only a limited number of Pedranos had the means and the connections to send threatened family members to distant places. Some of those families did just that, for it was generally the richer Pedranos who had the most to fear from the predatory commissioners.

The gang was able to live high off the hogs they commandeered. They held lavish saturnalias on the beach, feasting and drinking and enjoying sex with women they invited or coerced. Some of the revelers had two women, one informant told us, and squandered most of the money they collected on alcohol. Their chief, Jacinto, drank so continuously toward the end of his reign that he was unable to do any work. Rape was no rare event. The commissioners molested female jípis ("hippies") staying in lakeside inns. They stripped one Pedrano woman and made her appear naked in the streets. Another woman was gang-raped by a dozen men.

Because of the army's perception—manipulated by the commissioners—that San Pedro was a dangerous place, a military officer came to town in May 1981 to announce that the number of commissioners would have to be expanded. A leading citizen, the more respected of the town's two güizaches (paralegal aides), then spoke up. He requested that all the commissioners be replaced. The visiting officer replied that that would not be done, that if the town had problems with the existing group, that was a matter to be taken up with the local justice of the peace.

Accordingly, the güizache and the mayor (who doubles as the justice of the peace in San Pedro) drew up a document requesting the change. Although challenging the corrupt commissioners was a dangerous thing to do, twenty-seven citizens bravely signed the petition. (It may be no coincidence that two of the güizache's sons later vanished, one never to reappear, the other to return with a gunshot wound sustained in an attempt to escape.) Copies of the petition were sent to the governor, the minister of defense in the capital, and President Lucas García. The appeal was ignored, and the crime wave rolled on.

For their part, the commissioners, only some of whom had weapons—a few old pistols and shotguns—moved to strengthen their grip by appealing for more weapons. On February 27, 1982, they drew up a petition in which their leader, Jacinto, asked the defense minister, General Anibal Guevara, to supply arms to all the commissioners listed in the petition. Jacinto's list ran to twenty-six names. Several months later the petitioners received carbines.

From the beginning, the exact number of commissioners operating in San Pedro could only be surmised. There were covert as well as overt members, and the numbers increased over time. Apparently Jacinto was given a free hand to select his assistants. Some members of the group were coerced into joining, we were told, by the threat that they would be denounced as subversives if they failed to cooperate. Some of the Pedranos who scorned the threat disappeared.

On March 23, 1982, shortly after Jacinto submitted his request for more arms, a coup brought Ríos Montt to power. The new president publicly promised to eliminate unnecessary violence and clean up corruption in the army. He invited citizens to report abuses. Pedranos, encouraged, redoubled their efforts to expel the evil commissioners. Individuals and delegations protested and appealed in all directions. A document signed by a multitude of townsmen and endorsed by the mayor was taken to Guatemala City by Antonio, a singularly civic-minded individual. As former mayor, he had formed a political relationship with someone working as secretary to Ríos Montt. The secretary took the petition, saying that he would have the president consider it. Antonio was advised to return in ten days. He did and was informed that the petition was being studied by the minister of government.

Ten days later Antonio again traveled to the city and was told by the secretary that arrest of the commissioners was unlikely; Ríos Montt reportedly had said that the country needed men with the strength to kill. Antonio then tried to deliver a copy of the petition to the commander of Military Zone 14 (Department of Sololá) where it was rejected on the grounds that it had already been considered by the president. A similar petition by the town's permanent force, a group of about one hundred Pedranos with military-service experience, was no more successful.

It was a policy of the Ríos Montt regime to rotate military commanders periodically and replace municipal officeholders. Accordingly, the mayor of San Pedro was ordered out of office on June 15, 1982. He had been elected by popular vote, he was well regarded, and his term was not yet up. The town wanted to keep him on or at least be allowed to select his successor but had to accept Jorge, favored by the clique of commissioners and designated mayor from above. Jorge took office June 16, 1982.

Jorge had gone to Guatemala City in 1956 as a youth to sign up for military training and had stayed on to make a career of army service. He was an honor guard, then a president's guard, then a driver and doorkeeper at the presidential residence, and finally a cook at the residence of the defense minister. Periodically he would visit San Pedro, where he married and maintained a family. He inherited land in San Pedro and after many years of service in the military establishment decided to return to his hometown. When the opportunity came to be mayor, he obtained a recommendation from the minister whom he had loyally served, and this in turn secured him the backing of the military commander in Sololá, whose approval of Jorge's appointment was decisive. People realized that Jorge, unlike the mayor he replaced, would be more hindrance than help in their campaign to end the violence. They were convinced that he sided with the evildoers who had initiated or supported his appointment. But they did not give up their fight to rid the town of criminals.

At a meeting in August 1982, members of the permanent force demanded of the visiting colonel, who chaired the assembly, that the present commissioners be replaced because, among other things, some of them did not even have army training. The colonel was not swayed by their argument, saying that he was interested in expansion, not replacement. Among the former soldiers demanding a change was the young man who was later seized and dropped into the lake tied to a bag of sand. When the victim's father went to the mayor's office to report the abduction. Jorge told him that his son had been taken away by guerrillas. The father retorted that it was not so: "Things are really bad when we kill our own kind. You should repent."

Jorge was the target of other accusations during his tenure in office, which lasted more than a year. Fernando, one of several potential candidates for mayor at the time Jorge gained the post, added the latter to the list of individuals he denounced as criminals and collaborators in a stream of telegrams he sent to higher authorities. The mayor and several commissioners in turn accused Fernando of indulging in character assassination. They denounced him to the commander of the military post in Santiago Atitlán, who ordered Fernando to appear for judgment. Not knowing what fate had in store for him, Fernando gave his wife the text of a telegram to be dispatched to Ríos Montt in case he failed to return home that evening. Fernando had been active in the Christian Democrat party when it supported Ríos Montt’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1974.

An official document (the minutes of the meeting signed by all the participants) dated October 25, 1982, summarizes what happened that day in Santiago Atitlán. Fernando was charged with the crime of disseminating false accusations against the six Pedranos confronting him. Four of the plaintiffs were commissioners: Jacinto, Adolfo, and two others. Jorge, the mayor, was another plaintiff. Still another was Mario, a litigious güizache with an unsavory reputation in San Pedro. Exhibited as evidence were copies of numerous documents that Fernando had presented to "the highest authorities of the nation." There was no witness for the defense. Testimony by the plaintiffs, said the minutes, proved Fernando's accusations to be false, without foundation, and the product of acrimony stemming from the defendant's frustrated desire to be named mayor of San Pedro without popular support. For having committed calumny and false testimony the commander of the army post ordered that Fernando be detained at the military base until he could be transferred to the appropriate prison. When Fernando failed to return that evening, his wife sent the prepared telegram to Ríos Montt. A few days later seven of San Pedro's military commissioners were arrested, and Fernando was released.