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Bound by Blood. Ordinary Guatemalans and Collaboration during the Civil War, 1970-1985

Book - Dissertation

In the aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), a large number of witness accounts claim neighbours, relatives, and friends were deeply implicated in the Cold War terror campaign which successive military governments waged against alleged communists or so-called subversive terrorists. Witness testimony and much of the extant literature of the civil war suggests many ordinary Guatemalans helped progress surveillance and death indirectly by accusing their neighbours of being guerrillas or sympathising with them, pointing out their houses to the army, writing letters of denunciation to the authorities, or joining the ranks of state forces as paid informers. Others were in more direct proximity to the victimization process, crossing the threshold of violence by looting their neighbours' homes or by tracking down, arresting, torturing, raping and killing them. Such abuses were most frequently committed by members of the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (Civil Defence Patrols, PAC). Tens of thousands of ordinary Guatemalans were additionally recruited as military commissioners who enjoyed nearly unlimited powers and impunity in policing rural communities and bringing populations under army control. Appointed as local representatives of military power, they periodically reported to the military on all the activities they observed in their communities, drafting blacklists of suspected subversives, and carrying out some of the worst atrocities committed during the civil war. At the heart of this dissertation is the desire to understand what drove ordinary Guatemalans to facilitate and participate in violence against their neighbours, relatives and friends. While scholarly literature on the Guatemalan civil war is awash with descriptive and fleeting references to ordinary Guatemalans who engaged in collaboration with state forces, they have remained elusive figures driven by motives that are no less obscure. Extant literature has focused largely on documenting and grappling with the brutal and insidious nature of state terror in Guatemala which, in the early 1980s, reached genocidal proportions. This focus on state terror and genocide has contributed to the construction of a rigid and mutually exclusive dichotomy between state perpetrators and civilian victims, the latter predominantly figuring as passive victims and static elements in the historical background. In response to these ritualized narratives of hapless victimization, scholarship has, since the 1990s, increasingly focused on restoring the identity of victims by marking them as historical agents of social or revolutionary change and political transformation. Yet by failing to attribute agency to ordinary Guatemalans outside of the framework of resistance to the state, scholars overlook the possibility that some ordinary Guatemalans chose to act in support of the army's counterinsurgency. Instead, seemingly unsustainable contradictions surface as collaboration with rebels is oftentimes perceived as reflecting genuine support for their revolutionary cause while those that engaged in collaboration with the state are subsumed into accounts of passive and powerless victimhood and reduced to mere choiceless and obedient enforcers of the army's commands. Critically lacking in historiography are studies that deal fully with the issue of choice in collaboration, transcending the lack-of-free-will model to appraise those who allied with the state as historical actors and autonomous social subjects. Arguing that ordinary Guatemalans are acting subjects whose actions can and must be explained, this dissertation shows that they participated in the state's counterinsurgency for a wide variety of reasons. Analysis of these reasons is of key importance to gain a more layered and comprehensive understanding of the strategies with which civilians navigated the armed conflict and to grasp the full spectrum of roles ordinary Guatemalans played during the civil war, beyond dying, suffering, and rebelling. Therefore, the aim of this study is to explore the complete range of motives and factors that drove ordinary Guatemalans to facilitate and participate in state-sanctioned violence. To provide the first comprehensive analysis of the motives and factors that pushed and pulled ordinary Guatemalans into collaboration with state forces, this dissertation adopts a situationist approach to civilian participation in violence. Rather than centring the mindset, ideological belief systems and socio-psychological characteristics of those who participate in violence, a situationist perspective underscores ordinariness of participations and trace how structural circumstances and situational opportunities pull them into violence. The situationist approach has especially dominated civil war studies, particularly in its micro-theoretic turn that focuses not on the macro-level factors that explain the outbreak of the Guatemalan civil war, but on accounting for the violence within the war; emphasizing the complex and messy mix of personal motives that often drive civilian participation in violence. In subscribing to this micro-dynamic approach, particularly Stathis Kalyvas' understanding of civil war violence as "jointly produced" or resulting from a so-called alliance between political actors at the centre and civilian actors at the local level provide this dissertation with a key tool to rethink the nature of the relationship between the state and the civilian population. Yet whereas this micro-theoretic turn often relegates institutional factors and the macro-level of the state to a historical background as the focus remains squarely on tracing underlying wartime dynamics, this dissertation purports that state doctrines, discourses and institutions play a crucial role in engendering, structuring, and patterning the actions of ordinary civilians. To understand how the macro-level shaped, as well as constrained, individual choices, this dissertation pursues a so-called integrated history that places the intentions and actions of the state in interaction with the behaviour of ordinary civilians. The integrated approach this study takes, requires disaggregating the analysis of collaboration in wartime Guatemala on two distinct levels. Whereas the first level centres the actions and motives of ordinary Guatemalans that engaged in collaboration with state forces, the second level focuses on the institutionalised systems of persuasion and coercion as well as the ideological frameworks developed by the Guatemalan state to secure civilian participation in its counterinsurgency campaign. This dissertation draws on two types of sources to provide an integrated and archival study of civilian collaboration during the Guatemalan civil war: records produced by civilians, and records produced by state forces. Civilian-authored records include, firstly, thousands of transcripts of semi-structured interviews with survivors of human rights violations conducted within the framework of the Catholic Church's Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (Recovery of Historical Memory, REMHI) project in the immediate aftermath of the war. These archived testimonies provide detailed descriptions of the immediate contexts in which violence unfolded and provide insight into the subjective everyday experiences of survivors and the circumstantial factors and motivational mechanisms that informed the behaviour of ordinary Guatemalans. Secondly, the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (Historical Archive of the National Police, AHPN) contains paper-trails of ordinary Guatemalans who volunteered information or became accredited informers, enabling an analysis of the motives and factors that drove them to provide private intelligence to state forces. This cache of documents surpasses, for the first time, anecdotal evidence on practices of informing and provides instead unique documentary proof of collaboration at the grassroots level. State-authored sources include, firstly, a wealth of AHPN-records that document how police units handled and processed the accusations of denouncers and informers and how the police hierarchy organised civilian participation in political surveillance. Secondly, this book also draws its insights from a series of military campaign plans, and manuals on counterinsurgency warfare and intelligence gathering drafted by both the Guatemalan army and the police. These manuals were drafted in the 1970s and 1980s by, or at the request of, the Guatemalan military's high command and provide unique insights into the role subsequent Guatemalan military regimes attributed to ordinary civilians within their counterinsurgent strategies and the apparatuses it developed to incite and organise collaboration at the national level. In pursuing an integrated history of the participation of ordinary Guatemalans in wartime violence, this dissertation found that questions about collaboration reveal as much about the strategies with which ordinary Guatemalans navigated the civil war as it does about the nature of the Guatemalan counterrevolutionary regime itself. In many scholarly accounts of the Guatemalan civil war, the army burst into the scene as an amorphous force of violence, singularly focused on the killing of unarmed civilians suspected of supporting the armed insurgency. Centring civilian collaboration, however, inevitably calls for a partial reappraisal of such views since it implies that the army not only viewed civilians as enemies, but also as potential allies who could be mobilised and organised into a frontline force for the defence of the state. Analysis of state archival records and military manuals demonstrates that successive military regimes were also fundamentally concerned with tying civilians to its counterinsurgency project; incorporating them into the state terror apparatus as well as with transforming their political identities, attitudes, and behaviours in the long term. Civilian participation in wartime violence, in other words, was not accidental to the armed conflict. Rather, decentralizing military control in civilian hands was a cornerstone of the army's counterinsurgency strategy. Guatemalan armed forces placed a premium on active participation of civilians in the counterinsurgency, carved out key roles for civilians to meet its changing needs for private knowledge and local manpower, fabricated internal enemy myths to legitimize violence against state-sanctioned targets and developed a system of rewards and punishments to push, as well as pull, civilian participants in its counterinsurgency efforts. In short, this study shows that the participation of ordinary Guatemalans in wartime violence was critically contingent on the concerted efforts of successive military regimes to strategise, incite, facilitate, and organise collaboration. Shifting the focus from the counterinsurgent doctrines of the state to the actions and strategies of ordinary Guatemalans to analyse what drove them to participate in the state's counterinsurgency, this dissertation found civilians collaborated with state forces for a multiplicity of circumstantial factors and personal motives. Empirical evidence only partially confirms the scholarly portrayal of participants as choiceless victims of state coercion and hapless enforcers of army command. Stories of coercion abound as many ordinary Guatemalans were forced into collaboration at gunpoint or through thinly veiled threats, found few meaningful alternatives to complying with state demands for collaboration. Others passively sided with state forces as the only viable alternative to the relentless persecution, hunger, illness to which they were subjected as refugees, hoping their allegiance would offer an opportunity to maintain a modicum of security during the army's campaign of bloodshed. A similar pragmatism also undergirded the collaboration of the many ordinary Guatemalans who cast their lot with state forces as a temporary survival strategy. Their participation was above all informed by their understanding of local security risks and constituted a calculated strategy with which they navigated wartime violence and uncertainties. In this sense, many strove to enhance their security by pre-emptively denouncing, apprehending, or attacking others in a strategic and, oftentimes, desperate attempt to exonerate themselves and their communities from the army's suspicion, thereby escaping state-inflicted violence. This lack-of-free-will model, however, provides an incomplete reflection of the complex and messy mix of motives that spurred ordinary Guatemalans to side with the state and does little to explain the varying degrees of willingness and fervour with which civilians carried out their counterinsurgency duties. Empirical evidence shows that some vehemently resisted army orders while, at the other extreme, others voluntarily exceeded them. There is scattered evidence to suggest that a sizable number of ordinary Guatemalans refused to yield, even passively, to the army's orders and appropriated the limited space for manoeuvring to engage in meaningful acts of resistance that tempered state violence and minimalised bloodshed. Whether mobilizing voluntarily or recruited by force, many Civil Defense Patrols came to commit excessive violence against unarmed men, women, children, and infants without an officially mandated necessity, and even when out of the army's sight. Thus, many PACs became principal agents of violence, becoming a law unto themselves and acting autonomously or even counter to the military's orders. They revelled in the powers bestowed upon them by engaging in mass killings, torture, sexual abuse, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances. This dissertation looks at differing processes to account for this extreme cruelty, among which indoctrination, socialization into violence, violent group norms and militarized masculinities. Empirical evidence also shows that many ordinary Guatemalans were drawn into the conflict because the broader context of war offered opportunities to gain power and resolve local conflicts, particularly through violence and collaboration. While much of these disputes preceded the outbreak of violence and were unconnected to the war's stated motives and goals, socioeconomic stratification, sweeping cultural changes and political polarisation in the run-up to the civil war deepened and politicised existing fault lines and created new ones. These processes fragmented communities and shattered whatever consensual and harmonious relations that once existed in rural Guatemala. Once rivals sided with state forces to prevail in local struggles and strengthen their positions in the shadow of the war, the traditional refuges of neighbourliness, friendship, and family were transformed into potential sites of betrayal, drawing ordinary Guatemalans into escalating spirals of denunciations and killings. Focusing on factionalist conflicts within communities, this dissertation shows that competing groups engaged in collaboration with state forces to serve their collective agendas and strengthen their positions in the margins of the war and distinguishes between conflicts resulting from ethnic and class cleavages, religious rivalries, political and ideological conflicts, and disputes between rival neighbouring communities. Finally, this dissertation also examines the interpersonal conflicts that motivated ordinary Guatemalans to engage in collaboration with state forces and which played a crucial role in driving violence at the local level. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that most civilians were unwilling to engage in violence themselves and resorted to denunciation to gain a share of state power and target their rivals indirectly without getting their hands dirty. Seemingly petty quarrels inspired by envy over discrepancies in wealth, success, popularity, and power played a particularly important role in close-knit communities steeped in social competition. Others became quite wealthy as they killed and denounced their neighbours in their pursuit of self-enrichment. In short, while Guatemalan authorities often preyed on fearful civilians devoid of power to obtain private knowledge and recruit local manpower, this study shows that ordinary Guatemalans also learned how to take advantage of the system that exploited them to gain the upper hand in local factionalist conflicts, take revenge on their rivals, and lift themselves above the norm.
Publication year:2022