A war without battles

Roddy Brett’s harrowing examination of State violence during Guatemala’s civil war makes a significant contribution to debates about democratic consolidation


Una Guerra sin Batallas: Del odio, la violencia y el miedo en el Ixcán y el Ixil, 1972-1983
Roddy Brett
2007, F&G Editores
256 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IT IS APPROPRIATE that the Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres-Rivas chose to introduce Una Guerra sin Batallas by making reference to the Hobbesian explanation for the emergence of the State.

For if we were to seek an example of a state of nature in which life is nasty, brutish and short – Thomas Hobbes’ classic description of a condition without government – we might do worse than to think of modern Guatemala itself, a democracy largely in name only discredited by the worst levels of inequality in Latin America, strafed by violent crime, and virtually paralysed by judicial decay and institutional indifference.

It is in this context that Roddy Brett’s powerful and authoritative study of violence in the Ixcán and Ixil regions in the north of Quiché department is so relevant. For as Brett points out in his conclusion: “It is absolutely clear that, without justice for [victims of] the brutal and systematic violence of the armed conflict, including the violence carried out by both armed groups, and without a distribution of power, of resources and property and the enjoyment of human rights in their integral form, a full, just, equitable and stable democracy will not be established in Guatemala.” [p. 247, my translation]

By exploring the causes and nature of extreme levels of political violence in these regions from 1972 to 1983 – and, in particular, the massacres carried out by the Guatemalan army – this work makes a significant contribution to efforts to understand the strategic use of terror by the regimes of Romeo Lucas García (1978-82) and Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) against their own citizens and, above all, those who are indigenous. It fuels the burning debate about military impunity and the State’s continuing reluctance to impart justice in this benighted country and, as such, provides valuable material in the broader study of democratic consolidation in the Americas.

Full, bloody picture

Una Guerra sin Batallas is a book about violence, and the author – a British academic who has lived and worked in Guatemala and is deeply committed to the defence of human rights – does not shy away from giving the reader the full, bloody picture of what went on in the areas under study.

Extreme political violence in Quiché occurred mainly as part of the counterinsurgency strategy employed by the army and included massacres, the rape of women and girls, enslavement, the burning of houses, animals and property and extensive mental and physical torture. Violent atrocities were carried out by State forces regardless of Guatemala’s national and international obligations, and Brett even points out that, according to eyewitnesses, violence perpetrated by the army extended to acts of forced cannibalism.

Moreover, given that 83 per cent of the victims of Guatemala’s armed conflict were indigenous people, there was a discernibly ethno-cultural dimension to these crimes against humanity, prompting various writers and political analysts to accuse the Guatemalan State of genocide.

Brett examines the insurgency, the counterinsurgency strategies of the army and military massacres and the process by which indigenous people fled the area and sought refuge either in the centre of the country or neighbouring Mexico.

In his conclusion he asks an obvious, and leading question: why, 20 years after the events detailed in the book, is it important to document and analyse them and seek to bring the perpetrators of atrocities to justice for their crimes? Wouldn’t it be more constructive to forget them, and move on?

The answer lies, among other things, in one of the causal factors of much of the violence – racism towards the country’s substantial indigenous population – and the shadow it continues to cast over political development. Brett writes:

“… the Guatemalan genocide and the other grave violations of human rights perpetrated during the armed internal conflict continue to enjoy impunity, and racism – a determinant historical factor that facilitated the very same genocide, as a well as a contributing factor of the very same subsequent impunity – is one of the most serious problems and shameful obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in Guatemala.” [p. 243 my translation]

It is interesting to note that Hobbes’ writings – and subsequent works that failed to meet the approval of the 17th-century censors – were set against the backdrop of the English civil war, the causes of which exercised this celebrated political philosopher greatly. He argued that it was precisely to avoid such conflict that men ceded their rights to the sovereign in a social contract – in return for protection. It would seem that in the case of Guatemala, the Hobbesian paradigm has been turned on its head.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books