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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 94-104

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Reflections and Reports

The Life That Makes Us Die/The Death That Makes Us Live:
Facing Terrorism in Guatemala City

Deborah Levenson

It was after the teachers' strike in '73, so it must have been under [President] Arana, right? And it was before Dia de la Madre, that's for sure. I started getting cards, one every day, hand-embroidered. At first I thought they were very beautiful! It was a countdown, the first was "21 days," the next was "20 days," then "19 days," and so on. I thought it had to do with Dia de la Madre, but I realized it wasn't about that. By the time it was down to "7 days," my family said it was time to go, and I did.

Who sent the cards?

Ellos. Can you imagine? They had someone embroidering cards.

—Interview with Ligia, ex-member of the Teachers Union, 1985


The 2000 report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), a United Nations-sponsored truth commission, documented the extraordinary violence in Guatemala between 1962 and 1996. It attributed 93 percent of the "acts of violence and terror," which took the lives of 200,000 Guatemalans, to the state. 1 The truth commission's report was greeted with relief in Guatemala because it made official the popular wisdom that the state has been behind the terror. Like Ligia, many Guatemalans have used ellos, "they/them," to designate terrorists: they/them at once [End Page 94] refers to state agents, captures the secrecy integral to the power of state terrorism, and avoids making a direct accusation.

Webster's defines terror as "1. Intense fear; 2. a) a person or thing causing intense fear; b) the quality of causing such fear." Terrorism is "the act of terrorizing; use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate, and subjugate, esp. such use as a political weapon or policy." 2 Based on its years of investigation, the CEH explained that

terror was not just the result of acts of violence or the military operations; it was also generated and sustained by other related mechanisms, such as impunity for the perpetrators, extensive campaigns to criminalize the victims and the forced involvement of civilians in the causal sequence leading up to the actual execution of atrocities. . . . The objective [of state terror] was to intimidate and silence society as a whole, in order to destroy the will for transformation, both in the short and long term. 3

Terrorism in Guatemala has been carefully organized to draw people into webs of fright and mistrust. Moreover, and unlike several other cases in Latin America, clandestine state terrorism has taken place within a country with a political system at least nominally based on a bourgeois democratic model.

Except for periods of direct military rule between 1963 and 1966, and 1982 and 1986, which the Guatemalan elite viewed as temporary, the state was never, nor did it represent itself to be, a straightforward military dictatorship or a corporate fascist state. Its permanent "dirty war" has happened within a proclaimed democracy, in which some vibrant center-left political parties such as Alberto Fuentes Mohr's Democratic Socialist Party and Manuel Colom Argueta's United Revolutionary Front emerged. This has added both to the horror of the existing political framework—and to the sense of opportunity for social change within it. Unions are legal in Guatemala; yet workers who have tried to create even simple bread-and-butter unions have lost their lives in the effort. This is how the system has worked: yes, you can, no, you can't; yes, you can, no, you can't. Fuentes Mohr was assassinated in January 1979 and, two months later, so was Colom Argueta.

Following a brief overview, this essay discusses how working-class activists in Guatemala City protected their "will for transformation" in the face of a veritable monster state in the 1960s and 1970s. My article's title extends the beautiful one given by Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla to his...


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pp. 94-104
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Archived 2004
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