Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. Guatemala: Never Again!

Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. Guatemala: Never Again! Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999. Pages, xli + 332. Paperback, $30.00. ISBN: 157075294X

Reviewed by Shane P. Martin

The peace process which was initiated in Guatemala during January 1994 and continues to the present might have seemed like the end to one of the most horrifying civil conflicts in the Central American region, but for many the full story has yet to be heard. As suggested in the subtitle, the main purpose of the book is to document the atrocious human abuses that occurred during nearly four decades of strife in Guatemala so that these abuses can never happen again. While this volume is about martyrs, predominantly Mayan, it is also, as Thomas Quigley of the U.S. Catholic Conference notes in the forward to the English edition, an outstanding example of the literary genre commonly referred to as truth commission reports. This project reflects the Guatemalan bishops’ belief that the path to healing and reconciliation in their country must include revealing the truth about the overwhelming prior abuses and atrocities. Thus, the bishops developed the Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI), whose findings were published in a 1998 report that shocked the world. Guatemala: Never Again! is an abridged English translation of the full four-volume report, Guatemala: Nunca Más: Informe proyecto interdiocesano de recuperación de 1a memoria histórica.

The book is divided into four parts that detail the major findings of the REMHI project.
The first discusses the impact of the violence, from both an individual and collective perspective.
This part presents powerful individual testimonies collected during a process of open-ended interviews by REMHI investigators. The pattern that emerges is one of systematic harassment and oppression of individuals and communities, thus producing a climate of terror with the intention of dehumanizing the people. Various chapters focus on violence to particular groups, including the violence against children and that inflicted upon women. The attacks on children were an attempt to destroy the seed of the indigenous communities; the testimonies of the children reveal the incredible cruelty and barbarism they had to endure. The violence against women was widespread and included mass rapes of the civilian population by the army. Pregnant women were attacked and their unborn children cut from the womb. Sexual assault against women was used as a terror tactic to reinforce the subaltern status of women, demonstrate male power and dominance over women, and to destabilize the family and community. Despite these tragedies, the book chronicles women’s resistance and subsequent move to activism. Many women became heads of families as a result of the violence and played pivotal roles in demanding respect for human rights.

The second part of the book focuses on the methodology of horror, documenting the organizational methods and strategies employed by the army, intelligence divisions, police units, and death squads. The army used forced recruitment to fill its ranks, resulting in a situation in which the officers were almost entirely ladinos (the traditionally dominant culture of nonindigenous Guatemalans) and conversely the soldiers were almost entirely Mayan who were forced to terrorize their own people. These soldiers were kept under intense psychological pressure and socialized to commit violence and atrocities. Contempt for human life was built into the military training. The total and utter disregard for the dignity and lives of the people involved the ritualistic celebrating and normalizing of horror and violence. The volume documents a list of 410 massacres known at the time of the report.

The historical context is the focus of the third section. Here the authors present salient background information that helps the reader understand what led to the conflict. Beginning with the reform movement of 1871, this section traces the militarization of the country from coup to coup, dictator to dictator. It also critiques the Catholic Church’s involvement in the politics of the country prior to the development of liberation theology. The section is a noteworthy and precise historical overview, which makes a complex history comprehensible and accessible. The fourth and final section summarizes most of what was previously presented, provides statistical information, and presents the recommendations of the REMHI project. Among the recommendations are a call for reparations, a statement of government responsibility, public commemoration of the victims, legislative and judicial reforms, demilitarization, and a greater concern for human rights.

This compelling book is an important work for those new to Guatemalan issues and veterans alike. It is well-written, well-translated, and well-organized. The vital information is condensed in a single volume yet it still reads well. It does not read as a report, but more as a pastoral work. The book’s tone is not overly technical or academic, but more in line with theological narrative works. It is passionate, dynamic, and at times overwhelming. More than anything, it gives voice to countless people whose voice was stolen by those motivated by power and domination.

Ultimately, the importance of Guatemala: Never Again! is as an instrument of healing. In a nation torn apart by thirty-eight years of civil war, the process of rebuilding is challenging indeed. The roots of conflict—a history of colonialism and economic exploitation, rampant militarism, widespread social stratification, Eurocentric, anti-indigenous hegemony, prejudice and discrimination-are still present. By remembering the atrocities of the past, however, there is a better chance of understanding and addressing the roots of the problem. The strength of the book lies in the story of a people who could not be defeated, who continued to resurrect in the face of the various deaths they endured daily. Their testimonies give hope for the development of a country based on the recognition of the inherent dignity of each person. This book makes an important contribution to the development of Guatemala, and should be of interest to all those concerned with human rights throughout the world.