Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú helped set the tone and forge the climate that convicted the rabidly anti-communist general Efraín Rios Montt and condemned many others guilty of genocide during the country’s brutal civil war.

Rigoberta Menchú speaks outside the World Bank headquarters in New York on April 21, 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpted from Flights: Radicals on the Run (OR Books, May 2024)

“It is said that our indigenous ancestors, Mayas and Aztecs, made human sacrifices to their gods,” Rigoberta Menchú once quipped. “It occurs to me to ask: How many humans have been sacrificed to the gods of capital in the last five hundred years?” The activist’s 1983 memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú, recounts the shocking story of an American-sponsored counterinsurgency against the majority Maya population.

Acting largely in self-defense in a system of exploitation and forced labor going back centuries, Menchú’s fellow Maya were attacked in the name of anti-communism. Tens of thousands of villagers were massacred, whole villages were eradicated, women were raped, and children were killed.

But even before her family was dragged into the insurgency for their humble fight to keep their small parcel of land, Menchú suffered unimaginable losses. Before her decade-long exile to Mexico and Europe — where she told her story in a spoken testimonial that became the acclaimed memoir — she was orphaned by the military regimes that she and her family lived under, losing almost her entire family.

For her candid — if contested — memoir, and for her work on behalf of human and equal rights for Guatemala’s Maya, she won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, in a year that marked the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to indigenous America, an anniversary that Maya look upon as a catastrophe.

It’s worth remembering that her story didn’t end with the Nobel Prize. Menchú founded Winaq, the country’s first indigenous political party, and ran as Guatemala’s first indigenous candidate for president, twice. Though she lost, Menchú paved the way for others by helping spur the movement to prosecute Guatemala’s corrupt and genocidal Cold War regimes and by creating a Maya-peasant infrastructure that spurred another Maya woman’s run for the presidency in 2023.

“Discovery” or Catastrophe?

Rigoberta Menchú Tum was born in Laj Chimel, a village in the remote central highlands of the department of El Quiché. Without electricity or roads, the village felt far away from the Guatemalan Army. “My land is very magic and . . . has mysteries,” Menchú told Dawn Gifford Engle, the director of the 2016 documentary Daughter of the Maya. Menchú’s grandfather, who lived well past one hundred, regaled the family with stories that had been passed down over millennia from the civilization of the Maya.

The accomplishments of the culture of the Maya can hardly be overstated. As National Geographic put it, “They built a culture that flowered while Europe languished in the Dark Ages and that survived six times as long as the Roman Empire. They lived by a calendar the equal of [any], developed the concept of zero in mathematics, predicted eclipses of sun and moon, and traced the path of Venus with an error of only 14 seconds a year.” When Diego Rivera first saw their classical murals in the Yucatán and the jungles of Chiapas, he is said to have wept. They rivaled the Renaissance murals of Europe and invented a pigment of blue known today as Mayan blue that is close to immortal in how little it fades over centuries on the walls of their temples; it took modern science a century to decode.

Despite the repression of indigenous groups that came with European “discovery,” the Maya community survived as a majority in Guatemala. It viewed the destruction of its culture when Europeans arrived as a catastrophe. Stewards of Maya book culture and learning were targeted in particular by the Spanish, who declared themselves the New World’s new lords and carved up the continent. In constant danger, Maya elders practiced their traditions in secret.

By the 1700s, Spain was the world’s largest empire. It renamed the Maya world “the kingdom of Guatemala.” Spanish laws put in place trustees over the indigenous groups, and Spaniards enslaved Mayas on encomiendas. Indigenous Americans had no gold, so the Spaniards made their fortunes on slave labor. “There are still elder indigenous people who suffer the consequences of being treated as slaves,” Menchú reminds us. “It’s just that today, different methods are used.”

After Spain’s decline in 1821, all of Central and most of Latin America declared its independence. Maya leaders organized to participate in the creation of independent Guatemala. But they were arrested, imprisoned, or executed. The new authoritarian state benefited a privileged few, but it excluded most Guatemalans from citizenship or owning land.

In 1904, Estrada Cabrera gave vast tracts of Guatemala to the United Fruit Company. Founded in 1899, the United Fruit Company became the biggest landowner in Central America and controlled the railroad, the port facilities, and major shipping routes. It also ran its own postal, radio, and telegraph services. By the 1930s, it controlled 80 percent of the US banana trade. Having given it so much land, government forces were often called in to suppress workers who organized against it.

Rigoberta’s father, Vicente Menchú, was a farmer who never went to school and who spoke little Spanish. Her mother, Juana Túm, was a traditionalist who taught her children the spiritual roots of Maya culture. A healer and midwife, Juana assisted the mothers in eighteen surrounding villages during childbirth. As someone was going into labor, Juana was led to the distant village to provide medical care. Without factory medicine, she used the community’s traditional medicinal plants.

In Menchú’s youth, Maya families were forced to work on plantations owned by the country’s large landholders. Her village worked these plantations, where Menchú bore the hardships of subsistence child labor from a young age: long hours, wage theft, and brutal conditions. Living as migrants in their own country, the hellish lifestyle took them to the sweltering coast for months each year.

Civil War

In 1950, Vicente Menchú fought for a piece of land of his own. He tried to get the rights to his plot documented. Organizing to unite with other farmers and campesinos instilled a political consciousness in the family. But early in the 1950s came the “Guatemalan Spring”: the democratically elected reformist president Jacobo Árbenz took over from his democratically elected reformist predecessor, Juan José Arévalo. Árbenz’s landslide victory promised land reform, the freedom to organize, and freedom of speech.

Rigoberta Menchú in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, 2 percent of the richest families owned two-thirds of the arable land. When Árbenz sought to buy back unused excess lands from United Fruit, the company accused him of “communism” and worked with the CIA to topple him. US vice president Richard Nixon traveled to Guatemala in the wake of the coup to thank General Carlos Castillo Armas, who got a ticker-tape parade and honorary degrees at two universities in New York, Fordham and Columbia.

With democracy overthrown, Maya farmers burned crops in protest as the lands granted to them were retaken for the oligarchs. As punishment for joining these protests, Menchú’s father was persecuted as a communist and sent to prison many times. “The community had to make a huge sacrifice to get him out of jail,” she recalled.

At the farmer’s organization, the Comite de Unidad Campesina (CUC), Menchú learned the art of organizing from her father. The CUC was their outlet to forge solutions to the ongoing problem of land rights. Menchú recalls how people from surrounding villages “asked him for advice, and that increased the persecution.” But her father sought to open doors especially for his favorite daughter, who “was accepted by the sister nuns of the Holy Family, and I worked there for three years. After that, they gave me the opportunity to study, and I completed the first four years of primary school in just one year.”

But more trouble awaited her. When Carlos Castillo Armas was assassinated, General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes ballot-stuffed his way into the presidency. This would spur a civil war that would alter Menchú’s fate. The CIA station chief described Ydigoras Fuentes as “a moody, almost schizophrenic individual” who “disregards the advice of his Cabinet.”

Ydigoras Fuentes’s widespread corruption spurred mass protests, out of which emerged the MR-13 guerrilla group. These left-wing generals tried to oust the erratic Ydigoras Fuentes but their coup failed, resulting in the 1960 civil war. Meanwhile, to prevent the center-left former president Juan José Arévalo from retaking power in the chaos of Ydigoras Fuentes’s rule, a right-wing coup toppled the general in 1963. Opposition was met with brutal force that spread to the Maya highlands.

Irregular Locals

In I, Rigoberta Menchú, the author recalls her transformation as military violence came to El Quiché. As the counterinsurgency violence spread, she learned of an epidemic of women being raped in Maya villages, including the brutal murder of a friend. Villagers were subject to such rampant violence that they had no choice but to defend themselves, mobilizing to create improvised weaponry and to capture guns in ambushes. This placed Menchú in a category the military defined as “Irregular Local Forces.” Initially, maneuvers were nonviolent, but the regime targeted them as fighters anyway.

Menchú served as witness to and documenter of massacres that spurred left-wing movements across Guatemala to unite.

The first soldier Menchú’s defense unit captured was Maya. They let him go with a plea to desert his command. But having gotten little information, they immediately regretted this. The second time they captured a soldier “we got a lot of information . . . about how they treat the soldiers in the army.” According to the sympathetic captive, “From the first day I arrived in the barracks, they told me that my parents were stupid” because they couldn’t speak Spanish and promised that the army would teach them Spanish. “Then they told me I had to kill the communists from Cuba and Russia. I had to kill them all.” When challenged, he replied, “I’m not to blame for all this, they grabbed me in the town.” Hearing him cry, they “felt sorry for him, because we are all human.” Behind the recruitment of Maya was a centuries-old practice of forced labor. But what greater forces were enabling it?

Acknowledging how the Church has often meant “to divide us and keep the poor dormant,” Menchú describes how she maintained Christian faith while observing what Maya ancestors and history have taught. “We have understood that being a Christian means refusing to accept all the injustices which are committed against our people . . . the discrimination committed against a humble people who

barely know what eating meat is.” Beyond the bible, “reality teaches us . . . that we don’t need a Church . . . which knows nothing of hunger. . . . This awakening of the Indians didn’t come . . . from one day to the next, because Catholic Action and other religions . . . have all tried to keep us where we were. But I think that unless a religion springs from within the people themselves, it is a weapon of the system.”

While joining this Maya awakening, Menchú served as witness to and documenter of massacres that spurred left-wing movements across Guatemala to unite. In Panzós, an area of Cobán, “they discovered oil and began throwing peasants off their land. . . . They were Kekchi Indians and the army massacred them as if they were killing birds. . . . Blood ran in the main square.” She found that anti-communism is the most common excuse used to enable counterinsurgency violence.

Ironically, she recalls whole “villages in El Quiché . . . unable to perform their [Maya] ceremonies because they were . . . called subversives and communists.” But under the next US-backed dictator in the late 1970s, it grew even worse. “Lucas García came to power with such a lust for killing, that the repression really began in El Quiché.” The region “was like a . . . rag in his hands”:

He set up military bases in many . . . villages and there were rapes, tortures, kidnappings. And massacres. The villages of Chajul, Cotzal and Nebaj suffered massacres as the repression fell . . . above all on the Indian population.

On September 9, 1979, her brother Patrocinio Menchú Tum was kidnapped by the army. “He disappeared for fifteen days,” Menchú told an interviewer. The family knew people “had been detained in the area, so my mother started to look for him.” The family learns that Patrocinio had been tortured, set on fire, and burned alive in Chajul. “Together with another twenty or so young men around the same age, he was cruelly tortured.” But they “had no idea where his body was left.” Learning of this cruelty “was precisely the moment . . . when I finally felt firmly convinced that if it’s a sin to kill a human being. How can what the regime does to us not be a sin?” As many campesinos did, Menchú and her family redoubled their commitment to their cause, as she longed to tell her people’s history to the world.

Embassy Fire

On January 31, 1980, Vicente took part in a march in Guatemala City to protest the army’s ongoing kidnapping and murder of poor Maya. It was organized by the CUC. Denied their moment before Congress, protestors were chased into the Spanish embassy. The ensuing police raid — over objections of the Spanish ambassador — culminated in the firebombing of the embassy where thirty-six protestors were burned alive. “My father,” she recalls, “was one of those burned to death at the Spanish embassy. There was a general in power who ordered the massacre.” The sole survivor (and sole witness to what happened inside the embassy), Gregorio Yuja Xona was dragged from his hospital bed, tortured, and killed. Spain broke off diplomatic relations with Guatemala over the incident.

After the fire, Menchú returned to Chimel. “I knew that the risk was very high,” she recalls, “but I went back, and found my mom very brave, very strong.” Juana told her daughter, “I know that your brother has died, and I know that your father has died, but we will keep on fighting.’” Menchú begged her mother to flee into exile with her. Her mother refused. She soon disappeared. “I was told that my mother was kidnapped,” she tells Engle. “Her clothes were taken away. They cut her hair and she was tortured.” Menchú later learned that her mother’s body was left “on the road that goes from Uspantán to Sicachal.” The army ordered a guard to prevent her burial, so that she “was eaten by wild animals.”

It felt like her village was being targeted and being wiped out. Though denials were widespread in the Guatemalan media, this is precisely what happened to many Maya villages. “A lot of people from the community were massacred. A helicopter came and bombarded and burned the houses. But because of all this, there are very few people still alive from Chimel, where I was born.” With Menchú orphaned, how could it get any worse?

Evangelical Genocide

After a coup d’etat by General Efraín Rios Montt in 1982, what had been an unspoken genocide became more open. Rios Montt lost his campaign for the presidency in 1974 but was paid off to accept the results and to take a diplomatic post in Madrid before the firebombing that would sever ties between the two countries. Leaving government, he returned in the late 1970s and converted from Catholicism to a stringent Evangelical Christian sect, the Church of the Word. He befriended right-wing clerics like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The dictator also sought training (and funding) from Israel and honed his genocidal campaign with the slogan, “If you cannot kill the fish, you must drain the sea.”

Meanwhile, left-wing groups forged a united coalition, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, or URNG. It had only grown stronger as a result of the extremist violence of prior administrations. Viewing the movement as communist, Rios Montt’s regime envisioned insurgents closing in on Guatemala’s populous areas from the rural regions. So his generals continued the army’s genocidal atrocities. Beginning in the city and suburbs, the army fanned outward in concentric circles. But they did so under the cover of “protecting civilians.” In areas that were “secure,” they offered social programs.

After US aid was curtailed under President Jimmy Carter as a result of Guatemala’s rampant human rights violations, the Ronald Reagan administration sent aid through Evangelical Christian networks in an operation code-named “International Love Lift.” But the love was a thinly veiled cover for more overt genocidal eradication of the left-wing movements and the nation’s indigenous majority.

By Rios Montt’s second year, the concentric rippling circles of murderous counterinsurgency came to the western border. Just as elsewhere in the country, massacres in the highlands targeted the Maya poor. In July, 1982, twenty-five kilometers from Asturias’s grandparents’ house, 268 Maya were massacred in the village of Rabinal. Soldiers moved from house to house, grabbing children and beating them to death. Women were raped and killed. The rest were shot. The next day, survivors were forced to dig mass graves before joining the Guatemalan Army.

Menchú demands accountability from Chevron at a demonstration outside of the World Bank headquarters in 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Dos Erres, in Petén, 160 Maya residents were massacred by government soldiers. In Rio Negro, 440 were killed, while 5000 were killed in the area between 1980 and 1982. During the long civil war which lasted until 1996, 626 indigenous villages were destroyed, vanishing from the map. Of the more than two hundred thousand casualties that would haunt the nation for years, most were Maya. A third of these casualties, an estimated seventy to seventy-five thousand, occurred during Rios Montt’s sixteen months in power.

In Exile

Her village decimated, and without siblings, Menchú turned to the Sisters of the Holy Family, whose nuns helped her escape to the safety of exile in Mexico. “I live near your country. I see your country every day,” Bishop Samuel Luís García, of Chiapas, told her. With few options, she crossed the border to the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. “The compañeros got me out on a plane to Mexico, and I felt a shattered, broken woman, because I’d never imagined that one day those criminals would force me to abandon my country. All the same, I also hoped to come back very soon and carry on working.” The Monsignor gave her sleep medicine for PTSD and she slept for two weeks. When she emerged better rested, he told her, “You must come with me to the communities.”

For six months, Menchú and the cleric traveled through the jungle, visiting indigenous communities in the most remote parts of Chiapas, where a revolutionary movement was already under way. Though the more famous Zapatista uprising went public in response to NAFTA on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army emerged from the National Liberation Front in the period when Menchú was touring the jungles and villages of Chiapas. What they finally would build was an autonomous zone for indigenous people who radically reimagined how sovereign nation-states should be run. The registered inhabitants received free health care and schools for all, while maintaining land sovereignty and control over agriculture and other resources.

“Those people gave me a forward-looking perspective,” she said of her experience.

By 1982 and for nearly a decade, thousands of other Maya fled over the border into Mexico. Many were en route to the United States to escape General Rios Montt and successor dictatorships supported and trained by the United States. In Mexico, the Guatemalan refugee community grew to more than fifty thousand. Menchú became active in the community, campaigning to tell the world what was happening to her people.

She traveled to New York to meet with United Nations delegates and to Geneva to warn European leaders of the atrocities. During a week spent with Venezuelan sociologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray in Paris, Menchú told her story in what became her widely translated testimonio, I, Rigoberta Menchú. She offered voiceover narration for the film When the Mountains Tremble; and for ten years she traveled and spoke before global audiences, sharing tales of her awakening as a result of her people’s suffering in Guatemala. The book became a bestseller.

“The World is Watching!”

When she returned briefly from exile in October 1992, she was greeted by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She joined her community in marking five hundred years since Columbus had landed in the Americas. Millions of indigenous people across the continent held protests that day. “I believe this is a very important day. Many brothers and sisters around the world, especially on this continent, are demonstrating in the same way,” she said.

On October 16, 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace as a result of Pérez Esquivel’s nomination. The committee granted the prize “for her struggle for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.” On a post-award tour in a pickup truck, she told crowds of fellow Maya who lined the streets, “Today, the world is watching.” Her words were met with shouts: “Long live Rigoberta Menchú, long live the Maya Quiché! Long live peace!”

In tears, she replied, “This is the first official press conference I am giving after the great happiness of learning that I won the Nobel Peace Prize. I would like to offer a tribute to all my indigenous brothers and sisters of America. I know that you are listening to me in every single corner. You have fought for this. This is not because of the personal merits of Rigoberta Menchú. It is for the memory of America.”

Villagers in many cases were asked to identify the Catholic leaders who helped protect and feed them. When they did so, they were mowed down, followed by the leaders they had named.

Indigenous activists now had the world’s attention. But the brutal atrocities by the Guatemalan military continued. The Maya resistance was chased through mountains in the country’s unyielding campaigns of eradication and scorched earth. Villagers in many cases were asked to identify the Catholic leaders who helped protect and feed them. When they did so, they were mowed down, followed by the leaders they had named.

In January 1993, as a tentative cease-fire was being negotiated, a wave of civil war refugees returned home. “Our children need a guarantee for their future,” Menchú declared. “We cannot leave them a world of uncertainty. We want to leave a more secure world so that the land becomes their land, today and forever. Then they can live here and cultivate their greatest potential and creativity.”

“Historical Truth”

Menchú married fellow refugee Angel Canil Grave, and they adopted a son, Maj. During peace talks in Mexico City beginning in 1994, Menchú said that her group listened at the door:

And when they came out, we pressured them. We told them, “This needs to happen. You have to write this down.” And we proposed content for the peace agreement. We were very active with the refugees. There were more than fifty thousand in Mexico. The refugees were a very strong force, with the muscle to say no to war. “No more war. Yes to peace.” And this put pressure on both sides. . . . The mothers said, “I don’t want my son drafted into the war, not by the guerrillas, nor by the Army. . . .” It was the mothers who were pushing hardest to end the war.

When the peace deal was signed in Oslo in 1996, Menchú was invited to speak. “When in this solemn place we received the Nobel Peace Prize, we had the hope that one day we could talk of peace.” But negotiations stalled on questions over whether mass murderers and torturers could be forgiven or forgotten. Yet once the accords were finally signed, Menchú immediately campaigned for justice. “The people fought for their land, they fought for a piece of land, to farm it, to have a future for their children, a secure life,” she said. “And the security they were seeking led them to death. I think that if it was a personal offense, it would be easier to forgive, forget, and start a new life. But this is not a personal horror, or a personal offense. It’s a collective offense. It is the collective memory of Guatemala.”

In 1998, Larry Rohter, writing in the New York Times and citing the work of anthropologist and Middlebury College professor David Stoll, accused Menchú of fabricating or conflating key parts of her autobiography. But when a truth commission — the Commission for Historical Clarification — was launched under the auspices of the United Nations, Menchú and her allies remained focused on demanding justice for loved ones who were abducted, tortured, and killed during the civil war. It was a country littered with clandestine graves. As the truth commission proceeded, it made sure not to accuse any of the army’s officers before verifying the facts. “We the victims are the ones who should be in charge of everything having to do with claims for justice,” Menchú said. “This justice we seek would be meaningless if we only learn what happened, because the victims already know what happened.”

The findings, indeed, were clear. In 1999, the New York Times reported that

The truth commission . . . concluded that the United States gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed “acts of genocide” against the Mayans during the most brutal armed conflict in Central America, Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. . . . The report, by the independent Historical Clarification Commission, contradicts years of official denials of the torture, kidnapping and execution of thousands of civilians in a war that the commission estimated killed more than 200,000 people. The commission listed the American training of the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques as a key factor that “had a significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.”

But when her father’s killer, Pedro Garcia Arredondo, former head of “Command 6,” a special investigations unit of the now defunct National Police, was convicted of homicide and crimes against humanity in 2015 for his leadership of the 1980 siege of the Spanish embassy, Menchú was “vindicated,” as Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Greg Grandin described the matter in the Nation.

Indeed, Menchú helped set the tone and forge the climate that convicted him and condemned many others guilty of genocide. Her lawsuit also led to the conviction for genocide of the dictator Rios Montt. Finally “there’ll be a time,” she vowed, “when things will be different, when we’ll all be happy, perhaps not with nice houses, but at least we won’t see our lands running with blood and sweat.”

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