It wasn’t only bullets and violence that killed thousands of indigenous people during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war.
The government forced farmers into so-called model villages under strict army control to isolate them from the guerrillas. They were promised health care and other services, but instead were left to die from malnutrition and treatable illnesses. They weren’t included in the casualty count in the brutal conflict.
Now, in the hamlet of Santa Avelina, their bodies are being unearthed, identified and reburied. Among the bodies are scores of indigenous children who died from measles in the former model village, where residents lived in small, dirt-floor houses and sermons and Christian hymns were played from loudspeakers.
Miguel Torres, a 67-year-old farmer, recalled how the army occupied his community and, under the threat of accusing locals of being guerrillas and then killing them, made them live in the model village.
“We were afraid every day. They said if we weren’t there in a week they would burn the house. `We will leave it in ashes,”’ Torres recalled soldiers saying.
The strategy unfolded during the hardest years of the decades-long war. In 1979 the army began relocating people who had been displaced from the western mountains by fighting. The army had identified the Ixil indigenous region as the support base of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of Guatemala’s four guerrilla groups. Thus the Ixil region became a testing ground for the kind of `strategic hamlet’ program used by the United States in Vietnam.
In 1980 the army formed one of the first model villages in Santa Avelina, located in the heart of Ixil territory in Quiche department. But without access to doctors, a healthy diet and freedom, people began to die.
Exhumations in Santa Avelina started in 2014 and in late November forensic anthropologists handed over the remains of 172 people who perished during the years of military control. Their bones and tattered bits of clothing were re-buried individually by surviving family members after over more than three decades in anonymous mass graves.
Torres recovered the remains of his daughter Magdalena, who died at about age 1.
“The children were frightened because the soldiers came. The people ran up the mountain to hide. They thought they were going to die, that they had had come to kill them. When they get scared they die. Sometimes they got diarrhea, fever, and they died.” That’s how Torres explains the death of his daughter.
There is no official figure of how many people died of hunger and untreated diseases in the model villages, but there were more than 45 such villages, according to a report titled Recovery of Historic Memory prepared by the Roman Catholic Church, and Santa Avelina was just one of them.
Yeni De Leon of the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology, which was in charge of the exhumations, said about 45 percent of the 172 bodies exhumed in Santa Avelina correspond to children age 12 and under. Many died from a measles outbreak in the early 1980s.
Of the 7,000 bodies from the war the foundation has exhumed, about 1,000 are of displaced people who died in or as consequence of the model villages, said its executive director, Jose Suasnavar.
The Catholic report explains that besides a lack of medical care, hunger may have played a role in what happened in Santa Avelina and other model villages, which were under control of the army, whose responsibility it was to provide food for the inhabitants.
“The basic diet consisted of three tortillas and some beans for all three daily meals, on occasion a bit of rice,” the report reads. About 60,000 people likely lived in the model villages.
An estimated 250,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war, overwhelmingly by violence at the hands of soldiers, according to the United Nations. But in Santa Avelina the vast majority of the bodies presented no sign of violent injuries, indicating the victims perished from illness, malnutrition and other causes, said foundation anthropologist Danny Guzman.
The army was trying to regain control over northern Quiche from the guerrillas and prevent locals from joining their ranks.
“Putting them in the model villages was a perverse strategy” to attain these goals, said activist Mario Polanco of the Gam Mutual Support Group, which works to locate people who disappeared during the war.
“The villages were like an urban colony with streets, small, simple homes [of wood and sheet metal with dirt floors], highlighting symbols of national unity, values of Western culture. The way of life was like in a barracks,” said Edgar Gutierrez, former coordinator of the Catholic report. Gutierrez recalled that the villages had schedules for inhabitants to sing the national anthem in the morning as well as the hymn of the quasi-military civilian patrols.
“All manner of freedom was restricted and you could leave the community only with special permission,” Polanco said.
The villages were created with government funds and support from U.S. evangelical churches, which maintained close relations with then-dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
With the signing of peace accords in 1996, the model villages were gradually dismantled.
Today little has changed in Santa Avelina and poverty here is extreme. There are still homes of wood, sheet metal and wood floors built on the hillsides, though others have been upgraded with block construction. There are three paved roads while the rest are dirt.
Even less has been done to bring justice for the dead.
Edgar Perez, lawyer for the families of 1,771 Ixils killed by soldiers and who accuse Rios Montt of genocide, said the cases of the displaced have not been tried in Guatemala and that “these victims have been forgotten by justice.” He is not ruling out legal action over the deaths.
Rios Montt was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide, but Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overruled the decision on procedural grounds and ordered a new trial. Currently the 91-year-old retired general is being prosecuted in absentia in a “special trial” due to his advanced age and precarious health. Even if found guilty he would not face any prison time.
Since the exhumations in Santa Avelina began, experts have identified 108 of the victims through DNA testing or through personal objects recognized by family members. The return of the bodies has given relatives a place to bring flowers and light candles as is tradition.
The historic event took a poignant turn with Josse Ceto Cobo, a local indigenous leader who was one of the principal promoters of the exhumations.
The 70-year-old was finally able to see his former neighbors properly interred — but died of unknown causes the day after their burials.