The Survivors of a Civil War
The lines between the good guys and the bad guys are human beings
“Executions? Yes, we have executed. We execute, and we’ll continue to execute.”
— Che Guevara
On my last day in San Cristobal, I stopped by the NGO to say goodbye to my friend, Rudy, but I was early, and he’d not yet arrived. Rudy’s father was there, though, working on his dump truck, and I introduced myself. We spoke of life in this Guatemalan highland state of Alta Verapaz.
Domingo Gonzales speaks and smiles gently. He has an unassuming manner, a weathered face, and the tanned rough hands of an individual that has worked hard all his life. He is very proud of his son, Rudy, his education, and all that is accomplished by the non-profit his son founded.
Mr. Gonzales had hoped to get an education himself when he was young but completed his schooling only up to the third grade when the community teacher was let go for drunkenness, and no one was ever hired to replace him. I asked him how he came to live in San Cristóbal.
He told me that he lived through the 35-year civil war that ravaged the state of Alta Verapaz. Rudy was born near the end of it but for a good portion of its duration. Both father and son believe strongly in the rule of law and so supported the government in its vicious attempts to rid the country of the socialist guerrillas bent on overthrowing the ruling parties. Although he was unhappy with the government’s lack of concern for the problems of the poor, he did not object to the military patrols he and members of these communities were forced to participate in for the protection of the status quo. When Rudy was born, Domingo worked as a mechanic, maintaining a fleet of trucks for a large gasoline refinery.
Very late one night, he was called to work unexpectedly. There was an emergency at the plant, and his services were needed immediately. When he arrived, it was a fiery scene of chaos. The entire fleet of the company’s trucks had been set ablaze by anti-establishment guerillas, and the company employees were all being herded into a field at gunpoint.
Domingo was immediately taken into custody along with the group. Armed guards surrounded them. People Mr. Gonzales knew were in the process of randomly being executed. Domingo remembers that in the midst of his prayers, the sky was beginning to lighten when government soldiers descended on the killing field from all around, their guns blazing in the dim light.
But the government troops were firing into the entire group of captors and captives as randomly as the guerillas had been executing them. Men all around him were dropping, many of them dead. It didn’t seem to matter to the soldiers who was who. Domingo quickly realized that they were out to eradicate the rebel forces at any cost. He started running for his life. His eyes reddened just a bit, describing the sound of bullets whizzing by his head that still-dark morning. He couldn’t understand such hatred or lack of concern for human lives, not then, not now. He knew that although he was unarmed and posed no threat, he was being specifically targeted simply for attempting to stay alive. He made it home and gathered up a few belongings with his family into a pickup truck, and continued fleeing until arriving at San Cristóbal.
The American-backed civil war in Alta Verapaz eventually ended. It has been over for nearly as long as it lasted — 30 years. But its consequences of poverty linger, and the work of NGOs like Domingo’s son is crucial.