In Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala Virginia Sanford goes into the heart of Guatemala to six different locations of clandestine cemeteries to interview survivors of mass suicides that occurred during the period that is now known as La Violencia. Sanford strives to give voice to the Maya, who have been silenced all these years, and chose to have them write their own history of what happened during those dark years.
By uncovering the dark secrets of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union as well as those of the Guerilla Army of the poor, the Guatemalan people were able to begin to heal, to find justice, to become inspired to organize again for social change and to ultimately take control back over their own lives and participate in the democracy that they paid so dearly for (p. 73). Sanford constructs a “phenomenology of terror” through a forensic anthropological study of the clandestine grave sites at six different locations across Guatemala that the crimes against the Maya ultimately resulted in attempted genocide.
These massacres occurred during a period known as La Violencia (1978-1982) under the regime of General Lucas Garcia (1978-1982) and General Rios Montt (March 1982-Aug 1983) (p. 14). According to Sanford, La Violencia went from selective terror into mass terror culminating in the “scorched earth” campaign and ultimately the violence did not cease until the disarming of the last civil patrols and the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords (p. 15).
The Maya were the weak common people caught in the middle of a vicious war between the communist guerilla and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (GNRU); where both sides took advantage of the Maya using them for food and shelter and killing them with little thought if they got in the way for any reason (p. 101). The Maya were simple farming people for the most part and their rights were easily stripped away and they were treated like slaves for years and after La Violencia, they were left maimed, poor and powerless.
The phenomenology of terror that Sanford constructed from the death records, bone analysis, testimonio and other public records/media consists of seven escalating phases of violence and domination (p. 32). . Through analysis of these phases Sanford proves the depth of the GNRU’s crimes and therefore brings them out in public for the Maya people to begin their process of healing. The phemomenology of terror starts with the “pre-massacre community organizing” which amounted to the Maya’s attempt to better their own community often through the local churches to build infrastructure for clean water etc.
Because this organizing sometimes included guerilla organizing (which Sanford indicates was often brought about by fear tactics on the guerilla’s part), it attracted violent repercussions from the GNRU (p. 127). The phase two, “the modus operandi of army massacres,” Sanford describes as the beginning of genocide because the GNRU felt they could not prevent the guerilla from organizing and they used this as an excuse to kill innocent civilians who might or might not have been involved, in order to scare everyone else away from the idea of helping the guerilla (p.
129). In the “post-massacre life in flight,” or phase three, the Guatemalans fled the killing fields of their own villages and took refuge in the mountains with little or no supplies or protection against the elements and many of them died of illness or exposure. The guerilla found them here too and sometimes forced them to kill their own children in order to survive (p. 132). In phase four the “army captures a community” and the Maya were basically treated like prisoners of war: they were tortured, raped, punished, and were forced to work for their food (p.
135). In phase five, “model villages,” the Guatemalans experienced something similar to German concentration camps where they lived under constant military control and were forced to work under fear of being tortured or killed (p. 138). In phase six, “the ongoing militarization of community life,” the civil patrollers, or police, were handed over control from the army but the struggle was still the same, the Maya continued to experience torture and abuse of power(p. 141).
In Sanford’s last denoted phase titled “living memory of terror,” the Maya struggle to put their lives back together while living in terror and with diminished rights. The police continued to control their lives and prevent them from bettering their communities in any way (p. 143). The uncovering of the phenomenology of terror is precisely how the healing process was instigating. The Maya people realized their need for healing when the bodies of their loved ones were being uncovered and when they heard the stories of their peers being told and realized that their own story needed to be revealed as well.
Sanford chose multiple excavation sites in order to have a variety of communities but also so that she could generalize. The communities she chose included: Ixil, K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi’ and Achi villages from the northwest highlands to the central lowlands to the eastern mountains (p. 17). Uncovering these clandestine grave sites amounted to taking back their villages, taking back their loved ones and giving them the respectful burial that they deserved. In doing this it created a political space that was stolen from the Maya in the reign of terror (p.
73). This political space allowed the people to come together and gain power in numbers; they never allowed themselves to be separated off so that no one person could be sacrificed for the cause of bringing out the truth of these massacres. Even those who still believed that the GNRU were telling the truth about the massacres, that the only people killed were communist guerillas, were brought to see the truth about La Violencia because “the bones don’t lie” (p. 47).
Even military officials came to give public recognition of the murders but gave many justifications for their ruthless actions (p. 16). After Sanford herself uncovered a woman’s corpse face down in a mass grave holding a small baby, it became clear that civilians, including women, children and the elderly were a large part of the sacrifice made at mass executions made by the GNRU (p. 43). Records indicate that most of the bodies at the Plan de Sanchez site were women, children and elderly (p. 47).
The Maya went to the Ministerio Publico (prosecutor) as a group and said, “We want a Christian burial for our families because they aren’t dogs, and we don’t want them piled up in those graves like dogs” (p. 39). They were not put down by the Rabinal when they were ordered to attend a meeting that amounted to them trying to control the Maya and prevent them from colluding with the foreigners to uncover the truth. “Leave the dead in peace” the sub-commander told them, but the Maya already knew that the dead were not in peace and stopped at nothing to uncover the rest of the truth so that they could be (p.
44). By pushing forward and sticking together the Maya was able to strip the power from the “memory of terror” to hold them down and instead used it to drive them forward for change and justice (p. 230). Sanford shows that the excavation process gave healing through several different avenues, besides giving the Maya strength in coming together and publicly revealing the truth, the excavation also brought healing through religious ritual and public consecration of the burial sites.
The rituals at burial sites “implicate the enactment of deeply held beliefs about the individual and community identity and reckoning in the past as well as the present” which Sanford believed was the powerful key to opening a future for the Maya in their own broken land (p. 40). Long after the confession and re-burial, the temples built on the sites allowed the Maya to continue their grief process and to continue to heal and have a place where they could go for remembrance of their loved ones and the pain they experienced (p. 245).
In addition, the exhumation inspired the local people to organize once again to try to better their communities and used the memory of terror as inspiration to work hard for change rather than allowing it to hold them down in fear (p. 211). These local initiatives included things such as support groups and groups advocating yet more exhumations. (p. 243). Sanford describes another type of healing that took place because of the exhumations and resulting testimonies that amounts to the clinical treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: testimonial therapy (p. 239).
By giving survivors the chance to “understand the impossible nature of the situation to which they had been exposed” and to transfer “the burden of responsibility to the perpetrators of violence and to the repressive structures that fomented their traumas” they were able to heal the emotional wounds of those experiences (p. 241). The final step in healing is providing the people with justice through charging those guilty of leading the massacres. Ultimately the confessions and the exhumations helped to bring those guilty of these horrible crimes to light for the sake of justice.
The Maya faced the obstacle of “auto-limpieza,” which was the act of killing those who were in charge of giving orders for the military on behalf of the men who were in the upper echelons of the military power structure—in other words, the men who could tell the truth about who was ultimately responsible for these massacres were killed (p. 211). In addition to this obstacle, the government attributed any challenge to their authority to equate to a national security threat. So when the Maya began to search for those guilty of these war crimes, they faced the old threat of terror (p.
251). According to Sanford, “justice, rule of law, and truth commission are now seen as a critical step for societies experiencing the transition from military rule,” therefore it was of utmost importance to the Maya to pursue justice and bring closure on the dark La Violencia era (p. 249). With the help of other Central American countries and international organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, the Maya people were given the added strength to bring justice to at least a few war criminals.
Without their help the Maya may never have been able to overcome the memory of terror which stood in the way of them being able to participate in the democracy that they paid so dearly for (p. 253). Ultimately the trials of the authors of this violence helped to construct, “a viable democracy by demonstration that the rule of law extends to the powerful as well as to the poor” (p. 270). In conclusion, Virginia Sanford shows through a forensic anthropological study of the massacre sites that genocide did indeed occur against the Mayan people and she lays out the timeline of violence in seven phases that she calls the phenomenology of terror.
Through the process of constructing this phenomenology the Maya are brought together again and inspired to better their community and fight for justice. They experience healing through testimonio (of their PTSD) and through public recognition of their loved one’s sacrifices in religious ritual and the consecration of the burial sites. By consecrating those public spaces and bringing to justice those who were responsible, the Maya were able to break fear of the memory of terror and take their rightful place in the democracy that they paid so dearly for.
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