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Guatemala in the 1980s: A Genocide Turned into Ethnocide?

GIGA-WP-19/2006
Guatemala in the 1980s:
A Genocide Turned into Ethnocide?
Abstract
While the Guatemalan Truth Commission came to the conclusion that agents of the state had
committed acts of genocide in the early 1980s, fundamental questions remain. Should we
indeed speak of the massacres committed between 1981 and 1983 in Guatemala as “geno-
cide”, or would “ethnocide” be the more appropriate term? In addressing these questions,
this paper focuses on the intentions of the perpetrators. Why did the Guatemalan military
chose mass murder as the means to “solve the problem of subversion”? In Guatemala, the
discourses of communist threat, racism and Pentecostal millenarism merged into the intent
to destroy the Mayan population. This paper demonstrates that the initial policy of physical
annihilation (genocidal option) was transformed into a policy of restructuring the socio-
cultural patterns of the Guatemalan highlands (ethnocidal option).
Key words: genocide studies, Guatemala, human rights violations, massacres
This Paper was prepared for the workshop “Opting for Genocide: To What End?” in Ham-
burg (organized by Hamburg Institute for Social Research), March 23-25, 2006.
Anika Oettler
is researcher at GIGA Institute for Ibero-American Studies in Hamburg. Her doctoral thesis
sought to provide an analytical survey of the origins, work and effects of the Guatemalan
Truth Commission and its ecclesiastical equivalent, the Catholic Project for the Recovery of
Historical Memory. Her current research project concerns the Central American talk of crime.
Contact: oettler@giga-hamburg.de · Website: www.giga-hamburg.de/iik/oettler
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