Research Assignment: The Terror

For the video project, our group has discussed adding a ‘human’ element to what occurred in Latin America between the 1960s-1980s, rather than simply relate what happened on a macro level and risk losing a real sense of grief over what happened and what still continues to affect Latin American countries today as a result of the scars of this period. In order to do this, we will be focussing on the case studies of Guatemala and El Salvador, lest we take on a task too large and over-generalise the waves of terror experienced in Latin America. I will be discussing the case of Guatemala in particular. The two texts detailed below were chosen specifically for the personal accounts used in order to construct a holistic image of what happened on the ground.


The Guatemalan Civil War was extremely long and bloody in nature, spanning 36 years from 1960 to 1996. The main parties to the conflict were the Guatemalan Government and various leftist guerrilla groups mainly consisting of the rural peasantry of both indigenous and mestizo peoples. According to Nelson, the most horrific period in popular memory is that of 1978 to 1983, wherein the Government adopted a scorched earth policy and significantly escalated extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and the massacre of tens of thousands of people.

According to the Guatemalan Supreme Court, it is estimated that more than 100,000 civilians were killed, 35,000 widows and 200,000 orphans were created, and more than 440 villages were completely razed to the ground. According to Afflito and Jesilow, these are conservative estimations.

As Nelson and Afflito and Jesilow discuss in their respective books, this reign of terror had vast human impacts that continue to plague the country even today, more than 20 years after the conflict was ‘ended’ – indeed, Nelson describes the difficulty of defining ‘post-war’ in the Guatemalan context specifically; the war experienced multiple escalations and de-escalations, however, as mentioned above, the period of the 80s was referred to as La Volencia, a period of extreme violence that could, at any time, erupt again.

Diane M. Nelson. 2009. Reckoning: The Ends Of War In Guatemala. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.

“Do you know how to make moronga [blood sausage], Diana? Well, you take a mess of blood and boil it and boil it and boil it until it hardens into sausage. That’s what’s happened to Guatemalans. All the suffering, the blood spilled in the violence and then the boiling and boiling of the decades of war, the counterinsurgency, we have a hard time thinking new thoughts because our brains have become hard like moronga.” – Guatemalan Ladino

I will be focusing on a particular chapter in Nelson’s book titled Horror’s Special Effects. In this chapter, Nelson details how we may preserve the experiences and memories of survivors in a way that is ethical and respectful, yet also does justice to the true horror of what really occurred. It is of significant interest as Nelson discusses the way in which the experiences of the Guatemalan people throughout the Civil War has affected their present psyches, responses to violence, and identity

In an anecdote, Nelson relays the disgust of a particular anthropologist whilst watching a horror movie in a hostel with various young Guatemalans from the mountains. “How can you watch this?!”, she blurted out, to which one of the young Guatemalan men replied, “This is what happened in our country. We have to watch this so we don’t forget.”

Trauma and recollections of horror survive in Guatemala in the banality of everyday. It reflects the perseverance of the human spirit in such awful times, and the difficulties of learning to live with and come to terms with civil instability, wherein the very foundations of human society are shaken and human bonds broken. In Guatemala, children were forcibly conscripted into the army and made to experience the horrors of war, neighbours were coerced to turn on neighbours, women were made to feed those who violated them and murdered their kinfolk. Nelson makes the assertion that the popularity of horror films in this country may stem from their “unexpected metaphors and shared experiences.”

I think that this book is significant due to its attempt to contextualise the trauma of the Civil War in modern day Guatemala. It is one thing to listen to the recounts of survivors, but another to truly understand how these experiences have been incorporated into the social fabric of the country today. From an outsider’s perspective, especially for those of us that cannot even begin to grasp the terrors of civil war, this book is an invaluable first step in empathising with the Guatemalan people and understanding the true human costs of the war.

Frank M. Afflito and Paul Jesilow. 2019. The Quiet Revolutionaries: Seeking Justice In Guatemala. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

This book by Afflito and Jesilow also examines Guatemalan experiences in the Civil Wars, however, it deals more with the attitudes that the people have towards democracy and its institutions, including the judiciary which was largely complacent, if not an accessory, to the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that characterised the reign of terror in Guatemala. Throughout the Civil War, the rule of law was crippled, and the country is still experiencing mistrust in these institutions today. However, even more significant than the construction of the legal system is the way that the Civil War altered individual perceptions of the term ‘justice’, which Afflito and Jesilow argue is a subjective concept shaped by an individual’s world view. Indeed, how may one perceive justice in a society where there exists widespread state-sanctioned terrorism? Many who fell victim to these atrocities were innocent – how does one reconcile with a system that widely operates to persecute the innocent?

Rather than focus on those that committed these atrocities and the practices of the regime, Afflito and Jesilow hope to preserve the stories and legacies of those who were murdered or disappeared, as well as those left behind; the survivors of these traumas who lost loved ones to regime, and how these people came to terms with the realities of systemic violence. They refer to these individuals as “the quiet revolutionaries.” It is argued that, in losing loved ones to the system, these quiet revolutionaries turned from believing in the justice of God to radical workers who sought justice on their own accord. This transformative process was both a necessary response to the turbulence of the time, but also a demonstration of the human will to resist and revolt in the face of what one deems ‘injustice’.

I think that this book will be particularly useful not just in framing and contextualising the experiences of survivors, but also in demonstrating the ways in which the Civil War has left its mark even today in Guatemala. The rule of law and other democratic institutions are heralded as central to the operation of a healthy liberal democracy, and the lack of faith in these institutions is also definitely a barrier to the consolidation of democracy in Guatemala, as well as all over Latin America where many genocides were state-sanctioned.



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