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Prof. Garrard-Burnett's new book delves into 'the Mayan holocaust' of 1982-83

Efraín Ríos Montt, a retired general and born-again Christian, ruled Guatemala between March 1982 and August 1983. During this period, approximately 86,000 Guatemalans, mostly of indigenous (Maya) descent, succumbed to a spiraling wave of violence.

Posted: May 5, 2010
Prof. Virginia Garrard-Burnett

Prof. Virginia Garrard-Burnett

Largely the result of the Guatemalan army’s all-out military campaign to root out a long-standing guerrilla movement, this death toll constitutes a substantial portion of the estimated number of people (at least 200,000) who perished during Guatemala’s bloody armed conflict from 1960-1996.

What factors allowed the Ríos Montt regime to kill so many people? Professor of History Virginia Garrard-Burnett, examines this question in her most recent work, Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala Under General Efraín Ríos Montt, 1982-1983 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). She is also affiliated with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas.

Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit gives the first English-language study of this period in Guatemalan history. Garrard-Burnett draws on recently available primary documents such as guerrilla documents, evangelical pamphlets, speech transcripts, and declassified United States government records.

She contends that Ríos Montt, through his religious discourse, brought together state power and violence. As he addressed the country every week during his televised Sunday “sermons", he injected a moral and evangelical component to the Guatemalan anticommunist state.  

Ríos Montt cast the country’s social ills in a moral light. He considered the guerrilla movement and the non-armed political opposition a consequence of Guatemalans’ lack of morality, discipline and national unity.  

In part, this discourse, or vision of a “New Guatemala,” permitted the Guatemalan military to undertake a “scorched-earth” campaign designed to defeat the guerrilla movement. Garrard-Burnett indicates that this crusade not only reversed the political and military fortunes of the guerrilla movement but also resulted in numerous massacres and profound social dislocations within Maya communities. 

Looking back over Guatemalan history between 1954 and the late 1970s, she finds that three decades of war engendered an ideology of violence that cut across class, cultures, communities, religions, and even families. "Many Guatemalans converted to Pentecostalism during this period," she says, "because of the affinity between these churches' apocalyptic message and the violence of their everyday reality."

Garrard-Burnett's book reminds us that, despite the aforementioned violence, people in and outside Guatemala backed, directly or indirectly, Ríos Montt’s ideological discourse. Many Guatemalans (mainly urban and non-Maya citizens), U.S. officials in President Reagan's administration, and religious consevative groups (particularly those identified with the Moral Majority) ignored or turned a blind eye to the extent of the violence, and, at some level, “supported and believed in the Ríos Montt regime” writes Garrard-Burnett (page 177).

The research findings are balanced and well grounded in historical record. She does an admirable job in bringing together a variety of archival sources located in Guatemala and the U.S. to study Guatemala’s most tragic and, thus, controversial historical moment.  

This book has much relevance for the history of Guatemala and other countries alike. In Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit, the reader will find a serious discussion of what constitutes “genocide” and the effects of religious discourse and violence on modern society.

"In a country still torn over the war by polarizing accusations amplified by righteous self-exculpation, Garrard-Burnett listens carefully to as many sides as her sources allow — the Left, the Right, Catholic activists, evangelicals, the U.S. embassy — to conclude that states turn genocidal, not just because they can, but because both perpetrators and the public come to see their self-preservation, if not salvation, at stake. In helping us understand better that self-preservation, this book also speaks with respect-and hope-to the survivors. We should all be listening carefully," writes Dr. John Watanabe, associate professor of anthropology, Dartmouth College about Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit.

By Bonar L. Hernández Sandoval, assistant instructor, History Department

Related Links:
Prof. Virginia Garrard-Burnett
Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit, University of Oxford Press, 2010

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