Memoirs of a Guerilla Fighter: The Guatemalan Peace Accords Five Years Later

Natalia Cooper

Julio Cesar Macias, alias Cesar Montes, is well known in Guatemala as a former guerilla fighter, and an important spokesman for social justice and the ongoing peace process in Guatemala. However, he has also been accused on numerous occasions of being a terrorist by the Guatemalan government. Montes was accused of terror because of his actions to restore rights to the people of Guatemala after the CIA-backed overthrow of the progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Montres has also worked to achieve similar goals in other parts of Central America. Last Wednesday, December 5, The Mauricio Gaston Institute along with the William Joiner Center and The Guatemalan Solidarity Committee brought Julio Cesar Macias, a.k.a. Cesar Montes, to the UMB campus.

Cesar Montes has worked for social justice and peace in Central America for forty years. He was born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in 1942 and had a Catholic upbringing there. He trained to become an elementary school teacher and went on to study law at the university level. In 1960, Montes led student demonstrations in support of the movement to fight the stronghold of U.S. control and the constant corruption among officials in his country. Among the many motives for their protests was denouncing the training of anti-Castro Cuban exiles on Guatemalan soil in the early 1960s.

In the ’60s, Montes co-founded the Movement of the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) under the leadership of Luis Augusto Turcios Lima. After Lima was killed in 1968, Montes was named Commander-in-Chief of FAR. In 1972, Montes led 14 men exiled in Mexico back to their native country of Guatemala. It was in the Ixcan jungle of Guatemala that they formed the EGP, or Guerilla Army of the Poor. He went on to participate in similar struggles in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Montes describes himself as “a guerilla commander transformed into a peace constructor.” He now works in Guatemala City, and assists human rights groups, former soldiers (from the guerilla army and the Guatemalan army), and other victims of the constant conflict in his country.

The program was presented in Spanish and translated into English. It began with a short introduction by Dr. Andres Torres, the director of the Gaston Institute. “After September 11, it is common to say the world has changed, but in many parts of the world it is not different,” said Torres. He also emphasized that an important part of understanding the Latino communities here in the U.S. includes the knowledge that many in those communities come from places where violence, conflict, and civil war are everyday concerns. He added that he hoped, especially now, that a more global picture was possible, and cited that as one of the many reasons for bringing Cesar Montes to speak at UMB.

After a short presentation of background information by Gissell Abreu, the Outreach Coordinator for the Gaston Institute, the main part of the program commenced.

“I am not a conference speaker. I am just a revolutionary, nothing else,” said Julio Cesar Macias beginning his remarks. “The image that has been created here, especially about guerillas, is that they are the same as terrorists.”

Montes explained that the real terrorists in the conflict-ridden country of Guatemala are those in government. He referred to a book called Guatemala: Never Again!, by Bishop Gerardi, who was killed just two days after his controversial book was published. Montes was present when Guatemalan generals took Gerardi’s life. “Everyone knows, in Guatemala and the international community. Everyone knows that the Guatemalan army did this,” he said.

Montes used this personal experience to segue into the events that led up to the Peace Accords passed in 1996 which, according to him, are not being properly upheld. He assured that he and his fellow guerillas were and are against terrorism. He used the events of September 11 as a gritty comparison by saying, “Here, they were killed in very few seconds, there they were tortured … years and years of twin towers, can you understand that? We suffered like that for 36 years … I think that now we can understand each other a little bit better.”

He spoke about the long and bloody battle that led to the Peace Accords in 1996. Hundreds of towns were burned, especially those with high percentages of the native Mayan people living there. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan people were killed or “disappeared,” comparable to the numbers of people who became refugees and orphans because of the same internal conflict.

According to human rights reports focusing on Guatemala, 93% of human rights violations committed during the years of civil war were carried out by the government, while only 3% of human rights abuses were attributed to the guerilla fighters. While the Guatemalan government was terrorizing its people they were simultaneously accusing those who fought back against such oppression as being terrorists . People who organized to form trade unions in the cities or fought to keep their land away from development often “disappeared” at the hands of corrupt officials.

“The international policy was to support governments that did these things in Guatemala,” Montes explained. It was not until the Carter administration that the situation in Guatemala began to look more promising and it was not until 1996 that an official peace accord was reached.

The signing of the 1996 Peace Accords on December 29 of that year ended 36 years of internal conflict in Guatemala, according to the U.S. government. According to the United States Embassy in Guatemala, in 1997, the U.S. Government promised $270 million in assistance to Guatemala over a four-year period. According to them, that money is being used to fund projects designed to help achieve the goals laid out in the accords. Cesar Montes paints a very different picture of the past five years in Guatemala. One of the aspects of the accords demanded that the size of the official army was to be reduced by 1/3 by 1997. That did not happen. In fact, the army is expected to increase by almost half its current size over the next year. This increase in military is a direct violation of the Peace Accords. Another agreement in the Peace Accords was to dissolve the position of chief of staff, that promise has also gone unrealized. In addition, the conditions in Guatemala have not drastically improved. Montes used the example of 61 people dying of hunger two months ago, 50 of those who starved were children. “Now we don’t kill ourselves with weapons,” he said, “now we die from hunger.”

Montes continues the work he helped start in the guerilla movements of Guatemala over the past four decades, now through more legal means. He also writes a weekly column in the Guatemalan newspaper SIGLO 21.

After Montes gave his presentation the room was opened up for questions. One student named Elida (no last name was given) relayed her personal experience growing up in Guatemala. She explained that it was difficult to separate the information Montes had presented from the information she had received as a young woman in Guatemala. “All those things were blamed on the guerrideros,” she said, in reference to the human rights violations Montes attributed to the Guatemalan state. She described the difficulty of Guatemalan people to shift blame from the guerillas to the government.

Montes responded with nods of understanding and the comment, “If Elida was told Cesar Montes was going to come to her house, she would run away.” He said it was common for people to fear the guerillas because of the images of the guerilla forces created by the Guatemalan government and media. “They tried to create the enemy of Rambo or the enemy of Schwarzenegger,” he said.

Another UMB student asked how Montes survived through all of the years of guerilla activity and death threats he received from the government. “I don’t know,” Montes responded.

When asked if there was any kind of jury that could deal with the non-compliance of the 1996 Peace Accords, Montes replied that there is no such jury. “The only organization that could take care of this is the UN,” he answered. The problem, according to Montes, is worsened by the mentality instilled by the years of corruption that the Guatemalan people endured in their government. “The people already surrendered their weapons, but they keep them in their minds,” he said.

This forum was presented by the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy. The Gaston Institute was established at the University of Massachusetts Boston by Latino community activists and academics in response to a need for improved understanding of the Latino experience in Massachusetts. According to Gissell Abreu, Outreach Coordinator for the Gaston Institute, this forum was part of “the outreach purpose of the Gaston Institute.” It is also part of an ongoing speaker series they present to educate the university community about issues of importance to the Latino community. The William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Conscience also co-sponsored the event.