Interview with a Guatemalan Refugee in Costa Rica

This is an interview with a Guatemalan Refugee in Costa Rica about the 36 year civil war that raged through Guatemala from the early sixties into the nineties. Throughout the interview I refer to her as La Professora, as she requested that I do not disclose her real identity. Submit links and comments to this page! Publish your relevant link, comment, or information below.

What year did you come to Costa Rica and leave Guatemala?

I left Guatemala in 1980. Which was a very difficult year for the university. The years before there was a lot of repression from the government as they tried to institute a counter insurgency program that they had for Guatemala. They had been trying to destroy the popular movement through killing union leaders, campesino leaders, and also slum dweller leaders, but they hadn’t hit the university yet. In that year [1980] they hit the university. Every day you would just come to school and it would be just like, “Who did they . . . kill today.”  

And you were a student?

Yes, I was a student at that time. We had an organization that was really interested in dealing with social issues. But at that point in Guatemala, dealing with social issues would immediately get you labeled as a communist.  Unfortunately, Guatemala and all of Central America got stuck in the middle of the cold war. Because whatever the concerns were and the need for social change were real- and it’s still real. Wealth distribution is amazingly unfair, and that comes way back from colonial times. So the needs were there and people wanted change, but anything that sounded like change or challenged the status quo was immediately labeled as communist. And the moment you were labeled communist it meant that you could get killed, and so what. You know, it was as easy as that. Sometimes they would say, “They shot somebody,” and the reaction of the population itself was “who knows what that person was in, what exactly they were doing.”

They would say, “Oh, he was messing around being a communist and he got shot, what else did he expect.” So it was really complex at that point, and a lot of people were labeled as communist, and organizations and efforts.  So at that point, in 1980, just in that year, they killed about 13,000 students and faculty. So anybody that has a progressive perspective, or had any kind of social concern, or was involved in any kind of movement [pause] lots of people were killed. People that were in my organization, we worked with kids a lot, and also with farmers, some of them were disappeared. They just dragged them out of a bus, a public bus.

Have you seen this personally?

I never saw this personally. But it happened a lot and it was a fear that we all had. That it could happen to us at any time. There was this guy that studied architecture, and they just dragged him out of his house. You know, it was night time, they opened his door with an ax and just dragged him out in front of his family. There were also two guys on a public bus, and they just dragged them out and they were heard from never again. Guatemala at this point has more than 40,000 disappeared, and that was the way they disappeared. A van would pass by and you could be walking down the street and they would drag you into the back.

It was terror, no kidding. You felt that at anytime you could be killed. You would go to bed and say, “My God, are they going to drag me out of here, my home.”

It was a nerve war across the culture?

Absolutely. Because what was the price of being caught? Torture, absolute torture. You know what they would do with some of the students that they captured? They would go and throw their corpses on the campus, completely tortured, as a way of terror. They were saying, “This is what is going to happen to you.”

That was the worse part. Because Guatemala did not have political prisoners. El Salvador had political prisoners, Nicaragua did too, and they were other countries that were at war at that point (not amongst each other but with internal conflict).
It was nerve racking. It was to the point that a lot of people had to leave the country.

Did the nerve war, the propaganda by torture and murder, did that put a stop to all of the social programs in Guatemala that were not government sanctioned?

Well, what it did is that it stopped a lot, because people did not want to get involved in anything that could be labeled [as communist]. Even though it did not have that philosophy [of communism] and the idea was not very radical for most organizations, but any NGO would be seen as possibly suspect.

You have to remember that the whole guerrilla movement was really active at that point. Guatemala has 22 departments or states, out of which the guerrilla movement had presence in about 19. So even though not everywhere was as     Sometimes it would just be like urban warfare, and a bomb would explode here and pamphlets would appear here or there. It was not necessarily like in El Salvador where the guerrillas did take over complete populations and held them.

What were the Communist ties of the guerrillas? Were there real ties to Cuba or was that mostly just propaganda?

I think that there are a lot of different perspectives. Like the Guatemala Communist Party, they definitely since they were born, were born into that philosophy. Many of the leaders did have a Marxist/ Leninist perspective in terms of understanding society as something that can change and that people can change it. But within each organization there were a lot of different perspectives: social democrats that were not really as radical and other sectors that really wanted complete change. We are talking about the guerrilla organizations here, but the population in general just wanted change. 95% of the guerrilla movement was composed by indigenous people, and out of those 95% of indigenous people very few even knew what Marxism was. They just knew they needed change. They lived in huts, you know, and they were just out in the mountains with very small plots of land. They can barely grow anything anymore, the land is exhausted, they have had it for generations and generations, for about 200 years.  So when we talk about land redistribution- and that’s the plan- and health care and education, people are there. Because their kids die of diarrhea and diseases that can be controlled. And because you want your kids to study, you just want equality as indigenous people.

It also seems as if the people in the countryside had to choose one side or the other- between the government militias or the guerrillas?

You are totally right. Absolutely. I would say that the army itself, with its strategy, forced a lot of people into the guerrilla movement, and the same happened in El Salvador. There was just this repression, and people just had no option. Because they had the whole territory marked with pins, with red pins. All of the communities and small villages that had that red pin disappeared. More than 440 villages were just wiped out of the planet. They just burned them. And there are terrible testimonies of the massacres that this implies, because when you go and you burn down a village, you kill most of the population. And the rest you force to join your militia. What are  you going to do at that point?    

How did they decide on these villages to destroy?

Because they were where the guerrillas had the most support. It was in Quiche . . . In the highlands, where there were a lot of mountains and a lot of forests still, not now anymore unfortunately, but there was still at that point. So the guerrillas moved a lot, and the guerrillas did have the support of a lot of the people too. So they were plying the philosophy that came with the whole U.S. counter insurgency project in Vietnam. It was like what Mao-Tse-Tung had said: 

“The masses of the people are like water to the fish.”

So the whole counter insurgency project was to take away the water and isolate the fish! And the way of taking away that water was to go to anywhere they knew there was a guerrilla movement or consolidation. They would go and try to wipe the population out and that is where the model villages happened. You destroy the village and then you move them somewhere else. So they have model villages that are totally militarized. You know with control, because in indigenous communities there are houses spread all over. So they put them all together in a town that is square with military posts on each side, and to go in and out you had to have a card. If the military found you out up in the mountains and you didn’t have that card with a permit that said you could be out there they would shoot you. So the whole area was militarized. It was war.

Seriously, war against a people without an army.

The thing is that the guerrillas wanted to be the peoples army, and were the peoples army.

[skipped section on specifics of different guerrilla organizations]

Did these actions of the government military in the countryside force attacks on Guatemala City?

In many ways it did. This was also part of the strategy, because that [Guatemala City] was the heart. But the mass movement was more through mass organizations in the cities were through student organizations, slum dwellers organizations, and teachers organizations, and unions also, so it had a different expression. I would say that it was this mixture of some people who started the revolution from a Marxist perspective, from people that were just dreaming of change, of redistribution of wealth, to people that got caught. It got to the point where you just had to be either- or, so it was a really complex process.

How were you effected personally? Or your family?

My family wasn’t effected directly. It was more my husband’s family, because they killed his brother trying to find him.  So it was a really hard blow because it also had a lot of guilt in it. You know, it was like, “Why didn’t they kill me, why did they have to kill him?” And so that was when we left the country, and we decided to come here to Costa Rica. His family was devastated, because out of four children, they had one dead and one gone. So suddenly, it was a hard blow.  

Why were they after your husband?

He was working at a student organization, and as I was telling you at the beginning, anything that was different, anything that had any expression of organizing was targeted. At the point when the university was targeted they just went after everybody that they found involved in anything.

And your husband was a student as well?


Was it difficult to come to Costa Rica? Did you come as a refugee?

Yeah, we came as refugees with the high commission of the United Nations for Refugees. Yeah, at that time in Costa Rica there were thousands of refugees coming, very few from Guatemala because it meant a PLANE ride. But about 300,000 Guatemalans fled towards Mexico, they walked all the way to the border, and so that is why they had a huge belt of refugee camps in Southern Mexico. There were a couple hundred [Guatemalan refugees] here in Costa Rica, some in the States. And there were also thousands of Nicaraguans all moving because there were conflicts in Nicaragua, thousands of El Salvadorians. So the high commission of the United Nations for Refugees was very active here at this point boarding all these incoming refugees. So it was a conflict because Costa Rica was receiving so many people that they were very torn, they didn’t want any more foreigners, and the foreigners didn’t really want to be here. They were forced out.

There was no place else to go?

Yeah, it is not like you don’t want to be with your family or anything, so it was a very complicated method for them.  

Now that the Civil War has been all over for around 10 years, what are your thoughts and feelings on Guatemala? Do you ever go back? Do you ever return? Or is it kind of like a hard lump in your heart? 

It’s been a long process. It was almost twenty years before I did go, for twenty years I didn’t go back. I saw my family just a couple of times when they came here to visit. When I did decide to go back, I have been going back now for almost ten years [pause] it has been a long process to re-heal Guatemala. Because Guatemala is a beautiful place, people are really beautiful and sweet that I am rediscovering. Wow, people smile a lot, they are willing to help, they are a really nice group of people.

But the conflicts are there, you know, because the causes that brought people to participate in a war are still there. The peace agreements were signed but one of the main things that were not achieved was legality and democracy at an electoral level. On one hand they have been holding elections there since ‘85, whereas before, since ‘58, the military always had these crude elections, they always had this big fraud. So in that since its been positive. People have very little trust in political parties. It is interesting, because the left in the last elections in November were totally divided. There were so many different perspectives, and they were only able to get 3.5% of the vote! Now that says a lot! That says that people don’t want war, they don’t want anything radical. You know, even Rigoberta Menchú Tum, she got about 2.8% of the vote. So she is more of an important figure outside of Guatemala, because of sexism and racism, and you know, fear of her political background.

So the people just want stability?

They don’t want war! Right now, they don’t know what to do with delinquency, with the gangs. They have taken over complete areas, where they go to your house and if you don’t give them the money you have to give them every week they will kill you and every member of your family. They have already killed complete families. Just to say, “This is what is going to happen to you, to anyone.” It is such a violent society.

So the nerve war continues?

It does continue. People rush home, buses get constantly attacked. You get on a public bus, and you have all those people there that you can rob. You just go in with a couple machine guns, you know, you can get the bus fares, and you get everybody’s things. So that’s a huge problem. We’ve even had strikes of bus companies that said, “We are not going to go there anymore, to that area,” after they have had some of the drivers killed because they weren’t willing to give the money or they resisted, or the guy just said, “[gunshot noise].” 

What was the Civil War like when you were a child? Was it different?

I was born two years after the US sponsored invasion in‘54. I was born in ‘56. The first guerrilla movements started in Guatemala around ‘63. It was interesting, you know, because it was a crescendo. Even though you were a child you would see the military in the street, and curfew. I still recall us rushing back home in my dad’s car because curfew was just about to start, and the tension of that, and seeing the military cars patrolling. So you knew that something was going on, even though you had no idea exactly what it was.

And these were your first impressions of the world?

It’s intense. Or when the army made searches in different neighborhoods. It was intense just to have them come into your house and search and open drawers and search all over.

What did your parents tell you was going on?

It was more saying like: “It’s a war. A war, and they are looking for guerrillas.”

Interview with La Professora by Wade P. Shepard of Vagabond
February 11, 2008
Heredia, Costa Rica 

To read the article that arose from this interview go to Guatemala 1980

Wade P. Shepard has been on a continuous vagabond journey around the world for more than eight years- over thirty countries on five continents. He has wandered into the outback of Mongolia, lived in a monastery in Tibet, ate a puppy in China, danced with mystics in India, thought he was a gardener in Ireland, braved the souqs of North Africa, and got really lost in Patagonia. Throughout all of this, he has been working diligently on his travel blog, Song of the Open Road, at: and his website Vagabond Journey, at:, as well as pawning off various travel articles to unsuspecting magazines for food. 

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