Christian Lorenzen - confronting a legacy of official terror
In February last year, 18,000 Guatemalans, mostly survivors or relatives of victims of the state-sponsored terror of the 1970s and 1980s, gathered in Guatemala City, to commemorate the "Day of Dignity for the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict." They heard President Alvaro Colom publicly accept the UN report that documented the terror. That report recorded that 200,000 people had been killed and 50,000 more ‘disappeared’ in that period. It defined the violence as genocide against the country's Maya majority, and it attributed 95% of the massacres and violations of human rights to Guatemala's armed forces. There are now hopeful signs that this genocide is being recognised by the Gutaemalan authorities, but sadly, killings are still taking place in this, the msot violent countries of Central America.
For the first time, a president has accepted the UN report and has honoured the victims of the conflict. Alvaro Colom, President of the Republic, said: “I ask for pardon." This marks a dramatic break from the past - a clear articulation of the government's responsibility for massive human rights violations, genocide, and ethnocide. It is also part of a broader programme promoted by Colom to recover Guatemala's historical memory and to begin offering symbolic and actual compensation to the victims of violence. The government has also opened the National Police Archives, announced plans to open the military archives, and promoted memorial events, conferences, and publications honouring victims. It has also overseen a controversial programme to compensate victims with funds and housing.
I have a personal interest in this process, as three close student friends were active in the struggle to overthrow the brutal oligarchy – all our now dead.
This is how ‘Porfiro, one of the local Maya jakalteco indigenous people, begs permission from the ‘Heart of heaven and earth’ to forgive us the injury we are about to inflict on the sacred soil and lights candles at the four cardinal points. Each of us expresses what we feel. Felipe speaks of the sacrifice and says that the comrades interred here gave their all for the goal of achieving a better form of society; Leonor explains to us that in the Mayan calendar today is symbolic for fire and death, and death represents the end of a cycle: the seed dies in order to give life to the plant. To find the remains of our comrades would allow us to close the endless circle of pain and uncertainty.
Around mid-morning, while we’re excavating, men from the nearby village of Pico de Oro arrive. They are understandably suspicious and wish to establish that we are in fact looking for the remains of relatives and not robbing the ancient site. They come armed with machetes and rifles and expressions of mistrust on their stony faces. After an intense conversation, we manage to assuage their fears.
At one end of the trench we dig, we come across carved stones, revealing that we are excavating in an area of an ancient Mayan settlement. By two o’clock we find the first fragments of bone wrapped in a plastic sheet. We soon recover a complete skull and then virtually the whole skeleton. Miguel, one of Christian’s close comrades, has no doubt the bones are Christian’s. We also find the remains of another comrade remembered only by his nom de guerre, Clemencio. This had been the burial place for comrades killed in action, among them, some of the first indigenous guerrilla fighters.”
That is a summary of the report I received recently via an old friend from the former GDR, from Christian’s son.
When I was studying at the national film school in the GDR in the late sixties my fellow students in the class were all from developing countries, a number from Latin America. They were learning how to make films, so that they could return to their homes to help document their peoples’ struggles for liberty and freedom from imperial domination.
One student who made a deep impression on me was a young Guatemalan comrade by the name of Christian Lorenzen. Unusual for Central Americans, he was over 6 ft tall, slim, handsome with dark curly hair and intense chestnut eyes. He was always exceedingly serious, very committed to his studies and not easily approachable. When I asked him about his unusual stature and name, he revealed that one of his great grandparents had come from Scandinavia.
I lost contact with Christian over the years and only this month did I learn the tragic reason why. Another friend and comrade was the renowned Guatemalan poet Rene Otto Castillo who was killed in action by the Guatemalan army, trained and armed by US and Israeli forces.
Christian, like Rene Otto, was one of those who were determined to dedicate his life to the liberation of his people and in those heady days of the late sixties, when the example of Che Guevara and the armed struggles then unfolding in Latin America and elsewhere were magnetic.
He left the GDR abruptly, directed by the Guatemalan party to undertake military training in the North Korea and Cuba in preparation for a guerrilla campaign in his native Guatemala.
In the early seventies Christian became one of the founders of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres or EGP). But, for various reasons, he was not among the fisrt armed units to enter the country.
Eight years later, in early March 1980, only a few months after being elected to the command of the EGP, he joined his comrades in the field. Some weeks later when marching along an arduous mountain path in Chiapas, hindered by a dense tangle of vegetation Christian began suffering serious health problems – he was coughing blood and running a high fever. He thought he simply had an attack of malaria and was determined to keep going, but it was more serious than that. He died on that march; he was just 35 years old.
In 2002, his remains were taken to Guatemala City and, in the presence of his parents, family and former comrades, were given a dignified burial.
The Guatemalan Interdiocesan Recovery of Historical Memory organisation is also carrying out ongoing exhumations initiated in the era of the 1996 peace accords. The bones disinterred in massive, clandestine burial sites provided testimony to the nature of the violence in Guatemala. Although faded and deteriorated, victims' clothing retained the distinctive woven colours and patterns of those worn by Maya campesinos. Broken toys and babies' bones provided devastating, silent testimony that the targets of the military were not just armed guerrillas, but unarmed civilians - men, women, and children. The testimonies presented by victims gave voice to the silent dead, exhumed from mass graves.
President Colom, Guatemal’s new president, has now given an official apology on behalf of the Guatemalan government and armed forces. It is rumoured that the government intends to promote a public memorial and possibly even a historical museum as part of its programme of memory and compensation, in conformance with the recommendations of the long-rejected UN report.
However, the current situation of violence in Guatemala in which an average of 17 people are murdered daily and some 60,000 have been killed since the signing of the peace accords in 1996, makes a mockery of the government’s claim that "never again will we repeat this tragic, perverse, and bloody history." As Rosalina Tuyuc, founder of the National Association of Guatemalan Widows observed, "tragically the patrones of the violence of the past and the present are the same."
It can only be hoped that the ultimate sacrifice of young men like Christian Lorenzen and Rene Otto Castillo is not forgotten but continues to inspire future generations of revolutionaries who will come to share their noble aspirations. As the Nicaraguan poet, Giaconda Belli put it: ‘they were the carriers of our dreams’.
The period of the Cold War between the US and USSR, had an immense influence on Guatemala. From the 1950s through the 1990s, the US government directly supported Guatemala's right wing governments and its army with training, weapons, and money.
In 1954, Arévalo's freely elected Guatemalan successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA. In the 1954 coup, Colonel Armas was installed as president and ruled until assassinated by a member of his personal guard in 1957. Substantial evidence points to the role of the American United Fruit Company as instrumental in this coup, as the land reforms of Jacobo Arbenz were considered a threat to the company's extensive interests in Guatemala and it had direct ties to the White House and the CIA.
In the election that followed, General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes assumed power. He authorized the training of 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans in Guatemala. He also provided airstrips in Guatemala for what later became the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in 1961.
In 1966, Julio Montenegro was elected president of Guatemala under the banner ‘Democratic Opening’. Montenegro was the candidate of the Revolutionary Party, which was far from revolutionary. It was during this time that rightist paramilitary organizations, such as the ‘White Hand’ (Mano Blanca), and the Anti-communist Secret Army, (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista), were formed. These organizations were the forerunners of the infamous ‘Death Squads’. Military advisers from the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) as well as Israeli specialists were sent to Guatemala to train troops and help transform its army into a modern counter-insurgency force, infamous for its ruthlessness and use of torture - it became the most sophisticated and ruthless in Central America. As a result of the Army's ‘scorched earth’ tactics, thousands were massacred and more than 45,000 people fled across the border into Mexico.
In 1982, The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca or URNG) emerged as a united guerrilla umbrella organisation out of the four armed revolutionary groups active in Guatemala.
This unification came about in response to the successes of the Salvadoran guerrilla FMLN and the Nicaraguan FSLN (Sandinistas) in order to create a more effective opposition to the military dictatorship. In 1996 after the peace process following the cessation of armed struggle it became a legal political party.
Today Guatemala enjoys a fragile democracy, but the scars of the armed struggle, the systematic ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population and mass exodus of the seventies and eighties still reverberate.