The Earth Scorched

Between 1960 and 1996 Guatemala suffered one of the longest and most brutal of the “dirty wars” that ravaged Latin America in the late twentieth century.

The investigation conducted by the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (Comisíon para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, CEH) estimates that more than two hundred thousand people were victims of extrajudicial executions or forced disappearances during the conflict. In nearly all cases of atrocities and human rights violations documented by the CEH, the perpetrators were state security forces, military, or military-organized civil militias.

Forensic Architecture’s research focuses on the violence inflicted by state security forces against the Ixil people, an indigenous Maya group native to the Cuchumatanes Mountain Range in the West Guatemalan highlands. In the early 1980s, as the generals vowed to wage a “war without limits”1 to eradicate guerrilla activity in this zone, the Ixil region was put under military occupation and its population subjected to a series of violent operations that the CEH concluded to be “acts of genocide, which were inspired by a strategic determination that was also genocidal in nature.”2

This study draws from and aims at complementing previous investigations by analyzing the fundamental role that the built and natural environment played within the logics of state violence, both as a weapon of war and as its victim.

One of the most vicious elements of the counterinsurgent strategy implemented in the western highlands in the early ’80s was the widespread deployment of “scorched earth” offensives. In the wake of systematic massacres perpetrated against unarmed civilians, the military went on destroying hundreds of villages, burning agricultural fields, slaughtering animals, and clearing vast tracts of common forests.

In parallel to this campaign of indiscriminate destruction, the state implemented an ambitious program of regional development within war-torn zones. This included road building and the construction of “model villages” to replace the destroyed communities and resettle displaced populations.

This platform synthesizes disparate datasets into a chronological–spatial narrative of these events as they unfolded in the territory of the Ixil Maya, one of the regions most severely affected by the conflict. Information about military maneuvers, sites of massacres and other atrocities, destroyed communities, new settlements, and trajectories of displacement are geographically located and analyzed in relation to large-scale environmental transformations.

By cross-referencing different manifestations of state violence, the platform presents the spatial diagram of a well-planned strategy designed to radically transform the social geography of the Ixil territory to suit the aims of military control. Carried out through the twin acts of destruction and reconstruction, the reshaping of the relations between the built and the natural environment was central to the counterinsurgent strategy conceived and implemented by the Guatemalan state.

This study was prepared to support other evidentiary material presented in the National Court of Guatemala in the trial of ex-dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil people. On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted and sentenced to fifty years for genocide and thirty years for crimes against humanity.3 The constitutional court of Guatemala overturned the conviction just ten days later and forced a retrial. The case is likely to resume in January 2015.4

The Earth Scorched