Guatemala: Operacion Sofia

OS-1Still from the film “The Mineral Geology of Genocide” (2012)

Forensic Architecture (FA) is involved in a long-term research project that deals with different dimensions and effects of the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).

The investigation started with a fieldwork trip conducted in Guatemala in late 2011, during which anthropologists and archaeologists of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala guided us to key sites of scientific-legal investigations related to the conflict. The notes of this fieldtrip are assembled in a 45-minute video named The Mineral Geology of Genocide that can be viewed through the link in the right column of this page.

FA is currently collaborating with the human-rights organization CALDH — Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos — on the production of a set of cartographies to support evidentiary material in the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his senior military staff to be held in the National Court of Guatemala in early 2013.

The Conflict

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.

After a brief ten years of social democracy initiated with the ‘October Revolution’ in 1944 — an urban-led revolt carried by middle-class liberal professionals, teachers, students, left-wing activists and dissident military officers, which interrupted a historic cycle of authoritarian regimes with a decade of social-economic and land reforms that attempted to reverse the inhuman plantation economy that ruled over Guatemala —, a military coup backed by the United States overthrew democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz, launching the country into the centre of the continental Cold War.

These two events, revolution and counter-revolution, defined the political terrain in the decades that followed. The short but decisive ‘ten years of spring’ – as the democratic interval of 1944 -1954 is known – fortified and expanded social-political mobilization among different segments of the civil society. Faced with the closure of reforms, the restriction of channels for political participation, and stronger state-repression, various coalitions of left-wing activists turned to the path of the successful insurgency in Cuba in 1959 and resorted to armed struggle. At the opposite side, the Guatemalan state, with the continuous support of the United States slowly built up one of the most murderous counterinsurgency apparatuses of Latin America.   

In the decades that followed an increasingly militarized state and a spreading urban and rural insurgency escalated into civil war. The polarized ideological architecture of the period led the state and the military to interpret and target every form of social movement and activism that called for reforms as potential supporters of left-wing insurgents. This logic triggered a cycle of indiscriminate violence against the civilian population as state agents made systematic use of tactics of terror to enforce political containment. Unlawful imprisonments, torture and forced disappearances became common methods used by successive governments to deal with trade unionists, teachers, students, and peasant leaders in urban areas and surrounding agricultural plantations. In the highland forests the military conducted systematic massacres throughout indigenous communities.

The most repressive and violent period of the counterinsurgency initiatives was in the late 70s. While the Cold War’s conflict over the third-world experienced the last escalation in the mountains of Central Asia and the forests of Central America, the Guatemalan state fortified its security and military apparatus vowing to decisively crush the rural guerrillas. State-terror was deployed with unimaginable brutality and cruelty in indigenous Mayan territories, particularly during the short-term dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983), who presided over military campaigns that later the UN-backed truth and reconciliation commission of Guatemala — the Commission for Historical Clarification, CEH — concluded to be genocidal. 

The CEH was established within the peace negotiations that brought the war to official end in 1996. The victory of the military in the conflict meant that the commission mandate was restricted to reporting human-rights violations without identifying responsibility, and without power to prosecute.

The CEH report estimates the number of dead and disappeared resulting from this confrontation at more than 200,000 people. Guerrilla violence accounts for 3 percent of the human rights violations registered by the commission.

The Case

FA investigation will enter as an aid to the evidentiary material gathered by CALDH (Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos – Guatemala) in the Case for the Genocide against the Ixil Community, which will be judged at an instance dedicated to ‘severe crimes’ of the National Court of Guatemala in early 2013.  

The accused are:

–       Efraín Rios Montt, Head of State between 23 March 1982 and 08 August 1983

–       Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, Army-chief of Staff  

–       Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, Minister of Defence

–       Mauricio Rodriguez Sanches, Chief of Military Intelligence

The case examines the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixiles, an indigenous Mayan community that lives in the highlands of Guatemala around the cities of Santa Maria Nebaj, San Gaspar Cotzál and San Juan Chajul, department of El Quiché.  

During the entire Guatemalan Civil War (1960-96), the region around these three cities — named by the military as the Ixil Triangle — was a central target of state-repression, which assumed extreme violent forms in the period between 1979-1984, when counterinsurgent military operations escalated in the countryside.

The CEH report concluded that state agents carried a genocidal campaign in the Ixil Triangle between 1981-1983.

The trial case in the National Court of Guatemala concentrates on the period between 1982-1983, covering the short-term presidency of Efraín Rios Montt.

Our Investigation

FA will examine and synthesize new and existing information into a series of time-based cartographies in order to trace the intersections between military operations, population displacement/relocation, and transformations in the urban, agricultural and forest areas of the Ixil Triangle during the most violent period of the conflict (1979-1984), with particular attention to the years of the Rios Montt dictatorship (1982-1983).  

The investigation assembles a set of data covering the entire territorial extension of the Ixil Triangle and data extracted from the war logs of Operation Sofia, a military campaign involving a series of army patrols and units in the region of the city of Nebaj during July-August 1982. 

Although it covers only part of the military operations that were taking place in the Ixil Triangle, in a limited area and for a short time span, OS is important evidence because it registers traces of the systematic and indiscriminate violence against civilians that characterized the state’s counter-insurgency strategy in this particular period, and also demonstrates that those actions on the ground followed a rigid chain of command that reached senior military and political officers who responded directly to the de facto president Rios Montt.



“Operacion Sofia” file, 1982


In the early 80s, following the escalation of the counter-insurgency campaign in the western highlands of Guatemala, the military occupation and control of the Ixil Triangle was intensified and acquired a more centralized and rationalized logistics.

State-repression grew throughout the country in this period as a direct response to a series of interconnected events: intensification of guerrilla offensives in the countryside; the Nicaraguan Revolution and the outbreak of the civil war in El Salvador in 1979; the murderous anti-communist strategy deployed in Central America by the US administration of Ronald Reagan; and internal re-articulations inside the power structures of the state and the military forces of Guatemala.

In 1982 a military junta deposed the Lucas García dictatorship and placed Rios Montt in the presidency, installing an even more aggressive regime. Under the new government the counterinsurgency strategies were expanded and the operational and technical capacity of the armed forces improved. This period witnessed the implementation of a series of national-wide military campaigns known as ‘Ash 81’ , ‘Victoria 82’, ‘Firmness 83’, and was marked by the most brutal and bloody episodes of state violence during the war.


Ixil Territory, Guatemala. Two stills from the film “The Mineral Geology of Genocide” (2012)

Throughout Guatemala’s countryside, and particularly in the territory of the Ixiles, the army launched a scorched-earth campaign that was carried out by systematic and exceptionally violent massacres, burning of crop-fields and food provisions, killing of animals, forest clearances, and the destruction of entire villages. In the Ixil Region the CEH estimates that between 70 to 90 percent of the villages were completely destroyed. In its attempt to decisively cut off the networks that sustained the guerrilla and ‘neutralize’ civilian support, the army indiscriminately targeted entire communities of unarmed men, women and children, displacing hundreds of thousands and forcing the relocation of thousands of others to newly built camp-towns.

Under the doctrines of a counterinsurgency war, the military framed and targeted the civilian population as a potential base of support for the insurgents, a logic which led to thousands of forced disappearances in the urban areas and which in the highlands assumed the contours of the race cleavage that structured colonial and post-colonial Guatemala. On the one hand, indigenous Mayans — which today amount for roughly half of the country’s population — were treated as immature and infantile beings who were easily manipulated by left-wing political activists. On the other, their historical aversion and resistance to state/colonial control represented a threat in itself. Because of their territorial isolation/autonomy and lack of connection to the state and national identity, the military considered indigenous communities to be more susceptible to adhere to the insurgency. A series of psychological warfare strategies combined with well-planned spatial interventions were designed specifically for indigenous territories, with the ultimate objective of radically altering their modes of inhabitation and thus completing their ‘integration’ into the national society.    

The basic strategy employed by the military in the Ixil territory consisted of relocating villagers to larger urban nodes where they could be more easily controlled. This process led to an intense transformation of the environmental/territorial organization of the region. Until the 80s, the area was dominated by the traditional spatial patterns of indigenous Mayan occupation, which are organized in the form of small settlements of distant houses surrounded by small and medium size agricultural fields scattered around the steep and heavily forested topography. To improve the army’s capacity of dislocation and surveillance, several military bases were built throughout the triangle; helicopter land fields were carved out in remote forest areas; new roads were opened in between towns and their margins were cleared of the woods. On the top of destroyed villages located in strategic spots, the military built a series of new urban nucleus — known as ‘model villages’ or ‘development poles’ —  that functioned as centres for the relocation and concentration of the population. People who resisted the forced removal often sought refuge in the mountains, forming what is known as Communities of Population in Resistance, which by the time the peace accords were signed in 1996 counted on more than 20,000 people throughout the country. 

‘Model Village’ of Acul, Ixil Territory, img: Jean-Marie Simon, 1988

Our aim

The intense transformations in the territorial and environmental dynamics of the Ixil Triangle that took place during the most violent period of the counterinsurgency war demonstrates that the military’s strategy was directly related to the reorganization of patterns of inhabitation that define the modes of living of indigenous Maya.

A military magazine published in 1982 named “Operation Ixil: Civilian Plan”, considered the possibility that the solution for the war in a plan for the intensification of the forced integration of the Ixil people so that “they would disappear as a cultural group foreign to the national being”.  

State-terror — deployed through the combination of massacres, forest and crop destruction, population displacement and transfer, closure of common lands, and a series of psychological warfare strategies –, sought not only to enforce tighter control on the rural population, but to provoke a complete disruption on the political-natural bounds between communities and their land in such a manner as to cut the basis of the existence of the Ixil people as a distinctive culture.

FA investigation aims at demonstrating how the transformation of environmental/territorial organization in the Ixil Triangle was the very medium of military violence. War, as much as war crimes, crimes against humanity and Genocide, could be evaluated in relation to information that would synthesize military operation with transformations of the urban and natural environment.

Patterns of deforestation in the Ixil Triangle as of 1986



Informe REMHI, Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, Guatemala: Nunca Más, 1998
Manz, Beatriz . Refugees of a Hidden War. The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala.
Grandin, Greg. Who is Rigoberta Menchu?
Grandin, Greg.  The Last Colonial Massacre
Ball, P., Kobrak, P., Spirer, H.F., 1999,  State Violence in Guatemala, 1960–1996: A Quantitative Reflection. AAAS
CEH, Guatemala: memorial del silencio