; Setting the Stage for Tragedy The Killings in Todos Santos Cuchumat
Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out
Your Federal Quarterly Tax Payments are due April 15th Get Help Now >>

Setting the Stage for Tragedy The Killings in Todos Santos Cuchumat


  • pg 1
									Robert Sitler
Dept. of Modern Languages & Literatures
Stetson University
DeLand, FL 32720

                                Death in a Mayan Market

       During a weekly open-air market in April of 2000, two innocent men were publicly
beaten to death by a crowd of residents in the Mayan town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán,
Guatemala.1 There have been dozens of similar so-called “lynchings” in Guatemala
recently, but the tragedy in Todos Santos received an exceptional amount of media
attention because one of the victims was a tourist from Japan, a nation that has provided
critical funding for national development projects. Reactions to the killings included thinly
veiled allusions to the Guatemalan elite’s slowly fading image of Native America as a
barbaric, almost subhuman, society.2 More thoughtful observers blamed the events on the
collective trauma produced by the extraordinarily brutal military aggression against the
Mayan population during the bloodiest years of the civil war between 1978 and 1983. Some
suggested that the murders were a communal response to disrespectful foreign tourists and
their demeaning practice of taking photographs of people without permission as if they
were mere objects of curiosity. But no single rationale for these killings seemed convincing.
The people of Todos Santos have long been accustomed to the presence of tourists and, in
spite of their dreadful experiences with the Guatemalan army, the town has enjoyed a
reputation for being one of the most hospitable in the country. The two deaths that
Saturday morning seemed so utterly incongruent with the spirit of this community and the
vitality of its marketplace that they demanded a more comprehensive explanation.
       Comments from visitors to Todos Santos often echo those of the American
ethnographer Maud Oakes who stayed there in the mid-1940s and was struck by the
collective personality of the residents, noting in particular their dignity, pride and
friendliness.3 Local mothers nurture their infants with a devotion that has virtually
atrophied in our own society. Nearly every person is a skilled artisan, either brocading
astonishingly complex patterns into cloth on back strap looms or crocheting exquisitely

fine, rainbow-hued carrying bags. Besides laboriously producing most of their own food
and creating nearly all of their own beautiful clothing by hand, the people of Todos Santos
have developed a richness of character that has endured and matured in this remote
highland valley for more than a hundred generations. According to oral tradition, four
guardian mountain spirits protect the community from the chilly heights above. These
massive mountain deities overlook a diverse landscape that includes alpine meadows, cloud
forests and banana groves. The vast majority of the some 25,000 people in the municipality
speak a language known as Mam. The word “mam” is associated throughout the Mayan
world with the revered “grandfathers,” the elders and ancestral spirit beings that guard
their ancient cultural heritage. Some researchers consider the Mam to be one of the most
senior of the more than two dozen distinct Mayan ethnic groups, noting that the language
was the first to branch off from a proto-Maya source early in the history of Mayan
linguistic development.4 Mam roots run deep in the Cuchumatan, an uplifted region that
forms the highest mountain range in Central America and that, until recently, kept Todos
Santos in relative isolation.
       Having visited regularly with Maya from over a dozen ethnic groups over the past
25 years, I have recently focused my interests on the study of the Mam language in this
community. As a student of Maya-related literature, I have felt it essential to develop an
experiential relationship to the Mayan world. Many Todosanteros (a Spanish word used to
describe the local residents) have welcomed me into their lives. These strong personal
relationships have informed this article.
       Descriptions of the April 29 incident that were given to me by witnesses have been
fairly consistent. A bus with 23 Japanese tourists had come to town, as others had
previously, in order for the visitors to enjoy the colorful and bustling Saturday market.
After recovering from the rugged bus trip in a local guesthouse, some in the group decided
to stroll down towards the middle of town to savor its unique atmosphere. One young
Japanese woman and an older companion went seeking to purchase a pair of the brightly
colored striped trousers that are worn by men in Todos Santos. While admiring the
astonishing variety of fresh produce grown by local farmers and other goods, the couple
paused near a 22-year-old mother who was buying some clothing. She had her infant slung

over her back, tucked safely into a shawl in the fashion typical of Mayan mothers, while
holding her toddler’s hand. When the baby began to cry, the Japanese man
sympathetically reached out to calm the child with his hand. The young mother suddenly
shouted in alarm to those around her, thinking that her baby was about to be harmed or
kidnapped. As the couple wandered away, a small group of anxious people followed from
behind while wild rumors rapidly spread about what had just happened. Some said that
babies had been taken aboard the tour bus by the Japanese. On a market side street, one
angry man leapt at the couple and others quickly joined the fray. When a young
companion of the tourists named Saison Tetsuo Yamahiro attempted to intervene, some in
the crowd began to beat him with whatever was at hand, eventually leaving him as a bloody
corpse on a street corner. Some reports say that a sickly grandmother dealt the final blow
using her hardwood weaving batten. Edgar Castellanos, the Guatemalan driver who had
driven the group to Todos Santos, arrived on the scene in hopes of protecting several other
Japanese who at this point were attempting to barricade themselves from the crowd inside
their bus. When he saw how hopeless the situation had become, he briefly ducked in the
tiny police station on the town square. Apparently feeling unsafe there, he decided to run
elsewhere for protection, attempting in vain to enter a corner store. Some in the mob ran
after the driver, assuming he was somehow involved, and he quickly succumbed to their
stones and clubs. He then suffered the further indignity of having his body doused in
gasoline and set on fire. Meanwhile, members of the recently deployed National Civil Police
managed to escort some of the tourists into protective custody within the municipal
building by telling the crowd that they were “arresting” the Japanese. Eventually, the
recently elected mayor of Todos Santos, a former schoolteacher named Julián Mendoza,
arrived on the scene with a bullhorn and demanded that anyone in the crowd whose child
had been harmed step forward. When it became obvious that all the local children were
fine, he sent everyone home with the terrible realization that a fatal mistake had taken
place and that the lives of two completely innocent human beings had been cut short.
       How could such a dreadful error have taken place? The most immediate cause was a
widely circulated rumor, mentioned by every one of the dozens of residents I spoke with,
concerning plans for a satanic gathering that had many in fear for the safety of their

children. According to this rumor, a meeting of demonic cult members that would include
the kidnapping and sacrifice of local youngsters was scheduled for the final days of April.
This outrageous story may have been spawned by the particularly gruesome rape and
murder of a female student in the departmental5 capital of Huehuetenango exactly one year
previously. Her death was said to have been part of a satanic rite carried out by young
gang members. The collective fear surrounding the anniversary of this horrific death grew
as stories spread saying that other schoolgirls had been threatened along with several
school principals and teachers. Concern over potential cult killings became so widespread
that Governor Julio López took to the radio in order to assure the citizens of
Huehuetenango that there was absolutely no basis for fear of satanic activities. He even
ordered that special precautions be taken to monitor local gang activities. Later, public
service announcements on the radio and in the newspaper repeated the call to ignore the
rumors. Unfortunately, in a region where the population has been severely traumatized by
political violence and where Spanish is not the main language, the poorly understood
official announcements probably served to lend credibility to the rumors. After all, if there
weren’t some truth to these stories, why would people be talking about them on the radio?
       News of devil worship must have been especially believable for those immersed in
the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric of some Christian fundamentalist groups. Evangelical
churches have grown rapidly in Todos Santos as elsewhere in the Mayan world,
challenging both the historical Catholic religious dominance and what remains of the
ancient native spiritual practices. Protestants now probably make up nearly one half of the
people in Todos Santos.
       As the apprehension grew, many parents started keeping their children home from
classes. School officials may have inadvertently added to the growing tension by going
forward with a previously scheduled suspension of classes for teacher meetings on the
Thursday and Friday immediately preceding the time when the cult meeting was
supposedly going to begin. Principals dutifully informed their teachers about the reasons
for canceling classes and the teachers, in turn, told their young pupils. Soon the school
closings became entwined with the wild rumors and before long, frightened children in
Todos Santos were coming home in tears telling their parents confused stories about the

three days when the satanic kidnappings were to occur. As the weekend of the rumored
gathering arrived, intense fear gripped the lives of many throughout Huehuetenango. In
some areas of the region, men even put barriers up in the roads to keep out the cultists.
       One might question the sanity of people who took such seemingly outlandish rumors
seriously. However, the idea of a group of outsiders coming to town to kidnap and kill local
residents is perceived as a real possibility in Todos Santos since such activities have already
happened on more than one occasion there. Like many Mayan communities in Guatemala,
Todos Santos suffered horribly in the early 1980’s during the worst of a savage war
between government forces and Leftist insurgents. Aspirations for a more just society had
been snuffed out in Guatemala many years earlier by an American-sponsored military
coup in 1954 that unseated the reformist civilian government of President Jacobo Arbenz.
Thus began a long series of repressive, U.S.-backed military dictatorships that eventually
produced a response in the form of an armed guerrilla rebellion. By the late 70s, this revolt
had spread to the largely indigenous northwest highlands and by 1982 a small guerrilla
contingent was operating from the more remote areas in the Todos Santos valley and
selectively assassinating its enemies. One day, the guerrillas entered the town center and
held a public meeting in an attempt to gain support for their cause. Upon leaving, they took
down the national flag and raised a red banner with the image of the Argentine
revolutionary “Che” Guevara, threatening to shoot anyone who dared take it down.
Shortly thereafter, the Guatemalan army swept through Todos Santos with the intention of
eliminating the supposed “Red” threat there, leaving a wake of tortured and raped victims
among the ruins of dozens of burned homes. Although the exact number of those killed by
the army in Todos Santos may never be known, the few residents willing to talk about the
deaths put the figure at around two hundred.
       For more than a decade afterwards, adult males were forced to participate in the
infamous Civil Patrols organized by the ruling generals. Members of the Civil Patrol were
not only supposed to guard against the guerrilla threat, but they were responsible for
reporting any leftist sympathizers among their Mayan neighbors to the military. In order
to serve in this militia, men had to leave behind essential work in their cornfields and
elsewhere or else run the deadly risk of being considered a Leftist. Making matters worse,

the army regularly came to town and forcibly rounded up young men to be taken off for
deployment into its anti-Communist “scorched earth” military campaign after being
indoctrinated into seeing traditional Mayan ways as obstacles to “progress.” The collective
trauma experienced by Todos Santos during this period is still deeply felt. As suggested
previously, the possibility of outsiders coming to town to harm local inhabitants is far more
than a remote risk. Virtually every adult has already seen it happen repeatedly with his or
her own eyes. While brutalizing the community, the military had, through its own example,
also taught the population that the way to get rid of undesirables was through violence.
       The well-founded fears created by the Guatemalan army’s abuse of local residents
built upon a centuries-long history in Todos Santos of disastrous interactions with the
outside world. In the 1400s, the K’iche’ Maya conquered this vital highland trade route
and the local Mam were forced to pay tribute to the their new lords. Later, when the
Spanish invasion force defeated the Mam army near Huehuetenango in 1525, Todos Santos
was given as an award to a conquistador named Marcos Ruiz and his descendants. Besides
forcing the local Indians to pay tribute, give up much of their land, and submit to abusive
Catholic clergymen, the new arrivals brought with them a host of deadly diseases that
decimated the Mayan population. Smallpox, typhus, and other sicknesses killed more than
80% of the people in the first century of the Spanish incursion into the region. The
epidemics were so severe that population levels did not return to pre-contact levels for
more than four centuries. The horrors visited on Todos Santos in 1982 by the Guatemalan
army only served to reinforce a well-established historical pattern of death and suffering at
the hands of intruders. In such a context, satanic kidnapping and the murder of children
might not have seemed at all far-fetched. After all, both living residents and their revered
ancestors had already experienced far worse.
       Concern for the well being of children is extraordinarily strong in Todos Santos as it
is throughout the Mayan world. A historically high infant mortality rate has led Mayan
women to be particularly cautious in taking care of their infants. More significantly,
midwife supervised births assure a bonding between mother and child that is more
powerful than most modern Westerners can even imagine after decades of our hospital
birthing practices. The strong psychological bonds established between the Mayan mother

and child are complemented by an extended nursing period in which the infant spends
virtually its entire first year immediately next to the mother’s body. There are no cribs,
strollers, or day care centers. Mothers nurture their babies with a patient dedication rarely
seen in industrialized societies. Unfortunately, these powerful bonds probably were a key
factor on the day of the lynching and led to one woman’s misguided overreaction to the
outstretched arm of a friendly Japanese tourist. All witnesses that I spoke with said that
the frightened cries of the mother that triggered the market killings were a response to a
perceived threat to her baby. The impossibility of verbal communication between this man
and the protective Mam-speaking mother prevented what could have been a life-saving
       The lynchings in Todos Santos can also be linked to concerns among many Maya
that there are people from other places interested in taking their children. Some even
believe that Mayan babies have been stolen for the sale of their vital organs. As early as
1907 there were rumors about foreign missionaries making Mayan babies into soap. While
such beliefs strike us as absurd, there is in fact a thriving business in acquiring Mayan
babies, not for slaughter, but for the adoption market. Both Mayan and non-Mayan
families in Guatemala, finding themselves quite literally on the brink of survival, have
occasionally felt desperate enough to give up one of their children, knowing that it will have
a better chance of staying alive elsewhere. Adoption agencies arrange for about 1000
adoptions to the United States per year and generally charge between $10,000 - 15,000 to
couples seeking one of these babies. This transfer of Mayan children into the custody of
foreigners in the context of a violently charged and suspicious atmosphere has already led
to mob attacks. Most notorious was the 1994 assault in which Mayan villagers beat an
Alaskan woman into a coma when they mistakenly believed she had stolen a child. Such
concerns over kidnapping by foreigners may have been fueled by conservative politicians
hoping to reduce the presence of international observers of the peace process who were
perceived as meddling opponents of the military. While there has never been evidence of
tourists kidnapping children, the myth has yet to be totally put to rest in the Guatemalan
countryside. The situation has been aggravated by rapidly escalating crime and numerous

well-publicized kidnappings that have created an increased feeling of insecurity, even in
relatively remote areas such as Todos Santos.
       A recent crime wave has left many Guatemalans feeling that the judicial system is
hopelessly inadequate and many have felt obliged to act in their own defense. On dozens of
occasions, angry mobs, apparently feeling unprotected by the legal process, have killed
individuals accused of rape, murder, robbery and other serious crimes. Many Guatemalans
had hoped that the establishment of the National Civil Police in 1998 would help to calm
public concerns, but this does not yet appear to have happened. The near lynching of an
off-duty policeman in Todos Santos on August 1, just 3 months after the market killings, is
a good example. Apparently, the 21-year-old constable accidentally ran over and fatally
wounded a 3-year-old boy. Shortly afterwards, a crowd gathered outside of the municipal
building demanding that the accused man be handed over to them. Clearly, many in Todos
Santos did not believe that the police would bring one of its own to justice. Thankfully,
Mayor Mendoza was able to intervene and prevent the man’s death. But this recent
incident lays bare the underlying currents of fear and resentment that are still flowing
through this verdant valley. In Todos Santos, the presence of armed, uniformed policemen
who do not speak Mam may even have aggravated anxieties as the officers are all too
reminiscent of army soldiers.
       There was one earlier incident in Todos Santos in 1999 that adds still another
dimension to the case. In the months preceding the municipal elections that year, concern
over social disintegration and petty crime in Todos Santos figured prominently in public
awareness. Some believed these disturbing trends were the result of increasing materialistic
Western influences. This perceived threat to traditional Mayan values has grown with the
return of thousands going abroad for employment opportunities and has been exacerbated
with the arrival of commercial music, foreign videos and television programming from
across the border in Mexico. A few adolescent males were beginning to acquire a
reputation as troublemakers, wearing their hair long and donning t-shirts with images such
as that of American “shock-rocker” Marilyn Manson under their traditional hand-woven
shirts. These were the “privileged” and rebellious sons of some of the first men in Todos
Santos who were wealthy enough not to be full-time farmers. The former mayor took

advantage of this situation in order to stifle the campaigns of these potential political
opponents. At a public meeting he charged that these adolescents, the sons of prospective
mayoral candidates, had formed a dangerous gang and were robbing people, and he openly
urged citizens to take matters into their own hands. Some apparently took the mayor quite
literally. When one longhaired youth arrived at the meeting and challenged the mayor
concerning the allegations, some in the crowd grabbed him by the hair, began to beat him,
and they were apparently prepared to kill him. One person even went to fetch gasoline to
burn his body. Fortunately, the young man broke free and found shelter in the local
weaving cooperative until an armed contingent arrived and led him to safety, avoiding
what would have been the first lynching in Todos Santos. Although the April market
killings cannot be directly linked to this earlier incident, it may be that unscrupulous
political behavior in the recent elections established tacit official approval for vigilante
       Cultural patterns in Todos Santos may have also been a crucial factor in the market
killings. For example, the first published comments made by the new mayor on the
murders referred to the tinted windows and black curtains of the tour bus as well as to the
dark clothing worn by the Japanese tourists. While many, including some in Todos Santos,
scoffed at this observation, I think it would be an error to completely disregard Mayor
Mendoza’s perspective. The symbolic importance of colors in Todos Santos is difficult for
outsiders to comprehend. Nearly every person in the region wears brightly hued homemade
clothing with red as its dominant color. The men all wear the same bright red pants. Their
shirts include red stripes and brilliant red brocade collars. Women wear expertly woven
blouses with predominantly red hues and they wrap their children in shawls with red
stripes. Both men and women wear hats that include a red leather band and community
elders often wrap a red scarf around their heads to stay warm. Red signifies strength, heat
(important in these chilly mountains), the rising sun, and the vitality of blood. Walking
through the Saturday market, one feels immersed in a sea of reddish fabric. In the context
of intense fears concerning satanic activities and a population with a heightened
appreciation of color, the symbolic value of a black and gray bus with tinted windows
should not be ignored. The presence of this bus and its darkly dressed passengers in the

middle of the market was undoubtedly a source of anxiety. I was also told that one of the
Japanese was wearing a surgical mask, surely a frightening sight for those who had never
seen one. Making matters worse, eyewitnesses also mentioned that one of the Japanese that
approached the child was wearing an unusual Andean hat that came down over the ears to
cover much of her face. While in a less tense setting such garb may only have produced
curiosity in the Mayan mother, on a morning in which many were expecting evil
kidnappers, the Japanese woman’s partially concealment was probably at least a
contributing factor in producing her fearful cry.
       A collective sensitivity to color is only one component in a well-developed awareness
of shared experience among the residents of Todos Santos. Almost every person can trace
a family relationship, however distant, to everyone else in the community and virtually all
have a similar farming lifestyle. Collective awareness is cultivated and reinforced in Mayan
culture through the use of common clothing, gossip, communal work projects and public
worship. These activities build upon the invisible mother-child bonds established at birth,
which are the underlying basis for an interpersonal consciousness that is almost
unimaginable in the modern Western context. While this strong tradition of collective
identity and shared awareness has proven to be a successful survival strategy, in the case of
the market killings, it may have been a factor in allowing a small incident to erupt rapidly
into mob violence. In a different cultural setting, the misunderstanding between the
Japanese and the young mother might have never amounted to more than an ugly scuffle.
In a psychological atmosphere in which people have a relatively high sense of empathy with
one another, the circumstances quickly led to a collective lethal response.
       Within days of the market killings police charged nineteen people, including four
women, with the murders. Nine individuals were taken into custody within the first few
days but others evaded capture by leaving town when they heard about the pending arrests
through the local press. Two additional men were arrested later. Unfortunately, many in
Todos Santos say that some of those detained were arrested by mistake due to confusion
over commonly held names. A trial ended in the summer of 2001 with the acquittal of all of
those accused of murder. I was told that two individuals remained in custody for some time
after on charges stemming from the incident relating to resisting the Civil Police. Currently

there is no one in prison but some families have been left with insurmountable debts from
their legal expenses.
        One week after the market killings, another crowd of tearful Todosanteros collected
the blood-stained dirt from where the two victims had fallen, placed the earth in a box, and
walked to the local cemetery in a solemn procession where the container joined the remains
of their own dearly departed. They took up a collection of over $100 for the family of the
bus driver and left memorials on the two spots where the men had died. On a recent visit to
Todos Santos, I went to the corner where the Japanese tourist had died. Sprouting from the
pavement was a hand painted white cross, surrounded by fresh flowers that local mourners
had left in his memory. I felt awestruck by the complexity of circumstances that had turned
one man’s innocent gesture of kindness into a public bloodbath. The murdered visitors to
Todos Santos could never have imagined the intricate web of history, culture, and local
politics that lie stretched across this beautiful valley awaiting their arrival. Although a few
of the threads in this web are visible, numerous others remain hidden in the hearts of those
now toiling in their cornfields and kneeling in front of their looms. Perhaps only the local
guardian spirits, looking down silently from their towering mountain homes above Todos
Santos have sufficient perspective to see and fully comprehend the deaths at the hands of
their children that Saturday morning.


  For background information on this community, sources include the two volumes written in the mid-1940s by
Maud Oakes, Beyond the Windy Place (New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1951) and The Two Crosses of Todos
Santos (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1951). There also is now an outstanding translation into Spanish of this
second work entitled Las dos cruces de Todos Santos, trans. Fernando Peñalosa (Rancho Palos Verdes, CA: Yax
Te’, 2001). For an excellent overview of regional history, see W. George Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial
Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatán Highlands, 1500-1821 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP,
  Numerous editorials and articles concerning the incident can be found in both the Prensa Libre and Siglo XXI
newspapers published in Guatemala City between the dates of April 30 and May 8, 2000.
  Maud Oakes, The Two Crosses of Todos Santos (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1951) 32.
  Evon Z. Vogt, “The Maya: Introduction,” Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 7 (Austin: U of Texas P,
1969) 24-26.
  A department in Guatemala is the equivalent of a state in the United States.

To top