A Brutal Story We Missed? New Film Recalls Obscure Chapter Of Guatemala Genocide
The Guatemalan film "1991," which just premiered in Miami, recalls horrific — but lesser known — racist violence that stalked the country's streets during its civil war.
This month the Guatemalan movie “1991” had its world premiere at the Miami Film Festival. The filmmakers say its fictional story is based on tragic and disturbing true events — disturbing from the film’s opening seconds:
An Indigenous person is walking down a street in Guatemala City. A white teenager jumps out of an SUV and smashes his skull with a baseball bat.
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"Those horrific, systematic acts of racist violence were common in Guatemala City then," said Sergio Ramírez a Guatemalan filmmaker and director of "1991."
Ramírez says that opening scene recalls the hundreds of cacerías, or hunting attacks on Indigenous Maya residents of Guatemala City in the 1980s and 90s. The assaults were mostly led by white, upper-class teenagers.
Guatemala was in the throes of a horrible civil war, and Ramírez recalls the cacerías were a horrible side show happening in the capital city.
I was often in Guatemala at the time working as a newsmagazine correspondent. And I admit, I missed this story. After watching the film I contacted colleagues I’d worked with in Guatemala. They said they’d missed it too.
If we did, it was largely because at that time we were most often out in Guatemala’s rural highlands covering the final years of the civil war — and the discovery of mass graves that held thousands of murdered Indigenous Maya. They were victims of genocide committed by a right-wing, U.S.-backed military that considered them communist subversives.
What we apparently weren’t aware of was that Indigenous Maya were being targeted back in Guatemala City, too — by the teenage children of Guatemala’s right-wing elite.
"That is, the owners of the country," said Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante, who produced “1991.” He himself is part Kaqchikel Maya and remembers people in Guatemala City telling him how they tried to avoid the attacks the film recounts.
“When I moved to la capital I always heard people saying, ‘We have to go in another direction because in that place there are rich people coming to attack us,” Bustamante said. “A lot of Indigenous girls started using shorts under their skirts because they knew they’d have to run very quick if the rich ones came."
Bustamante says among Guatemalans the attacks were — and yet were not — very well known, especially since the Guatemalan media were skittish during that dark period about reporting on racist, classist violence tied to the country’s powerful families.
“Like normal in Guatemala," Bustamante said, "we didn’t talk about that. We hid that.”
It was a sort of urban social cleansing – a consequence or branching out of the Guatemalan genocide happening against Indigenous Maya in the rural highlands.
In the film “1991,” an indigenous teenager, Daniel, takes part in those cacerías against the poor and Indigenous — because he thinks it will help him join Guatemala’s country club set.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s, a decade after the attacks ended, that the urban atrocity of the Guatemalan civil war was more publicly chronicled. But by then, it didn’t get much notice.
"It's an example of Guatemalan society's perverse tolerance of this kind of extreme hatred and violence," said Guatemalan anthropologist Gabriela Escobar, who was one of the first to investigate the assaults and interview victims.
In a 2005 research paper, Escobar explained that Indigenous and working-class Guatemala City youths in the 1980s and 90s were called “breaks” because many liked break dancing. Their white, upper-class attackers called themselves “anti-breaks.” They’d roam barrios in SUVs with bats and guns looking for “breaks” to beat, torture or murder.
"1991" claims hundreds were killed.
"It was a kind of urban social cleansing," Escobar said, "a consequence or branching out of the larger genocide out in the highlands."
Escobar found that several teenagers who allegedly led the attacks in Guatemala City were sons of military and political leaders who supported the those massacres in the rural highlands. She says the “anti-breaks” were like a youth brigade for their parents’ extreme ideology.
“At least people have been brought to trial for the rural massacres," she points out. "No one’s ever been tried for the Guatemala City murders.”
The teenagers who got away with that violence are today middle-aged adults, notes Guatemalan author Javier Payeras "and their ideology is dominant again in Guatemala now," he insists.
Payeras attended private Guatemala City schools in the 1980s and 90s, and his 2003 novel “Ruido de Fondo," or “Background Noise,” depicts people he knew who were involved in the violent “anti-breaks” culture.
He worries their mindset is acceptable today among a Guatemalan elite that seems as reactionary and suspicious of indigenous people as ever, if recent political trends are any indication.
“The upper-class teenagers of my generation now are important people — government or business or military leaders — and they think all Indigenous people are communist, all poor people are communist,” Payeras said.
Which is why, when "1991" opens soon in Guatemala, it will likely spark a painful — if not angry — discussion not just about the country's past but about its present as well.