Monday, April 1, 2013

El Salvador's war was worse than that of Guatemala?

Mac Margolis at the Daily Beast writes Coming Clean on the Dirty War. Margolis gives a basic overview of the death and destruction in several Latin American countries during the Cold War. In the article, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue says
"As horrific as it got in the Americas, the killing in Guatemala was just off the charts"
That's pretty accurate but it depends on how we understand the Guatemalan conflict. Different numbers appear all the time but from what I understand, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed between 1960 and 1996 and another 40,000-50,000 were disappeared. If we take 250,000 (dead and disappeared) and divide by 36 (years), we come up with an average yearly death toll of 6,944.

At other times, people just use the 200,000 figure which, over 36 years, averages 5,555. It's not always clear if they are counted dead and disappeared or just dead. This is the number that you read when people try to argue that postwar Guatemala is more violent than it was during the conflict. 

It doesn't make sense to compare an average death toll over thirty-six years of conflict to a single year's total or even an average over two or three years. Plus Guatemala's 2012 population is around ~15 million. During the late 1960s and 1980s, it was in the 4-6 million population range. Even if the total number of homicides numbers are close, today's population is three times greater.

Next time tell them that not to use that comparison even if it makes a good headline or tease for the readers.

And, in many ways, it doesn't make sense to write about yearly deaths tolls during the conflict. Perhaps half of all those who died during the conflict, 100,000-150,000, died between 1981 and 1983. And most of those died in the rural areas of Guatemala.

Here is Figure 1.1 from State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection where Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, Herbert F. Spirer and the International Center for Human Rights Investigations (CIIDH) analyzed over 19,000 reports of human rights violations committed by the Guatemala government and its allies.
They do not estimate all killings or forced disappearances during the 36-year conflict, but Figure 1.1 gives you a sense of how terrible the 1979 to 1984/85 years were - even more so, obviously, 1981-1983. This is the focus of the trial. It is a period of the conflict where the State is alleged to have carried out a policy of genocide.

Here is a map for the CEH as well on massacres by department. Most of the massacres occurred in the north and northwest of Guatemala.

Were the killings in Guatemala off the charts as Michael Shifter says? Well, yes but it also depends. Certainly, the killing between 1981 and 1983 was off the charts - 100,000 to 150,000 in less than three years. But even then you would have to say that it was only off the charts in part, maybe not even half, of the country. (That doesn't make it any better, just different,) As the violence was escalating in the rural areas, it was also decreasing in the urban areas.

From 1978-1981 and into 1982 was a time of extreme violence in the urban areas of the country when guerrillas, labor leaders, students, and human rights activists were killed. Rios Montt's term in office (March 23, 1982 - August 8, 1983), however, coincided with a reduction of violence in the capital which is why many urbanites supported him at the time and still do today. 

Violence varied from year to year and from department to department which gets obscured when we give an estimated number of deaths over a thirty-six year conflict at the national level. Doing so also obscures many of the other ways in which the people of Guatemala suffered (sexual violence, torture, forced displacement, generalized terror, etc).

Now was Guatemala's deaths off the charts compared to El Salvador? In El Salvador, we approximate 75,000 or so killed and another 6,000-8,000 disappeared between 1979 and 1992. We can throw 1992 out because the Peace Accords were signed on January 16th. Some might throw out 1979 because the FMLN wasn't formed until 1980 and the Truth Commission only covered from 1980 on. 

That gives us 12 or 13 years with approximately 80,000 killed. 80,000 killed over a twelve-year period averages 6,667 while eighty over a thirteen year period averages 6,163. So El Salvador's average death toll during its civil war is right on par with Guatemala. And El Salvador had a population that was only half that of neighboring Guatemala. That's right - roughly the same yearly average with half as many people.

Want to make the argument that El Salvador's killings were off the charts compared to Guatemala?

Perhaps it make more sense to write that the violence in Guatemala between 1981 and 1983 was off the charts compared to anywhere else in recent Latin American history. You'd have to go back to El Salvador in 1932 to find a comparable period. 

However, the rest of the conflict was not that different from what was unfortunately experienced in other countries of the hemisphere.

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