The Guatemala Guerrilla Who Never Stopped Fighting

A rebel since sixteen, Santiago Boc Tay finally laid down his arms after decades of war, but still vows he will show the next generation that revolutionary change is possible.

The Guatemala Guerrilla Who Never Stopped Fighting

Santiago Boc Tay laid down his arms on December 29, 1996 in front of government officials, international observers and his fellow comrades as part of a ceremony marking the end to a 36-year civil war in Guatemala. For sixteen years, Boc Tay had fought with other guerrillas, battling for social justice, land rights and respect for his indigenous Mayan culture. But on that December day when a peace accord was finalized, his hopes for revolutionary change in the Central American nation withered.

“The advances that we wanted to democratize the country were not won,” says Boc Tay. “But it’s also clear that we laid the foundations for democracy in Guatemala.”

In the past year, another movement for democracy and social justice has taken shape in Guatemala. Thousands filled Guatemala City’s central plaza every Saturday from April to September of last year, demanding the resignations of corrupt officials. Former president Otto Perez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti are currently imprisoned, awaiting trial on corruption charges in a customs fraud scandal, thanks to political pressure from the movement. A former comedian and political outsider, Jimmy Morales, took office in January after receiving an unexpected boost in support that wiped out the frontrunner’s lead. Saturdays in the plaza are now back to their pre-protest calm while leaders plan their next maneuver.

Santiago Boc Tay in the field in Cerro Lacandon in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in 1994. (Photo courtesy Santiago Boc Tay)
Santiago Boc Tay in the field in Cerro Lacandon in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in 1994. (Photo courtesy Santiago Boc Tay)

Some called the movement the “Guatemalan Spring,” and many marveled in its success, but Boc Tay still reserves a degree of pessimism when it comes to the current state of the country.

“Yes, the presence of 30,000 people is important but there are larger factors at play underneath the surface,” says 53-year-old Boc Tay who dresses casually in jeans and a red polo shirt. “The rich and powerful have continued to exploit the Guatemalan people.” The protest movement, in his opinion, has still not been able to take down these power structures.

Boc Tay doesn’t clearly remember where he was each of those Saturdays, a testament to his lack of enthusiasm and skepticism towards the protests. He was most likely at home with his wife and sons or at Cafe RED, a restaurant run by nonprofit where Boc Tay now works. The quaint cafe is where he spends most afternoons organizing upcoming work training programs. The nonprofit trains Guatemalan youth, particularly indigenous youth, as chefs and waiters so that they stay in their home country and contribute to their communities, rather than looking for work in the U.S. Boc Tay may have opted out of peaceful protests in Guatemala’s main square, but he has continued his fight for social justice through other means.

“I’m in the fight for life,” he says.

Long before Boc Tay joined guerrilla forces at age sixteen, he was called a communist. The seven-year-old boy from Guatemala’s western highlands first heard this insult as he walked to school with his brother one morning. Their parents had warned them to stay out of view, but young “Santiaguito” was curious to know what would happen if he didn’t.

“Communists!” a group yelled at the boys from a car.

Boc Tay asked his father what the word meant, but was told not to pay any attention to it. Despite his father’s reassurances, trouble was lurking in the Mayan town. There was already a military officer guarding the village looking for signs of communist rebels.

By the time Boc Tay was fourteen and a military officer knocked on the family’s door, his father was not as calm and collected as before. Instead he instructed Santiago and his sixteen-year-old brother to hide. The officer was looking for young men old enough to fight, but Santiago’s father assured him that there were none in his home.

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The Guatemalan Civil War had begun in 1960 when a group of leftist military officers led a failed coup. Upon defeat they moved to the mountains to start a guerrilla insurgency with support from Cuban revolutionaries. Indigenous Mayans and rural farm workers fed up with discrimination and exploitation soon became their largest base of support.

When Boc Tay was born in 1963, key land reform and anti-discrimination policies put forth by a socialist government in the 1950s were being rolled back. Historically, indigenous communities in Guatemala have experienced discrimination, less access to education and higher levels of poverty. Boc Tay never went to school, a lost opportunity that the curious young boy always resented. Instead, he was sent at the age of nine to cut coffee on the coast, a physically draining task even for grown men. The discrimination Boc Tay experienced in his youth set the stage for his rebellious path. As a young boy working in the coffee fields, he heard the older workers whisper about secret meetings, an early sign of social activism in rural Guatemala. Always one to push boundaries, Boc Tay became vocal about his discontent with social conditions in his country. Soon a friend invited him to an underground meeting, the first step in eventually joining the guerrilla movement.

In 1980, at the height of the civil war, Boc Tay told his stunned parents that he was leaving to join the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). It was only when he didn’t return for months that they truly understood he was serious. His parents then destroyed any trace of their son in their home to protect themselves from a military brutally targeting supposed guerrilla sympathizers.

Boc Tay recalls drinking from this fresh water that runs from the mountains down to the estate of Finca El Silencio.
Boc Tay recalls drinking from this fresh water that runs from the mountains down to the estate of Finca El Silencio.

“I thought the fight was necessary and just,” he adds. “I had to fight.”

Boc Tay went to live in the mountains near Tajumulco Volcano in western Guatemala — the highest peak in Central America — where he began training. Guerrilla life stuck to a strict schedule: up at 5:30 a.m., an hour of exercises, breakfast, daily chores, more military drills. But Boc Tay’s favorite part was the evenings when an officer would lecture the young rebels on why they were fighting.

“They displaced your culture, they destroyed the languages, and they remained with the best land for production,” Boc Tay remembers his officers saying. “They would ask, ‘who has the power in their hands? The government! Let’s drink to our new land!’”

It was the school that Boc Tay never had and it was crucial for building collective morale to continue an armed struggle. Each day the guerrillas woke up and fell asleep with a clear understanding of their purpose and the historical roots of discrimination in Guatemala. This understanding separates the guerrilla fighters and the present-day protesters, Boc Tay says.

Cerro Lacandon, where Boc Tay once lived as a guerrilla fighter, towers over him.
Cerro Lacandon, where Boc Tay once lived as a guerrilla fighter, towers over him.

Today, indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala continue to face discrimination. They have more difficulty finding work, have less political representation and continue to struggle for land rights. Rather than waging war in the hills, Guatemalans protest corruption in the streets on Saturday and return to their nine-to-five jobs on Monday where the fight for social justice becomes a secondary thought.

For sixteen years, Boc Tay put this knowledge to use on the frontline, eventually earning the title of captain. He only remembers retreating from battle once when his weapon wouldn’t load properly. “I’m not invincible,” he told his commanding officer. But Boc Tay was willing to put his life on the line, sustaining eight near-fatal injuries in combat. Once, bleeding from a shrapnel wound in his leg, he told his comrade to keep fighting as he endured the pain.

“The young people need a dose of history in their head to understand how complicated the present situation is and the situations that we come from,” Boc Tay says.

On a crowded school bus riding through Guatemala’s western highlands, Boc Tay blends in with the crowd. When there is no room to sit, he remains standing even though it aggravates his shrapnel-injured leg.

The bus rolls to a stop at a valley overshadowed by Cerro Lacandon, a volcano near the city of Quetzaltenango. Boc Tay jumps down and looks out at the estate where he once lived during the early 1990s. He greets Luis, one of the only estate owners who remained on his land during the civil war to help the guerrillas instead of moving somewhere safer. Luis — who requested to only be identified by his first name — remembers Boc Tay as a self-assured and trustworthy young guerrilla captain.

“Yes, it was a risk,” says Luis of his choice to help the guerrillas. “Many of my neighbors didn’t live on their own property because it wasn’t safe.” But after just a short conversation with Boc Tay, Luis was convinced the guerrillas were fighting for a better Guatemala, and risked his own safety to support the guerrillas by offering them food and shelter.

Boc Tay points out where he once engaged in battle with military forces.
Boc Tay points out where he once engaged in battle with military forces.

More than 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala’s civil war, an 83 percent of the victims were Mayan, according to an official truth commission. The state and other paramilitary forces were responsible for 93 percent of the bloodshed. The guerrillas also perpetrated violence during the war, which a representative apologized for in 1999. “With deep sorrow and humbleness, we ask for forgiveness from the memory of the victims, their relatives and the communities that suffered irreparable losses, injustices or offenses,” said Jorge Soto, secretary general for the guerrilla’s registered political party, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit (URNG).

Peace talks began in 1994 when a less militant president opened up negotiations with the guerrillas, finally succumbing to the political pressure they had exerted for decades.

But in Boc Tay’s mind, the political transition was a complete failure.

The guerrilla movement lost momentum when it transitioned into a political party. The URNG never won more than five percent of the votes in a presidential election.

Other Latin American leftist insurgencies in countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil have been more successful in gaining political representation after laying down arms.

Until the election of Morales this past October, Guatemala repeatedly elected military officials with ties to civil war atrocities and corruption. While Morales has no military background, he too has been criticized for ties to military officials.

“You need money to compete in Guatemalan politics,” Boc Tay says. “It’s a political culture and it’s not right.”

Guatemala continues to combat problems of corruption and social inequality, but young Guatemalans only know this struggle in a post-conflict context. They organize through social media, unafraid of consequences for speaking out.

Protesting crowds turned out every Saturday for much of last year, and when President Otto Perez Molina resigned on September 3, the crowds headed back inside, with many assuming that their work was done.

Boc Tay says that when Molina resigned, “Youth who don’t know their history experienced a euphoric high, but they are playing with external forces that they don’t understand.” Boc Tay himself has seen hopes for reform fade many times in the past.

On May 10, 2013, Boc Tay watched on television as former dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide for crimes against the Ixil Mayan people during the civil war. Rios Montt’s seventeen months in office from 1982 to 1983 were some of the bloodiest of the country’s internal conflict. During this time, there were at least fifteen massacres carried out against innocent civilians.

“When I heard the verdict, I thought that was it,” Boc Tay says of his first reaction to the news of Rios Montt’s sentencing to 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity. But for Boc Tay and many other Guatemalans looking for reconciliation and healing after the civil war, this sense of justice was ripped out from under them just ten days later when a constitutional court overruled the verdict.

The trial was indefinitely postponed again in January 2016, another disappointment for those seeking justice. But two new major trials are restoring hope for justice.

The view of Finca El Silencio, an estate where Boc Tay lived and fought during the civil war.
The view of Finca El Silencio, an estate where Boc Tay lived and fought during the civil war.

“The military has made themselves rich and taken over the majority of the land. They control the laws too and this is another level of injustice,” says Boc Tay, adding that Rios Montt “should live his last years in a cell.”

On a brisk Saturday afternoon in February at Cafe RED, Boc Tay works on his computer while he waits for a Guatemalan teenager to show up for his appointment. When the young man arrives, Boc Tay calls him out for arriving late, but then cracks an amiable smile. It’s his same style of leadership that he exuded as a captain in the guerrilla forces: genuine and friendly while still commanding respect.

Boc Tay thanks the young waitress and program graduate who brings him a freshly-squeezed lemonade.

Instead of guerrilla warfare, Boc Tay now advocates for a just and inclusive Guatemala through his nonprofit work. He’s not opposed to joining the recent movement, but being just one face among the thousands is not enough for him.

“Former guerrillas have the experience and ability to help, support and fight and I think that our ideas are still alive,” Boc Tay says. “We need to join together to decide what we are going to do.”

Boc Tay still dreams of a Guatemala where a young Santiaguito can get an education instead of cutting coffee.