César Montes: The Life of a Guerilla

Considered by many to be the Che Guevara of Guatemala, "César Montes" is practically a household name for anyone in this country who remembers the year 1954 and lived through its 36-year aftermath. Co-founder of the November 13th Movement of the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) in 1962, and later named Commander-in-Chief upon the death of Turcio Lima, founder of the EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) in 1972, infiltrator of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, and recruited to organize the solidarity movement for the Salvadorean FMLN, Julio César Macias, a.k.a. César Montes, is a paradigm for the contemporary revolutionary leader: wholly dedicated to the cause for justice, democracy, and modernity in Central America, as he continues in his fight today to gain rights for the indigenous people who suffered most in these war-torn countries.

Born in 1942 in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, Julio César Macias had a religious upbringing by a Catholic family who ran a boarding house. Raised in part by Mormon missionaries who stayed with his family, the irony has not escaped him that two opposing ideals--that of God and peace and that of hate and war--were taught to him by Americans in his formative years. University educated, he trained as an elementary school teacher, studied for both the law and for medicine before his studies were aborted by the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, Guatemala's then president. The pretext for the coup, which was orchestrated by the CIA and the Eisenhower government, was the purported threat of Communism under Arbenz' rule. Code-named Operation Success, the plot to oust Arbenz was in fact an imperialistic maneouver to protect American commercial interests abroad, particularly, those of the United Fruit Company, a Boston-based company that not only enjoyed tax-exempt export privileges on its banana monopoly, but held exclusive rights on the Guatemalan railroad and telegraphs systems, as well as its ports. In point of fact, however, the agrarian reforms implemented by Arbenz' government did not affect already cultivated lands. Their aim, rather, was to redistribute idle land that would benefit half a million Guatemalans, and to pay for it accordingly. The UFCO responded in kind by sending in U.S. armed forces and installing a puppet president to replace Arbenz.

This strategy, of course, signalled the beginning of long-term U.S. political and military intervention in Guatemala, and the onset of a thirty-six year civil war that would leave dead or "disappeared" 150,000 people, orphan 125,000 children, and produce 200,000 refugees. It was about this tragic period of Guatemala's history, his own involvement in the guerrilla movement and his continuing fight for justice today that Julio César Macias chose to address an audience of teachers and students at Quetzaltenango's Casa Xelaju in early July, 1998. With the recent publication of his autobiography, The Guerrilla Movement Was My Path: The Epitaph of César Montes, he spoke openly that evening about his experiences and reflections on fighting in guerrilla movements, allowing the audience to better understand the path from armed struggle to the building of peace and to discuss what the future holds for Guatemala and its people.

For Montes, becoming a guerrilla was never an option; in an underdeveloped country controlled by the U.S. Embassy and the United Fruit Company, the path was chosen for him and an entire generation of Guatemalan youth. The American-backed coup and its successive military dictatorships introduced repression, censorship, kidnappings, in effect, began a "Dirty War," in a country that had been previously courting democracy. Contrary to the "official story," perpetrated by American propaganda, the November 13th Movement of 1962 was orchestrated not by leftist or Communist university students, but by two conservative American-trained military officers, Augusto Turcios Lima and Yon Sosa, who had grown weary of the corruption and scandals that racked the government and whose aspirations were simply to return constitutionality to the country. One hundred twenty five military officials made up the initial movement, of which Macias played a crucial part, and whence he assumed the first, and most famous, of his many pseudonyms, César Montes.

Guerrilla life engendered sacrifice upon sacrifice: a break with his family (often taken for dead) that persisted twenty-five years until the signing of the peace accord in 1996; the obvious rejection of material comforts and the cursory end to all studies; and most traumatic, the killings of family members close to him. What he was forced to develop instead was an ideology stronger than his opponents that would fortify his will over the next twenty-five years as he moved from co-founding and later heading the FAR, to founding the EGP, The Guerrilla Army of the Poor in 1972, and the URNG (Unió:n Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca)and working with the PGT, The Workers Party of Guatemala. As human rights violations reached a crescendo under the government of Rios Montt in the early eighties, guerilla movements grew significantly, and continued in their struggle to attain rights and progress in a country riddled by military repression and violence.

Macias continued to do his work fighting injustice: from Guatemala, after ideological breaks with the EGP and the FAR, he infiltrated himself into Sandinista Nicaragua, then, went to fight with the FMLN in El Salvador, where he has lived on and off until 1996, when he decided to return to Guatemala and officially participate in the peace negotiations. Able to lend his experience, energy and persistence to the peace process, he continues today in his efforts to help the people of Guatemala. In his modest office in Guatemala City, he works with widows, displaced officers from both sides of the struggle, human rights groups, and of course the indigenous, who have suffered the most and continue to do so, with little being done to implement reforms that would benefit the poor. Today, 2% of Guatemala's families own 70% of the land. And, the armed forces continue to be the ultimate political arbiter. Recently, they have pressured the government not to raise taxes for the rich, not to negotiate with rebels, not to implement land reform, not to place any checks on military violence, and not to allow opposition voices. Clearly, peace in Guatemala is in its incipient stages, and it will be a long, ardous road until justice has been delivered. Julio César Macias, alias César Montes, knows this. But he remains a dedicated and passionate fighter, and continues to hope that the future will hold bright for Guatemala and its people.

By Amy Rosendhal




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