environmental violence and genocide in the Ixil Triangle

Guatemala (1978-1983)

Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was consumed by conflict between an increasingly militarised state and a widespread rural insurgency. The state’s counterinsurgency efforts peaked from the late 1970s, as security forces pursued the guerrillas into the country’s highlands.


According to a 1999 report by Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico; CEH), a UN-backed body established toward the end of the conflict, more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during more than three decades of violence. The CEH attributed 97% of the human rights violations it documented to state security forces.

Paulo Tavares, coordinator of autonoma, worked together with Forensic Architecture (FA) in a comission by a Guatemalan NGO, the Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), to support their efforts to gather evidence for the trial of the country’s former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, whose brief military regime ran from March 1982 to August 1983, and senior members of his security apparatus. Montt would ultimately be convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The trial of Montt and other senior members of his security apparatus concluded at the National Court of Guatemala in may 2013. Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. After Montt’s conviction was overturned , this research was presented as part of a legal process pursued in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where the Ixil community had taken its demands for justice.


Eyal Weizman

Paulo Tavares

Samaneh Maofi

Daniel Fernandez Pascoal

Hannah Meszaros-Martin

Maya Cueva Franco


ODHAG - Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala 

FAFG - Guatemala Forensic Anthropology Foundation

CALDH - Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos

SITU Research

The trial, held at Guatemala’s National Court between 2012 and 2013, examined crimes perpetrated against the Ixil people, a Mayan community indigenous to the highlands of Guatemala, around the cities of Santa Maria Nebaj, San Gaspar Cotzál, and San Juan Chajul, in the region of El Quiché. The area became known as the Ixil Triangle.

By the late 1970s, Ixil villages were seen by the state as the base of an insurgency, and their inhabitants accused of harbouring ‘infiltrating communist cells’. The country’s high mountain areas had given the Ixil a measure of functional autonomy: they were not citizens of the state, and did not participate in the national economy. But this autonomy came to be perceived as a threat to national sovereignty, and the military violence of the late 1970s and 1980s can be understood as less a counterinsurgency campaign, and rather an attempt to ‘domesticate’ the region, and to bring the Ixil into the fold of the state.

Around eighty percent of Ixil villages were razed, and fields and forests were torched. Survivors were forcibly resettled in ‘model villages’, and educated in modern agricultural techniques and monocrop cultivation.

In the case of the violence perpetrated against the Ixil Maya, crimes against humanity and genocide could be understood in relation to transformations of the area’s urban and natural environments. We traced the intersections between military operations, population displacement and relocation, and transformations in the urban, agricultural, and forest areas of the Ixil Triangle during the most violent period of the conflict (1979-1984), with particular attention to the years of the Montt dictatorship (1982-1983). We analysed and subsequently presented that information through a series of time-based cartographies.

Our research was based on three periods of fieldwork in Guatemala, undertaken in December 2011, November 2012, and March 2013.

Because the buildings of the Ixil were constructed of wood and adobe, once they were destroyed, their organic remains were quickly consumed by the cloud forest. To identify building remains we learned to follow the plants: fruit trees such as avocado, papaya, or peach signalled the possible former presence of house and village sites. Building foundations had been made of stone, but more than thirty years of overgrowth made it necessary to first probe the ground with sticks to find their harder surfaces, then clear the shrubs with a machete to measure the extent of the ruin.

These maps show the layout of the villages of Xolcuay (left) and Pexla (right) in relation to the model villages that replaced them. (Forensic Architecture)
Homesteads in Xolcuay (left) and Pexla (right), identified during field work. (Forensic Architecture)
Members of Forensic Architecture and FAFG search for traces of building foundations in the mountains around Pexla Grande. (Forensic Architecture)

We examined aerial images from 1964, 1978 and 1991, collected from Guatemala’s Instituto Geografico Nacional, and from declassified material from the US Keyhole-9 satellite. We used various methodologies to interpret those and other images, particularly the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a technique that assesses photosynthetic activity in plants to identify changes in land cover over time.

We showed that the transformation of environmental and territorial organisation in the Ixil Triangle was an important medium of military violence.


Through massacres, forest and crop destruction, population displacement and transfer, closure of common lands, and psychological warfare, state security forces not only tightened their control over the rural population, but disrupted on the political-natural connections between those communities and their land, in such a manner as to undercut the basis of the existence of the Ixil Maya as a distinctive culture.

A Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis of the environmental transformation of the Ixil region between 1979 and 1986 shows substantial changes to the natural and urban environments in the region. (Forensic Architecture)