The following narrative was edited from a series of interviews by Richard Bermack conducted in San Bruno, California, in 1983 with a priest who spent 12 years working with Indians in Guatemala. The story is told in his words.
Let me tell you about the death of Pio Coban — the death list appeared in his hand. The mayor of our town called a meeting announcing the planned destruction of our basic ecclesial communities. They had even set the date, October the 20th, 1980. On the 19th, at midnight, a secret police car showed up at Pio’s house. They dragged him out of bed and told his wife they would kill her if she sounded the alarm. His body was found two days later outside of town, badly tortured, 8 bullets. In his hand was placed a hit list of 81 names. My name was first on the list, followed by the names of the Guatemalan priest working with me, our catechists, and the leaders of our ecclesial communities and parish council. They all fled for their lives. By now, 16 of them have been captured, tortured, killed. The latest was Celso Lchai, the brother of Pio. He was captured last August 17th in Patzun with his son Pedro. They tortured and killed the two of them. A month later they captured his 8-year-old son and killed him. That was in September of 1982.
This was all done by the government of Guatemala, and with the support of the United States government. Why did they destroy our community? What sort of threat did we present to them? That is a good question. We thought they would see some value in what we were doing, because we were talking about nonviolent social change. The guerrillas would leaflet our people. Those leaflets were interesting. They would say things like “Don’t believe the missionaries who tell you that it is possible to have social change without guns. They are deceiving you. There is no other way than taking up arms.” So we thought that because our position was so openly and systematically nonviolent, there was nothing the government could accuse us of.
I came to Guatemala in 1968 as part of LAMP, Latin America Mission Program. I have always been concerned with the plight of Spanish-speaking people since my early days in the seminary, when I observed the poverty of migrant farmworkers. Before that I used to consider myself poor because I had to work during the summertime. So when I was ordained I started working with Spanish-speaking people in Oakland and in southern Alameda County. That was really gratifying work, seeing young people coming out of the worst kind of environments — drugs, lack of education, prejudice — working together, dealing with all those things, bringing about their own development as well as social change.
There was a lot going on in those days. We lobbied against the Bracero program and against Public Law 78. Cesar Chavez was just starting out organizing in the valley, working with Fred Ross of the CSO, an Alinsky organization. It was a little later on when the first march took place. I was forbidden to participate in the march, so I went and took pictures.
We started working in Gilroy developing a program called the Interfaith Migrant Committee, which was a joint effort of the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic churches. We had committees on education, health, and housing. Education and health, that didn’t threaten anybody terribly, but when we got into