Guatemala & Carrera
A Note on Then and Now
What They Called "Civil War"
V. Gómez Farías
Wm. Lyon Mackenzie
A. L. de Santa Anna
Puebla & Charleston
Guanajuato & Bravo
Loot & development
Texas & Florida
Guatemala & Carrera
The Huasteca, & North
The Costa Grande
Outcomes, and Vision
|It was one of the defining dialogues of the century, anywhere on the
The people of Mataquescuintla, east of Guatemala City, mostly Indians, were organizing resistance against the government. It was 1837. One likely man on the scene, Rafael Carrera, age 23, a former soldier, originally from the capital, was now raising pork that he sold there.
They asked him to be their captain.
Carrera refused, but gave reasons. The people did not have the resources to fight against a government that had arms and soldiers. More, he was guatemalteco (that is, from the City) and could not go against his patria.Here was the same reaching between country and city that had marked the popular rising in Michoacán in 1767, or the risings in El Salvador in 1833. Now it was producing a force that would strike into government itself.
The continent-wide pattern of liberal land grants was echoed in Guatemala. The governments of the Central American Republic, and of Guatemala State, favored group immigration as a way to develop the economy. To companies of promoters, in Great Britain and Belgium, Guatemala allotted all of the public lands in three northeastern departments of the state, on condition that the promoters bring in European settlers.
In this, both the Guatemalans and the foreigners had ulterior motives. Guatemala offered the British companies grants in the forest area that was claimed by both Guatemala and British Honduras; if they accepted, this would presumably acknowledge local sovereignty to a wider area than Britain wanted to recognize. Many of the outside companies, on the other hand, were less interested in building up the Guatemalan population than in getting access to the backcountry hardwoods that had commercial value. They wanted certain areas, even if that meant trenching on the lands of indigenous villages. Since individuals within Guatemala were also pressuring to expand their properties, fear spread in these communities, easily identifying liberal, foreign influence with all the threats to their land.Liberals also imported "rational" legal and medical ideas that struck at traditional local self-management.
From the United States they took the "Livingston Code," a revision of a new legal system that was experimental even where it had been adopted, as in Louisiana. But what offended some Guatemalans was that the Code included a procedure that was old and familiar in Anglo-Saxon countries: trial by jury. While the jury system was an old protection for personal rights within the criollo community, it came as an imposition on indigenous communities that had kept their own ways of settling disputes. There was talk of building jails, to replace corporal punishment, and that would mean depriving minor offenders of personal liberty.
When cholera struck in 1837 -- several years later than in countries more exposed to world commerce, the liberals brought in the best modern methods of quarantine, which they enforced by sending around squads of soldier to punish violations. Such interference came as a serious challenge to traditional indigenous medicine. It challenged local religious practice when it prohibited the burying of bodies inside church buildings. They tried using chemical bleach to disinfect water supplies, though there is no guarantee that safe doses of bleach would have been effective. Local people found it easy to believe that government agents were poisoning the wells, spreading the very disease that they claimed to fight, eliminating population in order to take over land.
When the crowd in Mataquescuintla first wanted to attack the government's local administrator, Carrera reacted by pacifying them, expressing sympathy but protecting the governor and getting him out of town before they could hurt him. It was at this point that they pressed him to take their side, even while the parish priest urged that his leadership would be a force for good. His role of disciplined brawler was being pressed upward into politics.
Carrera said, in effect, that Indians surely did not expect a hispanicized type like him to lead in a racial conflict. They said, in effect: We know it looks like a race war, but it is not; it is a fight of people against government.
A century, maybe two centuries, later, people would still be debate whether to label causes like theirs as "indigenous" or as "popular." Even then, the supposedly barbarous side was insisting that justice was universal, not a matter of race. For the moment, like two contending villages uniting against outside intrusion, Indians and local ladinos were uniting against what they considered an unjust enemy.
Carrera did not begin his campaign as the commander of a "horde" of Indians. There were a handful of volunteers in his town, mostly armed with farm implements or home-made lances. There were similar groups in neighboring towns. They could attack government officials, and prevent judges from holding court, but that was about all; and soon enough the government sent in troops to clean out the pockets of disorder. Carrera did not become leader of the regional resistance until some of his fellows had suffered defeats. On top of that, there were many peasants in the area, including Carrera's prosperous father-in-law, who did not think that outright rebellion was wise.
Since Carrera's local bands could not stand up to even small bodies of troops, as he had warned, they fled into the hills. But that gave them an opportunity to strike back -- and to deceive. Carrera and a few men would stop a peasant outside a town, drop the "information" that they were bringing on a body of a hundred or so fighters, and warn the people that they would be harsh on any who helped the local garrison. As soon as word got around, some townspeople would flock out to support Carrera, the garrison itself would panic, and the rebels had a good chance of capturing its arms. With a few exploits of this kind, their numbers really did grow into the hundreds and beyond.
On a now larger scale, the hit-and-run tactics presented a challenge to government. Liberals and conservatives alike were frightened. Mariano Gálvez, the governor of what was still technically the "state" of Guatemala, and generally accounted a moderate liberal, began tightening up on security measures, and on the taxes necessary to support troops. He also tried to conciliate Carrera, by suspending the Livingston codes in areas where they could not be enforced.
The doctrinaire liberals, led by José Francisco Barrundia, went
into opposition, denouncing the government both for violating civil liberties
and for compromising parts of the liberal program. And cautious conservatives,
as represented by high officials of the Church, preached against un-Christian
atrocities committed by Carrera's men. Finally, as the backing for
Gálvez eroded, Barrundia saw his chance to come into power, and
threw his support to Carrera.
On February 1, 1838, the rebels moved into the capital, with Barrundia riding near Carrera. It looked like a coalition of radicals with wild Indians. Residents were terrified. They had already heard stories about atrocities. They knew about Aquino a few years earlier in El Salvador, and they knew what Hidalgo's hordes had done in Guanajuato. There did occur disorder, but not vast amounts. A new state government was organized, headed by a conciliatory liberal. Rebel soldiers evacuated the capital and returned to their villages, where it was soon time to plant crops.
Not much had really changed. The government was still a government, putting demands on local people. Carrera's companies were dispersed and tiny. Resentment rose again. He gathered forces again. Village priests encouraged him, although high-level churchmen preached fear and peace. In the capital, both political parties talked resistance to Carrera, even while they jockeyed for advantage against each other.
Finally, criollos in the government appealed to the liberal Francisco Morazán to rescue them from the indigenous threat. He was still president of the Central American Republic, and a known soldier, even if occupied moment with his own civil war in El Salvador and Honduras. At times when that fighting permitted, he brought forces into Guatemala. Over a period of a year, Carrera's bands were defeated in most of their actual engagements with Morazán, or with their local enemy in Guatemala. Sometimes Carrera would lose several hundred men in a fight, forcing him to return to the villages to recruit more. But his bands also carried out raids against haciendas -- and repeatedly, against the large sugar plantation of San Gerónimo, now operated by a man who was Morazán's agent in the mahogany trade on the Atlantic coast.
Month after month, a stand-off was developing, between government armies, which could usually prevail in a formal encounter, and indigenous forces, which could keep up destructive attacks on criollo economic interests. If this had been Spain in 1807, or Mexico in 1816, or California in the 1850s, the government would have staged massive attacks on towns, to the point of exterminating whole populations. Morazán was willing enough to use terrorism. He captured and executed Carrera's father-in-law, who had not even supported the son-in-law's rebellion; and there was some burning of villages.
But criollos depended on the indigenous population for labor. The conflict amounted to a nation-wide violent strike, in which the government could not afford a genocidal victory. When one general caught up with rebels near Mataquescuintla in December 1838, the result was, not another battle, but the Treaty of Rinconcito, which Morazán approved: Carrera was recognized as the military commander of his whole district, under no important condition except the implicit one that he stop raiding haciendas. Morazán returned to his other war in El Salvador, taking with him most of the weapons of the little Guatemala state army.
Indigenous groups, in various parts of the country, felt no duty to observe the obligations of Rinconcito. They kept raiding haciendas, at a time when Carrera was using the interval to reorganize his force. Now it was conservatives who became willing to make common cause with Carrera, against the liberals, against the possibility that Morazán might return, and against the danger that disorders in the countryside would damage all criollo interests. In April of 1839, Carrera brought his "horde" back to the capital, and installed a conservative governor. This time the whole liberal program was scrapped. And when Carrera's mother died, he insisted that she be buried inside the Cathedral.
The conflict then escalated again to the higher political level. Morazán, back in El Salvador, saw the new Guatemala as a threat. Gathering the forces of the "Republic," he moved in from the south, striking toward the capital. Carrera assembled his own forces, which were no longer trivial in size; but he acted on the guerrillero's need to avoid getting trapped on the defensive. He made no serious effort to keep Morazán from marching across the country.
Carrera then pulled most of his own force out of the capital, leaving only a small, very visible garrison inside. Morazán jumped in, slaughtered much of the bait, then found himself assaulted from all directions by Carrera's main force. Hour after hour the firing continued, from both sides. Abruptly, at sundown, that from the attackers stopped, as Carrera's soldiers knelt to sing to the Virgin the Salve Regina -- if nothing else, a political warning to the anti-clerical Morazán. And the firing continued.
By the next morning, it was Morazán who was running out of ammunition. According to the story that was picked up by the the U.S. diplomatic representative there, Morazán ordered an increase in fire from three corners of the plaza, in order to attract attention, while he himself slipped out through the fourth corner with a small escort, to escape back to El Salvador. With that, the Central American Republic had lost its last claim to exist, and the "states" became what they had really been for some time, separate nations. (Morazán went into exile, made a come-back attempt by entering Costa Rica in 1842, took over the government there for long enough to frighten people, but was captured and shot.)
When Morazán lost in Guatemala, Carrera's men swept back into
the capital. This time they were not gentle. Officials who
had collaborated with Morazán, or who had tried to stay neutral,
were taken out and shot. Only with difficulty could a priest persuade
Carrera to spare some who were obviously innocent. Soon after that,
the rebel commander got new word of liberal defiance. The authorities
of Quetzaltenango, during the interval when Morazán
seemed to be winning, had declared themselves again the capital of an independent Los Altos. Carrera rushed to the area by forced marches, had the entire city council shot without trial, and imposed ransoms even on local conservatives who so much as tried to mediate.
From then on, it was clear who was in charge in the country: Carrera personally, with his "Indian hordes" the force at his disposal, and a group of conservative politicians to carry out, nervously, the tasks of governing.
With only one interval of alarm, Carrera would remain the ruler until his death in 1865.