home  |  about  |  people  |  events  |  gallery  |  contact  |  newsletters  |  sponsors  |  links

Joshua Cohen

CCGAP Human Rights Accompanier

Joshua Cohen pictured in Antigua, March 2009.


Joshua Cohen, from Needham MA, is a recent college graduate with a major in Peace Studies. His travel experience includes time in Uganda and Rwanda where he worked in the area of regional conflicts and human rights.

Joshua arrived in Guatemala in February 2009 and spent some weeks in language school before beginning his duties as an accompanier in the Ixcan region. His first letter to his friends and family informed them of Guatemala's history and the significance of accompaniment work. (scroll down to see the February, May and July letters.)

Here is Josh's latest letter, written in October 2009:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell (stenciled on wall of Sixth Avenue, Zone 1 in Guatemala City)

Dear Friends and Family,

At some moment in the past few weeks I came to the realization that every single visit that my partner David and I do in the next two months will be my final one to each community. Almost everyday from now on I will be saying goodbye. I don’t know how to wrap my head around this. My time here has meant and continues to mean so much to me. At the same time, I miss you all so much and cannot wait to sit down face to face and catch up again (seeing as I am, you know, three months or so behind responding to emails I am feeling especially out of touch these days). I will write one more letter before I leave so I’m not going to dwell on leaving quite yet. I am still very much here. And at the moment it feels pretty urgent to share with you all some of what has been happening here. Thank you, as always, for listening.

The Remilitarizing of the Ixcán

Historical memory is not just about remembering; it is about honoring the past by constructing a present that is grounded in the lessons history has taught us. It is about changing who we are and how we act in accordance with these lessons. In Guatemala, various governments have made it clear that they do indeed remember, and even regret the atrocities carried out on the part of the state throughout the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict. Each year, for instance, the country commemorates those who lost their lives as a result of state violence in the conflict on National Victim’s Day. However, the same government that, today, gives lip-service to the suffering of survivors and martyrs is also pushing policies that render its words meaningless. What is happening in the Ixcán today, as you are reading this letter, is a clear example of the enforcement of such policies:

Over the course of the next week, one thousand-plus ground troops from the Sixth Infantry Brigade will return to the Ixcán. The Brigade had been disbanded and the number of regional troops had been reduced significantly in accordance with the Peace Accords of 1996 (nation-wide, the number of troops was cut from 28,000 to 15,000). But today, the demilitarization process is being reversed in very particular locations throughout the country. In violation of the Accords, center-left President Alvaro Colom plans to expand the number of active soldiers back up to 25,000. In the Ixcán, as in many of the other regions throughout the country, the primary justification is to provide security to a relatively insecure region (why resources aren’t being used to construct a competent police force instead of employing military force, also in accordance with the Peace Accords, has yet to be explained). But communities across the Ixcán openly oppose remilitarization, and they are taking brave steps to ensure their voices are heard.

“An Offense to Historical Memory”

Three weeks ago, four of us from ACOGUATE (the name of the international network of accompaniment organizations that NISGUA is a part of) attended a press conference in Guatemala City organized by members of various social organizations and community representatives throughout the Ixcán to publicly denounce the remilitarization of the region. The conference was scheduled the day after community members presented a legal denunciation of Colom’s plan before Congress. Also throughout this time, workshops, informational and organizing meetings had been taking place across the municipality as communities planned how they would confront the situation. There have been and continue to be too many such meetings for David, my partner, and I to keep track of. However, the press conference was the first formal public declaration organized across communities.

The moment the room quieted the panel of speakers moved straight to the point. A man named Juan Juárez opened the conference by stating bluntly:

“Esto es una ofensa para la memoria histórica.”

This is an offense to historical memory.

What does the reinstallation of an old military brigade have to do with historical memory? The answer is so glaring that it is shocking (well, almost shocking) that the government could simply choose to overlook it: As many of you already know, the Ixcán was one of the regions most affected by military repression throughout the internal armed conflict. According to the Catholic Church´s Recovery of the Historical Memory (REMHI) project, 102 massacres took place in the Ixcán between the years 1979-88; 2,500 were killed violently; and 96% of the population was forcibly displaced. The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), Guatemala’s independent truth commission, determined that 93% of the abuses that took place during the internal armed conflict were committed by state and related paramilitary forces; and that these abuses constituted "acts of genocide" at the height of the violence in the early 1980's. That is to say, the atrocities experienced in the Ixcán, as in the rest of the country, were overwhelmingly carried out by the Guatemalan military. Thirteen years have passed since the signing of the Peace Accords and still, 99% of crimes committed remain unaccounted for.

The offense, then, is this: Imposing a military force on survivors of a genocidal campaign carried out by the very same military-which has yet to be held accountable for any of its crimes-and then claiming it is for the protection of those same people.

It is a lie. It is a psychological assault. And it is an outright denial of and disregard for the reality lived by those who were targeted by the military in the internal armed conflict. Reina Caba, another community leader who spoke at the press conference, described it this way in one interview: "People associate the return of the military with the terror and massacres of the past. When we talk about the situation, people still cry, because they have not even received reparations."

This then raises the question: If not for security, why is the Ixcán being remilitarized?

“Strategic Security Plans” for an “Unprotected Area”

In fact, one explanation for the reinstallation of troops that the government of Alvaro Colom has been surprisingly open about, and which many in the Ixcán seem to agree is genuine, does have to do with security: Soldiers will be stationed in strategic locations along the route of a proposed multi-lane highway called the Franja Transversal Del Norte (FTN) in order to “maintain control” over its construction. Put in other terms, the military is being positioned to pacify any resistance to a controversial development scheme that is expected to forcibly uproot populations in its path. But it doesn’t end with a highway.
The FTN is part of the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), a regional mega-project that aims to establish a “development corridor” from Puebla, Mexico to Panama, opening the entire region to foreign, private investors in order to attract industry and agribusiness, which of course is expected to increase natural resource extraction. Many expect the military to defend any and all projects associated with the PPP in the region as well. But it doesn’t end there either.

In the words of Afredo Cacao, a social activist in the region: "The purpose of remilitarizing this area is to defend the interests of the big companies, because this is an area of gold mines, African palm oil and hydroelectric dams." Cacao is speaking to projects that are part of the PPP, but his statement extends well beyond the PPP as well. The Ixcán, which is indeed rich in natural resources and is the planned location for a wide range of proposed development projects, is also home to thousands of indigenous Guatemalan citizens who have been fighting-literally for hundreds of years-for the right to their land. In this case, they are fighting for their legal right to consultation before any such development initiatives go forward that would directly affect their lives and livelihoods. The sudden dramatic increase in military presence is an ominous sign for a people who are organizing on behalf of their constitutional and legal rights and who, historically, have been on the receiving end of large-scale military repression for doing just that. As Caba put it: "Economic development comes hand in hand with militarism, the displacement of local communities and the criminalization of the struggle of peasant farmers for the right to land."

Nation-wide the picture is strikingly similar. As one representative of the Center for Guatemalan Studies told us, remilitarization is being organized in places of economic importance for transnational companies where there is likely to be local resistance to development projects and resource extraction. He also emphasized that, with the exception of Puerto Barrios, the centers of remilitarization are not the regions where violence is most concentrated in Guatemala today. That is to say, the pretext of security for Guatemalan citizens rings hollow. They are not the ones being protected.

Any analysis as to how the national remilitarization process is a direct assault on the struggle to construct a present that honors historical memory has been lost on, or seems to bear no significance at all in the eyes of the Guatemalan government. By the time I return to the Ixcán there will be one thousand soldiers occupying the old military base that, since the war, had been transformed into one of the Ixcán's central hospitals and a local extension of San Carlos University.

“And the United States Must Not Repeat That Mistake…”

At some point in the process of writing this letter, I came to the rea
lization that writing about historical memory in Guatemala but not in the United States feels like a lie. I wrote in my first friends and family letter that one of the primary reasons I chose to be an accompanier in Guatemala is because I believe this work exemplifies the values and supports the kinds of struggles that I would like to see supported through my own nation’s policies throughout Latin America. What I didn’t explain is how this has everything to do with historical memory, or its complete disregard, in the United States; how U.S. foreign policy in the region has been consistently antidemocratic in nature, and how forgetting enables us to repeat our crimes of the past. I will try to explain now…

In 1999, President Bill Clinton came to Guatemala and issued a formal apology to the entire nation on behalf of each and every American. But how many of us knew what our president was apologizing (for us) for? How many of us know today? His words were: “It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the [CEH] report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”

The CEH report, the one that found that the military had committed 93% of atrocities during the war and participated in “acts of genocide” in the early 1980´s, also pointed to American “anti-democratic policies” and its funding and training of Guatemalan military officers in “criminal counterinsurgency” techniques as direct links to the torture, kidnapping and execution of thousands of Guatemalans. (Please feel free to read directly from the report here: http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/toc.html)

Thousands of military documents declassified this same year demonstrate the extent to which the U.S. was conscious of the actions it was supporting and, at times, helping to organize. For instance, one classified state department cable from 1967 states openly that covert Guatemalan security operations use "kidnapping, torture and summary executions." It goes on to say: "In the past year approximately 500 to 600 persons have been killed. With the addition of 'missing' persons this figure might double to 1,000 to 2,000." As for knowledge about the targeting of Mayan populations by the military, one CIA memo from 1983 describes scorched-earth tactics implemented by the army, then explains that, “The well documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP,” i.e. pro-guerrilla, “has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.” Please, if you have the time and are interested, read more about from the documents directly: www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive/

One United States government after another, with the exception of the Carter administration, maintained its support of the Guatemalan military with counter-insurgency training (in Guatemala, the U.S., Panama...), millions of dollars in weapons and equipment, and support in constructing its intelligence apparatus-which carried out most of the abductions, torture, and assassinations-throughout the 36 years of armed conflict. At the height of the violence, Ronald Reagan notoriously defended former president Efraín Ríos Montt, who currently faces charges of genocide in Guatemalan and Spanish courts, calling him "a man of great personal integrity and commitment" who is "totally dedicated to democracy.” He then added: “And frankly, I'm inclined to believe they've been getting a bum rap."

Setting a New Precedent

I know that I cannot do justice to history in this small space; at least not in the nuanced, dynamic way that history should be shared and understood. All I can try to do is provide a glimpse into a complex history that we, those of us who are American citizens, have a responsibility not only to remember, but to learn from in an effort to change who we our and what is carried out in our name worldwide. The moment in history that marks the sharp turning point in U.S.-Guatemala relations, but that also set a new precedent for our policies throughout the region, took place before the internal armed conflict began. This is the part of the story Clinton chose not to acknowledge. This is what he specifically did not apologize for.

In 1954 the United States government directly supported and helped to organize the coup d’etat that forced democratically elected leader Jacobo Arbenz into exile and installed Carlos Castillo Armas into dictatorial power. Coined “Operation Success,” it was the second CIA covert operation that resulted in the overthrow of a democratically elected leader (the first being Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953), and it is the first official record we have of the CIA planning assassinations. (To read a 19-page manual that the CIA published on killing, in preparation for the coup, as well as lists of assassination targets compiled by the agency please see the following link: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB4/). The agency organized for almost a year before the actual invasion, providing military equipment, training a military force in Honduras and even experimenting in new “psych-war” techniques; engineering a fear campaign that included the spread of death threats and mock bombing operations.

Behind all of this were the economic interests of the United Fruit Company, which stood to lose significant holdings of uncultivated land in Arbenz’s sweeping agrarian reform, and whose powerful shareholders included CIA head Allen Dulles, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. We had interests to protect and a fervent Cold War spirit pushing us forward. This was all the justification we needed.

The United States did not create, but rather reinforced and intensified conflicts and divisions that had existed in Guatemala for so many years. But the coup of 1954 opened the door to over 30 years military repression in Guatemala, which we continued to support. And for this the United States has still not been held accountable.

This is our legacy in Guatemala.

The Will to Change

I think it is fair to say that most U.S. citizens do not know much about this history. But then, who is accountable for our actions when we as an entire nation block these memories from our collective consciousness? Guatemala was not the only country in Latin America where we actively interfered with democratic processes and, in many cases, directly supported repressive regimes that committed massive human rights abuses. Guatemala was the first. It was the precedent. Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Haiti… there are more, and each has its own story.

Working here in Guatemala it is impossible not to think constantly about this history and how it has shaped the present. One of the more surreal moments for me in the past couple of months was sitting in a jam-packed community assemble room in one Ixcán community, watching a documentary about the terror in the 1980’s and listening to Ronald Reagan proclaim before Congress our nation’s dedication to freedom for the people of Central America. I was the only American in the room. After the video, Andres, one of our friends who we work very closely with walked me back to the room where I was staying and we discussed the nature of American imperialism. “The U.S. sends its army to poor countries because it wants natural resources” he told me. For him, it is as simple as that. Another friend from the same community told David and I: “In 1954 [the U.S.] invaded Guatemala and since then we have had a military of the rich in Guatemala, one of repression and violence that exists to repress the indigenous populations. And it always has U.S. support.”

To be accompaniers in Guatemala we have to have a working knowledge of Guatemalan history, including the history of U.S. interventions here. But it is something entirely different to see how this history affects individual lives: people who survived massacres carried out by the military we helped arm and train; people whose families stood to benefit from the agrarian reform that was reversed entirely after the coup, who still don’t have the means to legally attain the land their families have lived on for year. Everyone we meet and come to care about has been affected in some way. I can’t help that it becomes real in an entirely new way for me.

Would we be able to carry out such policies if all Americans were aware that this was how we have been conducting ourselves in Latin America for so many years? I really don’t know. But I have some faith that things would change, that we would make ourselves change. That we still can. And it starts with understanding our own past, with restoring historical memory in the United States. If we don’t know what has been carried out in our name, we walk blindly into the future. But we do have a choice.

Much, much love,


Josh sent us this letter dated July 29th, 2009:

Sangre mía, My blood
Sangre de alba, Blood of the dawn
Sangre de luna partida Blood of the split moon
Sangre del silencio Blood of silence

- Susana Chávez, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México

Dear Friends and Family,

By the time you read this, more than half of my time in Guatemala will have passed. It has been amazing and it has been a whirlwind. Being new to Guatemala and trying to understand the histories, clandestine political powers and social divisions within is quite an impossible feat. But the longer that I am here, the more that I do understand, and the more that I allow myself to sit with the reality of the situation around me, the more I find myself in a steady state of anger and restlessness. Every "missing" and "have you seen this person" flyer plastered to Guatemala City walls; every individual woman’s story generalized in headlines as another victim of femicide; every personal history of survival of the war; and every fear voiced that any day the war will resurge and take hold of Guatemala again... Each one tells of a life, a living memory, and the violence that runs through them. It is hard not to pass days overwhelmed with thoughts of the incredible people directly affected by this violence and, what’s more, knowing that Guatemala’s current circumstances are in many ways tied to my own country’s foreign policy here over the last 70 years (more on this in my next friends and family letter). It is hard not to feel these things so strongly even as an outsider who always has the option to leave. The thought has never crossed my mind, not for a second, but the fact that I have the option to and eventually will leave is relevant. The people we work with have no means to escape their situations.

I paint this picture of Guatemala now because I want all of you, just as I attempt everyday, to understand just how much is on the line for those who speak up; for those who dedicate their lives to making justice a reality in Guatemala. I want to make clear just how monumental the forces are working against them and just how remarkable their courage is in the face of it all. This is my primary goal with this letter. So I leave you with one story of everyday resistance in the face of tremendous opposition. Thank you all for listening.

The Guatemala Genocide Cases

Last week my partner and I accompanied two representatives of a Guatemalan human rights legal group to meet with an organization of witnesses based in the Ixcán for a two-day workshop. We drove nine hours north from Guatemala City to a town notable (among other reasons) for its over-abundance of barrel-chested men in cowboy hats, all too often with handguns hanging off the hip or pressed between belt and spine. In the town center dirt roads split off in every direction (there is no grass, not anywhere) with long lines of shops and eateries along the periphery of each one. A certain degree of publicly recognized lawlessness is contrasted by organizations of remarkable individuals working tirelessly for justice in Guatemala. It is a place I have come to love for the people we know there and hate for almost every other reason.

The group of women and men we met with are witnesses in the genocide cases still pending in Guatemalan courts. Families of victims and other affected groups have been waiting for nine years to see the inside of a courtroom; for many more years to see any kind of accountability for the atrocities committed during the 36-year internal armed conflict. There is a long list of inter-connected factors that have effectively frozen the legal process in its tracks: The labyrinth of judicial bureaucracy; threats and attacks against judges, lawyers and witnesses; influence and power in the hands of the very people most threatened by the cases; and an overall lack of political will. The result is that 99% of crimes committed during the war have yet to be brought to justice. 200,000 people killed, 45,000 disappeared, no accountability. As many believe the national court system to be irreparably broken or corrupt, charges of genocide and war crimes, among others, are also being pressed in Spanish courts under international law. These cases too have seen little progress since they opened a decade ago. The folks we were gathering with this day were sitting down to discuss the current state of the cases and to plan strategies for moving forward.

“El camino está largo…” / “The road is long...”

We parked and said our greetings to the group waiting for us outside of the conference hall (we left at 4:30am, still managed to arrive late). They are increasingly familiar to me every time we meet, their warmth and graciousness ever-present. Here together were so many of the individuals we are privileged to work with month after month. These are the families we hike hours through Guatemala’s northern rainforests to visit, with whom we sit and just talk for hours. I felt very lucky to be there with everyone in that moment as we walked up to the outer deck of the conference hall to begin the workshop. There was little hesitation on the part of Elizabeth*, the organizer of the workshop who we had accompanied to the event. She launched in with an impossibly large question:

“What do the military documents mean to you?”

Another way she might have asked the same question could be: “What do the thousands of recently declassified files documenting the military strategies carefully planned to destroy your communities and families mean to you? What of Defense Ministry officials' refusal to turn over particular military plans despite being legally ordered to do so - plans that prove authorship and implementation of genocidal tactics by the military? ... What do these things mean to you?”

Effectively impossible to answer, the question still served its purpose. Individuals stepped up one by one to share a thought, a word, an image, to demonstrate in some small way what these documents and the history they bear signify in their lives. We were asked to participate as well. As the day went on and people shared more of their experiences during the war and today, Elizabeth asked the group to use their stories to begin to paint a larger picture: the collective history that emerges from the bridging of individual witness and testimony. More than just the theme of the workshop she had organized, this was effectively strategy building to combat the violent, threatening silence that for years has pervaded Guatemalan society. Each time someone stepped up to speak I thought of the life being given to so many repressed or silenced histories and of the force they gained as one wove into another, and another. I thought too of the weight one must have to bear to relive the greatest traumas of her life time and time again, to continue speaking in spite of and because of the tremendous pressure to remain silent.

The Act of Silencing

Why dedicate an entire letter to this small group, this one small gathering out of all that has happened the past two months in Guatemala?

In a nation where impunity cripples law and historical memory can be lost in collective silence, the proclamation of one’s lived experience is a radical act of defiance; a small act of truth in the face of violent opposition to the truth. There is nothing small or unremarkable about these acts. To break the silence when human rights defenders are systematically targeted with violence is to consciously cast oneself, and potentially one’s loved ones, into an incredibly dangerous spotlight.

I want to be as clear as possible about what I mean when I speak of impunity and a culture of silence. These are not abstract ideas. They are living forces in modern Guatemala. Here, some numbers are useful to explain:

Last year 48 of every 100,000 citizens of this country were murdered. That comes to 6,292 individual people murdered in a country slightly smaller than Tennessee, with a population a little bit larger than that of Illinois. This year, the rate has continued to rise. Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world, yet only 2% of homicides are ever resolved in court. This is the most fundamental characteristic of impunity: the failure or inability to bring to justice those who have committed human rights violations. Impunity, however, is not merely the result of an ineffective legal system, one that just happens to be broken. It is also caused by the active dissuasion of justice. This is why the targeting of human rights actors is so central to the culture of impunity in Guatemala.

For instance, in the years 2006 and 2007 one legal human rights organization registered 466 attacks on human rights defenders. The number of attacks has doubled in the last five years. In spite of the dramatic rise in attacks in this time, however, only 3 cases have been resolved in Guatemalan courts. The most public case since I have been in Guatemala was when Gladys Monterroso, the wife of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, was abducted as a response to the declassification of police archives. Think about what this means: The spouse of the individual with the highest governmental position and greatest official responsibility to ensure the maintenance of human rights in Guatemala was kidnapped, tortured, and returned 24-hours later without any consequences for those who attacked her. The Human Rights Ombudsman in Guatemala has no means to protect his own wife-let alone those on the margins of society-nor the means to seek out the individuals who abducted and tortured her. This is one case of hundreds, but the vast majority pass quietly without any public attention. In the end, many of the crimes that persist as a result of entrenched impunity also enable and reinforce it by deterring those who might otherwise seek justice in Guatemala and by directly targeting those who do. It is a vicious cycle that has kept a firm grip on the nation since the end of war in 1996 and has helped to create a powerful environment of fear and silence. We, as accompaniers, are here to stand side by side with people and groups that have been threatened for the work that they do and of course the organization of witnesses and human rights legal group we sat with through these two days are no different. This is what people are up against when they gather in a small group in a small room in the northern jungles of Guatemala to share the stories of their lives. This is the very real danger each and every one of them faces when they open their mouths to speak.

The War After the War

"They say it is over. But for us it isn’t over. This history lives on in the hearts of the people and the memory of our children."

We are sitting with Don Pablo on the front porch of his home, sipping a thick, sweet drink made from corn. The walls behind us are lined with posters that declare opposition to the construction of Xalalá Dam. David, my partner, and I joined him and his family on this busy Sunday morning to discuss the remilitarization of the Ixcán, the organized resistance against the dam, and the state of the genocide cases. Historical memory lives on, as he tells us, but so do the roots of conflict and oppression that have shaped so much of that history. I want to know more about his perspective on the links between past and present. If Guatemala is one of the most violent societies in the world, and if so many of the root causes of the war have gone unaltered even with the signing of the Peace Accords, what is the difference? If this is peacetime, what differentiates it from wartime?

Don Pablo puts it quite succinctly:

"It is another war after the one that just ended."

It is often explained to us this way. Either the war never truly ended, changed in nature after the Peace Accords, or a new war has started, but there is always the presence of war. In my time here I have heard very few people-at least those speaking critically of modern Guatemalan society-say otherwise. For those of us who are new to the country and trying to understand its complex socio-political contours, this historical perspective is essential. None of the violence has appeared out of nowhere: not the gangs, the steadily rising murder rate, or the brutalizing, rape and murder of women. All of it has precedent and all of it is tied to either root causes or legacies of the war that continue to go unaddressed.

But even in a wartime environment, Don Pablo does not use wartime language. I have spent a lot of time in these letters talking about the resistance of the folks we work with. But there is so much more than just resistance. There is vision. There is a desire to build, not tear down. Towards the end of our conversation, Don Pablo tells us what lies at the center of his vision for the future of Guatemala:

"Queremos igualdad... que todos vivimos iguales con condiciones iguales para toda la gente."

We want equality… that we all live equally with equal conditions for all of the people.

Thank You

I always end these letters saying thank you, and it feels so important to say every time. Sharing this information with the people I love (you) and being able to process my experiences through these letters is invaluable to me. As always, the letters, emails, phone calls, etc. mean so, so much, even when I can't always respond right away. Thank you for staying with me through all of this. It means the world.



*All names have been changed

Here is Joshua's most recent letter written in May 2009 along with a map pointing out the Ixcan area.

Dear Friends and Family,

First and foremost, thank you all so much for all of the letters, words of encouragement, music, books, and donations I have received since sending out my first letter. All of it, every word, means so much to me. If I haven’t yet responded to individual letters/emails please know that I have read every single one and am still in the process of responding. Thank you for your patience with this. Thank you also for all of the signatures in response to my second email. I helped hand-sort the letters before they were delivered to President Colom’s office and it was so nice to see so many of your names at the bottom of the statements. I will update you on news about the “lost” military plans soon.

As human rights accompaniers in Guatemala we work alongside witnesses, lawyers, and others involved in legal cases for “post-war” accountability, as well as groups doing grassroots organizing for justice- often related to the protection of natural resources. These first few months working for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), I have been accompanying a group of communities in opposition to a proposed hydroelectric dam that would be built across two intersecting rivers essential to the life of the people in this region. At first glance such an issue might appear to have no relation to the genocide cases still pending in Guatemalan and Spanish courts (more about the national and international court cases in the next letter). However, the unilateral decision-making and complete disregard for the communities that would be affected is deeply tied to a history of physical repression, institutionalized racism and economic marginalization of indigenous populations; all of which goes back as far as colonization and culminated in the 36-year internal armed conflict that officially ended in 1996. Equally deep-rooted is the resistance to these repressive state policies in Guatemala, as individuals and communities time and time again fight for their right to a life of dignity.

The Xalalá Dam and the Question of Development

A few weeks ago three accompaniers and I were invited to attend the second anniversary of the Consulta Comunitaria de Buena Fe (Community Referendum in Good Faith) in a small Mayan Q’eqchi’ village in the Ixcán region of Guatemala (see map 1). The consulta was organized by the people of the Ixcán to determine collectively whether or not they would allow the construction of large-scale dams, including the Xalalá Dam, and the extraction of petroleum by foreign companies on their land. The results of the consulta speak for themselves:

Of the 21,155 people from 144 different communities in the Ixcán who participated, 89.72% voted ‘No’ to both the construction of dams and the exploitation of petroleum. In the micro-region where communities will be directly affected by the Xalalá dam (i.e. displaced), only 6 people voted ‘Yes’.

No one asked these communities for their views on the proposed projects. They organized themselves knowing full well that the law was on their side. The Guatemalan Constitution and a number of international legal accords back their right to formal consultation by the state in matters of development. Often quoted is International Labor Organization Convention 169 (which has been ratified by Guatemala), which guarantees indigenous populations the right to determine “their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use”. However, in 2007 the Guatemala Constitutional Court ruled that consultas such as this one are legal but not legally binding. In other words, the government has the final word regardless of community vote results. The green light has been given to begin construction of the dam.

So why are these communities, the vast majority trapped in poverty and living without electricity, so adamantly denouncing the construction of the Xalalá dam if it will create new energy sources for the people of Guatemala? There are many reasons why and my explanation here will only scratch the surface: Among others, the $400 million, 181-megawatt hydroelectric dam is expected to flood the homes of 2,338 people, affecting 36 different indigenous Mayan communities (some people in the communities claim the number is higher) and cause irrevocable environmental damage. Even then, the vast majority of energy produced by the dam is expected to be used for export. The people most affected by the construction of the dam will see no profits and none of the energy it produces. If this is what development looks like for the communities of the Ixcán, than this project begs a few basic questions: On whose terms is the idea of development defined, and on whose behalf? Who really stands to benefit in the end when those directly affected by the construction are stripped of their voice?

In a newspaper interview one year ago a community member from one affected community put it this way: “It’s not that we’re against development, we just want it to be our own kind of development.”

Echoes of History

Speaking to us in her native Q’eqchi’, Dona Maria* barely lifted her eyes from the floor of her own kitchen: “We don’t want to see anymore bloodshed. We have seen enough. We don’t want to suffer anymore, we already know what it is to suffer. We don’t want to relive what we lived in 1982.”

She was not the first person to reference this period in Guatemalan history while speaking to the threat posed by the Xalalá Dam. The years 1982-3 were some of the most violent of the war, two years for which Ríos Montt and his high military command are being charged with genocide. But what is the connection? Why would people resisting the construction of a hydroelectric dam on their land repeatedly draw links between a modern day “mega-project” and the height of state-sponsored terror in Guatemala? I posed this question to another community member:

Me: “So is this the same struggle as during the internal armed conflict or is this something different?”
Juan: “It is the same. We are trying to protect our communities and our natural resources and defend against the same mega-projects that they started planning during the war.”

We discuss the Chixoy Dam, the country’s largest hydroelectric dam, which was built in Río Negro, Guatemala in the 1970’s. In this same time period the plans for the Xalalá Dam were in their earliest stages. He reminds me that five massacres were carried out against Río Negro inhabitants over the course of eight months in 1982 as a response to the organized resistance against its construction. In the end, the Guatemalan military killed 440 residents-the vast majority of the town’s total population-for their vocal opposition to the project. The people killed were Mayan Achí. Those who weren’t massacred were either forced into hiding in the mountains or relocated to the Pacux military colony. To this day those who were displaced have not been compensated for what they lost 27 years ago, though the government swears otherwise. In fact, many cannot even afford the dam’s “cheap” electricity and continue to lack a daily water source. This is what recent history has taught people in the Ixcán about the consequences they face for challenging government policy and publicly voicing their rights. There is a long pause before Juan begins again:

“But the struggle today is different too. Last time we fought with arms. This time we use the law. The law is on our side, this time the law is our weapon.”

Second Anniversary of the Consulta Comunitaria de Buena Fe

Officially, we were accompanying this event which means, officially, we were impartial. We are international observers supporting people in their struggles, which means it is never our struggle. This is central to the meaning of solidarity work. But to be perfectly honest, it was hard to resist celebrating, mourning, dancing, screaming out alongside everyone else. That first night in the small Q'eqchi' town in the Ixcán, live marimba music filled the space between vigils, speeches, and Mayan, Catholic and Evangelical ceremonies. When the vigil suddenly turned to dance (though technically they were the same thing I think), it literally didn’t stop until the next ceremony started again the next morning. Most people never bothered sleeping… except, of course, for the accompaniers who are never prepared for that kind of thing. At other times throughout the night when everyone-upwards of 550 people spilling out the two front doors of the small community church-were calling out together, I held my tongue but I could not control the smile on my face: “La tierra no se vende…”, said a young woman speaking softly from the altar. And in a moment, almost in one voice, the room cried out: “SE CUIDA Y SE DEFIENDE”

The land is not for sale, it is to be cared for and defended.

In these moments we just sat back and soaked up the energy in the room. It is a strange feeling both being a part of such an event and at the same time being on the outside of it; especially when it is so loaded with a range of emotion and meaning for the people who really are part of it. This is a common feeling for accompaniers and it is one I am beginning to get accustomed to.

That night we slept under the stars outside of the primary school, but not for long. At 5:00am most of the community had already marched down the narrow path to the spot where the Chixoy and Capón Rivers cross; the proposed site for the Xalalá Dam. I honestly believe that in this case, pictures will speak louder than words. The hike through the rainforest, the hours of ceremony on the rivers that followed, the music, the speeches, the conversations… I don’t have the words, nor will I, to adequately capture all of this. Nor do I have the words to explain the extent to which these two days energized and inspired me, more so than anything else has since I first arrived in Guatemala. I leave you then with photos (see attached) and the story of the event as it was covered by the news station GuateVision:


The Big Picture: 500 Years and Counting…

The weight of history bearing down on this event cannot be overstated. The people of the Ixcán, who comprise less than 3% of Guatemala’s total population, suffered disproportionately throughout the 36-year internal armed conflict. Because the populations of this region are 78% indigenous, they were repeatedly targeted in military counterinsurgency campaigns, like the now notorious scorched earth policies under Ríos Montt. An Ixcán community declaration about the dam from last year reiterated that from the time of the Conquistador invasion of Guatemala in 1523, through the liberal revolution of the 19th century and the dictatorships of this last century, the Mayan indigenous populations of Guatemala have always been disproportionately abused at the hands of the state. That is, subject to racism, slavery, repeated displacement, and inescapable cycles poverty. Today, 88% of the population of the Ixcán lives below the poverty line.

What then does it mean to publicly stand up for your rights when history has taught you that you are expendable-or worse, less than human and actually undesirable-in the eyes of the state? When this characterization of your ethnicity would have meant your execution two decades earlier? When you know official government policy once legitimized the organized extermination of your families and their people? What will be the consequences for standing up? What will be the consequences if you do not? Which is worse?

Of course I don't know whether or not the answers to these questions are clear for the individuals and communities resisting the Xalalá Dam. But for those that are standing up and organizing across community and even across national lines, there is no sign of backing down. In the same community declaration from last year, organizations and communities throughout the Ixcán that oppose the dam made this much clear:

"Despite all of this history of oppression, exploitation and discrimination, our people have known to resist, to care for and defend our natural resources, language, culture, organization, and our ways of life"

Thank You

There are so many moments in time I want to share with you all, I'm honestly tempted to just start listing them here... But alas, this letter is long enough. Being an accompanier in Guatemala continues to be such a privilege and such a challenge for me on so many levels. I cannot begin to explain how much your moral support helps me to face it all with my head up. Please write anytime to say a word, ask a question, voice a criticism, anything at all. I will continue to do my best to respond. Also, if you are so inspired to send anything through the mail my address here in Guatemala is:

Joshua Cohen
3 Calle 3-48B, Zona 2
Ciudad de Guatemala

And as always please check NISGUA’s website for frequent updates:
Here too is the website of my sponsoring community Copper Country Guatemalan Accompaniment Project, without whom I could not be here:

I can’t wait to hear from you all, I will write again soon!



P.S. In Q’eqchi’-the regional indigenous language I am (slowly) learning-the question “how are you?” is said as follows:
“Ma sa sa’ laa ch’ool laa’at.”

The direct translation:
“Is there happiness in your heart?”

Is that not absurdly beautiful?

*All names in this letter have been changed


February 2009

Dear Friends and Family,

This letter you are receiving is the first in a series I will be writing for the next nine months from Guatemala. In two weeks I will begin my work as a human rights observer and international accompanier through the organization Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). The most important thing to me is that you all be a part of this experience in some way: by reading these emails, the human rights reports I will be forwarding, engaging in some of the issues, and simply by being in touch.

Accompaniment, in essence, is a nonviolent response to threats, harassment, and violence faced by survivors of Guatemala’s 36 year-long civil war and grassroots organizations working for justice and human rights. Upon request, accompaniers from nine nations live side-by-side with individuals and groups in their communities to:

1) Serve as a dissuasive presence against human rights abuses by connecting those vulnerable to political violence to the eyes and ears of the rest of the world

2) Document information about the social/political climate including threats and abuses should they take place; disseminating information about realities on the ground to media outlets, solidarity groups, and human rights organizations back in our home countries.

Primarily, I will be based out of the department of Quiché, Guatemala:

Some Brief History

I will talk about why I am choosing to be an accompanier in Guatemala, but first some background information is important to put it all in context: As some of you may know, in December 1996 Guatemala passed the historic Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace, a declaration that officially ended 36 years of civil war. Soon thereafter, the United Nations sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) published a report stating that as a result of the war, 200,000 people had been killed or disappeared, the vast majority of whom were indigenous Mayans. The report also found that 626 massacres had been carried out and between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people had been forcibly displaced. The CEH concluded that state military and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations they had documented, including 92% of the arbitrary executions and 91% of forced disappearances. The years in which the report could most clearly demonstrate that genocide had been committed against Mayan populations, 1981-1983, were marked by the rule of Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and Efraín Ríoss Montt (1982-83). Both dictators received financial and military support from the Reagan administration during their time in power. Furthermore, the U.S. government and military helped train hundreds of Guatemalan military officers in counterinsurgency tactics throughout the war, including Ríoss Montt himself.

In spite of the evidence produced by the CEH and steps built into the Peace Accords to address both root causes and consequences of the war, very little has been done to hold accountable those who orchestrated and carried out the most inhumane crimes.


As a result of this climate of impunity, brave communities of survivors have begun organizing legal cases against Lucas García, Ríoss Montt and their military high commands. The former state and military leaders are being charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, progress is slow and survivors, their legal counsel, judges, witnesses and many others are faced with regular threats and violence organized by those whose interest it is to bury the past. Today, many of the political and military leaders being charged still maintain power within Guatemala, and many more of the nation’s most rich and powerful benefit from their oligarchic rule. For example, even with the charges against him, Ríoss Montt is currently serving in Congress.

When the first court cases were filed in 2000, an organization of witnesses and their legal counsel requested the presence of international accompaniers to help create the political and social space within Guatemala to move the legal process forward. NISGUA was one of several organizations worldwide to respond to the request. As an accompanier, it is the combination of my physical presence and my access to people, resources and institutions in my own country that help to create this space. It is my direct connection to an international response network, and my ability to generate a potentially large-scale response to abuses that makes accompaniment relevant in Guatemala right now. NISGUA has been building this network for the past 26 years, and you and I are now a small part of it.

On a day-to-day basis, accompaniment may involve joining witnesses as they travel to legal meetings, interviewing community members about recent or past events, and will likely mean documenting continuously. However, in the best case scenario there will be a great deal of inactivity as well. In the end, the less other accompaniers and I are needed the better the situation is for everyone on the ground and the more progress is being made.

Why I am Going

To me, The Guatemalan Accompaniment Project (G.A.P.) is an active demonstration of what a real alternative to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America could look like. In this case, that means supporting the fundamental rights of indigenous people and working to hold those who commit egregious human rights abuses accountable, instead of allying with them. All of this comes from a desire in me to be more than just a passive critic about my own country’s policies. Furthermore, based on its history, I believe that accompaniment has the potential to be useful and effective. It is a direct response to a specific request, bound and limited by the specificity of that request. In other words, I don’t design my own role on behalf of anyone in Guatemala; everything is organized through mutual agreement between NISGUA and partners on the ground. It is a call to quite literally stand side-by-side in solidarity because we share common values, goals, and dreams. I couldn’t be more excited to play a very small role in this monumental undertaking.



P.S.: Please note that as my work relates specifically to the war in Guatemala, all of the history I have written about regards the war. However, as you all know, war can never define a nation, its history and its people. Please understand that the nature of the history described in this letter is necessarily limited and reductive.

Join NISGUA’s listserv to keep updated on pertinent events and case updates:

For information on becoming an accompanier, go to the NISGUA accompanier page: