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:
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,
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
“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
“Strategic Security Plans” for an “Unprotected
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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:
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
“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
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.