July - September 2011
Dear Friends and Family,
Greetings form Gautemala! Sorry for the late letter, it's been a busy few months here, though exciting for sure.
One very important piece of news coming from Guatemala has been the sentence in the Dos Erres case. The trial against four of the 17 people wanted for the massacre of over 250 in 1982 in the community of Las Dos Erres lasted a week and a half. We accompanied the witnesses in the weeks leading up to the trial while they worked with the lawyers to prepare their testimonies, and then in the trial as well. The sentence was unprecedented: each of the four received 30 years for murder for each of the 201 victims in the case, and another 30 years for crimes against humanity. Additionally, the ex-commander of the military base where the soldiers were based out of, received an extra 6 years for armed robbery. That means the four got sentenced to 6,060 years! Due to legal limits on sentencing however, they will only serve 50 years. Even so, they will be very old by the time they get out of prison. Additionally, the people convicted were ex-kaibiles, the elite unit of the military. It is incredible to see not only soldiers, but commanders in the military to be brought to justice.
Currently, besides the four of them, there are four others in custody. Two people are in custody in the US, both for having lied on their immigration forms. Gilberto Jordan was sentenced last year in the States to 10 years for lying on his citizenship application, and Santos Lopez Alonzo is waiting for a similar process to start. A third, Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa, was in the States in the same situation, but was arrested in Canada last year. After a legal process in which both Guatemala and Spain requested his extradition to face charges for the massacre, and lawyers in Canada petitioned to have him tried for the massacre there, the courts recently resolved that he will be extradited to the US to face charges for lying on citizenship application. It's disappointing decision, but there is still time for appeal. Finally, the last person accused in the case, Pedro Pimentel Rios, was living undocumented in the States and was deported this summer back to Guatemala, where he was promptly arrested. His next hearing, after being tied to the current case, is later this month.
With regards to the case for genocide, Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, the ex-general who was accused this summer of genocide, had a hearing on the 21st of September but it was suspended for Oct 3rd, due to missing paperwork regarding appeals. Please sign a letter of support for the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the organization of witnesses in the genocide cases: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/415/justice-for-genocide-in-guatemala/
Work related to this case has been fairly intense in the last month. We have stepped up our accompaniment of the AJR ahead of the trial, in their travels back and forth from their regions to the capital. We also accompany CALDH (Centor for Legal Action for Human Rights), the organization of lawyers who carry the case, and we have been meeting with them every day for the last few months.
In other news, September 11th, was the first round of elections in Guatemala. The two presidential candidates who will move on to the second round are Otto Perez Molina, an ex-general who is implicated in the genocide and other crimes against humanity, and Manuel Baldizón, a businessman from the north of the country, allegedly with ties to organized crime and narcotrafficking. I can only think, this is going to be an interesting next four years here.
Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, was the only candidate from the left, and she got less than 3%. There was one centrist candidate whose inscription was denied, but all the rest of the candidates ranged from conservative to ultra-conservative to ultra-ultra-conservative. It's sad really, that the options at this point are between two candidates with shady pasts. Well-intentioned politicians don't go anywhere here.
After having been here a year, the extent to which Guatemalan society is characterized by fear, and that that fear influences everything people do, still surprises me. People are terrified, and so when given the choice, they go for the person with the most hardline policies towards the violence in the country. Yet few people bother to look past those words and realize that the violence, of organized crime or common delinquency, is often linked to corrupt elements within the state. They so paralyzed by fear that they don't think.
I've been having conversations with a friend of mine here about the lack of sense of common citizenship in Guatemala, and it is that fear and suspicion which makes it so hard to find here. Being out on the street, even on election day, even at the polls, there is no feeling of community. One thing I've noticed that contributes to this, is the shortage of public spaces here. The parks all have fences around them and are locked at 6 pm everyday, if they're unlocked at all. The streets belong to cars and buses. And the recent appearance of pedestrian walkways here in the city are characterized by the privatization and commercialization of those very sidewalks. Nor have I ever actually been to a public library in Guatemala. That's not to say that there is no where to go, but public spaces are few and far between, and almost always have either bars or very tall walls topped with barbed wire surrounding them.
For me, coming straight out of living for four years on a college campus and being absolutely spoiled in the department of public space, I'm realizing now how important public spaces are to creating a sense of community. We've got to have somewhere to “make” community in order for there to be one. That's why it's so wonderful the work that organizations and people are doing to reclaim public spaces, through art (guerilla art, such as graffiti, or not), performance, and rallies. I went to a rally recently called Semillas de Pensamiento (Seeds of Thought), in which the organizers had set up a stage for music, poetry, and thoughts on, well, thought. Small though it was, it was a lovely and interesting event, and I am happy I was able to go. We need more of that. More public events, more community painting (like murals!), more people on the street inviting other people to join them.
Well, I think that's all for now. NISGUA is currently looking for new accompaniers, if you or anyone you know might be interested. The next training is in October. You can find more information on the website: http://www.nisgua.org/get_involved/join_gap/. Please send the info along to anybody who is interested in human rights, transitional justice, and grassroots movements, or who is looking for something to do next year. I also have fliers if you would like to put them up on your campus or favority cafe – let me know if you'd like me to send you the pdf.
Have a great autumn! 'Til my next letter!
Dear Friends and Family,
I hope you're all doing well, enjoying the summer. The rainy season is in full force here, and it's rainy and cloudy. Besides the inevitable landslides, the rain is welcome. It's been really hot and dry and people here need the water.
The biggest news this month is the arrest of General Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, in connection with the genocide campaign in the Ixil Triangle during the Internal Armed Conflict. He was third in command under General Rios Montt, who was dictator in 1982-83, and is the first member of the high command to be arrested in connection with crimes committed during the Internal Armed Conflict. Additionally, he will be the first person in the world tried for genocide in the country where those crimes were committed. It's big news – we've been waiting for this for 10 years since the foundation of the Association for Justice and Reconcilation (AJR), which is made up of the Victims' Committees in areas hit by the army's violence, as well as the formation of the accompaniment project here in Guatemala. The AJR has been working closely with lawyers to go after not just Lopez Fuentes, but all of the military high command for genocide during the 1980s. Now that there has been an arrest though, all of the names of the witnesses in his case are public, meaning our work with the AJR has to pick up, should there be any reaction against them.
Lopez Fuentes' arraignment was on the 20th of June, and his first court hearing is scheduled for September. That's just after the elections here however, and the political will to pursue the case could be at risk, depending on who wins the presidency. But everybody is hopeful, and the case against him is strong, as is the international support for it. In any case, this is super exciting! If you're interested in more information, see here: http://nisgua.blogspot.com/2011/06/general-hector-lopez-fuentes-indicted.html And this website has some fantastic photos: http://www.mimundo- photoessays.org/2011/06/former-general-hector-lopez-fuentes.html
There was also progress in a different case we accompany for massacre of over 250 people in 1982 in the community of Las Dos Erres in the department of Peten. Another defendant has been linked to the case, making the total number of accused in custody in Guatemala 4, with 3 more in the States. One of those being held in the US is in prison serving a sentence for lying on his immigration forms, saying that he had never been a member of the military, nor had he committed any crimes; the idea is that after he serves that sentence, he will be deported to Guatemala to stand trial for the massacre. Another person was recently detained in Canada for the same thing, but is being held in the US. Guatemala is requesting his extradition, though the States wants to try him for lying on his forms. Spain has also requested his extradition, to try him for genocide – the Spanish courts have played a large role in the court precedings here in Guatemala because Spain has a universal jurisdiction clause, meaning that a person could be tried in a Spanish court for a crime not committed in Spain, and they've been using the cases against Guatemalans for genocide and crimes against humanity as a tactic to put pressure on the Guatemalan justice system. In total there are 17 arrest warrants for the massacre of Las Dos Erres. The first court appearance for the latest man to be arrested here, Pedro Pimentel Ríos, was this last Friday, in which the charges against him were explained to him. His next court date is in a week or so.
In the case of El Jute, which I told you about in my last letter, in which 8 people from the community of El Jute were disappeared in 1981, the government offered an official apology to the families of the disappeared on June 28th. President Colom recognized the state as being responsible, which, hopefully will serve in the search for the intelectual authors of the crimes committed in the community.
June 21st was the National Day Against Forced Disappearance in Guatemala. Many organizations turned out in the center of the city to commemorate the lives of the more than 45,000 people forcibly disappeared in Guatemala and to protest the lack of justice. If you want to read more about what the activities were, you can see the NISGUA blog: http://nisgua.blogspot.com/2011/06/guatemala- observes-national-day-against.html
June 30th in Guatemala used to be known for being Military Day (Día del Ejército), but several years ago, a wide coalition of organizations began marching on that day, rechristening it Day of Martyrs and Heroes (Día de los Martires y Héroes). The organization H.I.J.O.S, which is made up of family- members of the disappeared, hosted a march and a concert in Central Park. Later in the day, the army also hosted an event in Central Park, but it was signficantly less attended.
We accompanied in a march in Ciudad Quetzal, a city near Guatemala City that is known for high levels of poverty and gang-related conflicts. The march was sponsored by a youth group called the Network for Life and Peace (Red por la Vida y la Paz). They marched for peace and against firearms, in a neighborhood that has been hard hit by gang violence. Happily, it went by without incident. The organizers were concerned that the march would be appropriated by political activists, given that this is an election year, which is what happened last year, but nothing of the sort (Last year, a group of activists from the Partido Patriota overtook the march and used its message for its own purposes). At the end of the march, each community that participated presented a short theater skit or song, like a talent show. The idea was to get youth out on the street doing art and creating community.
I also attended the opening ceremony of the Consultation Center for the Military Archives. The government has just declassified over 12,000 military documents from 1960-1996, and in the National Military Headquarters, they've opened a center where you can go and look at a digital copy. It's an important step because although there's no doubt that the military has hidden or “lost” truly damming documents, like what happened when they declassified the Police Archives a few years ago, there is potentially other information which can be used in individual cases. There are concerns however, about accessability of the documents, but I suppose we'll see how it goes.
I also went to visit the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (Comité Campesino del Altiplano; CCDA), which is based in Quichayá, Sololá. They work in a number of different themes, including land rights and natural resources, sustainable development, worker's rights, and political organizing. Two weeks ago, several members of the organization received a written threat from a group claiming to be armed and against anybody who doesn't work in favor of the people (it was not clear though, who that is). The letter didn't specifically signal out any of the members of the CCDA, but it could be a sign of later aggression. The department of Sololá has had problems with social cleansing groups targeting anybody who they don't agree with, so activists working in the region are generally very concerned with security and take letters like these very seriously. It doesn't seem like there's any immediate threat to the CCDA, but we're keeping an eye on further communications and threats in the region.
This month started out bloody as well. Facundo Cabral, an Argentinian poet and folk singer was shot in Guatemala City on his way to the airport after a concert. He was one of Latin America's most famous artists. He was a philosopher and a leader, inspiring people all over the world who knew his music. Additionally, he was named a World Messenger of Peace by UNESCO in 1996. The government investigators have stated that the attack was directed against the other person in the car with Cabral, a Nicaraguan club owner living in Guatemala, but many people are skeptical. Many people around the city believe that his assasination was a tactic of the far right. Firstly, he was an icon for both religiously-minded and left-leaning activists all over Latin America, and killing outspoken poets is nothing new in the region. It is not inconcievable that the military-aligned right would have carried a grudge against. Secondly, his murder benefits those who are arguing for greater militarization and harsher laws as a response to the supposedly random extreme violence in Guatemala (“If they can kill even Facundo Cabral, then they can kill anybody and nobody is safe”). There are people in this country who benefit from the terror instilled in people because of all the violence, and given the upcoming elections, they have every reason to encourage and even generate such chaos so that they will be more likely to get elected. After Facundo Cabral's death on Saturday there were several spontaneous gatherings around the city in mourning for his death, with people demanding justice, the next day there was a concert organized in homenage to Facundo Cabral, in which 50 Guatemalan musical groups performed and more than 500 people attended. People are reeling from his death. For many, this assasination is as significant as the assasination of Bishop Gerardi in 1998, two weeks after his report on the atrocities commited by the army during the Internal Armed Conflict became public. The world has lost an important voice for peace in the world, and for Guatemala it is hugely damaging act to a broken peace and scarred society. What will happen next is unlikely to be good. For more information about Cabral's death, see here: http://upsidedownworld.org/main/news-briefs- archives-68/3120-argentine-singer-songwriter-facundo-cabral-murdered-in-guatemala
Finally, hopefully you remember when I told you about Víctor Leiva, who was murdered in February. Well, six months later, there has been no movement in his case. NISGUA has supported a campaign for justice for Victor, which you can check out at its Facebook page: ¡Que Viva Víctor! Also, please sign this petition to the Guatemalan Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, demanding a thorough investigation of the murder: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/que-viva-victor/ Víctor's case is not getting a whole lot of attention, which likely means that it will never be investigated. With international support though, he may get justice.
Thanks for reading, and I'll let you know how things go as we approach the elections in September. Have a lovely summer!
Dear Friends and Family,
I hope you’re all enjoying springtime. It’s been summer time here, which is just the hottest, driest part of the dry season. The rainy season should have started by now, but it’s a little late this year.
This was my first salida with the Mobile Team based out of the capital, and the cases I’m working on are all new for me. There are a lot more cases, but to keep it less complicated, I’ll only tell you about the ones that I’ve been working on.
The longest trip I took this month was to northern Huehuetenango (the northwestern-most state). We were right up next to the border, donde el diablo perdió su calzoncillo (a Guatemalan saying I heard that means, “where the devil lost his underwear;” it means the middle of nowhere). We accompanied FAMDEGUA, an organization of families of the disappeared who had organized an exhumation on an ex-military base. During the 1980s, the military took over a plantation in the community of Ixquisis and stayed there for approximately 10 years. In the exhumation, we were looking for a common grave that held at least 8 people who had been disappeared by the army. It was the second exhumation on the plantation; the first was done in 1998, but all that they found was garbage. This time, we had new information and were looking in a different part of the plantation. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything. The victims’ committee and the various organizations working on the exhumation were still unable to get any reliable information from ex-soldiers or ex-patrollers who worked on the base. After 10 days of digging holes, the two organizations working together on this project (the other one is the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology in Guatemala; FAFG) decided to stop looking for the time being. Should more information become available, they’ll keep looking. The bodies are assumed to be there still; but the plantation is large and so they could be anywhere.
I also accompanied a court case in the state of Baja Verapaz in April for the murder of Pedro Ramirez de la Cruz in 2009. He was a Human Rights defender in his community, who worked with an organization called the Defensoría Indígena, and also campaigned around land issues in the community. His work attracted the displeasure of other community members and in 2009, he was killed by four young men in front of his daughter and daughter-in-law. I went to several hearings between January and April, but was not able to be at the sentencing hearing in May. In what appears to be a totally corrupt ruling, the accused were acquitted of the crime, and the judges in the case blamed Don Pedro’s colleagues at the Defensoría Indígena for his death, saying that if he had not been involved in such work, he wouldn’t have been killed. The ruling will be appealed of course, but it’s really sad how clearly corrupt the judges were. It’s entirely possible that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict the four men accused of killing him, but in no way does that justify blaming him and his work for getting him killed.
I also went to visit the community of El Jute, in the state of Chiquimula for a few days. The community involved in two court cases – the first was one of the first convictions for forced disappearance in Guatemala. The second case, which is a result of evidence coming out in the first trial, has to do with torture and rape. In September of 1981, the army entered the community and disappeared eight people. In December that same year, the army came to the community again; this time they tortured several people and raped several women. The community is a fairly conflictive place, because many of the accused, or their families, live there alongside the victims. Because of this, the community not only has accompaniment from us, but also has a permanent police presence, which makes the rounds to various houses just like we do. However, the living conditions are not ideal (for anyone) in El Jute and the police officers stationed there are continually complaining about that and their lack of resources. It should be noted that the police are horribly under-funded here in Guatemala, so that is a legitimate complaint. The police are not well matched against the well-equipped and well-funded organized crime groups that are linked to many, many crimes committed here. But there is nothing to be done about it in El Jute, as funding is a national problem, and people are getting tired of hearing their complaints.
We also visit a group called Sitrapeten in the city. They are a group of former employees at the Salvavidas water treatment plant (Salvavidas is the biggest water company in the country; its owners also own most of the other popular drinks here) and when they tried to unionize in 2008, they were all fired. In protest, the members of Sitrapeten set up a tent in Central Park in front of the National Palace, where currently they have one person living there 24 hours, who gets replaced on the weekends. The courts have consistently sided with Salvavidas, which has led to several violent evictions from the park. The folks from Sitrapeten have maintained the tent for three years now, and are still fighting. It’s been hard because after being fired from Salvavidas, many of them are more or less on a black list, and have trouble finding work. And then besides that, someone needs to be in the tent all the time and can’t work, which means that the rest of the group is giving a small part of their own wages to pay that person enough to get by on.
As far as other news, the documentary abUSed: the Postville Raid (in Spanish: abUSAdos: la Redada de Postville) was premiered here in Guatemala a few weeks ago. It’s about the ICE raid in Postville, Indiana in 2006, in which hundreds of undocumented workers were summarily deported in sham legal processes. In several cases, parents were deported leaving their children home alone with nobody to care for them. It is a great example of how incompetent the US system can be in dealing with undocumented immigration. It’s a fantastic film and I highly recommend it to everybody who has an interest in US immigration policy. The website is http://www.abusedthepostvilleraid.com/
You might have heard about the massacre in Peten, which has made the international news networks. The police discovered 27 bodies, most of them decapitated. The massacre was supposedly committed by drug traffickers, and has affected the country incredibly, since it is reminiscent of the massacres committed during the internal armed conflict. Additionally, it is similar to what goes on in northern Mexico, indicating that the Mexico’s drug war is moving south. Peten is a huge, jungle region that is very sparsely populated, and the Guatemalan government has virtually no control over its borders there, meaning that the region is run more effectively by drug cartels. The government declared a state of siege in Peten for 30 days, as a response to the massacre. During this time, many constitutional rights have been suspended, including the right to meet. Election meetings have been excluded from this prohibition but any meetings convened by human rights defenders have not, meaning that human rights work can’t continue while the state of siege is in effect. While there is no doubt that the government needs to do something about the massacre, the increase in militarization and repression is only going to fuel the violence. There’s not a whole lot more information coming out of Peten right now, but we’ll see how this issue develops. Unfortunately, the rise in confrontations due to drug trafficking probably means that violence is going to get worse as well. We need to find a different solution to drug violence than militarization and the “war against drugs.”
On a different note, I went to Mexico over the weekend to renew my visa and spent two days in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. It’s a wonderful city and the country around it is beautiful. The most striking thing for me though, was the lack of fear. People walk around at night in San Cristobal – partiers, musicians, families with their children, artisan-craft vendors, you name it. I suppose I had gotten used to the very palpable fear in Guatemala that exists. After dark, even in the tourist parts of the country, people don’t walk around on the streets. It’s incredible how this country’s history of violence and repression has created such an environment of fear. People are afraid of their shadows here. And I hadn’t realized how draining that is. Granted, there’s good reason to be afraid – the levels of violence here are incredibly high, but the fear that exists here is a result of decades of terror and extreme violence. If there is any hope for building a more peaceful and just society, that fear has to be overcome. That’s why projects that encourage people to let go of that fear are so important. Accompaniment projects like NISGUA are one kind of project, but also projects like Caja Lúdica and other projects that focus on building life here need to be supported.
Well, thanks for reading. Until my next letter!
P.S. If you’re interested, NISGUA is holding a drawing. For every $25 donation, your name will be entered to win some great prizes. The grand prize is a round-trip ticket to Guatemala and a week of all-expense paid Spanish lessons at Minerva Spanish School in Quetzaltenango. The website to see what the other prizes are and to find out how to enter is here. Also, Nisgua is selling 30th anniversary t-shirts and tote bags, which are really nice. To take a look, you can go to http://nisgua.org/support/gift_shop/t-shirt.asp.
Dear Friends and Family,
I hope you all are enjoying spring. It’s summer time here – the hottest time of the year, from about late March through May, and then the rainy season will start. As I told you in my last letter, this was my last salida in Ixcán. That means that it was a month of goodbyes, and of training the new acompañante who is replacing me. It was sad to say goodbye to so many people with whom I’ve been able to share a little over the last seven months, but I’m happy to have been there, and now I’ll be working with the team based out of the capital, which will also be exciting.
There were several important events this last month. The Association for Justice and Reconciliation, the committee of survivors of the violence during the Internal Armed Conflict who are organizing to put pressure on the genocide cases against the state, had their bi-annual general assembly. The last one was in October and was nice to be able to accompany those from Ixcán to the next one as well.
And, after seven months of being in Guatemala without any problems, I got sick. I had amoebas, took the medicine, and then headed back out into the campo to keep working. The thing though, is that the anti-parasite pills kill everything in your stomach, including the good bacteria. Even though I was taking pro-biotics as well to replace what the medicine was killing, I ended up getting sick again a few days later because I didn’t have the defenses against all the different bacteria we come across here in Guatemala. The good news however, is that I am feeling much better now.
As far as news in the region, there was an incident in the community of Santa María Tzejá that was a little bit grave in early March. Santa María is a returned refugee community that fled to Mexico after suffering violence by the army and returned in the mid-90s. One of the stipulations of the return was that the army is not permitted to enter those communities without informing the community authorities and obtaining explicit permission, but twice during early, the army entered the community, causing old trauma to come bubbling up among the residents of Santa María. The first time they came during the day, and took photographs of several signs put up about government-funded development projects. When asked what they were doing, they replied that they were there to make sure that the government was fulfilling its obligations with their projects. This however, is not the job of the army, and several members of the community think that they were looking for a pretext to reinitiate relationships with people who complied with the army during the ‘80s. A few days later, the army came back at night, supposedly because someone had reported gunfire, though nobody in the community remembers hearing anything that night. The army stayed in the center of the community the whole night and left the next morning, after which it was discovered that they had unlawfully searched the grounds and buildings of the community cooperative.
On the 18th of March, we accompanied a delegation of community authorities to the Public Ministry to file charges against the army for the unlawful entry into the community and search of the cooperative. The community is requesting that the army give them a explanation for what happened and that it not happen again. We also received information that the army went into several other communities with similar stories about monitoring government projects. However, all the communities they have gone to so far have been returned-refugee communities. Many people who live in these communities suffered incredible levels of violence during the Internal Armed Conflict, which still affects them, both emotionally and physically. The reinsertion of the army into their lives only exacerbates the trauma and makes the healing process more difficult. When I hear news of how it goes for those from Santa María, I will be sure to pass that information on.
In the ACODET communities (those fighting against the construction of the Xalalá dam), people have been concerned by the appearance of small groups of strangers arriving in their communities and asking questions related to land surveys. The communities believe these are people contracted by INDE, the government-run corporation that is behind the dam, to do collect information for the diagnostic studies of the region. INDE was supposed to have announced which company they hired to do the studies in July. However, they have yet to do so, despite several solicitudes from ACODET and a meeting facilitated by a Congressman. The communities view these studies as a way for the government to gain access to individuals and divide the people. As such, ACODET is opposed to the studies and has recommended that member-communities not speak to investigators. Regardless, the communities to be affected by the dam have a right to know which company is doing the studies and to be treated with honesty regarding the studies and the construction of the dam.
Outside of Ixcán, a number of community evictions have taken place over the last month that are very important regarding current events in the country. In the valley of Polochic in the state of Alta Verapaz, the army was involved in the violent eviction of a community that resulted in the death of one person. The community was living on land owned by a plantation that couldn’t pay its loans, and the bank seized the land. The army came and burned crops and houses and killed livestock. The eviction has received a lot of national publicity, and although the President admitted that the army presence was overkill, there has been no change to his plans to continue the evictions, and several important figures in the national press have blamed national and international organizations for manipulating the communities into resisting the evictions. As it stands, it has been several weeks since the eviction and there are hundreds of families with nowhere to go.
Another problem with evictions has to do with the national parks. When the conflict ended in 1996, large pieces of land were declared national parks or protected bio-reserve areas, with no regard to the people who were already living there. In the ‘90s there were several evictions in the state of Petén. And few weeks ago, there was a violent eviction in the Laguna Lachuá National Park, in the state of Alta Verapaz, very close to the Ixcán. The army arrived and burned or chopped down crops belonging to the community. Furthermore, several women of the community were raped by soldiers during the eviction. This eviction has received no national attention, and since it happened during the state of siege (if you all remember, there was a state of seize implemented in December, supposedly to get drug-related violence under control. It was supposed to last 30 days, but it was extended to two months), it is unlikely that the victims will be able to pursue justice because their constitutional rights during that period were severely restricted.
I’ll be working on different cases from now on, so I when I have news about ACODET or the genocide cases I will share them, but most of my work now will be on different cases. There will still be cases regarding justice for crimes of the past, as well as land rights and labor rights, but they will be different, and there are a wider variety of cases. I’ll update you all on the cases I’m working on as I get more information.
Thanks for reading!
Dear Friends and Family,
I realize it’s a little late, but Happy New Year! I hope that 2011 is proving to be a good year for you all.
I’m just getting back from my first salida of the year, and it’s been a little chaotic. We had to come back to the project in the middle of our rounds through the communities because a friend of the project, Victor Leiva, was murdered on February 2nd as he left his work in the capital in the evening. He was 24 years old. His attackers were waiting for him on the street, and didn’t take anything from him, making it clear that their only goal was to kill him. Though I didn’t know him well, it was important to come back to support our compañeros who were close to him. He was an important part of the community of artists and activists in the city, and I think for many of us from countries where political assassination is so very remote, it is only just sinking in that the dangers for activists and people who speak out here are terrifyingly real.
Victor was a founding member of the organization Caja Lúdica, an arts collective that works with youth in Guatemala to construct a peaceful, healthier future for Guatemala through art, dance, music, and circus. The following are links to information about Victor, and also about Caja Lúdica:
Caja Lúdica has lost 4 of its members in the last 2 years, because they work against the violence and fear in Guatemala, offering something better, and there are many in Guatemala who benefit from the violence and the fear and do not want to see the youth of this country refusing to live in fear.
As far as the Ixcán goes, things have been fairly calm. There was a party in the community of Santa María Tzejá to celebrate the birthday of the Jesuit priest who helped them found the town. The community was founded in the 1960s, when the region was colonized. Before that decade, the Ixcán was impenetrable jungle, but a need for land in the Highlands a government desire to make more land available for exploitation led to colonization in the second half of the last century. Padre Luis (the priest) came back to Santa María to give Mass and to visit with those in the community who were there with him in 1960. He has a very interesting history, as when the situation got really bad in the Ixcán during the 1970s and 1980s, the army targeted Catholic leaders as much as anyone else, and Padre Luis had to flee until after the return in the 1990s. It was beautiful to see him reminisce with the older folks in the community about their times together before the massacres sent everyone into hiding.
This next salida will be my last one in the Ixcán. In April, I am switching to work with the team based out of the capital. I will be working all over Guatemala, and the cases this team accompanies require either more punctual visits or more short-notice availability. I have absolutely loved my time in the Ixcán, and have totally fallen in love with the people and the jungle. It will be very hard to leave them. However, I’m also excited to be working on a wider variety of cases. In any case, I’ll tell you all about it in my next letter.
Thanks for your patience! Until next time.
Dear Friends and Family,
I hope you’re all enjoying the holidays. It’s Christmas Day as I write this letter to all, and it’s the first Christmas I’ve been away from my family. Though I miss them, my Christmas season here in Guatemala has been lovely. It’s around 70 degrees during the day here in the capital, and warmer in the jungle. And because it’s not snowing, I haven’t been able to convince myself that it’s actually Christmas. But I’m making the most it, spending as much time outside as possible.
One of the Christmas traditions here is called posada, which literally means hotel, or inn, but the tradition is a community activity in the week leading up to Christmas Eve. Members of the community walk through town singing, with a statue or an image of the Virgin Mary asking for posada, or rather, for somewhere to stay, recreating the story of the Virgin Many and Joseph looking for an inn. In the villages, one family usually has prepared their home to be the “posada” of the evening. When the group reaches that house to ask for posada, the family grants permission. What follows is an oration by one of the catequistas (catequist), some more hymns, and finally, the family hosting the posada gives all the attendees a cup of atol (a very thick, corn or oatmeal based sweet drink) and a piece of sweet bread. The next night the group walks from that house to the next posada. The last posada on the 24th is always in the Catholic Church, and ends with a mass.
I had the privilege of being able to attend the posada one evening in the community of Santa María Tzejá, a returned refugee community on the banks of the river Tzejá. A friend of the accompaniers came with us and explained the tradition to us and the oration, which was given in Quiché, the primary Indigenous language in this community. It was a beautiful thing to see the community walking through the main street with candles singing and celebrating. And later, at the house of the person hosting posada, I was touched by the sense of community present at this event.
Another part of the tradition involves small scale fireworks – the young people in the community spend the evenings lighting sparklers and little fireworks, but most of all, little “bombs” that don’t light up, but rather just make a lot of noise. At the posada, teenagers bring these noisemaking fireworks to make trouble, although as it’s part of the tradition, nobody minds too much. However, those teenagers who are too disruptive during the ceremony don’t get atol afterwards.
Traditionally, the people in Guatemala celebrate Christmas on the 24th with tamales (It’s like a corn cake, but very soft, with chicken or pork with gravy in the middle. They are wrapped in banana leaves or cornhusks and cooked in boiling water). They’re quite delicious, although if you happen to be vegetarian, there’s not much food for you on Christmas. Although we were welcome in the communities for Christmas, we chose to spend Christmas in the capital with the other accompaniers in the project.
It was a very international Christmas – each person made a traditional or typical Christmas dish from their country. This was a little hard for me, trying to think of what is typically Christmas besides turkey. I ended up making scalloped potatoes and egg nog. There were also German, Northern Italian, Swedish, and Spanish dishes. It was wonderful to share this Christmas with so many people and so many different traditions.
This month of accompanying has been fairly tranquilo, which is usually a good thing. We made the rounds to all the communities, and several communities were having fiestas. In the community of Las Margaritas Copón, we were there for their fiesta patronal (party for the of the community’s patron saint). It was a three-day party complete with fireworks, dances in the evening, and a theatrical dance during the day called the Baile del Venado (Dance of the Deer), which I think recreates the story of the first Spanish to colonize the area. The dancers wear costumes – there are deers, Spanish cegales (this is what they’re called, though I’m not sure what the translation is), a Spanish hunter with his wife and two dogs, two monkeys and two jaguars. The monkeys and the jaguars have, in my opinion, the best role: they get to dance around teasing the other dancers, specifically the Spanish hunter and his entourage. The hunter and his wife react by chasing after them. It’s highly entertaining, and the whole community turns out to watch the show. I think my favorite part though, was to see all the toddlers in the community after the dance was over imitating the moves of the dancers. It was absolutely adorable.
However, we were still working, and given the reality of Guatemala, even when things are calm, there are always problems. Like I told you in my last letter, regarding the consulta in Uspantán in October, there were threats made against several of the organizers. Shortly after the results were turned into the government, the municipal mayor filed charges against them, supposedly for making threats against his life. However, leading up to the consulta, he was the one making threats against people’s lives. It’ll take a long while to sort this out in the courts, but the project is in contact with those who have been charged and we’re watching how this situation unfolds.
Some of you may have heard about the State of Siege declared by the government in the department of Alta Verapaz, as it made international news. Due to narco-activity in the region, the government declared a State of Siege that will last 30 days and sent in the military. According the all the news sources, this is a good thing – they’re combating drug-related violence and bring peace to the residents of Alta Verapaz. A Mexican drug cartel called Los Zetas has been making its way into in Guatemala in the last few years, and supposedly has a strong presence in Alta Verapaz. They have threatened reprisals against civilians for actions taken against them, which is highly troubling. The levels of drug related in violence are astronomical and it would be nice if wouldn’t get that bad here in Guatemala. The Guatemalan government has decided that the military will maintain its presence in Alta Verapaz after the State of Siege ends on January 18th. How that will be different from a state of Siege has yet to be seen.
However, what hasn’t made the news is that during this State of Siege, important constitutional rights have been suspended. For example, during this time the people do not have the right to meet, other than for educational, religious and governmental purposes. Any more than two people is a meeting, and it’s punishable by law at the moment. A Guatemalan Human Rights agency petitioned for the right to have meetings during this time and were denied. This and other suspended rights are worrisome because it is reminiscent of the days of military government, and it gives the government an excuse to make trouble for legal organizing. However, hopefully these 30 days will pass without incidents, both drug-related and not.
Those are the noticias from the jungle for the time being. I’m looking forward to a Guatemalan New Year’s celebration, and will be heading back out into the campo in January. Until then, I have a week of vacation, and then will be working in the capital doing paperwork until we head out again.
Happy New Year to you all! Let us hope that this New Year will bring peace and tranquility to us all, most of all those who lack it. Thank you all for your support this year – not just your support for me, but also for your support for people in struggle in Guatemala and around the world.
This has been a year of changes and excitement for me. I graduated college, and now I’m in Guatemala (!) doing Human Rights work. This is what I’ve wanted to do for a long and it seems almost unbelievable to me that I’m actually doing it. And so I think it is a good moment to reflect on our relationship to justice and peace, locally, but also internationally. What do we want to see for the world? How can we make it happen?
I have come to understand that it is so important for those of us who have the privilege of knowing that our lives and rights are respected and protected to work towards extending that privilege to everyone. That is what we are doing here – we, NISGUA, but also you all, who, through your support for me and your interest in my work are part of the international network that is vital to the fight for Human Rights. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to participate in this accompaniment work, and I am energized and encouraged by the strength of the people here to keep searching for justice, and I hope that I am able to pass on to you that sense of encouragement I get here to keep striving for peace and justice.