Friday, 15 February 2008

A Village in Guatemala

NACLA photo: General Perez Molina of the "Patriot Party” whose motto is La Mano Dura.
[ Editor's note: We have received permission to tell this story. During the 1960-96 genocide at least 200,000 people, mostly Mayan campesinos, were disappeared or openly massacred by Guatemalan forces under officers trained in the infamous School of the Americas, Ft Benning GA. No one has ever been brought to justice. Bishop Gerardi was assassinated in 1998 for publishing a church report on the genocide, Guatemala: Nunca Más. Since then, the US and Canada (and investors) have turned a blind eye to the military’s narcotic trading and an alarming rise in street violence. Last year, aided by political beatings and assassinations, one of the genocidal generals, Perez Molina, came within two seats of forming the government. A tiny 3% elite descended from the conquistadores control 70% of the land. The rest are desperately poor. Mayans are still struggling for language and education rights, access to land, a decent standard of living, and freedom from military terror. More than half of Guatemala's population, they average less than half the Ladino income; 900,000 children work as labourers; 45% attend school. Average life expectancy is 20 years. -- See references at the end.]

A Village in Guatemala, by Nathalie Sorenson

Santa María Tzejá, March 2004

I was one of 14 Canadians on a social justice study tour of Guatemala. Santa María Tzejá is a 9 hour drive from the capital. The road took us through brilliant green fields, groves of tall tropical trees hung with vines, here and there, high mountain ranges, banana plants in the deep ravines, their wide leaves shining in the afternoon light, and native people’s small plantations of corn far up the slopes. In the final 4 hours, we pass through a couple of villages and an army base, but mostly this region is wild and green and empty. The dirt road is so bad that our vans slow to a few miles an hour as they bump through pot holes more than a foot deep. The road is unsafe after nightfall, the time of killers and kidnappers. Welcome to Guatemala….

We reach Santa María in darkness, and in the home of Randall Shea (an American volunteer who stayed and married into the Mayan community) we are served a delicious meal of chicken, fresh green squash, black bean paste, and tortillas by candlelight.

Next morning we seek out a village elder, Bartolo. We follow a footpath into a grove of trees, the sun dappling the warm green gloom. By the side of the path, a young girl is lying in a hammock reading. It is the Popol Vuh, a sacred book of the Mayans. The path widens into a cattle trail leading to Bartolo’s modest one-room home, and he comes out to greet us, a man in his seventies with great personal dignity, former president of the village agricultural co-operative, father of eight children.

Bartolo’s story

He tells us the village was carved out of the jungle in the 1960s [presumably to escape rapacious landlords in the valleys]. He takes us up a steep jungle path. We are surrounded by unseen activity in the leaves and vines. Birds call overhead. At the top of a rise he shows us a stand of cardamom below, ten feet high with palm-like fronds and small oval green fruit. He picks a large handful, offers them to us, a gift of the country. Continuing uphill, we pass a fenced pasture where twenty Brahmin cattle are grazing. He is immensely proud of his healthy herd… the pleasure of ownership. His land totals 20 hectares. Further still, we come to the milpas, small plantations of corn, the native staple… then a grove from which palm hearts are harvested, and his vanilla plants, twined around small trees for support. The view opens to distant mountains. A hawk wheels slowly. As we rest, Bartolo tells us a story. He points to an area of jungle just below the hill…

“That is where we fled and hid after the attack in 1982,” he says. The mind’s eye sees terrified villagers running for their lives in the tangled underbrush of the jungle. On February 13, 1982, the Guatemalan army, in helicopters and on foot, stormed the village. Houses and crops were burned and the animals slaughtered. Over the next five days, they caught and killed seventeen people, most of them women and children. Who lived and died was quite arbitrary. A 13 year old said she would carry her little sister;. “No, just run as fast as you can,” said the mother; she heard gunfire from the direction where the girl had run, and then found her daughter dead. Manual Canil left his mother, wife, six children and members of their extended family hidden in a small ravine while he looked for a safer location. While he was gone, a dog barked. Only Manuel’s five year old son escaped. Hidden behind a bush, he saw nine others machine-gunned, or executed with a shot in the head.

The refugees

Fierce storms lashed the survivors. Some hid in the Ixcán jungle for a month… They were starving: leftover corn in the milpas, roots and wild fruit, cooked after dark. Malaria was common… they made ancient herbal medicines. Eventually about half the villagers left for Mexico… Single young men took positions in front and back of the line. They scouted the safest route and kept watch for the army. Families with small children stayed in the middle. Bartolo’s family were among those who fled.

In Chiapas, the refugee campesinos were greeted with open arms by fellow Mayans. COMAR (Mexican Commission for Help with Refugees) was the channel of United Nations and NGO aid. 200,000 Guatemalans had fled from hundreds of such massacres. 46,000 were in official refugee camps. Those from Santa María stayed for twelve years… Community cooperatives and stores were set up and some young people were able to study agronomy, livestock management, carpentry, mechanics and education. Others formed groups to study their human rights, as well as the history and constitution of Guatemala. Three of Bartolo’s daughters married Mexican farmers and are still in Chiapas. With a gift of 6 cattle to start his herd, they helped their father re-establish himself in Santa María. Mexico, generous as it was, was still exile.

The witnesses

Now it is evening. We are waiting for the witnesses of Santa María. They are relatives of those in who died in the February massacre. Together with people from twenty-two other communities, they brought class-action lawsuits against the generals who directed the genocide, Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, for crimes against humanity. Each in turn, tells us the name of a mother, sons and daughters, brothers who were killed. They thank us for coming.

As they speak, the tropical night comes swiftly. A full moon rises, serene and bright. A bird calls: poor-will, southern relative of the whip-poor-will.

Pablo (not his real name) tells of the unmarked graves they found on their return in May 1994. “We carried out exhumations and were able to give a few of our loved ones proper burials… sadly the remains of most were not found. Then we began to think about legal charges. The process is very slow. This is the first case of its kind in Guatemala. People are afraid, as the accused have political and economic power.”.

Marco talks about the annual day of commemoration. “The names of each victim, with the dates and places of death were embroidered on pieces of cloth. These small pieces were sewn together into a banner. Each community, San Marcos, Quiche, Coban, -- all of them – made a similar banner and on February 25, 2004 we all marched in the capital with our banners. Many other people from the capital joined us. We were all shouting for justice. We went around several blocks and when we arrived at the Congress, we put the banners down on the ground. The Vice-President and two representatives came out… at the National Palace, the President himself came out…He said that the government was responsible for the violence and asked for pardon of those present. People felt hope…Past governments have never admitted responsibility.“

He thanks us… “It motivates us to know people care…May you go on informing others so there will be other protests, so this will never happen again.”


I last saw Bartolo in the community hall. Teenagers from the school performed a traditional Mayan folk dance: girls in handwoven skirts and blouses, boys in white shirts, straw hats and colourful sashes. Then a young man with a guitar sang in honour of the fallen. In his warm sweet voice was pain, strength, and ultimately love. “Santa María,” went the chorus, “Santa María.” I glanced at Bartolo. He was not smiling, but what I think I saw in his face was quiet pride, and hope for the future.


US aid and news: Despues de las Guerras / Central America After the Wars with witness podcasts and links, San Carlos Foundation, Cimientos de Educacion / Foundations of Education, BringLight, Village Earth, Oxfam America Investing in Destruction, death threats to environmentalists and US anti-fair trade; NACLA: North American Congress on Latin America, Narconews, NISGUA, Rights Action (ex Guatemala Partners) reports, Angus Reid Global Monitor, Derechos / Human Rights file on School of the Americas
See also postings in this blog: Enviados con gozo, Mayan rural projects

Canadian aid and news: Breaking the Silence Network, Atlantic Region Solidarity Network, Pueblo Partisans, Presbyterian Church Making Connection, video on Mayan weaving cooperative and AT stoves in San Antonio Palopo.

UK aid and news: Conciliation Resources, New Agriculturalist, Friends of the Earth

Latin American history: Eduardo Galeano, Memoria del Fuego (trilogy 1982-86), translated into English as Memory of Fire I. Genesis, II. Faces and Masks, III. Century of the Wind; Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, Dangerous Memories (AFSC/Popular University Press 1991). Guatemalan history: The Art of Political Murder reviewed in International Herald Tribune 27 Sep 07.

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