Saturday, June 28, 2008

Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Fabienne Doiron (Part 2) (2008)

Greetings from winter to spring!

On October 23rd of last year, I arrived in Guatemala City to begin what would be a new chapter for me in Guatemala: human rights accompaniment. When I started my in-country training with CAIG-ACOGUATE on November 5th, I did not yet know where I would be placed or what exactly that work would look like. I was worried that I would get bored if I was to work in rural communities but was equally worried that working in the capital-based team would not allow to develop deeper more meaningful relationships with the people and organisations we accompany.

Seven months later, I have had a chance to work both in communities and based in the capital and have truly enjoyed both aspects of accompaniment work. Some days I crave the tranquility, fresh air and the relative calm and quiet of life in the communities. But most days the inspiring work of the various organisations and individuals that we accompany in the capital-based team motivates me to keep going despite spending long hours (and days) on buses traveling to many different parts of the country.

Seven months is a relatively short period of time, yet it is long enough to start getting discouraged after witnessing the lack of change in the complete impunity that continues to protect perpetrators of crimes of the past and present and the seemingly unbreachable structures of social, economic and political exclusion that exist in this country. Even more disheartening and enraging is the all-too-common indifference as well as the more-than-occasional complicity with which these issues are met by government officials, news media and a large part of the national and international public – including the racist, classist and sexist/macho attitudes that are embedded in, and reinforced by, the daily actions and inactions of so many of us in the North and South. While it is necessary to be aware of (and outraged at) these issues and conscious of the barriers we face in order to work towards dismantling these structures, I also think it is crucially important to recognise – and celebrate – advances and successes, however small theses steps may seem. These include:

  • the denial by the Constitutional Court of a legal recourse seeking to block the declassification of military archives of the 1980s;

  • the sentencing of a police officer to 20 years in prison in the Doña Juana case – which I discussed in my last update;

  • the decision of a Guatemalan judge to hear the testimony of witnesses in the Genocide case brought before the Spanish court;

  • the passing, by the Guatemalan Congress of the "Ley contra el Femicidio" which typifies crimes associated with feminicide;

  • as well as a "home-front" victory won in Canada when Jantzi Research recommended that Goldcorp which operates the Marlin Mine in the department of San Marcos, Guatemala no longer be eligible for Social Responsibility Investment portfolios.

  • I am including, below, some of my own reflections on these cases as well additional information and links for those of you who wish to continue reading. For those of you who don't... thanks for having made it this far!!!

    I have been thinking about Canada a lot lately ... Springtime is a magical time in the Maritimes and I miss it. It seems quite ironic to miss springtime in a country known as the land of "eternal spring", but spending 7 months in Guatemala City has made me crave fresh, cool air and green spaces! At least the rainy season - also known as "winter" - just started this week, finally giving a bit of respite from the hot and muggy summer nights in the capital. My initial commitment to the project was of six months, which means that my original contract finished a little over a week ago. However, I have decided to stay in the project for an extra month and a bit (until late June)... I miss all of you, my friends and family, but I don't feel ready to go just yet.

    I am thinking of you all and hope that this email finds you well!

    In solidarity,

    p.s. - I started this email meaning to send it as a "six month update" so apologies for the delay in sending some of the "news" included below... better late than never?!?

    ***If you want peace, work for justice***

    Declassification of military archives

    The Constitutional Court announced last week that it has denied a legal recourse put forth by former dictator Ríos Montt's lawyers seeking to block the declassification of military archives – including the documents which are thought to contain plans for the military campaigns of the early 1980s: Plan Campaña Victoria 82, Plan Operativo Sofia 82, Asuntos Civiles Operación Ixil, and Plan Firmeza 83. The declassification of these archives had been requested by the Ministerio Publico (more or less the equivalent of the public prosecutor) in the course of the genocide trials being brought forth in the national courts. It is now up to the Ministry of Defense to comply with the decision and de-classify the documents.

    Sentence - Caso Doña Juana

    Every seat in the courtroom in Santa Cruz del Quiche was already occupied at 4:45pm on April 16th. Women who had arrived late were forced to stand, filling the aisle, the entrance and a small room at the back of the courtroom. They were all there waiting to hear the sentence in a case known as the "Juana Mendéz Case." At noon of that same day, almost two months after the beginning of the trial, the court had been adjourned so that the judges could deliberate, and it had been announced that it would reconvene at 5pm to read the sentence. Everyone involved in the prosecution of the case agreed that the trial had gone exceptionally well and had seemed quite confident that the court would convict the accused, but the tension was still high as we waited for the judges to return.

    As we sat there in the packed courtroom, I reflected on the importance of the sentence that was about to be delivered – which I was almost certain would be a conviction – and began to wonder if the faith I had in the legal system in this case was misplaced. It was a bizarre feeling to have witnessed the development of a trial in which the accused presented no proof supporting his alibi and to still have doubts about the outcome (the only witness who had been brought forth in support of the accused's alibi did not even provide the right date in her in-court testimony). The defense's only hope was that the judges would believe their theory that the rape had never happened. This theory was supported by the fact that the doctor who examined Doña Juana the day after the rape concluded that he had found "no conclusive evidence of sexual assault." However, the first day of trial, he admitted under interrogation that he had never before completed a gynecological exam, was unaware of protocols and procedures that are to be followed when examining a suspected victim of rape or sexual assault and that his report "surely contains many errors." This "confession" was only acquired through the participation of a "technial consultant" brought in from Mexico by the ICCPG (the co-plaintiff in the case) to interrogate – and eventually discredit – the doctor's conclusions. The simple truth is that, in the Guatemalan legal system, "expert witnesses" are almost never challenged when they declare in court. I can't help but think that the outcome to this trial would have been drastically different if the ICCPG had not gotten involved... In fact, the case would probably never even have gone to trial.

    Nevertheless, the case did go to trial, and the verdict was read in that packed courtroom on April 16th. The accused police officer, Antonio Rutilio Matías López was convicted to 20 years in prison – 15 years for aggravated rape plus 5 years for abuse of authority. It was the first time a police office was convicting for the rape of a detainee – a crime to which 75% of incarcerated women are subjected in Guatemala.

    Genocide hearings in the country

    Between April 17th and May 6th, for the first time in Guatemalan history, survivors and witnesses of the violence and repression of the 1960-1996 civil war gave their testimony in a national court. Judge Eduardo Cojulún, of the 11th Criminal Court, heard these testimonies in response to a request from the Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz who heads the investigation into the crimes of genocide, torture, assassination and illegal detention by the Audiencia Nacional Española. In December 2007, the Constitutional Court rejected the principle of universal jurisdiction on which this case is based thus preventing Pedraz of conducting any further investigation in Guatemala. However, the Guatemala judge Eduardo Cojulún took the initiative to hear these testimonies based on the principle of judicial reciprocity: after having heard and compiled the survivors and witnesses' declarations, he will be sending them to Spain for Pedraz to include in his investigation. The importance of progress being made in the Spanish case is heightened by the fact that the Genocide case presented in domestic courts have been stalled by countless legal recourses on part of the accused as well as the lack of political will to push the cases forward.

    *Last week, Eduardo Cojulún, the judge who decided to hear the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the genocidal violence of the 1980s denounced that he has received death threats in connection to his participation in the case. Here is an article forwarded from CAIG and NISGUA:
    Judge who heard testimony in Spanish genocide case denounces death threats!
    Guatemala City, Guatemala – Tuesday, May 20, 2008
    Today Judge Jose Eduardo Cojulum denounced death threats after presiding over the hearings of survivors and witnesses of massacres committed by the army during the armed conflict.

    After receiving the testimonies of twenty people at the request of the Spanish Courts, where the genocide case is in process, the magistrate also recommended the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor's Office to investigate the facts.

    Cojulum decided that sufficient evidence exists to try in Guatemala the acts described by the witnesses of the slaughters of Plan of Sanchez and Río Negro, as well as the occupation and fire in the Spanish embassy, which happened in 1981 in the capital.

    The jurist sent a detailed report on the declarations received in the Criminal Court to the office of the public prosecutor and assured that if the authorities do not act they would be guilty of the crime of omission of a claim.
    Nevertheless, as a result of these measures he began to receive telephone calls that warned him that he would be assassinated if he continues with the proceedings, said Cojulum.

    Ley contra el Femicidio

    On April 10th, the Guatemalan Congress passed Decree 22-08 known as the "Law against Femicide." Femicide is defined as an act committed by someone who, "in the context of unequal relations of power between men and women, kills a woman" and is now punishable by between 25 and 50 years in prison. This decree also typifies various types of violence against women and sets out to sanction them with prison time: physical and sexual violence (5-12 years); psychological violence (5-8 years); economic violence (5-8 years). According to news reports on the new law, the legal framework which it sets out seems to be quite progressive. It includes the act of preventing a woman from owning property or from obtaining ownership documents in its definition of economic violence. In its definition of sexual violence, it also includes the act of preventing a woman from accessing and using birth control methods. In a country where femicides have claimed the lives of over 3,300 women in the past 8 years – not to speak of the countless women who are submitted to other forms of violence and abuse each and every day – this is a very important first step! It now remains to be seen if and how effectively this new law will be applied.

    Goldcorp no longer eligible for SRI portfolios Goldcorp is a Canadian corporation that operates the Marlin Mine (formerly owned by Glamis Gold) in the municipios of San Migual Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa, in the north-western department of San Marcos. There have been various issues of concern surrounding the mine's operations - including human rights, social and environmental concerns as well as the question of community consultation and approval of the operations, as is their right according to the International Labour Organisation's Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (often referred to as "ILO 169). Despite these concerns, Goldcorp (whose investors include the Canadian Pension Plan and the Public Service Alliance of Canada Staff Pension Fund) has - oddly - been considered somewhat of a model "corporate citizen" ... but no longer! Jantzi Research (which conducts research on social and environmental responsibility for institutional investors) issued a client alert on April 30th announcing that they recommend that Goldcorp be ineligible for Social Responsibility Investment portfolios "that seek to avoid companies with relatively poor records in the areas of community and aboriginal relations and environment." (To access the complete report,

    **Goldcorp's AGM was also held this week in Toronto, where opponents to the company's operations – including individuals from mining-affected communities in Guatemala and Honduras – held a protest.See: for additional information and links.
    ***Also, the Rights Action web page ( has lots more information and news updates about mining and other important issues affecting Guatemalan communities

    Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Fabienne Doiron (Part 1) (2008)

    ¡Saludos calurosos a tod@s ustedes!
    ¡Espero que se encuentren bien!

    First off, I want to thank all of you who have been replying to my emails or written to send words of encouragement and support. It's always great to get news from family and friends, but hearing from you and knowing you read and take interest in what I'm doing takes on a new dimension knowing that a large part of the impact of my work here as an accompanier depends on sharing what I am learning here with folks like you: people back home who care... so, thanks!

    I am still volunteering with ACOGUATE-CAIG, working in a team that is based in the city, meeting very inspiring people and organisations in various parts of the country. I have been meaning to write an update for a while now, but things have been so busy lately that it took being away from the world of "rapi-com" (read: rapid communication) for 10 days in a community with no running water, electricity or cell phone signal to finally sit down and write it, old-school style (by hand!)... So here it is!

    ¡Cuidense mucho!
    En solidaridad,

    ***If you want peace, work for justice***


    Today is International Women's Day, but here, the day started much as it usually does: Doña Juana and her eldest daughter (who is 15 years old) got up an hour - or more - before everyone else to get things underway: bring corn to the mill for the tortillas, start the fire, fetch water, start making tortillas and cooking breakfast...

    Once we had eaten, Doña Juana's husband left for the milpa (cornfield) as she sat down to embroider a cloth and I helped the nine-year old daughter with the dishes. (I try to help out as much as I can, but when I volunteer to do something, I am mostly assigned the tasks of a 9 year-old ... my tortilla-making skills are getting better though!)

    Basically, it is a day like any other in a rural Guatemalan household. And - statistically speaking at least - Doña Juana is a woman like many others in Guatemala: indigenous, mostly unilingual (she understands Spanish but speaks it very little), illiterate, mother of 11 children, from a campesino (small-farmer) family, living near, or under the poverty line. What does set her apart is the struggle for justice which she has been fighting relentlessly for over three years.

    In December 2004, Doña Juana was arrested and jailed in arbitrary circumstances after police discovered a poppy plantation near her home (the charges against her were eventually dismissed). After spending over a month in detention in Chimaltenango, Doña Juana was transferred to Nebaj, Quiche on January 17, 2005, where she would make her first statement before a judge. Because they had arrived in Nebaj after the courthouse had closed, the PNC (Policia Nacional Civil - National Civilian Police) officers who had transferred her decided to keep her at the regional police station overnight to appear before a judge in the morning.

    It was in the Nebaj police station, that Doña Juana, sadly, once again became part of the statistics. According to a study completed by the Instituto de Estudios Comparativos en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala (ICCPG - the Institute for Comparative Studies in Penal Studies of Guatemala), 75% of women incarcerated in this country are sexually abused and/or raped by agents of the state while in preventive detention.

    During the night of January 17 and the early morning of the 18, Doña Juana was repeatedly sexually assaulted, abused, raped, humiliated and then threatened with death if she spoke about it.The incident involved at least two police officers who participated directly and was witnessed by at least one other officer who eventually decided to testify in the case despite having been the victim of numerous threats and intimidation.

    On the morning of January 18th, when Doña Juana finally did appear before a judge, she did not hesitate in reporting the incident (43% of women who suffer sexual abuse in Guatemalan prisons do report the incident).

    The investigation process was plagued by threats, attacks and intimidation against all parties involved. In April 2007, the ICCPG - who is co-plaintiff in the case and has supported Doña Juana throughout the legal proceedings - requested accompaniment from ACOGUATE as a result of the numerous threats and incidents of intimidation they had received because of their participation in the trial.

    After a lengthy and complicated process, the trial against Antonio Rutilio Matías Lopez for aggravated rape and abuse of power finally began in Santa Cruz del Quiche on February 18, 2008: more than three years after Doña Juana had first reported the abuses to which she had been subjected. The other accused, Nery Osberto Aldana Rodríguez, is still at large.

    This is where Doña Juana's case is different from the rest: in fact, it is a first!

    Despite the fact that 75% of women who are incarcerated suffer sexual abuse at the hands of their custodians and although 43% of them report it:

  • Never before has a police officer been brought to trial for having raped a detainee.

  • Never before had the PNC's disciplinary tribunal found an officer guilty of rape (which it did in May 2006).

  • Never before had the PNC's disciplinary tribunal recognised rape as a form of torture (which it did in the May 2006 ruling).

  • According to the ICCPG and other women's groups supporting Doña Juana, this case has the potential to break the complete impunity in which these crimes are committed and to begin to dismantle the complicated network inside the PNC's structure that fosters this impunity.

    This is a trial without precedent. In a country where violence against women is rampant to the point of haven taken the extreme form of feminicide, it is a crucial precedent to be set. In the past eight years, feminicide has claimed the lives of at least 3,379 women. Only very few of these cases are ever investigated and fewer yet are solved. Most often than not, the women are implicitly – or explicitly – blamed by the authorities and the news media for the crimes to which they are victims.

    As Doña Juana has affirmed, justice is needed for these crimes against women to cease: "Quiero que se haga justicia, no quiero que a ninguna mujer le vuelva a pasar lo que a mi me paso porque no es justo" "I want justice to be done, I do not want what happenned to me to happen again to any other woman, because it is not right."

    Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Valerie Croft (Part 2) (2008)

    Dear Friends and Family,

    Time is flying! I thought before I headed into my last month of accompaniment, I would write another update. It is sometimes hardto focus on just one issue, as each and every region and community has its own intricacies and difficulties; however, I decided in this update to focus on Canadian mining. For those who are looking for a quick check in: things are going quite well, and I am planning on coming back to Canada at the end of July.

    For those who are looking for a bit more detail: see below!

    I hope that things are going well with each and every one of you.

    With love,Val


    I wrote the following in a community we visit. Surprisingly, my thoughts were louder than the pouring rain.Sitting here, feeling the rain pour down all around me. Inside, it thunders down on the tin roof, sounding like a waterfall. Talking is impossible, yelling is necessary. Better to sit outside, under a small roof, feeling the misty spray of the rain drops while not getting uncomfortably wet. It has been raining a lot lately, as hurricanes are passing nearby and the rainy season is in full swing. It is amazing how easily the earth floods, and then dries up when the sun comes out. Rain here is a different experience than in the city. Surrounded by green mountains, the smells of earth are strong. The rain brings healing, renewing feelings with it, capable of providing the necessary nourishment. Very different being surrounded by living things that will drink up the rain and in thanks give back bright greens, reds, yellows, purples.

    Here, there is a complicated tranquility that is difficult to describe - being surrounded by such beauty, but then talking with community members about a painful history and an uncertain future.I switched regions two months ago, just after my last update. At first I was disappointed leaving a place where I had started to build relationships, particularly accompanying the witnesses in the forced disappearance trial. However, it has been really great to get to know another region. The community I am writing this in was one of many in this region that experienced severe massacres in 1982. More than 350 people, including women and children, were killed in one day, with only a few survivors.

    I cannot image the pain that is buried deep here, in both the hearts and minds of the survivors as well as in the mountains and trees that are also witnesses. In many communities we visit, fears are high that the army will come back. Here is no different, except fears are that the army will return to protect private corporate interests. In all of this beauty, it is a harsh wake up call to realize that there is a mining concession here. The fate of this community is currently in the hands of the government, with a petition by Montana - a division of Canadian Goldcorp - to open a gold mine here.More than 60% of all international mining companies list as Canadian. According to these Canadian companies, they uphold the highest labour and environmental standards, and fully comply with both International law and Canadian law, as well as the laws of the country in which they are operating. The rights of Indigenous peoples to be consulted and consent garnered in a free, prior, and informed way is explicitly written in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Canada has not signed on to this agreement; however, Guatemala has. (Regardless, there are many international laws that protect the rights of indigenous peoples that Canada has signed on to). Goldcorp has not participated in one community consult to obtain this free, prior and informed consent, and has explicitly ignored the results of community consults where they have been done anyway - consults where close to, or 100% of the people clearly state they do not want a mine in their backyards. It is not a matter of being paid more money. The majority of community members are dead set against any mine presence, destroying their ancestral lands, cracking their houses, and contaminating their waters with, amongst other harsh and deadly chemicals, cyanide. The posters of: "Mina, afuera!" are abundant. ("Mine, Out!"When questions were asked at the Canadian Embassy regarding the Canadian mining presence in Guatemala, it was made clear that Goldcorp is a private company with no relation to the Canadian government. Despite the obvious ethical concerns regarding this irresponsible statement, it is a blatant lie. Each and every tax-paying Canadian pays into the federally-run Canadian Pension Plan, which is Goldcorp´s biggest investor. Whether or not they want to, each Canadian is forced to monetarily support Goldcorp through their taxes to the federal government - supporting a company that is operating ILLEGAL mines in Guatemala as well as in many other countries around the world. It has been a pretty emotional experience seeing the Marlin Mine (run by Montana), which is operating out of San Miguel Ixtahuacán. To be there, see its unbelievably destructive impact on the land and the people is a sobering experience. It is the first place I have travelled where I am reluctant to say I am Canadian. Community relations are complicated to say the least, with people´s relationship to foreigners very dependent on their relationship with the mine. Having said all of that, the amount of organized resistance here is inspiring. Despite the seemingly overwhelming odds of protesting and resisting a corporation that is extremely well-funded and enormous, people are organizing in remarkable ways. Many different communities are organizing or have organized community consults, spreading information about the mining impacts in the area, and then having a vote. There have been several of these consultations and more are continuing, despite the unwillingness of the Guatemalan government or Goldcorp to recognize their legitimacy. As I start my last month as an accompanier, I am starting to think a lot about what I can do with these experiences. I strongly feel that the mining campaign is where I would like to focus my energies, so if I can be collaborating with any of you, please let me know! This is an issue that is affecting so many lives in Canada as well, and the parallels are frightening. I hope that things are going well with each and every one of you.

    Again, I´d just like to re-iterate that although the struggle can sometimes seem overwhelming, there are lots of people who refuse to give up resisting. I hope to be able to take a little of that back to Canada with me, with the hope that one day, those in leadership positions in our country will have the courage to realize a better world. Thanks for reading my update. Also, thanks again to all of you who continue to support me, and the accompaniment program in general.

    Fuerte abrazos!

    Human Right Accompaniment Report: Valerie Croft (Part 1) (2008)

    Dear friends and supporters of BTS,

    I hope that things are going well for all of you! I heard that the spring weather is finally coming, so I hope that all of you are coming out of our Canadian "hibernation" and enjoying the outdoors.

    For the past two months I have been volunteering as part of the community-based accompaniment team in Guatemala with CAIG/Aco-Guate. We accompany genocide survivors and witnesses, in the hope of creating more space within which they can continue their struggle for social justice.

    My observations and experiences so far have significantly challenged pre-conceived notions I didn�t even realize I had. Like any good learning experience, it seems that so often I reflect on my experiences with the statement: "oh...I never thought about it that way before..."

    In my region of long-term accompaniment we have been fortunate enough to witness the beginning of a precedent-setting trial. For the first time, an army collaborator is being tried for forced disappearance. Several people from Choatalum - a community that we have been accompanying for several years - have launched a case against ex-military comisioner Felipe Cusanero Coj, who is responsible for the forced disappearance of at least six community members between 1982 and 1984. Like so many other men who collaborated with the military during the armed conflict, Felipe is currently in a position of political power. He is currently the mayor of Choatalum.

    Being able to accompany witnesses to trial, and being able to listen to their testimonies in front of a judge, the accused, and a courtroom full of people is incredibly powerful. But then to accompany them back home to witness their family life is indescribable - a definite privilege. Through this process I have come to realize several things. It is easy to victimize people here, classifying them only as genocide witnesses. However, it is just as easy to categorize them as the "super hero champion defenders" of human rights. I�ve caught myself doing that several times - allowing my pre-conceived notions of what it means to live with the memories of a genocide, and the daily reality that is still so affected by it, to cloud my willingess to see the complexities involved.

    The week before the trial began the lawyers had a meeting with the main witnesses, and I left the meeting feeling quite frustrated. Some of the women were angry, saying they didn�t know if they could find the time to appear in court sometime within the next week to testify.

    I greately admired the patience of the lawyers.

    Through several conversations with them, I came to realize some of the immense pressures that these women are under because of their decision to testify. Not only do they have to deal with the intense emotions of talking about the forced disappearance of their husband (or son, or daughter, or father, or mother), they also have to deal with the reality that they live in the same community as the perpetrator of these crimes - in one case, on the same street.

    Some have husbands who have very fixed ideas on the roles of women, and those ideas definitely do not include being in a courtroom. Others believe that justice lies only in the hands of God, and they see their wives pushing for social justice as an embarassment (at best). There is still a lot of fear and confusion in the community, and some think that the accused has the power to bring back the army. Then, ontop of it all, most of the women have families (many with very small children), and literally they do not have the ability to leave the house much.

    Digging a little deeper and becoming aware of all of these pressures completely changed my perspective. Being able to gain slightly more insight into what the "brave survivor" actually means has been an amazing experience. And, realizing that there is still a lot of fear, yet people remain willing to act, is so much more inspiring than if those pressures weren't there.

    Accompaniment has been filled with amazing experiences, and I look forward to sharing more with all of you within the next three months.

    Thanks again to all of those who have - and continue - to support both myself and other accompaniers. It is always great to hear from people back home.

    Take good care.
    Un fuerte abrazo,
    Valerie Croft

    Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Katharine Laurie (Part 4) (2008)

    It's hard to believe that my time here is winding down. In fact I don't. It seems crazy to be leaving work that I still find interesting, challenging and rewarding. But, as always, there are many factors involved, and it is better to move on before you get sick of something, right?! Given that my last weekly meeting with our team is tomorrow morning, I may have to accept that change is coming.

    As it did the first time I left in 2003, I know that Guatemala will haunt me.

    On the 29th of May I stood in muggy, steamy, pouring rain in the plaza of Panzós with a few hundred other people, waiting. Situated in the valley of the river Polochic, Panzós has a humid, tropical climate. It is a regional centre on the western edge of Lake Izabal, and as such, was strategic for the transport of goods from the interior of the country out to the Caribbean coast. That said, it consists of but a few streets, and at night it is the deafening hum of insect life and not traffic which intrude upon those at rest.

    Many of my companions in the rain held blown up, photocopied pictures of loved ones massacred this same day, in this same place, thirty years before.

    That day, hundreds of villagers from surrounding communities had gathered in the central plaza in Panzós. It is unclear whether they were called to a meeting to discuss the contents of a document sent from Guatemala city related to land problems, or if they decided of their own accord to try and meet with the mayor, Walter Overdick, to discuss the untenable land distribution in their communities. Land struggles were (and are) ongoing issues in the region. Over many years, the pattern shows a successive loss of land held communally by Q´eqchi campesinos to large finca owners; to elected officials and their supporters through land grabs; and more recently to transnational corporations.

    Many campesinos had been working through the INTA (the National Institute of Agrarian Transformation) to try and get title to their traditional lands, but to the date of the massacre the best anyone had achieved were provisional titles, permission to grow crops on certain lands, or promises. From June 1960 the Canadian International Nickel Company (INCO) and its Guatemalan subsidiary EXMIBAL (Exploraciones y Explotaciones Mineras Izabal) were actors in this land struggle, having bought 410 km² of prime land for its mining operations. These purchases were facilitated by the fact that the military government of the time had shares in the company. By 1981 INCO abandoned the mine, without paying even the ludicrously minimal royalties agreed upon for the nickel it extracted, or creating the1200 jobs it had promised.

    Whatever other factors may have been motivating the Guatemalan military, the result was the same. On May 29th 1978, from the rooftops of buildings around the plaza, they opened fire on the villagers. Survivors who lay trapped under bodies tell the story of people fleeing. How they hurled themselves into the river Polochic, where many drowned, or fled into the mountains trying to escape the bullets and soldiers chasing them. The mayor recorded in the official municipal registry that day that at 9:00 in the morning 24 people (names not recorded) were mortally wounded by firearms.

    Two blue municipal trucks were loaded up with the corpses later that afternoon, and delivered them to a mass grave where they lay, tangled and twisted, until an exhumation was undertaken by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) in 1997. In the grave they found the remains of 35 people, but the investigation of the Commission for Historical Clarity (CEH) found that in the massacre of Panzós the military murdered 53 people, and wounded another 47. With the more selective violence and repression of the following years, it is estimated that 310 people in the Panzós area were the victims of forced disappearance and extra judicial execution. Many of these people were community leaders, being silenced so they could not organize against the terribly unjust distribution of land.

    ¨Cada día, cuando iba a trabajar, me imaginaba que eran los mismos cadáveres que pasaban en el río, aunque sabía que no era posible, era demasiado fuerte darme cuenta que cada remolino traía nuevos muertos¨

    ¨Each day, when I went to work, I imagined that they were the same corpses passing in the river, even though I knew it wasn't possible, it was too grisly to realize that each whirlpool brought more dead.¨ (Testimony of an engineer who was working on development projects in the area between 1979 and 1981.)

    This brings us back to the plaza of May 29th 2008, where widows, orphans, and siblings await justice, photos of their loved ones in hand. The president had confirmed his presence, to offer an apology at this commemorative event. However two days prior the organizers were informed that his wife would attend in his stead. After two long hours of waiting in the muggy rain, I was hoping that whoever showed up had something good to say.

    Finally the wet crowd was moved into the municipal meeting hall and told that the presidential helicopter had not been able to land due to the bad weather. The president's wife delivered her message by phone, muffled through the sound system of the large hall. I could barely make out a word and there was no translation provided into locally spoken Q´eqchi. I can only imagine how people felt - the members of three victims´ committees that had helped organize the event, and the hundreds of people who showed up looking for justice, acknowledgment, looking for something.

    Your heart can't help but break a little: for those who have waited so long, and continue to wait. Which makes the ongoing resistance all the more impressive: the people who want to talk about what went on, and tell their stories; the people who are part of groups trying to reconstruct the collective memory, speaking their truth of what really happened; the people who are facing threats from the same power structures responsible for the violence in the 70s and 80s, who are trying to bring the truth and the intellectual authors of these crimes to light; and the numerous groups around Panzós who are standing up to the wealthy finca owners and transnational corporations, who are ´occupying´ lands which belonged to their ancestors, looking for a chance to provide for their families and have something to leave for their children. Those responsible for the massacre in Panzós will face trial in a Guatemalan court, but the wheels of justice turn particularly slowly here.

    In 2004 INCO sold its mining concessions near Panzós to Vancouver based Skye Resources. Due to the global financial situation they have currently put on hold plans to resume production at the mine. If and when they do re-open the mine, as in other regions of the country, they will pay nothing for the enormous amounts of water they will use, and pollute. Already the local conflict grows: both over which sectors of the community will benefit from the mine (and for how long); and what will happen to the people who are ´occupying´ their ancestral lands, which happen to fall within the mining concessions. In the past year we have already seen violent forced evictions in nearby communities, frightening reminders of the violence and repression the people of this area lived not so long ago.

    Panzós is also the home of a friend, who lives directly in front of the cemetery. She has told me about the weekly burials of mothers and their newborn babies, who often could have been saved with basic medical attention. A friend who has seen in communities around Panzós the phenomenon where mothers do not allow themselves to become emotionally attached to their very young children, such is the risk that they will not survive. Half of all Guatemalan children live in a state of chronic malnutrition, a cold statistic that becomes very real in the faces of the children of Panzós, and is yet again, tied so closely to the question of land.

    I share these realities I have been privileged to catch glimpses of not to depress, but to convey my deep respect and admiration for all the people I have met here who continue to work so hard, despite these odds. Not only in Panzós, but almost across the country I have been fortunate enough to meet individuals and organizations who are working for change. People with lots of formal education, and people with almost none, people whose faces are lined with experience and wisdom, and people whose youth and creativity make them seem tireless in their struggle.

    I won't say that these months haven't included a lot of heaviness for me, but most of what I take with me will be this energy, action, and determination to keep working for the things which are really worth it. Again I have shared just one case, one part of the work we have been supporting. I will be back in Canada next month, and will hope to see many of you over the summer!

    In solidarity,

    Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Katharine Laurie (Part 3) (2008)

    Warm greetings from Guatemala,

    hard to believe another month has flown by! I really want to thank all of you who responded to my last message with support and encouragement, and, no worries to those who didn´t, it would undoubtedly have clogged up my inbox and kept me trapped in front of the computer for hours upon end ;)

    On Wednesday April 16th a verdict was reached in the case I mentioned involving the rape of a Maya K´iche woman by two police officers (while she was in custody for a crime she was later absolved of). One of the accused fled the arrest warrant, but the other officer stood trial, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison!! A huge victory for so many people who worked so hard to push the case forward.

    A recent study by the Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala found that 75% of women suffer some form of sexual abuse while in custody. Clearly not an isolated incident, what is exceptional is Doña Juana´s resolve to keep struggling and the large number of people who supported the case. She left her family, including children as young as five years old and spent months on end in the capital jumping through unnecessary legal hoops which delayed the process at every step. We had the privilege of travelling to the hearings with a range of women´s groups from the capital and other communities. Women who gave their time and energy to come out and support: to make noise and to make sure that Juana did not feel alone. What follows are some of my thoughts after a candlelight vigil held the night before the sentencing.

    ¨It´s hard to find words to describe standing in a circle of women....indigenous, ladina, tall, short, gorda, colocha, flaka, Canadiense....the crisp night air drawing us closer to one another. I have the sense of standing back, holding my candle, part of the moment, yet as an observer, not an actor. Worrying over the police and other random men observing us, perhaps intending to intimidate, but not succeeding this night.

    The struggle of one woman, and the struggle of all women.

    One by one they come forward...the well spoken, the timid, the wet-eyed, the angry. They all speak from the heart. They all thank Doña Juana and the Instituto for bringing the case forward. For speaking what so many, so many women face, but are unable to speak...for following justice and never giving up.

    And they all pray, that the next day three judges will speak truth and justice, that they will have ignored the attempts to buy and sway their votes...that they will set a precedent in this country. Many women share their stories - that have gone unpunished - looking for their own justice in the verdict of the following day.¨

    In true Guatemalan style the next day was spent reading all of the documents presented in the case, lulling to sleep the most avid of listeners. But one week later, when I was unfortunately in a pick up truck in the highlands accompanying another case, the guilty verdict was read. I am told that in the ensuing celebration in the parque central there was marimba, dancing, laughter and tears.

    This is of course a glimpse of just one of the many cases we have been following, but I will save discussion of some of the others for another day, as I feel it is so important to celebrate the victories when they happen!

    Despite my appreciation of the experiences I have had so far; my belief in the work; and my desire to stay on, I have decided that June will be my last month with the project. There are other things calling me back to Canada this summer and I feel confident this will not be my last opportunity to spend time in Guatemala.

    Fuertes abrazos,


    Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Kartharine Laurie (Part 2) (2008)

    Greetings from Guate!

    Despite the best of intentions it appears that I have not quite been living up to my ambitions to keep in touch, I will endeavour to do better, starting today!!

    Two months into my work with Acoguate and I am wondering if two more will be enough. The Social Forum of the Americas - which will be held in Guatemala from October 7th to 12th - is a draw, as are the opportunities to contribute in a more meaningful way to the project, continue to work on my Spanish, and deepen my understanding of what is actually going on here! It looks like I may be able to stretch out the money (a little really does go a long way here!) but am going to linger with the decision a little longer to be certain.

    As most of you know Acoguate provides international accompaniment for human rights defenders: with the goals of dissuading attacks against them; being able to document threats or attacks should they occur; and diffuse the information to networks of people within and outside of the country should their work put them at risk. Over half of the accompaniers in the project work in a handful of rural areas where people suffered the most heavily during the violence of the 36 year armed conflict in Guatemala. A smaller team is based out of the capital, but travels almost continually to different parts of the country following cases where human rights defenders have faced threats due to their participation in various struggles for justice.

    I am a part of this second team. The past two months have been packed with trials, workshops, longer stays at peoples homes, and visits to groups engaged in extended struggles. The three ongoing trials we are accompanying cover a massacre of at least 177 people; the forced disappearance of 6 people (in both of these cases the crimes were commited between 1982 and 1984); and the 2005 rape of a Maya K´iche woman by two police officers, while she was in custody for a crime she was later absolved of. In a country so in need of justice for past and current crimes, these cases are precedent setting. They are steps forward, chipping away at the impunity which has protected the perpetrators of unimaginable deeds. Needless to say there has been a lot of high emotion and a lot of learning for me.

    I am humbled by the ability of people to keep struggling over years and decades, against what sometimes seem like insurmountable odds. My privilege and perspectives are challenged as people with less formal education, who may have never left their region of the country, startle me with their succinct and apt analysis of why people go hungry in Guatemala and why they are forced to head north. I am learning the persistent value of a laugh, and how to pass the hours and hours that we do waiting and travelling with people - how to initiate the small conversations that sometimes lead to deeper ones, and being comfortable with the silence as well.

    Many of you are familiar with the Finca Nueva Linda, where a group of campesinos have been living at the edge of the highway for over 3 years in protest of the forced disappearance of Héctor Reyes, whose crime was joining a union and organizing for the rights of workers in the heavily exploited pacific coast of Guatemala. At a recent visit to the champas - the shacks made of palm leaves that Héctor´s family and supporters live in at the edge of the highway - a long-term actor in the struggle shared the following thoughts with me.

    Despite the lack of current movement in the case, he said that they would not give up, that they would not let the impunity of the rich prevail. With utmost sincerity he was thanking me for being there. It was not what I wanted to hear, given my guilt over the fact that they would sleep with lorries of sugar cane whizzing by, while I would be elsewhere in a soft bed. But I share it with you because he felt it was so important to acknowledge and appreciate all the support which allows them to keep struggling. To which I responded that my being there paled incomparably beside his actions and sacrifice for his friend, and of course that there are innumerable people who may not be able to be in Guatemala, but who also care about their struggle and deserve thanks for their support.

    If anyone is interested a great documentary (in English, French and Spanish) has been made about the case (just email me), and the website below describes their struggle in words and pictures (if your Spanish isn´t that hot).

    Thanks very much for reading this (if you´ve made it this far)! I hope that spring is starting to make inroads up north, and that this finds all of you well and busy with your own struggles.

    Fuertes abrazos,


    Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Katharine Laurie (Part 1) (2008)

    Saludos calurosos a todas y a todos!

    I want to thank all of you for the various forms of support you have shared, enabling me to be back in Guatemala embarking on a new job and a new life! I am going to try to be in touch with impressions and thoughts every month, although the nature of the work dictates that I may seem vague, or will not deal with certain issues....I hope to see many of you back in Canada, and would love to share more when doing so does not put individuals or the project I am working on in jeopardy.

    I am still doing training, and feel excited to start work. My transition - from the snowy road trip with Mom, Dad and McKenzie (our dalmatian) from Edmonton to Phoenix, AZ, through quick visits with friends and colleagues from my time here last year, to the ongoing training program - has been eased by the presence of friends here waiting for me. It is strange to feel (relatively) safe and at home in a place where there are major security issues, but this is one of the luxuries that comes with lighter skin and a Canadian passport. Yet another reality that confirms my resolve that doing this job, helping create the space for Guatemalans to do their own work and follow their visions of development, is important and the right thing for me at this point in my life.

    Below is a little blurb about my first day back in the country, visiting with friends near where I lived last year. I hope this finds all of you well and not suffering too much from the cold (for those braving the Canadian winter).



    The beating sun dictates peoples seating in the open air concrete basketball court, the unlucky ones who have not found spots in the shade lining the western wall sit on the steps with folded multicoloured weavings sheltering their gazes. An unlikely place to find 150 community members gathered on a saturday afternoon. Yet for hours, person after person, men and women alike, move to the microphone to give their opinion about the water situation in their community. Who has been paying? Who should pay? What about differences in usage and the lots which have access but not even a home built yet? It continues until three possible ways of moving forward are decided upon, and people enthusiastically voice their support for one of the three options. The final decision is clear, and people linger to share news and ask after each others´ families as the meeting winds down.

    For my first afternoon back in Guatemala this scene provides a stark contrast to the hype and hollowness of the primaries in the USA. Here is a group of people getting together to take an active role in their community. Sadly, it is probably a lack capacity (or willingness) on the part of various levels of government to provide services for people that brings this group together, but for me the impression is of civic and community participation in action. Whether it be to discuss the impacts of mining in their communities, protest increases in transit fares, or organize the distribution of water in their communities, many Guatemalans are standing up to protect their rights against the political corruption and economic power mongers (both domestic and international) which would have them keep quiet. The impression is that voting is just not enough: not here in Guatemala, nor in Canada where one does not have to fear intimidation or reprisals for using their voice.

    Intern Report: Kat McKernan Rabinal (2007-2008)

    Great Dark meets the Great Light…a few stories about life Rabinal, Guatemala.

    Here are some stories about what it means to live in the ever vibrant, exciting, wounded town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. In this ‘post’ war, indigenous, third world extroverted town of friendly folk the ancient history and recent past come alive in so many of the details and stories of daily life. I want to share a few of some that have impacted me and although there are many sad details, I have seen experienced so much joy here and I will be sad to leave it when my town is up.

    One story begins at a local bakery where every morning I’m greeted young Mayan woman all of 17 years old. Any day of the week, any time between the hours of 6:30 am to 7:30 pm- that is 13 hours a day, 90 hours a week I can be guaranteed to find her smiling albeit exhausted face to greet me. Each day I ask myself how much more she can bear the intensity of this work, it’s draining the vitality of her youth and vibrancies but her fantasies of quitting are always met with the same daunting questions- where will she go? How will the family compensate for that Q1000, even if it is considerably below the national minimum monthly wages? What worries me most, is what she whispers into my ear as her boss disappears into the back ‘they have threaten to kill me if I quit.’ This of course I think to myself, how is this allowed? I tell this story to other Rabinalero friends to try and figure how I could be of use to her, but none of them look remotely shocked or surprised; its just what happens here. It’s all part of business. Her story touches me and I wish I could say it was exceptional, but she represents a kind of archetypal workers here in Guatemala. This never dawned on me until I realized that many people sell, clean, plant, harvest, and drive pickup trucks and herd cattle all the time. You will find them working, Christmas day, New Years day, Sundays; every day bring its pending needs. You will see the economically poorest people wake up before dawn to carry their corn, to cut wood, get the children up, bring water, cook, others work 7 days a week. Even the middle class aren’t exempt. appease their boss; they unconsciously forming the army of the poor- if they refuse this treatment we know there are ten people behind them ready to work. from extremely long hours, great instability, little time off which characterizes so much of Guatemalan life. In any case, I’m worried her brightness and vivaciousness stifled by this virtual slavery because if there is anything this town needs, its this bright, positive people like her.

    Akin to her experience, one joke counts that Q: What are the only three problems of Guatemalans have? A: what to eat for breakfast, what to eat for lunch and what to eat for dinner. These basic problems aren’t always obvious if your passing through Guatemala sticking to the ´Gringo Trail’ in places that are comfortable and sanitized enough to accommodate tourists and upper class Guatemalans. It’s even harder to see, let alone believe that in this ecologically vibrant, agriculturally rich country 67% of Indigenous children are malnourished. One face of this statistic: a school director of one of the communities outside of Rabinal tells me he has a hard time keeping the attention of his students because many of them are sent with only tortillas and salt for lunch. I know these children aren’t so small just because of their genetics.

    The invisibility of these issues in Guatemala hits me one day in particular. Driving in Guatemala city, I am with my friend and all and a few of her friends, all of whom are born are 100% Chapina- born and raised Guatemalans. We strategically navigate the chaos of the capital one night, carefully calculating the time and space between each stop to avoid all the potential dangers of just being out and about in the city. The body and mind is up regulated into a kind of chronic semi-anxious state that I can feel on many of the people and certainly on these friends. As I’m explaining to her them a little bit about the situation in Rabinal my friend stops me in the middle of a sentence… “I know it may seem strange, but I think you might more about Guatemala than we do”. Since than so many other situations have shown me just how true this statement often is. Guatemala is famous for forgetting these stories and realities, and in fact in many cases never even learning them in the first place. The fact of knowing and telling the stories in order to integrate the broken pieces of history being able to see a larger system at play is a kind of revolutionary act. My friend Virgilio tells us that his 11 year nephews once asked him to tell them a scary story; as he began to tell them about Rabinal during the armed conflict the kids refused to believe this was anything more than a legend. A tragic yet comical emblem of this dissasociative reality is the fact that former military dictator Rios Montt actually ordered the suspension teaching of history classes throughout the Guatemalan education system during his presidential campaign of 2003. I think he was right to be afraid of what could happen as more and more people woke up to the whole of this reality. In the meantime, enough people will continue to do things like vote for the ‘Hard Hand’ (Mano Dura)’ even if the presidential candidate is a former military leader of the notorious1980’s who claims to ‘stamp out’ the very delinquency he has had a big part in creating. Being here has made me appreciate so much how important it is to be able to see and integrate a bigger picture as it relates to your life; the tyranny that exist here is kept alive by our unawareness, both as Canadians and Guatemala. It is this time pressure just to get by that is combined with an enforced, cultivated; conspicuous ignorance that pierces a calm a place of contemplation that would otherwise make room for people to take a step back to view the political, mental, economic, spiritual blocks that keep so much of that keep us running on this treadmill of survival.

    This leads me to think that this constant need, instability, and fragmenting of truth are probably the most insidious yet unspoken strategy of war used. Constant pending needs to survive keep many distracted from a place of being and healing where these wounds of war, racism can be seen, let go of, transformed and reworked. I have fantasies of a world-wide strike. What if people stopped participating in this suicidal cycle as consumers, workers and producers; whether we have been cast as a 3rd world Indigenous, 1st world traveler, middle class ladino, blue collar, white collar- I feel like this immense monster of the military-industrial complex could deflate like a massive balloon with a hole in it- of our fear and participation didn’t keep it erect. This is not to undermine the necessary, courageous efforts of proactively challenging this tyranny, but I feel like it is fear that keeps us going. This change, or ‘Great Turning’ ending I think will be propelled forward when enough of us decide that our fear of not having enough and our territorial fears that activate our survival instincts are no greater than our desire to be part of a world where the main story line where life and the world aren´t mere battlegrounds, but a place celebration of what is possible and impossible, of creation and experience. I know this is bold, most details of Guatemalan history spell out how victimized the people of been, but is it possible from this long history of outside imposed tyranny could be dismantled powered by a revolution from the inside. This isn’t confined to Guatemalan borders; it is the challenge of all people.

    In the midst of the darkness, all the elements of transformation are as there are many intelligent, caring, independent, rooted people here. 50% of the Guatemalan population is under the age of 15 and in them I have seen tremendous brightness and possibility, not having fully absorbed the burdening energy. I just went to the annual general meeting of a growing organic agriculture collective headed almost entirely by rural indigenous women. This is unfortunately still rare, most NGOs and political bodies still have their hierarchical, patriarchal, ways of deliberately and unconsciously eliminating this type of participation. They opened this meeting with a ceremony to Mother Earth and they spent the day learning and teaching each other about Monsanto seeds, organic compost and the revival of native seeds and plants to the region. They are selling their products to wean themselves off dependence from international funding. They have taken into account social, economic, spiritual realities to create something integral, self-sustaining and inclusive. Even the poorest people in their community will contribute their $0.50 monthly to maintain this organization and have ownership. If this movement is any indication, this transformation could happen so much more deeply and quickly than what all those dire newspaper editorials and books have suggested. There are many folks tapping into their power and creating something from the bottom up. They are not waiting on the big institutions to save or direct them in any way. I admire them tremendously!


    Another theme that strikes me is how much abundance and generosity are extended in the midst of the deepest poverty. I meet an ancient tiny woman one early morning, she was walking up the mountain side carrying a gallon of water in each hand; seems like half her frail, small framed body weight. She tells me that the little flowers in her house were dying and needed water. Yet another moment here when I’m left touched by the something that is so beautiful and sad at once. How is it that a few steps out of town people don’t have access to water, not even dirty water? How beautiful to see someone even in their need and vulnerability still taking care of other forms of life. As much as this country is about survival, the great majority of people will offer abundance without measure like this old woman I meet. People sew elaborate, detailed, colorful clothing, they throw fantastic celebrations frequently, they share great quantities of food; money and time is invested to make life fun, beautiful and so their rich history spanning 1000s of years here is honored. The whole Maslowvian hierarchy of need idea concept where utilitarian demands eclipse life’s pleasure or celebration, is simply not true here. I have never seen or imagined a place that celebrates more occasions than Rabinal. Its feels like practically a weekly affair. This semana santa the entire town has been working and pooling their resources together to make ‘alfombras’ or carpets on the street outside of their homes. These careful designs made of colored sawdust adorned with candles and flowers are worked on for hours only to be walked on and destroyed soon after by the passing Easter processions. If such a thing were to happen in Canada I always imagine big signs posted around ‘sponsored by Enmax-Coca Cola-Telus-Bell”. At another ceremony celebration I go to a huge bag of tamales is served to all people who make an offering large or small to the Mayan deity Toj who is doubling as Catholic figure Saint Sebastian. Mayan traditions have been kept alive throughout the assaults of these centuries by using mainline Catholicism as a disguise and a complementary figure. It is on the many days like this that this country strays so far from the its ´third world´ profile because of the richness it exudes.. It reminds me of the feeling of walking into my friend Avelina’s house in a very poor, dusty dessert community outside of Rabinal. Even though on every monetary index her family would have fallen into the category of ‘extreme poverty’, the warmth of her home, the abundant plants that her mother waters every night at 11pm when the taps comes on and the trees that have been carefully cut to provide sustainable firewood all make it rich and beautiful. Here, little money doesn’t translate into poverty, their care and imagination has made this place into a little palace.

    I had the honor of being part of a vigil for the remains of bodies that had been tossed into clandestine graves during the war that were now being exhumed and returned to their families. The sister of the man whose bones have been recovered serves meets my eyes to hand me chicken soup and coffee as I sit in silence next to the small coffin and say a prayer. I feel taken aback by her generosity and humility; I haven’t offered her anything material in exchange and I know she could really use it. I see the old plastic shows that are cracking underneath her feet in the dirt floor of this room in her home. I have offered my prayers and a fleeting moment of my presence, which on one level seems very small considering that her journey of mourning and awaiting the return of these bones has spanned more than 2 decades. She doesn’t mind at all; I see in her eyes how freely she shares this with me. Even though people worry and talk so much about ‘pisto’ (money), so many exchanges aren’t translated into monetary terms. In spite of the massive exploitation the fact that the grandparents of these people worked as slaves to build the highways around here and so many migrate to costal plantations every year to make a despicable wage, there is somehow a trust that guides the sharing, giving and receiving in relationships.

    An equally touching, unforgettable image resonates in my mind from the massacre commemoration ceremony for the community of Panacal. The last part of the ceremony some of the monetarily poorest people I have ever met made an offering of money to the ceremonial fire. On this blustery day, almost all middle aged and elderly mayan-achí women who are widows of the armed conflict dropped bills of five and ten quetzals into the fire. It strikes me: it seems that no matter how poor or rich someone may be in Guatemala, so many people actively engage in give and take relationships. Everyone has something to offer. By chance this very same day I carry a one-dollar American bill in my pocket. My friend and I laugh, pretending to be anti-capitalists anarchists burning American currency even though we know this isn’t the intention of the ceremony. People invest however little or much that they have to celebrate life in it’s joy and sorrow. They will give to make meaningful offerings to one another and to the spirits and ancestors which they say- have been the unconditional presence to the people during all these hard times.


    Like this abundance in poverty, fear and freedom make a stark contrast. You can experience both of them here quite profoundly. There is a lightness, an unmistakable freedom that pervades the central plaza in the late afternoon as people walk, eat, joke around and converse with their families. People sit on their steps in talk to one another. Bands of kids play in the streets. People acrobatically move around on bikes in pairs on with an air of free spiritness. One Rabinalero proudly tells me that no matter what has happened and what goes on, this ambiance has never been stolen from this town. It’s so true. This lightness of this scene of the central plaza is juxtaposed with the streets that are mostly eerily empty by 7:30pm. Even my boss, who is a bright, thoughtful and progressive woman from Rabinal tells me she is contemplating buying a gun for the nights that she has to walk home from buying tortillas in the plaza. People are afraid of the Maras, or gangs. The media calls this problem common violence or delinquency- supposedly a product of poor, frustrated youth. But others have a far more macabre theory of this phenomenon; it’s said that this terror is the front line in the chain of paid criminals that can be traced back to old military and oligarchic forces that have held this country in the throes of control and fear for many years. Either way, this danger sits heavy on the consciousness of most people I talk to; they are quick to warn me that any of my expeditions on bike and by foot in and around Rabinal are dangerous. There is truth in their advice- violence is very tangible and visceral here. Everyone here has had someone close to them, family or otherwise- that has been killed by the violence during or after the war. A few examples from the recent last few weeks: the house of the director of one of partner organizations is shot at with special metal penetrating bullets. The man at the two doors down from me is killed in the middle of the night by some break and enters assailants. Everyday women come into the Office of the Achí Woman to tell stories of rape, family violence and threats that can jade you and break your heart if you’re not careful. Just outside of Rabinal, a small memorial of burning candles and cut flowers sits like a small alter on the side of a dusty pot holed road. A well-known and respected elder was shot dead the night before 40 meters from his house. There are no suspects known. Hundreds of somber people show up to his coffin the next day to offer flowers, maize, firewood to his family. I know it is precisely this type killing that can paralyze a community: seemingly random act against a community seemingly innocent leader, suspects roam freely and there is almost no talk of rectifying this injustice in any way. Impunity is not just a problem of the national government; it often governs relationships between people. It’s almost expected and even allowed in many cases. Sitting at the vigil for this older man my mind begins to wander into dangerous territory as I wonder if the killing of 12 bus drivers and another handful of bus assistants during a week of terror last month in Guatemala city also part of this systematic implementation of fear on the population, and not just a question of some common criminals wanting money? Its not always easy to know and its not useful to engage too much paranoia however I also realize that we can’t be fooled by the seemingly random and informal style by which this country operates; the old police records being dug up from a moldy basement in the Guatemala City reveal a very systematic, detailed, deliberate execution of violence during the armed conflict. To what extent does this level of deliberate planning still go on? Either way I know this fear is an absolutely key strategy that keeps the people from reclaiming and enjoying the full beauty of what is theirs.

    Still, the town is caught in a conundrum because there is a point where excessive precaution fuels the violence and intimidation of this place. This is the fear keeps people down, afraid, suspicious, psychologically imprisoned and inadvertently inviting more of the same. When I’m here in the many beautiful late evenings watching a most incredible dessert sunset I ask, how does the light of Central Square during this semana santa, the incredible participation and presence of people creating beautiful events and laughter live along side and even within the same people and town who live such terror? How does it exist in the same place where a great spray of bullets was rained on the people in central plaza here in this very place on September 15th, 1981. It makes me think of Tiananmen square, but instead of a city of millions, it’s a small indigenous town tucked away in the Guatemalan mountains. An old woman selling tortillas in the market, in her wise laughter she tells me that crying is so much easier than laughing, so its important we at least try and laugh. I think she’s got it. I try to laugh as I go about my days here, and usually its easy I can, I have lots of inspiration. I go to one of the local comedors and let the 13 years deaf waitress recharge me with her fierce, joyous laughter. Her life circumstance as a young, poor indigenous girl not being able to directly speak to people objectively make her life circumstance look horrendous- but in essence she is living on top of the world as she is vivacious and joyful to no measure. To quote my fellow intern Jeff…´´I think its weird that Guatemala might actually inspire me to become an optimist.´´ I ask him why… ´´because, through all they’ve been through, they still know how to have such a good time in this country.´´ I couldn’t agree more!

    An Afternoon at Work …

    In a tiny indigenous community outside of Rabinal called Chuaperol, my work compañera and are delivering a workshop to a group of women. She is a young achí woman. Her extroverted nature and loud animated voice make her stand out in a place where so many women can barely state their name loud so I can take their attendance. Here, the dust is thick and the dryness in the air causes cracks in the land. This disappearance of trees for cooking firewood is drying up the land even faster because there are fewer roots to hold the water. Every drop of water counts, albeit dirty or amoebae laden; every drop is precious. In this workshop on self-esteem, part of the success of the entire event is just gathering the people together to sit, talk and generate ideas. This is a feat in a place where the women are very busy fulfilling their tremendous responsibilities of keeping their home and feeding their children. Plus many people have become frustrated with workshops or meetings that don’t relate directly to their imminent economic need. It’s an even greater feat here considering group cohesion has been so deeply damaged by the divide and conquer strategies that have rendered people suspicious and separated from one another. In fact, the first people targeted and murdered during the war were known leaders and elders of the community. Chuaperol is a community where the vast majority of men were either killed or they have simply left to the greener pastures of Guatemala City or the States. In this tiny town without a sign marking its existence, we find a microcosm of this worldwide phenomenon of rural women bearing a hugely disproportionate burden of working for their community’s survival. There is no government taking a lead in maintaining infrastructure or running programs. I am convinced if it weren’t for the unconditional presence of the women, this place would no longer exist. Even development NGOs make only patchwork contributions that can never be guaranteed beyond one year of funding and donors are often alienated from the community’s reality and rigid in how the funds are spent.

    Sitting here with this group of women, in a very dusty shabby little building, broken windowed, cinder blocked community centre of sorts- the strength of the women I am gathered with hits me deep. Even after a long night, a war and many in the absence of financial or emotional support of a husband they do what it takes to get up and feed their children. In a way life seems like walking in a pitch-black night without seeing anything ahead. You move forward with small steps in faith, but not ever knowing the form of what awaits. This is evidenced by the staggering birth and death rates of places; the fragility of life stares you in the face everyday. Babies dying of dehydration because their little bodies couldn’t take the contaminated water, frequent accidents, even killings are all stories that have touched the people here. In the blackness of this uncertainty, many can’t even see ahead to the next meal; the fact that you can buy everything here in laughably small quantities- one egg, one cigarette, one tiny packet of salt reflects this reality. But as they walk through this darkness step by step I think many of them have chosen to accept this uncertainty with a deep trust, a trust that `Qa`Choo Aloom` or Mother Earth will provide. I can’t otherwise explain the relative peace and cohesion they exude today. I see these women like rocks. They have confronted pain that has been orchestrated to break their community cohesion, their land, their bodies, sexuality, spirit, traditional knowledge and economic well being. Just like most every community around Rabinal, Chuaperol also suffered a massacre during the toughest moments of violence. The deep lines of age marking their faces tell this story. So all things considered feels like a bit of a small miracle. The introverted and mildly sullen ambiance is punctuated by loud laughter. Their hearts and minds leave the pending burdens work and wounds for even a moment to let out huge laughs, deep, unabashed laughter that moves me to laugh even though I haven’t a clue about what they speak of in achí. It’s been just one short afternoon in this little place, but it leaves a deep impression.


    I sit on the steps of the massive church, with my friend Lourdes- we watch spectacular display of deep pinks and oranges highlight the sky. These arid and clear skies make for almost guaranteed beautiful skies every morning and evening. She turns to me and says, ¨you know, i´m not really sure about development, give or six years ago when you sat here, there were no cars and motorbikes. It was so quiet, peaceful. Now we have a little more but our lives aren’t better because of it.`` Her observation is simple, yet so important that needs to guide all this process of transformation. Development can inadvertently sacrifice so many things that make this place brilliant. It would be tragic in a way if this place was set on its course to becoming a little Calgary, Halifax or Vancouver. It takes such intelligence, wisdom awareness to do it. This vision can only come from the people. At best outsiders can play a supporting role with encouragement or ideas, however this presence can an incredible degree of unintended effects of which undermine the creativity, intelligence and potential of the people it is supposedly serving. This is evidenced by the fact that in and around Rabinal, some of the communities that have received the most charity and projects initiated by international institutions continue to live in some of the most difficult social and economic conditions. Even though communities like Pacux have been the recipients of many of the projects that are emblematic of development, the hurt of the massacre that took 177 of the community’s women and children persist in a way that isn’t addressed by mere attempts at economic improvements. It comes from a deeper place.

    I know there are many tangible things to be done and I feel grateful to be apart of a network like Breaking the Silence that creates this awareness and dedicates itself to change on all of these levels- but being in Guatemala has made one thing very clear. Social justice and development is a process that reaches out into the world but must stay close to the heart. It doesn’t start with bargaining tables and courthouses far away. This transformation or ‘development’ is born from the inside and is born from those who have a clean enough slate to be a medium and source of integral, positive movements. It works in tandem with our personal development and reintegration.

    We as Canadians, Guatemalans, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, NGO´s, community groups and governments alike need to continue recovering enough of our own vision so our work actually render peace, social justice and unity in respect for our oneness and our distinctiveness. Cleaning this slate might be the biggest challenge after all the major external tyrants survive more and more as a reflection of our self-victimization and the fear we fuel it with. This takes courage to do, whether your poor or rich- the system can be powerful and convincing. Without enough of this recovered presence and vision, we become our own internal captors and the lines between victim & victimizer good & evil become blurred. So many stories from Rabinal have further awoken me to this reality and have made it difficult for me to locate the ‘enemy’ of the immense challenges this town and country face. The contradictions are all here in our very midst: the humble man who is a leader in environmentally friendly agriculture in his community is also the father of a known rapist. The ex. para-military leader is now a well known community leader. One of the community’s bravest and most persistent defenders of human rights is object of much suspicion and disrespect from the majority of his home community he seeks to defend. The soft-spoken father of my friend was a solider during the 1981-1982 reign in Guatemala. These observations don’t intend to blame the victims in any way. The facts of the conflict are overwhelmingly one-sided: a UN Rights Commission analysis says that 93% of the human rights violations were committed by the CIA backed military and paramilitaries that were beaten, brainwashed, tortured and rewarded for turning on their own people. But even given this history, the echoes of the words of a wise friend come to me…hurt people, hurt people. Without this process of recovery and transforming these old wounds, we as people are vulnerable to repeating. Working at the women’s office in the Community Legal clinic here in Rabinal these words resound everyday as woman after woman share their stories that show terror at national and international levels is backseat to the war and colonization practiced at the most local and personal levels. I know as more and more people cease their participation in these cycles of violence and take the time, space and courage to recover more of this vision, this country will transform so much faster and more deeply than anyone might have imagined. It is as much a personal, spiritual, and psychological task as it is a political and economic one.

    The dark is very dark here, but the light is also very light. The perfect metaphor: great springs of flowers, other plants and trees exuberantly spill onto the street, dramatic in their colors, healthy and abundant in their forms all throughout Guatemala. This potent life, anxious to grow and unfold, intertwines with barriers of tall walls, broken glass and barbed wire security contraptions that make homes and businesses look like army barracks. This life doesn’t need to be manipulated and constructed it is already here and intrinsic to the people and land of Guate. It’s more a matter of dissolving, dismantling and reworking these huge old walls of resistance.

    Intern Report: Jeff Carolin New Hope Foundation (Part 2) (2007-2008)

    assorted thoughts on guatemala...

    On March 5 the gate of my boss's house got shot up. They tell me that it took some serious bullets to puncture his thick iron gate. I nod calmly, clearly knowing nothing about bullets. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Two assailants were seen by neighbours riding away on bicycles. Drive-by-shooting, Guatemalan style.

    Like most acts of violence in Guatemala, it wasn't clear whether it was random violence or a deliberate act of intimidation. Guillermo works for a network of organizations that is attempting to use the bankrupt legal system to bring justice to both the locally recruited militias and the generals/dictators who are responsible for the genocide that happened in Rabinal and in other largely-Indigenous regions in the early 1980s. Anyone who is involved with any kind of similar struggle across the country, however loosely, is a potential target.

    And yet, because no one ever leaves notes behind, it's often unclear what the motivation was behind the act - and if indeed there even was one. But one thing is clear. Though the civil war officially ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords, it's widely accepted that the perpetrators of the violence still hold power locally and nationally, whether as elected officials or behind closed doors. And they don't like being put on the defensive.

    Knowing all this meant that at the same time as I was trying, lamely, to express my support for Guillermo, and his visibly shaken-up family, I couldn't help but notice my own feelings. I felt afraid.

    For the next two days, especially when Guillermo asked me to accompany him to file various incident reports in shabby police offices, I felt fear for my personal safety. It wasn't fear in the generalized sense of walking down a dark street knowing that I could be a random target of violence or robbery. It was a different feeling - one of being specifically targeted for association with a political movement. If I disassociated myself, I knew I'd be safe. And there it was in front of me, a recognition of why political violence is so effective in destroying any dissent from the dominant line.

    This fear quickly faded because I knew that I actually had little to fear. Only in the most exceptional of cases have foreigners been targeted by political violence. I'm protected by the coincidence of my nationality. To the powers-that-be and the international press, my life is worth more. This forced the fear to be replaced by yet another intense, visceral feeling – one of having the structural injustices and inequalities of our world flow right through me.

    Talking to one of my colleagues the next day, Rosa the secretary, it was clear that she was scared. "I was alone in the office all morning. I was jumping at every sound." This was a bit different than our usual conversations about the oppressive heat, office politics, and which local variety of the plum-like jocote was in season. Did she have the choice to be here? To a certain extent, yes. But how easy it is to give up a job in a famously unstable economy where you're pulling in 3000 quetzales a month - a relatively good sum - just because of a little mortal fear.

    Then I reflected on my own situation. If I were actually in mortal danger, I'm confident that it would be expected by all involved parties – whether Canadian or Guatemalan - that I leave immediately. This isn't my place. I'm just an experience-seeking globe-trotting politically-engaged keen 25 year old.

    I'm not speaking here with guilt, as I likely would have been five years ago. Fine, there might be some residual guilt. But that self-description was really what I thought about in the moment. I was looking at Rosa and thinking that no matter how much shared humanity we have - how we sip hot maize porridge from locally-made hand-painted bowls and chat about Rabinal's history and current events - we are born into well-worn global patterns that drastically shape the potential lives that we may live.

    In a world of justice, this would be a reason for celebration. We'd toast our diversity of experiences, of perspectives, of understandings. And even in a world in which justice is absent, living here has taught me how to celebrate this diversity in spite of a context which lends itself so easily to dark thoughts. I know that Rosa gets to live in a vibrant community where, to quote my friend Kat, there exists so much abundance amidst material poverty. Where lavish communal celebrations turn all measures of poverty on their heads. I also know that she experiences mortal fear – like so many on our planet – and that she (jokingly?) has asked me to bring her to Canada.

    About three weeks later.

    Lying in bed one night, getting up, walking to the door of my room, and deliberately locking it for the first time since I've been here, pausing, thinking: the fear has finally seeped in. After five months here in Rabinal, the stories of break-and-enter/murders, muggings, rape, physical assaults, and the post-7:30 deserted streets have finally penetrated my security bubble. I understand why the director of a local women's advocacy organization is contemplating buying a gun, and because of that I understand how Guatemalan elites use seemingly random violence for political gain - and for control.

    I understand why the party called the Firm Hand (Mano Dura) led by an ex-general, with a fist as their logo, almost won the election in November. And when they didn't win the election, I understand why they are suspected of ordering the wave of bus driver assassinations in Guatemala City. Fifteen bus drivers and six assistants murdered in one week in February. Officially, organized crime and gang violence are to blame. That's certainly the line the Globe and Mail took in a four part series about violence in Guatemala. But it cant be forgotten that increasing destabilization, "random violence" like this, and ever-deepening fear yield a population more susceptible to control and to the sweet promises of military dictatorship: peace and order.

    I didn't expect Guatemala to help me understand 9/11, the Bush Administration, or Bowling for Colombine. But it has.

    The power struggle here between wealthy landowners, the military new rich, and capitalist opportunists means that this entire country - its people, its environment, its history – becomes a battleground. Foreign embassies and corporations - like Canada and its mining companies - fuel this war, lending both political legitimacy to bankrupt political parties and expansive amounts of capital to official and unofficial coffers. Capital that is quickly converted into incredibly high rates of private-jet ownership, and into politically-motivated - but seemingly random - murders and assaults carried out by easily paid off gang members living in desperate urban wastelands.

    Lately, and surprisingly, this understanding has been coalescing into the eerie feeling that Guatemala is turning me into an optimist.

    This feeling has only grown more concrete as I've been discovering what happened here on September 15, 1981 - the massacre in Rabinal proper. Not out in the communities, but in the market and town square that I steer my under-sized bike through everyday picking up tasty post-work snacks of chopped green mangos, tacos, and pizza. It is the least documented massacre in the region, and according to a friend here, in the entire country.

    According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, 200 people of all ages died that day when the military opened fire on an Independence Day march. Purportedly it was in retaliation for a failed attack on the military base two days before. An attack supposedly organized by some of the few local guerrillas.

    Rumours and anonymous witnesses put the number much higher: a minimum murder count of 1000 in a town that has about 5000 people. Though there were people in from the surrounding communities that day, if it matters. The estimates vary depending on how many trucks were seen leaving Rabinal the next day under military guard to dump the bodies 100s of miles away. Images and smells from that day led to analogies of the annual poisoning of street dogs.

    This day remains under-documented because everyone who carried it out and who were its victims are all still neighbours. The leaders still have power and authority in the community and are likely supported by the shadowy networks of power that run parallel to, and heavily influence the superficial party politics of Guatemala's "democracy".

    Tad is an American who accompanies local witnesses to trials involving the genocide. One days he tells me, "You know that guy with the crazy grey hair who works at the terminal? He tortured people in the families I visit."

    "Yeah, I do know that guy... I was joking around with him the other day. Shit."

    Leah points out that the fear (and pain) that exudes from every hushed comment about September 15, and the anonymity of all recorded testimonies about it and most other "better documented" massacres, puts in stark contrast the people who have come forward, in public, to denounce these crimes. People like Jesús Tecú Osorio, who founded the organization I'm with here, and who faced down in court, in a landmark case, the three men who carried out the murder of his family in front of him. It also puts in contrast the continuing vibrancy of Rabinal, its market, its crafts, its people. A contrast that's so strong that it's been chipping away at my cynicism. If they can do this here...

    That night, lying in bed, in an attempt to deal with my newly discovered fear, I deliberately thought about all the people I've met here who daily face down fear of both random and political violence - and the grey area between them - to challenge impunity, demand land reform, and reveal the secrets of a dirty war. When I first got here I found this courage both humbling and inspiring. That night I used it instead of warm milk.

    in peace, jeff

    Intern Report: Jeff Carolin New Hope Foundation (Part 1) (2007-2008)

    I guess I've got to admit that my experience here in Rabinal,Guatemala is thus far shaping up to be a wee bit more intense than what I've experienced before in Ghana and Bolivia. Already knowing Spanish has been a huge difference from my time in Bolivia in getting beneath the surface. Another key factor is being here through an organization, Breaking the Silence, that has such deep connections with people and organizations here. I'm being exposed to Guatemala in a way that I can only describe as raw. I imagine what you'd experience travelling through here as a tourist is somewhat different. This intensity also has a whole lot to do (obviously) with the terrible violence that so recently swept through this country. Well, at least those parts of the country far away from urban and international eyes, populated primarily by materially impoverished, rural indigenous people. Whether guerrillas had opened an armed front in those areas wasn't necessarily a relevant factor. The threat of indigenous communities - already active in demanding an end to forced labour, racism, and gross inequalities in the division of land - joining up with armed rebels was enough to attract the white terror carried out by the Guatemalan Army. An army that had been "professionalized" and "modernized" into a hyper-efficient counterinsurgency (read: killing) machine by the best - our southern neighbours. And when international rancour finally cut through bloated rhetoric about pursuing democracy in Central America, there were always Israelis, South Africans, and Argentineans willing to pick up the training manuals and provide the tools of death. Though these allies did become less necessary once Reagan openly declared war on communism in Central America, praising Guatemalan generals as true defenders of democracy, the very ones who are now wanted on genocide charges and crimes against humanity. But, of course, these perpetrators don't just walk free in Guate; they still serve in the democratically elected government.

    The numbers are numbing. Almost 500 completely destroyed indigenouscommunities, 200,000 murders, 40,000 disappearances, every rape, degradation, humiliation imaginable, set against a backdrop common throughout Latin America - the jagged legacy of colonialism. 60% of land owned by 2% of the population. All of it stolen from the original owners (now being stolen by Canadian mining companies), forcing the inhabitants onto ever more marginal land, a fact which cannot be separated from rampant child malnutrition in rural areas. A diet of maize and little else means that 14 year-olds look like they're 9. A fact which juxtaposes nicely against another local statistic: Guatemalans have the second highest per capita ownership of private planes in the world.

    Guatemala truly is a place of extremes. It is this about Guate that has struck me the most. The full spectrum of human society - the full malleability of human nature - is on display everyday if you care to look. The extremes amplify eachother in a profound way. Here's a rough paraphrasing of my friend Kat's description of Guate: in this country the rich and powerful try to squeeze every drop out of those who have less, those we call the poor. And then these people who we call poor, turn around and offer you half of what they have left. Some examples:

    Sitting on a narrow wooden bench with Kat, in front of a modest wooden house, surrounded by three generations of a family, listening to a middle-aged woman, Maria Magdalena, lines hardened in her face, recount how "they" called her husband and oldest son to a bogus meeting where "they" beat them almost until death, along with other community leaders, before lighting them on fire and burning them alive. She goes on to tell us that every year she goes with all the other local widows to search for the clandestine grave that they kno must exist - one of the hundreds that will probably never be exhumed. Meanwhile children from her second marriage pore through every single page of a calendar from Canada that we brought as a gift, along with some passion fruit and oranges. "What do you plant in Canada?," her new husband (we assume) asks us. "It's not the same as here...," I begin. But the subject changes quickly to how they don't have enough money to pay school fees - even though two children are attending the much cheaper school run by the local organization I'm with. Are they asking us for money? Probably. One of the littlest boys breaks away from the calendar to play with the front half of a little plastic truck - the only toy visible. The grandmother moans from her blanket where she's lying a few feet away. Kat asks Maria Magdalena what she would need to improve her situation. "Justice," she states concisely, not with an air of defeatism or desperation, but with confidence and strength, "justice for those who killed our families." We're presented with two bead necklaces as we leave – beautiful but unfashionable by Canadian standards. They thank us for coming. "We don't feel as alone when we have visitors."

    The Guatemalan constitutional court just ruled that they are not going to extradite ex-generals wanted for genocide in a case being tried in Spain under international law.

    Pressed up against a window, random pieces of metal pressing into my lower back, waiting to take the winding and scenic road back down into the valley of Rabinal, Kat, beside me, is exchanging pleasantries with the Señora seated (really close) beside her. Soon we're being offered juicy red grapes, expensive here at 10 quetzales a pound. Will these make me sick? Whatever.

    The director of an organization that uses funds from a fair trad coffee farm to advocate on behalf of local campesinos (peasants) for a little bit more land, a slightly better price, a little bit more justice, receives death threats. No one even mentions the words land reform around here anymore, despite the dire need. It's too dangerous. These threats are real: paramilitary groups never disbanded are
    out-for-hire by local elites. Then there are the narcotraffickers and the devastating mix of ex-military personnel and organized crime.Actually, the only land reform carried out involves the distribution of what was once rich, fertile land but is now exhausted by decades of coffee production. It's a cruel joke. If you want to taste it, head to Starbucks.

    Early Saturday morning walking out of Rabinal, a couple of friends and I are trying to make it to the top of a nearby hill before it gets too hot. After two hours of climbing we're suddenly in the middle of a small corn field where an entire family is working. I recognize the father and one of the sons. They had somehow passed us heading down and had beaten us back to the top. All in a day's work, I think, when you have no access to land. Assuming we had lost our trail, we ask for directions. With broken Spanish and obvious amiability they direct us to the right path so we can continue on our jaunt. They smile and wave us on our way.

    Hundreds of Guatemalans working in NGOs clumsily grouped under the heading human rights have been attacked or killed in the last few years. And yet they keep working, struggling for justice. It is profoundly humbling to talk to them.

    A friend of mine here in Rabinal, Virgilio, tells me a story of when he was working with street kids in the capital. Walking through a trash pile with a small boy who knew it well, he looked up to see a look of delight on the child's face. He had found garbage picker's gold: two sausages, still whole. With a grin, and without the slightest hesitation, he handed one of them to Virgilio. It's a gift that can't be refused. More precious than any wedding registry. Virgilio accepts it, though he says he'll eat it later.

    Knees up in my face, wondering if school buses were always this cramped or if the seats in this decades-old imported American Blue Bird had been taken out and placed slightly closer together to create more room. Apparently, three to a seat on benches built for 2 ten-year-olds isn't efficient enough. A stream of vendors pass through the bus: ballpoint pen for 5 quetzales, but he'll toss in an agenda, scissors, and an eraser for free; a tray filled with coke and pepsi products competing against each other and themselves (monopoly contracts haven't reached street vendors yet) secured by a strap around the neck - workers comp?; a cream made of aloe vera that cures everything; penny candies. Their ages range from 4 to 70. Some sell with an air of good humour, even entrepreneurial spirit. Others are more sullen. But maybe I'm projecting my own feeling of how humiliating and exhausting it would be to spend 365 days a year selling knick knacks? And where does the rise of gang violence fit into this? Given the choice would I spend my life acrobatically jumping on and off buses - from front door to Emergency Exit - hoping to make enough money to feed myself let alone my family, or would I join a gang and know what Real Power feels like. So that I could finally understand what those people in Guatemala City must feel. Those that live in their gated communities and oversized SUVs, and shop in vast stores owned by Walmart and jiggy shopping malls full of foreign chains - Burger King as status symbol - surrounded by more fences and armed guards. I probably wouldn't know that this division of the planet wasn't unique to Guate: the growth of gated communities alongside slums; shiny private health care clinics built in the shadow of crumbling public health facilities; imported caviar served in impossibly wealthy restaurants alongside child-ledlegions of garbage pickers. A world divided into Green Zones and Red Zones. (Thanks for that one Naomi.)

    Attending a New Year's Eve ceremony of Rabinal's senior citizens, led by Mayan priests carrying out a service that is a curious blend of offerings to Mayan spirits and Catholic saints, and being welcomed by all to this private gathering with big smiles and that comforting greeting used by the elderly here - a mutual hand to shoulder clasp that lets your arms intertwine. Coffee spiced with chile and cinamon, two little rolls, and their hospitality are all offered with a casual generosity that leaves a deep impression.

    A nun who doubles as a healthcare worker, voice heavy with exhaustion, describing the rough going of rural healthcare. With little support from the state how can they be anything more than a band-aid, providing nutritious food to infants. She laments that it will never end like this, "the people have been forced for centuries onto this land that only gives maize and beans. The people are malnourished and so a lot of them lack the energy, never mind the education, to bring their communities forward. How can we provide healthcare without dealing first with this poverty?" In the next room is the lucky group of children who, by chance, have access to this nutrition program.

    Though they don't know how lucky they are. All they know is that the puppet show is damn good, and they acknowledge that with smiles and laughter like any other five year old in the world. Though they might be eight. It's hard to tell.

    "How is that you, as a foreigner, knows so much more about the history of my country than I do?" Those who don't know their history…

    And then, in contrast, just across the border, there are other indigenous Mayans who speak languages that are similar to those here (at least to my unaccustomed ears). Indigenous folk who found themselves in Mexico and not Guatemala and now find themselves beginning their 14th year in open rebellion against the Mexican government. The Zapatista National Army of Liberation might well be the first guerrillas to have understood the power of the internet. Their Mexican and international base of support is large.

    I'll admit that at first it felt too trendy riding in the back of pickup on a dusty road to 50 kilometers past nowhere in the Chiapas jungle with bearded and pony-tailed Mexican students from the capital and foreigners with lip rings - all headed to a gathering called by the Zapatistas. But I knew I had to swallow that feeling because it has nothing to do with the Zapatistas and everything to do with the (ironically) image conscious nature of so much of the activist scene that I'm used to. A campus newspaper editor once told me that the Zapatistas are old news. Tell that to the Zapatistas.

    As of 5 years ago, 30 self-declared autonomous communities have formed
    themselves into 5 municipalities. They run their own autonomous schools and health clinics (with the help of some foreign dollars) and are surrounded by about 50,000 Mexican soldiers in the most heavily-militarized state in the country. This specific gathering was called so that the Zapatista women could share their side of the story. Women clad in traditional clothing as well as ski-masks or face-covering bandanas, depending on personal preference, gave speech after speech describing how their life was better since 1994. They were admittedly repetitive and it's hard to know if that was because Spanish is not their first language or because they have to keep a positive face to the outside world. This was even more apparent in the time for questions.

    Question: "What are the main problems you face?"
    Answer: "We don't have any problems because now we know how to defend ourselves." But maybe you have to answer that when you know there are surely members of the army in the crowd.

    Aside from the speeches, the gathering seemed like a kind of political rock festival. Blankets of Zapatista souvenirs, bracelets, and necklaces, murals on buildings all around the main field with revolutionary slogans and images of armed Zapatistas on horseback, huge group dancing to a synthesized fusion of mariachi and traditional music, lots of dreadlocks, and constant vigilance around the perimeter of the community by the Zapatista militia. The threat is real, though it is unlikely the army would continue its low intensity campaign with so many international eyes around.

    Amidst all of this, it was really hard to walk away with a thorough, nuanced understanding of this movement, but I do know it felt really different than the description we received from a bus driver who had fought the Zapatistas as a soldier in the Mexican army in 1994. He told us that they were all lazy, waiting for handouts from the government, and basically they were a bunch of good-for- nothings. (He didn't get the irony when he went on to talk about how unfair it was that Americans all stereotype Mexicans as being less intelligent.)

    It was also really different than being in Guate. Beginning with the basic premise of the meeting: all about the Zapatista women. Because of that, no men (local, national or international) were allowed to actively participate except for carrying firewood, looking after kids, preparing food, or carrying firewood. And this was apparent. We were eating the same beans, tortillas, and eggs as in Guate, but it was all served and prepared by men. Men looking after kids. Then there's the prohibition of alcohol. That's a huge change. Then there's young Zapatista women singing a pro-abortion song during the slightly silly but nevertheless entertaining acto cultural i.e. talent show at night. The Zapatistas also love to dance.

    Describing these images to the indigenous and ladino Guatemalans I work with here leaves them stunned. After making jokes about how Guatemalan men would never accept those conditions, they tell me a movement like that could never happen here. Some don't even believe that they're indigenous Mayans. I agree with them that in the near future the existence, let alone the success, of a movement modelled after the Zapatistas is unlikely. Also, as I said above, I know very little about what level of success the Zapatistas are actually having and what internal messiness might be going on. But what really sticks with me was what one man said to a few of us right before we left.

    There were four of us sitting in his comedor at about 2:30 in the morning waiting for a pickup to take us away from the gathering, drinking a tasty rice-milk beverage (arroz con leche). His manner was one that radiated kindness, gentleness, and humbleness in a way that I've only experienced a few times before (and never in Canada). After chatting about this and that - the gathering itself, the harvest - it came up that he had been in the Zapatista army that came out of the jungle in 1994. He was in Ocosingo that saw the heaviest fighting. 50 Zapatistas died. The army has never admitted how many died on their side. Here's a paraphrasing of what he told us in a quiet, calm, serious voice, without a trace of bravado:

    "They came to us in 1992. For two years we trained in secret. Then they asked us if we wanted to make our fight public, and we said yes. In January 1994 we went public with our army. The fighting was tough in Ocosingo. Many died. But for me, I wanted to fight. All the land around here belonged to the landowners. Our fields were small and a lot of children were hungry. Now we've taken the land back. We're defending it and it's tough. But I don't have to walk far to my field now, and there's no more hunger in our community."

    venceremos, in peace, jeff

    P.S. Back on that bus, the guy beside me got the package deal that featured the ballpoint pen. He leaned over and told me that he did it for the free agenda.