Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Honouring their Sacrifices

The following post is an update from Patrick Chasse, who has been working as a Breaking the Silence volunteer with the CCDA:

Outside of Santiago de Atitlan there is a park. It isn't much to look at, mossy flag stones and dying flowers laid at the edge of weatherworn stones. But these stones were once the walls of a repressive military garrison that oversaw hundreds of forced disappearances and murders in the Santiago region during the 1980s. On December 1st, 1990 rowdy troops took to harassing local women in Santiago. In a brave act of defiance, some villagers began throwing stones at the soldiers and the soldiers responded by firing on the crowd, killing one person. The whole community rallied in outrage and marched the gates of the military garrison, but the army responded with further violence and opened fire. Eleven were killed and forty injured in the pre-dawn shootings. Soon reporters arrived from the tourist town of Panajachel and took damning pictures of bodies lying in front of the military base. With international pressure and local organization, the community of Santiago Atitlan was able to force the military to leave their community. In the 1990s, when the military still exercised power in the country, this was a considerable feat that allowed people to begin contemplating an end to the civil war in the country.

Today, the peace park is flanked by coffee and corn and sits astride of a disused road. An uninformed tourist would hardly spare it a second glance; not that casual tourists would pass by this stretch of highway that connects the culturally vibrant Santiago with the hippie drug hub of San Pedro de la Laguna. It's faster and easier for tourists to jump on one of the frequent boats that ferry passengers between these two towns. It's also safer. In one of Guatemala's sad ironies, Santiago's peace park happens to sit on a stretch of road well know for robberies and assaults. There are many such roads in the rugged mountains of Guatemala as any isolated stretch can be quickly turned into a trap for unwary drivers.

On the nauseating mountain road between Santa Cruz del Quiche and Chichicastenango there is another site marred by violence, locals call it El Molino. Here there are no flag stones and no flowers; this site is remembered and honoured only in the cobwebbed spaces of collective memory. A few nights ago I was returning to Quixaya from Quiche after an evening meeting. It was dark and spitting rain, and despite the brisk air the black road seemed to covered in a blanket of white steam. Our car rounded bend after bend, each time descending further into the valley below. For each curve we had to slow the car down to a crawl and make a wide turn to clear the hairpin bend. So for a moment the pine forest loomed in front of us, and then was quickly forgotten as we speed down to the next turn. Just after we cleared one of these turns, Leocadio spoke up. It was that spot, he said, that spot we just passed where the outspoken journalist Jorge Carpio Nicolle was murdered on his way back from Quiche in 1993. On July 3, his car was assaulted by 30 masked men and he was killed, along with three political allies riding in the same car. No one knew exactly why, but many suspected that he was killed in a political-military move to intimidate his cousin who had just become President a month earlier after a failed self-coup by President Jorge Serrano Elias. Carpio Nicolle himself was an outspoken critic of the right-wing groups that maintained a firm, if discreet, control of Guatemalan politics. In his editorials he vocally rejected that military figures and civilians involved in the self coup should be allowed any sort of amnesty. The government of the day maintained that his murder was the act of common criminals. This quick, offhand memory tinged the dark night roads with suspicion and made for a tense drive back home broken only by occasional jibes and jokes that were borne of friendship. Once again, I amazed by the Guatemalan ability to live and laugh even in the shadow of repression.

This hazily remembered stretch of road and Santiago's peace park are both wilting monuments to Guatemala's 36 year civil war. These sites and hundreds more are remembered in edifice and memory as sites of state crime and organized repression. On paper, Guatemala's civil war ended in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords; but fourteen years have passed and only a few war crimes have been prosecuted. Those few who choose to investigate or testify as to their experiences during the war years are hounded by death threats. Most criminals, especially wealthy ones, bask in impunity knowing full well that the justice system in Guatemala is paralysed by corruption, underfunding, and political influence.

Violence thrives in this post-conflict era, with murders, assassinations and tales of extortion filling the front pages of the newspapers. In 2009 there were 6, 500 people murdered in Guatemala, that's double the rate of murders per capita than in neighbouring Mexico and higher than the murder rate during the civil war. A recent report from the Interational Crisis Group sums up the situation neatly.

Guatemala has become a paradise for criminals, who have little to fear from prosecutors owing to high levels of impunity. An overhaul of the security forces in the wake of the peace accords created an ineffective and deeply corrupt police. High-profile assassinations and the government’s inability to reduce murders have produced paralysing fear, a sense of helplessness and frustration. In the past few years, the security environment has deteriorated further, and the population has turned to vigilantism as a brutal and extra-institutional way of combating crime. (IGC, “Guatemala: Squeezed Between Crime and Impunity” 22 June, 2010)

It would be simplistic and unfair to reach the conclusion that things were better during the war. A recent report by the Alliance for the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights in Guatemalan (UDEFEGUA) notes that little by little grassroots social movements are successfully pushing for changes in Guatemala's political and economic system. Nevertheless, I have heard many express grudgingly that during the war there was terror, but terror had its rules. The military brought a diabolically order to the country that many yearn for in today's climate of seemingly random violence. A recent report by the Vanderbilt University based Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) asked if a military coup was justified in view of crime, 53% of the population polled said yes.

Yet crime in Guatemala is not so random as it seems; much of it is tied to illicit criminal activity, political corruption, and private industry. Years after the signing of the Peace Accords, human rights defenders are increasing using their freedom of expression to denounce endemic state corruption, racial and sexual discrimination, and the unjust distribution of land in Guatemala. But these same human rights defenders often become targets of a campaign of disinformation and criminalization that seeks to discredit or co-opt them. UDEFEGUA notes that years after the end of the war, human rights defenders continue to be smeared as “guerrilleros” (guerillas), “terroristas” (terrorists), “pajeros”, “desestabilizadores” (destabilizers) y “defensores de delincuentes. (defenders of delinquents)”. These personal attacks often pave the way for eventual prosecution in the courts. One key observation of the UDEFEGUA report is that intimidation and criminalization intensified when human rights defenders threaten the interests of private companies. But I suppose that this is hardly a surprise for any of us familiar with Goldcorp's activities in defence of the Marlin Mine.

In a telling reflection on how little has changed in Guatemala since the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, agrarian conflicts between private companies and indigenous-campesinos remain among the most contentious issues in the country. Between 2004 and 2009, 323 human rights defenders were criminalized or threatened in their fight for a more equitable distribution of land in Guatemala. During this period, about 98 human rights defenders were criminalized in their fight for indigenous rights and 70 union leaders were also attacked for criticizing Guatemala's terrible labour standards. In this context Leocadio Juracan of the CCDA, a vocal indigenous-campesino leader fighting for equitable distribution of land and better labour standards, is a particularly vulnerable target for criminalization and threats.

In this country, political intimidation can't easily be linked back to political interests, military factions or private companies. Instead, shadowy networks of gangs, social cleansing groups, ex-military members, and narco traffickers have all become perpetrators of violence. In a sea of unchecked criminality, it's incredibly difficult to understand where death threats might be coming from and even more difficult to push the government to investigate and prosecute cases of intimidation and outright murder. Perhaps this is why the newspapers are consumed with daily machinations of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. In recent months they have been able to break a number of high level cases of political corruption implicating high level officials in money laundering, drug running, the assassination of prisoners, etc. But while the internationally funded CICIG has made headway in investigating high level cases of political crime and corruption, it has done very little to investigate the dizzying numbers of threats and murders facing human rights defenders in Guatemala. For change to happen, for peace to truly blossom human rights defenders need to be given room to express themselves without living in a constant state of fear. While CICIG helps to clean up Guate's government they ignore the social sector; in doing so they ignore the systemic reasons for raging corruption and violence in this beautiful country. That is the organized intimidation of and discrimination against indigenous and campesino leaders who are fighting for a more equitable distribution of land and basic labor standards. Even if overt criminality were purged from the government tomorrow, most Guatemalan's would still live in grinding poverty. The minimum daily wage of 56 Q, for example, only covers about 57% of basic living expenses. What's worse is that most companies only pay 30 to 35 Q, and take extreme measures to avoid paying any sort of benefits. The result is that about 2 million Guatemalan's live in extreme poverty (not being able to afford even basic food, never mind shelter) and about half of Guatemalan's (6.6 million) can't afford basic living expenses like housing, transportation, schooling, etc. In this context, social leaders and community groups ought to be able to advocate for real and substantive changes in this country without fearing for their lives.

I end where I began, on the roads ringing the beautiful Lago Atitlan. I was running errands with the CCDA's driver the other day; picking up wood for the new medical clinic, getting supplies that the workers needed to finish building the second level of the coffee beneficio, and ferrying a Canadian delegation from Santiago to San Lucas. In the afternoon heat of San Lucas, the driver and I waited with windows open for the mechanic to return from his lunch break. We chatted about family, friends, and joked a bit about love and girlfriends. As we chatted, a woman walked by clutching the hand of her small daughter. The driver leaned over to me and told me in hushed tones that her husband—a prominent local doctor—was killed a few weeks ago. I asked why, and he shrugged, shook his head, and told me he didn't know for sure. There were rumours that it was a crime of passion, a jealous act of vengeance perhaps. She passed and we stopped talking. I thought about her and her daughter for some time afterward. I thought about Santiago and the war, about San Lucas and it's current problems with social cleansing and drug trafficking. I'm still thinking about all of this, to be honest. But it seems to me that the peace park in Santiago and the mourning mother in San Lucas represent the old war and the new war, respectively.

Rumours leave no legacies, and few memories. Perhaps this doctor's death had nothing to do with politics, and perhaps it did. But with a paltry 2% of murder cases successfully prosecuted in Guatemala nobody will likely ever know for sure. A 2008 study found that 58% of victims didn't even report crimes to the police, because most felt that it didn't do any good. Since there are few meaningful investigations and prosecutions, grisly headlines in the national dailies serve as the only public legacy of most murders. The newspapers list causes of death that are various and shifting—gangs, narcos, jealousy and delinquency. Most don't mention systemic inequality and spell-binding poverty as the real reason for Guate's surging murder rate and social unrest. Most don't mention that systemic violence and perpetual fear serve the interests of the rich and political elite quite nicely by allowing for the intimidation of labour and indigenous leaders. Leaders who fight to improve the quality of life of their communities so that the poor can live with dignity. So I find myself wondering, if the post-conflict era ever ends who will build a peace park to remember the thousands who are dying in this country every year? Every day dozens of families carry out private ceremonies of grief and remembrance to honour the memories of their dearly beloved. The newspapers treat these deaths as individual tragedies, and so families are isolated in their grief. These are not isolated tragedies but rather the senseless result of a system that feeds on human tragedy and misfortune to enrich a very select elite. How do you remember these deaths and acknowledge that many died—were sacrificed—so that others could profit and live lavishly?