Official Guatemala

The visit of Canada’s Governor General provided a glimpse into “official Guatemala.” Before lunch at the Palace I was told to stay clear of the windows in the adjoining room because protesters were being evicted from the street below. Taking advantage of the concentration of security personnel, a little palatial “tidy-up” was in order. The salon where we met under a massive chandelier—two and a half tons of Czech crystal, bronze and gold—was adorned with stained glass windows depicting the Spaniards on one side and pre-Colombian natives on the other with not much mixing between. On one side “nosotros,” on the other “ellos.” Two exceptions to this Apartheid. Mestizos were depicted along with creoles learning from priests in the second university established in the Americas (the San Carlos, in Antigua). And the leader of the Kaqchiquel Indians was depicted making an alliance with Don Pedro Alvarado against his Mayan brethren.

In the soft light filtered through these windows we gathered with the President and his wife, leaders of the supreme court and congress, ministers and vice-ministers, ambassadors, and the GG’s retinue. The GG, fresh from a visit to Mexico where she reportedly inspired President Calderon to break into song, has a powerful effect on people. President Colom was evidently smitten. He gave the sort of somnambulistic discourse that falls so soft on the ears, and is so lacking in a point or purpose as to deprive the brain of any possibility of actually understanding let alone remembering what was said. The GG, on the other hand, gave a speech that was quite beautiful and touching, if equally lacking in any hardness or substance. The take away message seemed to be “we believe in Guatemala.”

Back at my table the conversation was a little more pointed. There was much grousing among Guatelaman officials about the unwillingness of the benighted local elite to pay taxes, their indifference to the need for a stronger state—nay, their preference for one that is weak and corrupt—the need for social policy, to educate the masses and other worthy goals. But when the conversation turned to Canadian mining, the blame fell squarely on the NGOs that are dividing Guatemalans against each other and stirring up complaints where otherwise there would be none.

And then it was over, and there was a hasty march to the motorcade. Curious pedestrians watched as a fleet of SUVs and buses and armed soldiers raced off the next meeting, and then went back to their Christmas shopping, enjoying the book fair in the Plaza de la Constitucion, or playing chess in the open air. The protesters had been cleared from the front of the balance and a new security perimeter extended. Progress had been made.

Follow the GG’s visit here.

In a forensic lab, a learning moment

The forensic laboratory in the Centro de Analisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas (CAFCA) is a small brightly-lit room with flat white tables upon which forensic anthropologists piece together skeletal remains. Their goal is to determine the sex, height, and age of the deceased, data that are combined with information about the site of the exhumation and testimony from affected communities in order to determine the victim’s identity. Over 200,000 people were killed during the armed conflict in Guatemala, and 40,000 to 60,000 “disappeared.” The CAFCA laboratory has already contributed to identifying over 580 people, a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the genocide, but each skeleton is what remains of a person who can be returned to their communities for burial so that family and friends can grieve. Each victim of a massacre entitles members of his or her community to reparations, so that the bones, properly identified, can trigger judicial processes. They might even one day contribute to bringing perpetrators to justice. One day. To date there have been precious few trials of human rights crimes, none of high ranking officers.

We crowd into the laboratory. There is a little nervous giggling. We could be in an anatomy class. Miguel Angel Morales Reyes, chief of the forensic program in CAFCA, starts to explain his work. It begins to sink in that we are in the presence of a young man, a Mayan Indian, killed with a bullet to the head in 1982. After Morales finishes his description of how remains are identified he says “now I would like to ask you a question.” He then describes an exhumation of 17 bodies, each of which had a machete knife blow to the neck. The skeleton with the least trauma has 2 cuts, the one with the most had 17 cuts. “What kind of human being would do that?” There is silence. “Not really a human being” ventures one student. “Perhaps someone who had been involved in many other massacres.” Madness and bloodlust seem to be the best explanations. Morales then tells us the story that was recounted by the community. It was a remarkable learning moment for us all.

The army came into the village and an informant identified 17 people as subversives. The soldiers rounded up the remaining villagers and told them it was their job to “clean up” their own community. They then forced the villagers to kill their own friends and families. There we stood, in that room filled with bones, imagining a community forced to kill its own family and friends. Discussion ensued. What kind of justice is possible, when the lines between perpetrators and victims are blurred? In this case, would not individualizing responsibility merely add to the grief? While those truly responsible have eluded justice, many communities have had to learn to live together knowing that there has been impunity for those responsible and that perpetrators walk among them and are also victims.

In vivid and lucid presentations by Hector Soto, the Director of CAFCA, and William Ramirez, of the Justice Education Society in Guatemala, we glimpsed some of the ways in which the absolute impunity that reigns in Guatemala, coupled with the persistence of the conditions that led to the violence in the first place, has prevented the society from overcoming its collective post-traumatic stress. It is also present-traumatic stress, since violence and impunity continue today, and follow the same modalities and patterns as before (the rape and dismembering of women, for example), even as it has evolved into forms of violence and impunity that are less directly political (gang violence, drug-trafficking, corruption and criminality in the very highest levels of government).

Guatemala City Dump

Today we visited the Guatemala City dump. We passed “El Gallito,” a part of town controlled by drug traffickers, as we made our way to the municipal cemetery which overlooks the dump. This was a place used by death squads during the internal armed conflict. They would kill “subversives” and throw them into the ravine at the dump. We stood there and watched a microcosm of the great injustices that afflict Guatemala.

According to our expert guide, Fredy Maldonado, 3,000 people work in the dump everyday, and 21,000 live in the surrounding barrio. They now have to pay to get into the dump to scavenge, and the truck drivers take bribes to let certain people have first dibs. Municipal workers patrol the dump, earning about $300 per month. The stench of methane and sulphur penetrates nostrils and irritates skin. Worms, bugs, rats infest this world that Dickens or Hugo would have trouble doing justice (and I can’t even begin to convey). Nobody is allowed to live in the dump any more: too many areas collapsed taking the pickers with them, smothering them in garbage. Under the dump are subterranean rivers. Pickers can get about one dollar for 100 lbs of plastic. Many bring the garbage back to their homes to sort and sell. Earnings are lower now that the economy is slumping–there is less interest in recycled material.

After witnessing this horror, we visited a child care centre and school organized by a non-profit called Safe Passage that has done a remarkable job of taking kids, mothers and fathers in the neighborhood and giving them the chance to learn basic reading and math skills. They make jewelry from recycled material. So we did some Christmas shopping. This year I will read Dicken’s description of want and ignorance in A Christmas Carol with some new and vivid images in mind.

After the visit to the dump we return to class and watched “Manos de Madre,” a documentary about the people who work in the dump who have been involved in Safe Passage.

To learn more about Safe Passage, go here.

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