The Common Good
September-October 1995

Sorrow Lifted to the Heavens

by Minor Sinclair | September-October 1995

Reweaving Guatemala's violence-torn society.

The dirt road through the department of Baja Verapaz first winds through lush coffee country and then becomes a torturous mountain pass before descending into the district (and also town) of Rabinal, the not-so-lush and in fact desperately poor home to the Maya-Achí, one of the smallest of Guatemala's 23 different ethnic groups.

Through the generations, the Achí people have survived but never prospered. The mountain passes were never fully penetrated by government services and commerce, perpetuating the deep poverty of the Achís but allowing them to preserve their culture and language. They survived the conquest and modernization, when millions of indigenous across the Americas did not.

Four hundred and fifty years ago, Dominican priests made it through these same mountain passes, promising to conquer the Mayas with Catholic evangelism if the Spanish conquistadores would keep their swords sheathed. Fray Bartolóme de las Casas led the contingent of Dominican priests in settling the region, calling it las verapaces ("true peace").

In my first visit to Rabinal in 1994, the immense church built by de las Casas sagged and lay in disrepair. The mood in the marketplace was somber and the sounds normally associated with Guatemalan markets-squawking chickens, the raised voices of women praising their vegetables and offering specials-were absent. Deep suspicion pervaded between the ladinos (of mixed Mayan and Spanish descent) and the indigenous people, between each of the seven villages in the district and the town of Rabinal; in fact, practically between everybody.

During the 1980s in Rabinal, "the sinister surpassed any human comprehension," according to a local Dominican priest. A series of massacres, committed by the Guatemalan army or army-run civil defense patrols, annihilated nearly a quarter of the rural population there during a 32-month period in the early 1980s. At least one village, Río Negro, lost half of its entire population. It was one of the closest things to genocide that Latin America has known since the conquest of the 1500s.

Political violence always leaves deep wounds in a society, but the scope of the Rabinal killings (19 massacres in total) and the fact that the army used civil defense patrols as their instruments of terror have ensured continuing trauma. Every Rabinal village and most Rabinal families are made up of both the assassins and the assassinated.

Walking through the outdoor market, Jesús, an Achí friend from the village of Río Negro, points to the municipal building. "That was used as a torture chamber." He nods imperceptibly to a man leaning against a park bench. "He participated in the massacre against my village." We walk through the central plaza where 13 years ago, on independence day, Guatemalan troops and security agents fired on campesinos gathered for the occasion. Those who did not die in the plaza were captured and killed on the edges of town.

For the survivors, life is hard. The countless widows earn less than 75 cents per day by weaving straw mats. Children of the assassinated face a particularly bleak economic future. Suicide, virtually unheard of among the Mayas, is a common solution for those either ridden with loss or with guilt. The blanket of military impunity has been drawn so tightly that grieving over the dead, visiting their hidden graves, or even acknowledging that their deaths occurred are risks that few take.

During repeated visits to Rabinal and the surrounding villages over a six-month period in 1994 and 1995, I had the opportunity to listen to the stories of the survivors, to visit their homes, and to share part of their grief. Yet today, alongside such trauma, lies a hope for the future that is equally palpable. I could see the thread of life being rewoven in Rabinal, an area that was once called "a massive clandestine cemetery" by the Dominican priest.

This means a great deal for Guatemala, a country where 34 years of armed conflict-the longest running civil war in Latin America-has meant the loss of 150,000 civilian lives in political violence. As Guatemala prepares for its presidential elections in mid-November, four ex-generals are campaigning fervently-including former dictator Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, an evangelical preacher who from 1982 to 1983 used religion as a smokescreen to cover a reign of terror. Truth telling about the past has never been more important; combined with community solidarity, it can be a potent force to push back the darkness of military domination.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS the crisis affecting Guatemalan civilian institutions has deepened every year since 1986 when civilian leaders succeeded three decades of military-led governments. The congress and the courts are widely recognized as corrupt, and the executive branch is seen as ineffectual. In the last national elections, barely 20 percent of the electorate turned out to vote.

Recent disclosures have revealed the extent of U.S. support for the Guatemalan army despite its reputation as the most repressive military in Latin America. For years Guatemala's elite military officers have been trained in the United States, and at any given time dozens are on the CIA payroll. In 1990 when the U.S. Congress cut off military aid to Guatemala following the killing of U.S. citizen Michael Devine, the CIA stepped in and restored it dollar for dollar in payoffs to the Guatemalan military.

The present crisis has even pervaded the U.N.-brokered peace negotiations that at one point seemed to offer the chance for an end to the war and significant reforms for Guatemala's indigenous population. After six years of negotiating, only four agreements between the government and the Guatemalan guerrilla coalition known as the URNG have been signed (on human rights; the resettlement of displaced people; a Guatemalan-style "truth commission"; and, most recently, in March 1995, on the rights of indigenous peoples), and a final agreement does not appear imminent.

Mons. Juan Gerardi, the Catholic bishop who heads the archdiocesan human rights office, has criticized both the government and the guerrillas for "lacking political will," and in particular singled out the army for "resisting any change." The international community, too, is at fault for pressuring both sides to sign weak and ineffectual agreements. One of the greatest disappointments was the truth commission agreement. The U.N.-sponsored commission will not have legal authority to attribute responsibility for the crimes, and there is no mechanism for purging or prosecuting officers guilty of flagrant abuses.

"If you don't know the truth about what happened and who were the material and intellectual authors, there can be neither peace nor democracy," insisted Blanca Rosa, a leader of the Family Members of the Disappeared in Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) who lost her son and five other family members in the violence. Ninety percent of Guatemalan families, according to FAMDEGUA, have faced such losses.

In the district of Rabinal, most Achí villagers have never heard of the truth commission, or the Guatemalan Constitution for that matter. They do know, however, that local civil defense patrols, armed and directed by the army, committed the most brutal atrocities.

"It is very different for an army to kill a hundred people with assault weapons," said a local pastoral worker, "than it is for neighbors--with the army behind them--to kill other neighbors with ropes, plastic bags that suffocate, machetes, sticks, and shotguns."

"The result," according to Rolando Alecio, a Guatemalan anthropologist who researched the Rabinal massacres for two years, "is an excessive trauma that lasts generations, an inhumanity that is strategically calculated to destroy entirely the psyche within people and any sense of community."

Why civil patrollers would kill their neighbors and even their own family members is a complex question. Young men are either forced to serve in the army or the civil defense patrols or they join voluntarily out of fear (the region has three times the average military enlistment rate).

But the wall of military impunity is being broken down stone by stone in Rabinal, not because of government goodwill or international human rights pressure, but because of the insistent demands of the people to claim their dead and to calm the spirits of those buried without dignity.

TWO YEARS AGO, when summer rains washed away the dirt covering the shallow graves of the massacred near Río Negro, the survivors asked the priests to lead a Mass at that massacre site and at similar sites in surrounding villages. The pilgrimage through the killing fields lasted a week. "People cried and cried. Even the heavens could hear their sorrow," said one person who was present.

The next challenge for the survivors was to denounce the massacres publicly and ask the judge to issue an order for the legal exhumation of the remains of the victims. During an October 1994 visit to Plan de Sánchez, a village in the Rabinal area, I witnessed relatives of those massacred in 1982 gather on their way home from church for the removal of bone fragments, pieces of rotted clothing, and buttons from an open pit. Burnt paper shards from the Catholic church songsheet could been seen.

One tiny, older Achí woman leaned over and picked up the beads from what appeared to be a necklace near a fractured collarbone. She held the tiny beads and compared them to those worn around her neck. The two sets of beads, one worn shiny by constant use and the other discolored by the earth, were the same.

The trail of truth and culpability also stretches from the massacred villages near Rabinal to the world's most powerful financial institutions. In the late 1970s, the World Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank provided financing for the $1 billion construction of the Chixoy Dam, the largest hydroelectric plant in Central America. The dam itself was an engineering and financial boondoggle, generating an unpayable public debt in a country where only one-third of the population has electricity.

The reservoir waters of the dam were planned to inundate Río Negro and three other villages in the spring of 1982, but the villagers refused to give up their lands and their homes for what they saw as unfair compensation. With the land conflict brewing between the villagers and the National Institute of Electrification, the army ordered the massacres against the villages. Weeks later, dam waters silently rose, covering the remains of the abandoned and destroyed villages. The banks have never publicly acknowledged their role in the events that traumatized the Rabinal district.

BY THE TIME OF my last visit to Rabinal in March 1995, the mood had clearly changed. A 6-year-old boy approached me in the market to tell me about a Mass in the campo santo, the cemetery, the following day. "It is for the masacrados," the boy said quietly and slipped away. For the first time since the Río Negro massacre 13 years ago, the people commemorated the anniversary of their dead.

"Cristo fue masacrado en Río Negro" ("Christ was massacred in Río Negro") proclaimed the plaque fixed to the cement monument to the victims in the Rabinal cemetery. The monument itself was funded by the U.S. Campaign for Peace and Life in Guatemala. The names of the 177 victims were read aloud for all to hear, including the soldiers a stone's throw away. One widow stepped forward during the petitionary prayers to share her testimony and as the crowd drew in closer, the priest quietly wiped his tears. It became clear that the monument to the dead was dedicated as well to the living who refuse to live in silence and submission.

Days later, witnesses of the Río Negro massacre stepped forward to press charges against the civil defense patrol of Xococ, who had committed the atrocity. Five nearby communities likewise began to compile names of the killed and names of the killers to press for exhumations and prosecution against those responsible.

The survivors in Río Negro also formed the Committee of Widows and Orphans to press for their rights and the idea spread to other communities. Truth telling can no longer be restrained.

"There are no recipes about how to achieve peace for Guatemala," reflects Bishop Gerardi, but he recognizes that the demands of the indigenous people of Guatemala should provide the starting point.

"The indigenous have been denied access to justice and democracy for five centuries, yet they still keep knocking at the door," continued the monsignor. What better place to begin that process than in Rabinal, where the Maya-Achí, through heroic efforts of community solidarity and truth telling, have not forsaken the idea of a verapaz, "true peace."

MINOR SINCLAIR, formerly at EPICA (Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean) in Washington, D.C., is now working with Oxfam Canada in the Caribbean. For more information on the U.S. Campaign for Peace and Life in Guatemala, contact them c/o EPICA, 1470 Irving St. NW, Washington, DC 20010; (202) 332-0292.

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