Guatemala

Can These Bones Live?

The spirit of the Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. —Ezekiel 37:1-2

IT IS A March morning in Guatemala City: sunny, cool, windy. I walk down a dry, dusty lane, out along a finger of land jutting perilously between ravine and ravine. To one side, vultures circle in lazy spirals on the updraft, watching everything down below—waiting. We are near the garbage dump and the slums that surround it. Here, on the road through La Verbena cemetery, hospital waste trucks rumble by; when they reach the end they tip their pile down into the valley.

I am early, so I walk slowly, kicking stones through the rows of niche tombs, stacked five high, artificial flowers drooping down. I pass some of the nicer mausoleums, and then I am among the graves in the scrub grass, markers tilted over or gone. Some are simple piles of dirt; others are human-sized hollows, where the bodies have been removed and dumped into the bone pits.

I stand outside a cement block wall, papered with the faces of the disappeared. A few young staff members arrive and wait as well, under pine trees that are blowing wildly now, this way and that. They eye me, but we say nothing.

The “disappeared” stare at me from the abyss of silence. Many are women, their hair and clothes out of style now. The men sport moustaches from the 1980s. I imagine each one grabbed by murderers, thrown into a van, driven somewhere dark, filthy, disgusting, sticky with blood, urine, and feces. The women are raped, the men too, and all of them mutilated, burned, or electrocuted, and finally killed. Some are then brought here and buried.

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Justice Delayed

During the Central American wars of the 1980s, nearly 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. The bloodiest period came during the presidential term of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, when entire villages were burned and civilians, primarily indigenous people, were massacred.

Rios Montt was a graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas and received millions of dollars in military aid from the U.S. He was also an evangelical/Pentecostal minister and a darling of the Religious Right.

We Are Family! (Get Up Everybody and Sing!)

218097_19360164080_551149080_224360_2855_nCould my mission really be confined to seeking the best for the children to whom I gave birth? Or, as a Christian, should I define "family" more broadly? I'd see images of women and children suffering around the world, and those puzzling verses returned to my mind. Maybe, instead of obsessing over the happiness of my babies, I should stick my head out of the window, so to speak, look around, and ask, "Who is my family?"

It didn't feel right to simply shrug my shoulders and blithely accept my good fortune as compared to that of people born into extreme poverty. I'd buy my kids their new school clothes and shoes and then think of mothers who did not have the resources to provide their children with even one meal a day. I'd wonder: what's the connection between us? Does the fact that $10 malaria nets in African countries save whole families have anything to do with my family buying a new flat-screen TV? Should it? Is there any connection between me, a suburban, middle class mom, and women around the world?

Tattoos and Bright Lights

Sitting on a concrete floor in the middle of the prison gang sector’s hallway, I am surrounded by some of Guatemala’s most infamous young criminals. They are squatting along the walls and leaning out of their cell doors to listen. Their faces, heads, necks, shoulders, arms, and bodies are covered in tattoos. Mayan symbols, American terms in gang lettering, and haunting images of horror and death. Much of the ink covers the distorted tissue of stab and bullet wounds.

The Spanish New Testament is folded back in my hand to the end of Acts 7, and we’re about to see if there’s a connection between the story written in these pages and the ones written on their bodies and in their memories.

As a young American gang chaplain, I’ve been brought here by a team of ex-gang members who are now lay chaplains. Some are tattooed themselves, and they go back into the several gang prisons in and around Guatemala City with the gospel, risking their lives to build relationships of love and trust with the widely hated and feared pandilleros—members of street gangs.

We start the Bible study with a scene familiar to them: a street execution. While Stephen is being stoned by a mob, a young man stands behind the killers, watching.

“How many of you,” I ask, “have seen bloodshed—maybe murder—like this with your own eyes?” They smile at each other, as if I were joking. “Before you were in a gang,” I add, “when you were little.” Some tell how their families were dragged out of their homes by the police during the civil war in the ’80s. Many witnessed their families shot, execution-style, by the anticommunist regime.

The day before, in a forensic anthropology lab, I saw warehoused cardboard boxes full of bones exhumed from the mass graves still being uncovered. Some of my listeners in prison fled north to the United States as children after seeing young women raped, men decapitated, or homes burned by their government.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2009
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From Torture to Truth

Sister Dianna Ortiz was kidnapped and tortured by Guatemalan security forces in November 1989 while serving as a missionary there. She has spent the ensuing years trying to recover from the experience as well as get answers from the U.S. and Guatemalan governments about the identity of "Alejandro," an American involved in her kidnap and torture.

As I improve, I have faith and hope and trust again, on my good days. But even on my good days, the smell of cigarette smoke reminds me of the burns the torturers inflicted on me. The sight of a man in uniform reminds me of the Policeman. I jump if someone runs up behind me, and if someone stands too close or stares at me, I back away. I sleep with the light on. I ask people not to smoke, not to stare, not to talk about torture tactics in front of me, and not to invite me to movies that are violent. Some people, because I make these requests, have accused me of having "an ungodly need to control." That's the way it is, and I imagine that's the way it will always be. I've learned to avoid situations that bring back the pain—on my good days, when I'm feeling assertive.

On my bad days I still say I should have died back in that prison, before I had to be used to inflict pain, before I had to make a choice about another human being's life or death. I still wish I had died.

Not everyone reacts to torture like I did. As my college English teacher has told me, I was a "fragile" person to start with, an artistic type who would write poems on my exams and sit on the hillside writing songs with my guitar. Not everyone is like me.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2003
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When Secrets Kill

My husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, or "Everardo," was a Mayan leader of the resistance movement in Guatemala for some 17 years. He was captured alive by the Guatemalan military on March 12, 1992. Because of his extensive information and experience, army intelligence officials decided to subject him to long-term torture to break him psychologically and force him to talk. In order to avoid international human rights outcry, the officers falsely announced that he had been killed in combat.

I learned of Everardo's true plight when a young prisoner escaped in early 1993. I spent the next several years attempting to save my husband's life, including three dangerous hunger strikes. Throughout this period, I met repeatedly with State Department officials, who assured me, as well as Congress, that they had no information but would do everything they could to help. In March 1995 I learned that Everardo had been executed without trial by a Guatemalan officer who was also a paid CIA informant.

In the ensuing uproar, a number of government files were declassified and additional witnesses came forward. The reports show that the CIA had indeed informed the State Department some six days after Everardo's capture that he was a prisoner in army hands and that the military would probably falsify his death in order to better take advantage of his intelligence value.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2002
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A Righteous Light

Jennifer Harbury's eight-year fight for justice in the death of her husband, Guatemalan resistance leader Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, has ended in victory. Last December the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States found the Guatemalan military guilty of secret detention, torture, and "extrajudicial execution" as well as obstruction of justice in Bamaca's case. "Despite everything, I draw great hope and inspiration from this powerful court decision," said Harbury. "This ruling applies to military officials throughout the Americas, including the United States. I hope that our own CIA reflects deeply on this legal mandate."

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2001
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Human Rights Assaulted in Guatemala, Colombia

Despite presidential apologies and lip service to human rights, the Clinton administration continues to offer aid to the Guatemalan and Colombian militaries despite their records of abuse and support of paramilitary death squads.

Congressional concern over human rights blocked the Clinton administration's attempt last July to restore U.S. military training for Guatemala. But according to Alice Zachmann of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission USA, the United States still needs to press for implementation of human rights guarantees in the 1996 peace accords that ended the country's armed conflict nearly four years ago.

"The situation is rather critical right now," says Zachmann. "Anyone who's doing anything to bring the military to justice is being attacked and threatened."

In 1999 President Clinton apologized for past U.S. support of repressive Guatemalan regimes, but many activists fear that the same pattern of abuse is being replayed in Colombia. As in Guatemala, the vast majority of the atrocities in Colombia are committed by right-wing paramilitaries with tacit support from the military. In spite of this, the Clinton administration waived human rights conditions on Colombia's $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid.

"This is the wrong policy and the wrong time," José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division told Mother Jones magazine. "The message is that the bad apples in the armed forces shouldn't be worried. Ultimately, the waiver defeats the purpose of any policy meant to improve human rights." For more information, visit www.wola.org.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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Justice Remains Elusive in Guatemala

Celvin Galindo, the prosecutor investigating the murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, has fled to the United States for fear of his life. Bishop Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in April 1998, two days after presenting "Guatemala: Nunca Mas" ("Guatemala: Never Again," released in English by Orbis Books in October), a report from the Guatemalan Catholic human rights office that found government forces responsible for the overwhelming majority of atrocities committed during that country’s armed conflict.

Death threats against Galindo had intensified as he awaited DNA test results possibly implicating military officers in the bishop’s murder. Galindo admitted being "frustrated at not reaching the end [of the case], but I believe that, in reaching the end of the case, I would run a very great risk."

His exodus follows that of a judge who abandoned the case and the country after only a month, and witnesses—including a former military officer—who fled to Canada after offering testimony showing military involvement in the murder.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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