¿Dónde están? Saturday in Guatemala City

As I prepare for a journey with friends to an area that was afflicted by the violence and repression in Guatemala’s long civil war, I’ve been walking a lot in the capital city – and taking some photos.
Reminders of the war are everywhere.
One of the places I pass frequently is the ruined building shown above. It’s at 7ª Avenida and 4ª  Calle in Zona 2, a kilometre or so north of the city’s main plaza. I don’t know what the building was used for (and if I ever learn, I’ll correct this post), but today it is plastered with posters about the murdered and the disappeared. I found other posters on 6ª Avenida just a few blocks away. Here below are some stories that I have been able to piece together that will give you a sense of what Guatemalans faced in those horrific years.
Adelina Caal, a Kekchi woman known as Mamá Maquín, was legendary for her struggles for the land and against economic exploitation. She was born in 1915, and together with her family moved from Carchá to the Polochic River valley in search of land. They obtained a piece of land on a farm called La Soledad, Panzós.
At Panzós, Mamá Maquín developed strong leadership in rural mobilizations for access to land, while promoting the organization and participation of women. She also promoted cultural activities of the Kekchi people. For all this, she enjoyed recognition and leadership in the campesino communities of the region. On May 29, 1978 Adelina Caal led the march that culminated in the Panzós massacre. 
The Panzós massacre was the machine-gunning of Kekchi Indigenous people carried out on May 29, 1978, by members of the Guatemalan Armed Forces. Including Mamá Maquín, at least 53 men, women and children died – the message in the photo above says 100 – and another 47 were wounded.
To honour the memory of Mama Maquín, an organization of Indigenous and campesina women bears her name. They had returned from refuge in Mexico during the armed conflict, and, together with other organizations, have been pioneers in the fight for women’s right to ownership and co-ownership of land.

The large poster on the left shows Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. He was 14 years old when he was taken from his family’s home on October 6, 1981. He is one about 5,000 children who are among the 50,000 people who were disappeared in the years of conflict: those in addition to the 200,000 killed. About a week before Marco Antonio disappeared, his sister Emma Guadalupe – a member of a labour-focused youth organization – had been detained. After beatings, sexual assaults, interrogations and torture, she escaped from the military base in Quetzaltenango where she had been held. The forced disappearance of Marco Antonio is considered a reprisal for Emma’s escape and for the family’s political activity. 
The large poster on the right shows Jorge Alberto Rosal Paz y Paz, a 28-year-old agronomist in the eastern department of Zacapa. On Aug. 12, 1983, he was driving between the cities of Zacapa and Teculután when he was stopped by men in an army jeep. Though dressed in civilian clothing, witnesses said they were soldiers because of the jeep and the heavy weapons they were carrying. 
This is Gustavo Adolfo Meza Soberanis, medical doctor and surgeon, member of the Organización del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA), kidnapped by the army in Ciudad Nueva, Zona 2, on September 7, 1983. His is one of the cases recorded by the army in its infamous “Diario Militar,” which also shows that he was executed on February 7, 1984. But there is no indication of what was done with the body. Hence the question, ¿Dónde estás? Where are you?

Option for the Poor: the Life and Witness of Bishop Juan Gerardi

The “Nunca Más” (Never Again) poster has always fascinated me. The images are from the covers of the four volumes of the REMHI report. A young man is shown covering his mouth, his eyes, his ears and then finally shouting. His image is shown superimposed over an unchanging image of a pelvic bone (but it looks like the wings of an angel).

Jim Hodgson

After being away for three years, I have returned to Guatemala to join a small Breaking the Silence team that will be looking into just one of a myriad of land conflicts that continue to afflict this country’s most impoverished people. I’ll write more about that in days and weeks ahead. 

For now, I want to share some thoughts about the life and witness of Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera(1922-1998), a man that I never met but whose friends have influenced me for decades.

From deep inside my venerable laptop, I found notes that I prepared on April 24, 2004, the sixth anniversary of his presentation of the report of the Catholic Church’s three-year Recuperation of the Historic Memory (REMHI) project entitled, Guatemala: Nunca Más (Guatemala: Never Again).

Gerardi was born in the Guatemalan capital in 1922. His biography says that at age 12, he “insisted firmly” that he wanted to enter seminary and to become a priest. His ordination came at age 24 in 1946. Over the next 20 years, he served as parish priest in several small communities and thus came to know the lives of Indigenous people and small farmers. 

In 1967, he was named bishop of La Verapaz, a diocese that lacked economic resources but was rich in human resources. He worked with the Indigenous communities and organized courses for catechists, Indigenous pastoral accompaniment, and the movement of Delegates of the Word of God. Together, they organized liturgies in the Kekchi language.

In 1974, he was named bishop of El Quiché, and that trajectory is better known. This was in the time that violence was increasing. In 1980, after the massacre of protesters in the Spanish embassy, military repression increased in all of Quiché. Violence against the priests and other pastoral agents of the diocese was so extreme that the decision was taken to close the work of the diocese. (See the image below of my 1985 article about the Guatemalan Church in Exile.)

Almost two decades later, he would present the REMHI report. After his own time in exile and return to Guatemala in 1982, he was named auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala in 1984, and that is where he worked to create the Office of Human Rights of the archdiocese (ODHAG), and where he began the work of REMHI.

Francisco Goldman’s excellent book (left) has been made into an equally-fine HBO documentary. On April 26, Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini (white shirt, centre) led the march from the garage where Bishop Gerardi was murdered to the cathedral where he is buried. (Photo: La Hora).

Bishop Gerardi presented the report in the capital city’s Metropolitan Cathedral on April 24, 1998. This was 16 months after the peace accords had been signed, and in that context, the bishop said: 

“Within the pastoral work of the Catholic Church, the REMHI project is a legitimate and painful denunciation that we must listen to with profound respect and a spirit of solidarity. But it is also an announcement. It is an alternative aimed at finding new ways for human beings to live with one another. When we began this project, we were interested in discovering the truth in order to share it. We were interested in reconstructing the history of pain and death, seeing the reasons for it, understanding the why and how. We wanted to show the human drama and to share with others the sorrow and the anguish of the thousands of dead, disappeared and tortured. We wanted to look at the roots of injustice and the absence of values….

“Years of terror and death have displaced and reduced the majority of Guatemala to fear and silence. Truth is the primary word, the serious and mature action that makes it possible for us to break this cycle of death and violence and to open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all…. Peace is possible – a peace that is born from the truth that comes from each one of us and from all of us. It is a painful truth, full of memories of the deep and bloody wounds of this country. It is a liberating and humanizing truth that makes it possible for all men and women to come to terms with themselves and their life stories. It is a truth that challenges each one of us to recognize our individual and collective responsibility and commit ourselves to action so that those abominable acts never happen again.”

While the report does not claim to include all the violations committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, it documents 55,000 violations of human rights. A little over 48 hours after the presentation, Bishop Gerardi was killed. Perhaps more than any other event, this assassination highlighted the fragile state of human rights and the peace process in Guatemala. 

One of those present in the Cathedral for the presentation was the Very Rev. Robert Smith, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada there on behalf of the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America. Bob wrote later about the great bells of the Metropolitan Cathedral ringing that day. He wrote that telling the truth about the genocide is essential to creating a new society: without this, “there can be no possibility of justice, healing or reconciliation.”

“Shockingly,” he added, “no more than five days later the great bells of the Metropolitan Cathedral were ringing again, this time as devastated Guatemalans followed the funeral casket…. Well, they can silence Bishop Juan Gerardi, beloved human rights defender and martyr. But they can’t un-ring the bells that barely a week ago celebrated the truth that some in the shadows of power do not want told. The sound of those bells – arrhythmic and at times discordant – is nonetheless the sound of un-utterable courage and unquenchable hope.”

In 1985, I wrote for Catholic New Times about the Iglesia Guatemalteca en Exilio — the Guatemalan Church in Exile — a group from Quiché that I met in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Repression in the department had become so fierce that the Catholic diocese of Santa Cruz del Quiché (led then by Bishop Gerardi) had closed its churches and withdrawn its personnel. You can find a beautiful profile of Fr. Luis Gurriarán (in the photo above) here (in Spanish).

Antidotes to neocolonial “development” in Central America

Santa Marta’s school, church and a greenhouse

Following on my post yesterday about the Biden Plan: what would it take for a development plan to work for Central Americans? We need to unwrap that word “development.”

Over many years, it has been my joy to work with organizations created by people in the region who talk about their aspirations in ways that are different from the White House or the World Bank.

In May 2018, I found myself in conversation with one of the founders of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES) in the northern part of Cabañas department in El Salvador. ADES sometimes describes itself as a “social movement that is organized as a non-governmental organization” (NGO).

I asked one of the founders, Alonso, about the word “development” in the organization’s name. In response, he gave me what he called the “A-B-C-D of all of this.” The roots of community organization in the area were in the growth of base Christian communities (CEBs) in the 1960s and 70s, he said. Because of persecution during the civil war in the 1980s, the people of Santa Marta fled to Honduras. As the war came to an end in the late 80s and early 90s, and as the people of Santa Marta returned in October 1987, ways had to be found for the people “to defend themselves” against local and national governments. Alonso said: 

“We had to create conditions for life. We wanted development in rural areas. We sought water, land, health. Later, this was organized in a more intentional way [with the creation of ADES in 1992]. The first thing we did was to build a community centre for events, parties, weddings, and meetings.” 

Over time, people—especially women—began to see different possibilities for changing their conditions. Women began a small store that they owned cooperatively. Other projects began and spun off: micro-credit, community radio, the regional AIDS committee CoCoSI, among others. The United Church of Canada and the Anglican Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund were supporters from the outset. Alonso added: 

“For us development means to improve a the conditions of the people a little bit: having water in the communities, sharing land, getting access to health care and education, and transportation.”

Today, formal education is one of Santa Marta’s great successes. More than 100 people graduate from high school each year. ADES continues to lead in agricultural development and training in northern Cabañas. Even so, about half of the young grads choose to leave each year to continue their educations or to work in other cities, but they leave with a huge educational advantage.

Leaders of ADES in 2016

Throughout Central America, churches and NGOs support a wide variety of initiatives that benefit small farmers, emphasizing good ecological practice including reforestation. They also work to strengthen the voices of women in community and in their churches.

The challenges are growing. Climate change has meant both prolonged drought and more severe storms, including two hurricanes this past November. Part of the problem, especially in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, is high levels of violence that is partly related to the illegal drug trade and to the growth of street gangs. Those are factors leading to migration away from the region. 

In the face of violence in El Salvador, churches work to build a “culture of peace.” For example, Emmanuel Baptist Church (IBE) in San Salvador backs a program for youth led by youth. In a meeting in June 2019, 17-year old Laura said: “The way to achieve peace at the national level is to start from what is small. Begin with childhood. If someone beats a child, tell them not to, that’s not good. You have to treat them the way you want to be treated.” Peace, then, is the way of non-violence, providing people with the skills they need so they need so as not to be subject to the logic of the gangs. 

“Perhaps we are just a few people,” said Laura’s friend Michelle, also 17. “But if we come together, not just as church, not just as school, not just activists, but everyone, and if the government would support us, peace can be achieved.”

Yes. And:

In a conversation around the same time with another friend, Jorge, a leader in Guatemala’s LGBTI community, I said that it seemed to me that the violence in some Central American countries had to do with the failure of the peace accords that ended the civil wars, and the failure to provide some sort of authentic development across the region. 

But Jorge replied: “No, in fact, it has all worked out exactly the way that the elites and the big business-owners wanted: people are fighting with each other, too afraid to raise their voices, and they are afraid of their neighbours.” 

In that sense, the work of ADES and IBE represents signs of a future still to be attained. Part of the logic of ADES was for the people to live as if they had won the war: land was re-distributed, people were empowered for change.

But on the larger scale, our efforts for peace and a more inclusive vision of human development were largely defeated by a U.S.-backed military strategy and then by the imposition of a toxic development model, the one that has resulted in incredibly high rates of violence and unconstrained migration toward Mexico and the United States.