¿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?

Fanning the fires of hope in Chiapas, still

There was one time when I was glad to see the riot place arrive: Sunday afternoon, February 19, 1995 in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas. 

For more than a week, Maya Indigenous people of the Chiapas highlands had protected their cathedral, the seat of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. On that Sunday afternoon, the feared attack had become real as a larger group of about 400 “auténticos coletos” (denoting descendants of the European settlers in the city) hurled stones: the settlers saw the Indigenous people as interlopers, the ones who had no business in the heart of their city.

The defenders stood three deep in scraggly lines surrounding the cathedral. They held flowers. Men, women and children, old and young, Indigenous and Mestizo, Mexican and foreign, held marigolds, lilies and carnations and wore white ribbons across their chests as they faced the attack. They endured the attack, holding blankets over their heads and trying to duck the stones. The woman next to me whispered prayers and repeatedly blessed the rock-throwers: “God, forgive them.”

The mob tried for more than an hour to storm into the cathedral and the diocesan office next to it. Finally, the riot squad arrived and traced a line between the two groups. The people on the steps cheered; the mob dispersed. In the meantime, at least five people, including two reporters, had been injured. 

For 10 days, ever since Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo pledged to capture the leaders of the rebel Zapatista army (EZLN), the people of this diocese had maintained a vigil around the cathedral and diocesan office. That building also housed the National Mediation Commission (CONAI), chaired by Bishop Ruiz and in session at the time of the attack.

Left: a view of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Right: a “wanted” poster that describes Bishop Ruiz variously as a traitor, existentialist, liberation theologian and Marxist – typical of the charges laid against him by his opponents over many years.

For more than a year, Ruiz had been at the centre of ecclesial and political controversies over his decades-long advocacy for and with Indigenous and impoverished people in Chiapas and his role as a mediator between the government and the Zapatistas. The EZLN uprising had begun on January 1, 1994, the day that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect.

Zedillo failed to capture Zapatista leaders, but instead arrested people who worked for community development organizations (notably Jorge Santiago of DESMI, Economic and Social Development of Mexican Indigenous Peoples). His army also achieved what it considered to be better strategic positions near the Zapatista communities. 

Over the subsequent year, CONAI’s mediation work continued and bore fruit: on February 16, 1996, the government and EZLN representatives signed an Agreement on Indigenous Culture and Rights in San Andrés Sakamch’en. It was not a comprehensive peace deal, but rather the first step in a planned process to address Indigenous rights in Chiapas and beyond. “It was the first time in Mexican history that the state had sat down with Indigenous people to hear their demands,” wrote La Jornada columnist Magdalena Gómez recently. Later that year, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) was created and continues its work today.

But from the government side, nothing happened! The first agreement has not been implemented; worse, the government negotiators essentially sabotaged a second round that was to address issues of democracy and justice, leading the EZLN to suspend the dialogue on September 4, 1996. It has not been renewed. The EZLN continues to press its cause in multiple public fora in Mexico and far beyond, and the communities persist in building a fairly successful example of Indigenous autonomy. 

Sadly, even the somewhat more progressive government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in power now for more than three years, has failed to move beyond what Gómez called “recycled, low-intensity, neo-Indigenous” policies of individual support and mega-projects without reference to the San Andrés Accords. 

A year ago, the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre in San Cristóbal said the San Andrés Accords persist as a framework and reference for the people of Chiapas. “The people who struggle will continue to fan the fire of hope, and history will give an account of this, because despite the war of extermination, the construction of autonomy gives light and fire to women and men throughout the world.”

Parts of this post are adapted from two of my articles published in Catholic New Times, March 5 and 19, 1995.

“I give you a flower,” says a t-shirt from Yajalón, Chiapas.