This letter was mostly written on November 17, 2018. It contains non-graphic information about criminalization, police violence, and political prisoners.
As I watch the snow flurry about here in Duluth, I am thinking about you all. After over a year of sending out emails, the recipient list that you are on has grown to a full 252 people. You all are family, old friends I haven’t seen in years, passing acquaintances, past colleagues, and people I’ve only ever emailed. However I know you, I thank you for accompanying me from afar. I hope that wherever you are, you are warm and with people who bring you joy.
At 5 am on Tuesday morning I will arrive in Guatemala City to start work as a Communications Fellow for NISGUA, Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, the same organization through which I volunteered as an accompanier. The position is new to me and new to NISGUA; this will be our first fellowship ever! I will write articles, maintain the website, manage social media, translate interviews, and continue to build relationships of trust and mutual solidarity with our Guatemalan partners. As opposed to accompaniment, in which I mostly provided a physical presence to dissuade violence, as a fellow I will focus on carrying the stories of struggle and resistance back home. The hope is to dissuade violence by educating and mobilizing people to fight the foreign policies and multinational corporations that cause it in the first place.
Once again, I am able to volunteer with NISGUA thanks to the generosity of my family and friends (and a couple people I’ve only ever emailed!). In the last month forty people donated and raised $2945! Grassroots fundraising does it again: many people creating possibility by sharing hope and small amounts of money. Thank you, thank you! If you feel moved to donate at any time in the next year, the site will stay up.
In my first email to you all, way back in September of 2017, I wrote about the criminalization of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in the Twin Cities following the murder of the Philando Castile. Like dozens, if not hundreds of other people, I eventually had to accept a continuance for dismissal for the two misdemeanors against me. A couple of weeks later, several of the few defendants who were able to wait two years without taking a plea deal went to court and were almost all found not guilty. A week later, the prosecutor dismissed the charges against the 17 remaining defendants, saying that it was not a good use of city funds to prosecute the remaining defendants given that they were likely to be found not guilty. Three cases were not dismissed against people who the state saw as organizers. One of those three was found guilty, one not guilty, and one will be tried on December 12, a stunning two and a half years after they were arrested.
So, let’s sum all that up. People exercising a constitutionally protected right were arrested, many of them traumatized by being manhandled by the police. Over two hundred people then spend the next two years being dragged to multiple (in my case, four) pre-trials. This meant missing work, driving all over the state and country, and stressing about court orders.
Because of the hassle, people slowly get weeded out to plea deals, not because they think they are guilty nor because a judge would think they are guilty, but because they are poor, or made a mistake in the past, or are scared, or cannot keep missing work, or moved too far away. This case not only discriminated against poor people and people of color, it scared hundreds of politically active people off the streets. Most of them will probably come back, but what about those who don't? Do we want a country where people don't speak out for fear of charges that may not even hold up in court?
The Guatemalan government uses a more extreme practice that produces similar effects. It is called preventative prison and is used most often against indigenous and campesinx people who are defending their land against mega projects like mines and dams. It’s what it sounds like: the state accuses a movement leader of a crime they never committed, and imprisons them until their trial, which is often many months, if not years, later.
One high profile case of preventative prison is that of Bernardo Caal, a Maya Q’eqchi’ teacher from Santa María Cahabón in Alta Verapaz. Caal’s passion is teaching young children, but when Hatch Corps’ Oxec hydroelectric dam threatened the sacred and lifegiving Oxec River, he became a prominent water protector and community leader. In January of 2018 he was arrested on what many see as made up charges of aggravated robbery, aggravated illegal detention and instigating a crime.
I learned about Caal’s case at the general assembly of ACODET, the association of Maya Q’eqchi’, Mam, K’iche’, and Q’anjob’al communities that are in resistance against the Xalalá dam. There were about four hundred of us, slurping on beef soup in the grass around the community center. The jungle was beginning to chirp around us, and the evening light played games in the steam rising out of the boulder sized pots of soup. When the conversation turned to Caal, the organizers around us looked down sadly. Their eyes looked tired in a way that went deeper than the responsibility of organizing an event for hundreds of people.
“Here you go,” one of them said, pushing me his cellphone. On the screen was a picture of a handwritten letter in good schoolteacher print, good schoolteacher print that condemned the false imprisonment, the destruction of the rivers, the corruption of the state. Surrounded by the people of ACODET, I read one of Caal’s first letters, one of the many that were circulated around the country quietly, courageously, through WhatsApp messages and hushed, angry conversations.
Weeks later Caal was still writing his letters when a series of assassinations against environmental defenders in Guatemala horrified the world. Some of those same defenders have expressed to me a fear that the powers that be saw that imprisonment wasn’t enough with Caal, that assassinating people would be more efficient and effective.
With the very real possibilities of prison or death facing people to choose to protect their land, taking a stand is a hard choice to make. And yet, they do, everyday, against incredible odds and risks. In the case of ACODET, they have taken the risk and won everyday for over eleven years.
On November 9, 2018 Bernardo Caal was found guilty and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. He will miss his two children’s childhoods and his community will go without his leadership. Other people will step up. But they shouldn’t have to.
In August of 2017 the Q’eqchi’ people of Santa María Cahabón had already told the world what they think. Through a community consultation, an ancestral Mayan practice, 26,000 people voted, a turnout higher than any of the previous three presidential elections. 88% voted against the dams, and yet one of the many people implementing the people’s word will now spend the next seven years in prison. Caal continues to speak out from prison and condemn the brutality that he has faced. His resilience is an inspiration, and a reminder that the world cannot continue this way.
The ancestral Mayan practice of community consultations is under attack. Please read more and take action. ACODET, the leader of this action, is particularly asking for Indigenous people and organizations all across Turtle Island to sign on to their public statement directed at the Guatemalan government and diplomatic corps.
I am writing this quick note to encourage you to vote on Tuesday. I think that it is vital to do anything and everything we can right now to stop the fascism and racism that the Trump administration embodies from seizing more towards power. I also urge you to take action on Monday, Thursday, Saturday, and all the rest of the days of the year to help build a country where we don’t have to defensively vote out of fear of fascism and racism getting even worse.
These weeks have been terrifying. From the massacre of fellow Jewish folks in Pittsburgh to the murders of two Black people in Kentucky, to the growing threat of violence by troops and armed militias against peaceful refugees at the border with Mexico… white supremacy is hurting all of us. I am scared. I also know that there is a lot that we can do. Here are some ideas:
This article was originally published on October 1, 2018. It contained non-explicit references to assassinations against human rights defenders, genocide, and sexual assault.
I’m heartbroken to say that it has been an even more violent year than normal in Guatemala. 18 human right defenders have been assassinated thus far this year, 13 of whom were defending their land against natural resource extraction like dams and mines.
Two of the most recent assassinations have been against Ixil women, both named Juana, who both worked and organized in Nebaj, one of the places where I spent most of my time as an accompanier. One Juana was a 25 year old nurse and land defender in resistance against the violent system of privatized electricity in northern Quiché. The other was an elder, a midwife, and a founder of the Network of Ixil Women, an organization that fights for the rights of women survivors of the Ixil genocide. We honor the memories of Juana Ramírez Santiago and Juana Raymundo every time we defend women and the earth we give life to, the earth and the women she gives life to.
Guatemala is currently in the throws of a constitutional crisis that started when the right wing military-supported president, Jimmy Morales, refused to renew the mandate of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which had been investigating him for electoral fraud. It is worth noting that Morales ran on a campaign slogan of “neither a thief nor corrupt” after the Guatemalan people successfully pushed his predecessor, the equally right wing and military-supported president Otto Perez Molina, from power. For weeks indigenous, campesino, feminist, and student movements have taken to the streets to demand Morales’ resignation and an end to the police militarization that has invaded the country ever since Morales committed what many are calling a coup.
Finally, on Wednesday Guatemala’s high risk court released its sentence on the Maya Ixil genocide case that I accompanied during my time in Guatemala. The tribunal unanimously declared that the military committed genocide against Mayan people in Guatemala under the military dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982-1983. This is the second time in five years that a Guatemalan court has affirmed what survivors have been saying for nearly forty years: there was genocide in Guatemala. However, I am disheartened to say that the tribunal also declared José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, Head of Military Intelligence 1982-1983, not guilty. In her dissent to the 2-1 vote, Judge Sara Yuc declared “Who determined [the Ixil people] were the enemy? Who carried out the intelligence? HE DID!”
This week has been painful for me. It started with the news that Doña Juana Ramírez Santiago was assassinated, and plowed ahead with various public hearings about the Duluth City Council’s efforts to purchase of riot gear, which we all know will be used against water protectors in the growing struggle against Enbridge’s Line 3. The morning after listening to the high risk court deny a simple demand of justice from genocide survivors, I listened to the Senate Judiciary Committee deny a simple ask for justice by a survivor of sexual violence.
I know that many of you have been hurting this week also, and so I’d like to end by sharing the words of my dear friend Edwin. You may remember Edwin from my article about the genocide case, the elevator ride that I took with him, a survivor of massacres and the president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, the organization bringing the case forward. At the other end of the elevator was José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, author of the military plans that assassinated Edwin’s family and defendant in the case.
It was after midnight on Thursday morning, and I had just spent the past hour sobbing, unable to believe that the court was letting Rodríguez Sánchez go free. They even absolved him of his court fees, watched by women wearing their only pair of clothing, sitting there just hoping for justice for their murdered children. “I am so sorry comrade...” I typed to Edwin. “May all the Mayan peoples live.” Ten minutes later, I heard a ding and Edwin’s voice rang out from a WhatsApp audio message. He sounded calm, strong, and really just normal, like any conversation we’d have in the car or after a trial.
“Hola Clara, it’s Edwin. Thanks for your message. I support you. I want to say to you that I am not discouraged, in fact I am quite excited to continue with the struggle… I want to tell you that we have so much strength. I know that many comrades here are disappointed but tomorrow we’ll have our general assembly [of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation] and we are going to bring up our energy. Thank you for your message, this also helps to continue forward. I know that there are lots of people who are in solidarity with us, and it helps us to maintain our strength.”
Content note: This article includes information about racism, violence committed by government agents, and systemic violence like poverty and forced resource extraction.
On May 23, 2018, Claudia Patricia Gómez González made her way through an unfamiliar city with three other refugee immigrants. As they passed through the streets of Laredo, Texas, they probably gazed at the signs, the trees, the cars, and perhaps they breathed a sigh of relief. They had finally arrived. Perhaps Claudia and her companions compared the blinking commercial areas to the poverty that they had just escaped. Perhaps Claudia thought of the bills waiting for her at home, bills from her degree as a forensic accountant that were holding her back from her dream of studying more. Perhaps Claudia was scared. Perhaps she was glad. Perhaps she was just exhausted.
We'll never know how Claudia felt that day, because on May 23, 2018 a US Border Patrol agent shot her in the head, killing her instantly.
There is very little information about what happened in the moments leading up to and after Claudia's murder, a dark hole in our collective memory that casts even more shadows behind other swirling unknowns; are children really being taking from their parents at the border? The Trump administration is hoping to start housing migrant children in military bases? Why is ICE seeking to destroy records of immigrant abuse? (Answers: Yes, 700 since October; Yes, likely in Arkansas and Texas; Public transparency is never helpful for government forces that rule through fear).
What we do know is that according to witnesses, Claudia and her companions were unarmed. We know that Claudia is just one of thousands of immigrants who have died on the US-Mexico border either through direct physical violence (like José Antonio Elena Rodríguez who was shot by a Border Patrol agent through a fence from the US into Mexico), or intentional denial of lifesaving water and food, supplies that are left by humanitarian-aid volunteers and often destroyed by Border Patrol agents. What we do know is that Claudia was a refugee from one war, a war of poverty caused by an extractive and corrupt economic system, only to arrive in another war, one of racism and money-motivated violence in the name of "border security."
Claudia came from San Juan Ostuncalco in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. She was Mam, one of the largest indigenous Mayan ethnic groups. For hundreds of thousands of years, the Mam people have cultivated corn, the center of their daily and spiritual life. Every family has their milpa, small plots of land where corn sprouts, strengthens, and dries tall every year. Quetzaltenango is chilly, and the highland winds keep folks there wrapped tight in bright sweaters that make dots of color in the mountainside when you see them working from afar.
After harvest, the corn dries on the cobs, and the kernels are kept in big barrels to stay dry through the year. Every day the women in each family take a little corn out, clean it, cook it, and carry it to the local mill. They sway back home, ground corn dough balanced elegantly on their heads. In the warmth of the kitchen, the corn is transformed into anything a person could need. Tortillas and tamales fill the stomach while atol, a warm drink made from corn, calms the soul after a long day at work. There's usually a little broth or a tomato salsa to eat with the tortillas, but the corn is what keeps you warm and awake. When the harvest is good, people eat; when the harvest is bad, the wind slaps into hollow bodies, tense hungry faces.
In the US, you can generally find a job that will pay you something; if its minimum wage it will never be enough to support you, but you will at least have a little cash. I want you to try to imagine an economy where there are no options, even for a badly payed part time job. No matter where you go with your qualifications, work ethic, and motivation, nobody is hiring. And there are a thousand other people like you looking for the same nonexistent job. So, you turn to informal economy, just like 70% of Guatemala’s workforce. Maybe you sell bug swatters at a busy traffic light. Maybe you make $5 a day.
Maybe you make $5 a day, and maybe you can't afford the hernia surgery that you need, and maybe your kids' shoes are falling to pieces, and maybe your roof is leaking because it's a piece of metal from 1996, but generally you're okay. You have what you need to survive. For breakfast there is a hot cup of atol, for lunch steaming tortillas, and at dinner a little broth made from the beans that you grow between the corn. You and your family can eat, and the warmth of the stove fills your laughter as you talk late into the night. On Sunday you go with your sisters to the mountain, where you pray, making offerings to the Earth, knowing that she will continue to feed you, to hold you, no matter where the gangs are or how much the coyote wants for smuggling your cousin up north, or how many days your deputies in Congress spend at a luxury resort instead of funding your local school.
And then la Minería, the mine, arrives, and the Earth no longer holds you. Your corn isn’t growing well, and the stream that you use for irrigation, water, and bathing gives your children angry red rashes that make them whimper at night. Your wife has a cough that sounds too deep to be real. You have nothing, and some man told your oldest daughter yesterday that if you don't pay your cousin's coyote soon, there would be problems for her and all of you. She is 11 and terrified. So when the gentleman in a suit arrives and offers to buy your land for $1000, you barely think before signing the papers. After all, that's about the cash that you would earn in two years.
For a couple months, everything is good. The coyote is payed off, and your daughters are back at school in new shoes. You still can't get the hernia surgery, but some new pain pills go a long way. Unfortunately, pills aren't enough for your wife’s cough. With the money from la Minería you can buy dried corn now, which doesn't taste the same, but you're able to afford meat to go with it, so nobody complains. The stream that you once used has become the local dump, filled with the bright plastic candy wrappers that people can now afford with their mining money. La Minería had promised a water sanitation project when your neighbor made a fuss about it contaminating the stream, but it seems that somebody forgot about that. Anyways, you have to buy water now, too. Costs are building up so quickly that one day you realize that you've used almost all the money. You call your sister to go to the mountain, to pray for something, anything, and she tells you the sacred land was just sold by the mayor. "La Minería is expanding," she tells you.
And so, like millions of others, like nearly half of Mam people in Guatemala, like the very same nickel or gold or silver mined from your ground, you run to the north. Perhaps, like my friends and coworkers in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, you work on a farm and grow food for people in the city, many of whom support deporting you. Maybe, like the 7,000 people whose remains have been found over the past two decades, you disappear at the border, lost to a thirst that cannot be imagined. Maybe your mother is still looking for your body, right alongside the mothers of the more than 45,000 people who were forcibly disappeared in the internal armed conflict forty years ago. Different wars, same causes.
Maybe you're like my friend Roberto*, who is also Mam, and made his way up to Michigan where he worked for 5 years. In 2003, trying to escape from a job at a slaughterhouse that was “extremely exploitative,” Roberto decided to make his way down to Miami. As he got off the bus, immigration officers asked for his papers. A few days later he was deported.
Roberto’s story always stays with me because when he returned home he used what money he had saved to study, and educated himself about the history of Guatemala. Through his studies he learned – for the first time – about the United Fruit Company, the CIA-orchestrated coup, the internal armed conflict, the genocide, the disappearances, and the continued forced extraction of Guatemala's wealth. Education gave him an opportunity to understand the causes of the poverty that drove him from his home and loved ones, that forced him to exploit himself in the blood of packing corporate meat, that put him through the indignity of being forcefully removed from a country to which he had given his heart and hands. Roberto is now a teacher, along with his wife and two sister in-laws. His curriculum is very controlled by the government, but he manages to still teach his students the truth of the Spanish Invasion and the ongoing colonization of Guatemala. When inspectors come he just makes up a different class plan on the spot.
Unlike far too many people who are forcefully removed from the US, Roberto’s story has a happy ending; he lives with his wife and two children in his beloved hometown, about three miles from Claudia’s hometown of San Juan. His oldest daughter is already head of her class. The entire family gets together on the weekend, over twenty people laughing, drinking, and eating without having to worry or skimp. They are joyful to be together, but there are big holes where their other loved ones should be. Roberto’s niece, Rosa*, my best friend, hasn't seen her husband in five years. He has only ever met their son, Davíd*, through video chats online. Rosa can understand how her son feels when he asks when papa is coming home; her mother left for the US when she was 3. They have not seen each other in 20 years.
According to the Guardian, “In 2017, 65,871 Guatemalans were apprehended at the southern US border.” A crisis of this size does not start in Guatemala; it starts in the government and corporate offices of the US, where powerful people plan to control foreign politicians, force in mega-projects like dams and mines, and then – so conveniently! – capitalize off of the detainment and detention of the same people running away from the destruction. Trump had escalated the violence not only within the US, but also by, for example, supporting the stolen election in Honduras at the end of 2017, which exemplifies the exact kind of state violence and corruption that immigrants are escaping. That said, let’s not forget that the Obama administration deported 2.5 million human beings, supported the 2009 coup that led to November’s violence in Honduras, and was the intellectual author of the Alliance for Prosperity. While the Alliance for Prosperity claims to be in response to the 2014 crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, it just continues to feed the machines that caused the immigrant/refugee crisis in the first place. Despite the known corruption of the partner governments in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the Alliance for Prosperity opens up Central America to even more international resource extraction and increases militarization of the Northern Triangle.
A man protesting in Honduras after Juan Orlando Hernández fraudulently won the presidential election in November 2017. Despite international condemnation, the US certified the results, which allowed military aid to continue flowing to the Honduran government. That money consequently funded the killings of dozens of people while they protested the robbed election. Source: School of the Americas Watch Facebook page, January 27.
There is real and serious work to do to support immigrants in the US right now, and not just immigrants from Guatemala. Folks from all of Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are arriving at our borders as a tangible consequence of the wars that we have waged, loudly and quietly, openly and secretly, through the entire Global South. And as we work with our immigrant comrades to make a country that is safer and more just for all of us, may we remember that the work is international, also. That is, to support immigrants means to also create a world where they don’t have to leave; where a young forensic accountant can stay and learn all she wants; where a stream is filled with laughing children, not the toxic run-off of a mine; where a school teacher can calmly teach his students the truth, in peace. There are so many people already creating this world; we just have to join them.
DESGUA: Desarrollo Sostenible para Guatemala / Sustainable Development for Guatemala
No Más Muertes / No More Deaths
Organized Communities Against Deportations
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala
* All names have been changed.
Content warning: genocide, racism, sexual violence, torture
As the elevator door closes a hand reaches out to stop it. In walk three people and the sickly illuminated space goes silent. My compañero, Edwin, was chatting animatedly with me seconds before, but suddenly he is extremely focused on the wall above my head. I know who it is, but I force myself to look up and acknowledge the newcomer. Staring directly at me is a face I’ve seen in history books, on countless websites, in nearly every documentary that I’ve ever watched about the Guatemalan internal armed conflict. José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, 1982-1983 Director of Military Intelligence in Guatemala and accused architect of genocide, is two feet to my left. Edwin, president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a leader of the struggle for post-genocide justice and survivor of massacres and displacement, is to my right. In the middle, I try to remember how to breath. For fifteen floors our absurd group drops through space, time, and memory.
I came to the top of those fifteen floors to observe a court case, a court case that is internationally famous but that many Guatemalans don’t know is happening. I had climbed each of the fifteen floors four hours before, puffing alongside a group of Mayan allies from the department of Chimaltenango who had come to support the witnesses. The clique of fabulously bossy old women had refused to take the elevator, so there we were, plodding up the stairs. When we arrived at the court room, red-faced and gasping for air, the door was closed. The judges were listening to witnesses give testimony against Efraín Ríos Montt, the 1982-1983 military dictator who was accused of genocide. On April 1 Ríos Montt died, leaving behind an unfinished court case for which, absurdly, he had already been sentenced. In 2013 the Guatemalan Supreme Court found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and sentenced him to eighty years in prison. “We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group,” said Judge Yasmín Barrios in the judgment.
And yet, ten days after Judge Barrios’ sentence, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court illegally turned over the ruling in an extraordinary and unprecedented 3-2 decision. While groups like the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) uphold the 2013 guilty sentence as legitimate and historic, they also want to see the Guatemalan justice system officially recognize the guilt of the military personnel who continue to hold vast political and economic power in the country. They want to the world to recognize the horrors committed not only by Ríos Montt, but also Rodríguez Sánchez, whose trials we attend in the afternoon. And so, there we sit, observing the court case, Mayan women and the memories of their slaughtered family members at our sides. Again.
Although the military murdered indigenous people across all of Guatemala, the court case that is currently in process is focused on the Ixil region. Twenty years ago, when folks started organizing to bring the case to justice, they discovered military documents that clearly show the massacres in the Ixil region were planned and intentional, with the goal of destroying the Ixil people. Many of these military plans, code-named Victoria 82, Sofia, Firmeza 83 and Ixil, were designed and supervised by José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, the man staring at me and my bright green vest in the elevator. INTERNATIONAL ACCOMPANIER my vest blares. Rodríguez Sánchez looks away and shares a glance with his lawyer.
Because of the preponderance of evidence, the AJR and its allied organizations strategically chose to accuse Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez of genocide against the Ixil people. But as the support groups from Huehuetenango, Ixcán, Chimaltenango, and Rabinal demonstrate, this court case is not just for the Ixil; it is a struggle for justice for indigenous people across the country, across the world.
I have the honor of accompanying the trials for genocide because I am on the Equipo Ixil-Ixcán. While I’m in the capital we attend the court cases, but I’m rarely there; for about three weeks of every month I’m in rural Guatemala, taking buses and walking down dirt roads with my backpack and mud boots. In the Ixil region we spend most of our time visiting witnesses in their homes. Families welcome us with shy smiles and warm cups of coffee; “Acompañantes!” the children whisper and giggle to themselves. We sit around the fire, huddling close to warm our hands against the highland chill. The conversation ambles gently from the family (a new grandson!), to the corn harvest (the weather hasn’t been ideal, but they’re hoping it will go okay), to the community (the new church next door makes far too much noise). Eventually we land upon the trial, how they’re feeling about giving their testimony, and if they’ve received any threats or intimidation.
In 2013 the case for genocide was top national news; everyone knew it was happening and the witnesses faced serious threats from ex-military personnel in their communities. This time around, the case is lower profile and very few people in the communities know that their neighbor is going to the capital to give her or his testimony. The threat of violence is less than in 2013, but the emotional pain is deep. “Me duele hablar otra vez,” many witnesses tell us; it hurts me to talk about this again.
I never have been able to see a witness we directly accompany testify, but I can imagine their stories based off of the testimonies I have heard; they’re almost all identical. The witness enters the court room escorted by plain clothes guards. He is wearing the red jacket with black embroidery that is the traditional suit of Ixil men. In his hands is a straw hat with a black band; he bends over it as he walks, moving with some difficulty from his age, but with a strength of a seventy year old who still does manual labor every day. The judge asks him if he would like an interpreter and he answers in broken Spanish that it would be helpful. There are three interpreters waiting on deck as there are three dialects of the Ixil language: Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal. The towns that gave these dialects their names make up the core of the Ixil region.
Once the correct interpreter joins him, the judge swears in the witness and asks him if he knows the accused, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. “No,” he answers, “But I know that he was responsible for the massacre in 1982.” Ten feet away, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez shuffles his papers.
As the prosecuting lawyers begin their questions, the witness’ story begins to take shape. He was a farmer in rural Guatemala, living with his family in a small house two hours north of Nebaj. The army always used to arrive to his town, but they would just pass by. One day the army arrived and gathered everyone in front of the church. (They lawyers want to know when this happened. 1982, he replies. But they want to know the month, the day. I’m sorry, I don’t remember he says. It was the rainy season.) The soldiers interrogated the citizens, demanding to know if they were guerrillas. The villagers had no idea what they were talking about; they had just been working in the corn field, the milpa, like their people have been for thousands of years. The soldier grabbed five men and a women. They heard shots from behind the church. Later they saw their bodies, strewn in the mud. (The lawyers want to know the names of the murdered people. I’m sorry, he says, I don’t remember. They lived on the other side of the village. One was Pedro, I know that. And the other was Flaco, but that was just his nickname. And the other…) Next the soldiers set fire to the homes. His grandmother died, probably burned to death in the house. All of their animals, all dead. All of their corn harvest, all destroyed. His family gathered what they could and ran to the mountain. They lived there for six years. (The lawyers want to know if anyone died in the mountain. Well yes, he replies, we didn’t have any food.) His grandfather fell behind and told them to go on without them. His hunger and age were too much, he couldn’t walk any further. (The lawyers want to know his grandfather’s name. He responds and his voice breaks.) In the mountain his little brother died. It was too cold and he fell sick and they had no medicine. (The lawyers want to know how old his little brother was when he died. I don’t know, he says. I’m sorry. It was all so long ago and I didn’t think this information would be helpful until very recently. I was just trying to survive.)
At the end of the prosecution’s questions, the lawyers always ask the witness what he or she would ask of the court given that they lost their homes, animals, food, health, safety, land, well-being, and family members. "Justice," they always respond. “I just want to see justice so that this never happens again.”
It’s often hard to concentrate after I’ve been to a genocide trial. As I go through my life I’m thinking about the women who was raped, the man who was tortured, the animals that were burned, the grandfather who died on a mountain because he couldn’t walk any further. He died alone, hunted by his country’s military, frozen with a hunger that never had to be, his death funded by money and training from a far away country called El Norte. It’s not much, and it’ll never be enough, but all I can do for that grandfather and the 200,000 other Guatemalans like him is to bear witness to his memory. And so it truly is an honor to sit in the court room and hear his name (and her name, and their names) wash over me. For all those who died alone, unnecessarily, brutally, horribly… we honor their memory.
For the dead, we remember. But for their descendants and survivors, what can we do? Well, unfortunately, their one request for a world free of genocide has not been fulfilled, so there’s quite a lot that we can do. From the desert on the Mexico-Texas border, to the cities of Yemen, to the streets of Ferguson, MO, to the barrios of Honduras, to the apartheid wall in Palestine, the US government’s money and policies are destroying the bodies and livelihoods of black and brown people. Just because the task is unbelievably huge is no reason to back away from it, but rather to begin doing the ant’s task of working away at it, in the ways that we can, together.
Edwin, my compañero from the elevator, is one of those people who gives me hope in the face of overwhelming tasks. As the president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, he is constantly organizing witnesses, meeting with survivors, leading educational events, and attending commemorations. He does it all with a calmness that makes everyone around him at ease. Despite the fact that he is a survivor who is constantly working with the memories of the worst things people can do to each other, he still jokes and laughs with the rest of us afterwards. I always remember to smile more after I see Edwin.
In my first week of being an accompanier I was lucky to meet Edwin’s father and stepmother. They live in the Ixcán region, one of the many places outside of the Ixil region where massacres also happened. While we ate dinner I noticed that they had a cocoa tree in their yard. When I mentioned how much I love cocoa fruit, Edwin’s father jumped outside and picked one for me, cracking it open on the kitchen table. As we slurped the gummy fruit and sipped hot cocoa made from the seeds of the same tree, Edwin’s stepmother and father told us about their children who were murdered by the soldiers. Both of their first spouses were massacred; they met as refugees and married in southern Mexico. In the refugee camps they organized with their neighbors and made the first international request for accompaniers. Years later they returned to Guatemala, terrified of what they might encounter. They worked. They organized. They let the wind fill the silence when they remembered their loved ones. They survived.
Although they may never see legal justice for their pain, the community members in that small town in the Guatemalan rain forest have found their own ways to honor and preserve the memory of their family. Whenever I feel overwhelmed at the task ahead, I think of their crinkled smiling eyes and worn callused hands in mine; “We’re okay now,” they said. “We’ve made sure that we are safe.”
The world is a horrible place. But there are people who are making it better by surviving, by laughing, by remembering. By organizing more than they should ever have to. Perhaps we can be those people.
It’s noon and for some incomprehensible reason we decided it would be a good idea to hike the last hour to a community north of where we spent the night. Sweat drenches my shirt, which I have tied tight to protect against the mosquitoes. It’s somewhere between 90 degrees and Hell, and I curse myself for all the last minute things I put in my backpack a couple days before. Oops, my boot is stuck again. Heel up, toe down, just like they taught me on the farm. The foot deep mud slowly lets loose my foot, only to slurp it back down in the next step.
“Buenas tardes!” a man calls out, trotting around a bend in the path. Harnessed to his back with a strap that wraps around his forehead is a pack of corn twice the size of my backpack. He’s practically jogging through the mud, picking his way with a machete. We chat for a minute, and I explain that my partner, Charissa, and I are the new accompaniers. He graciously welcomes us to his community, an enormous smile filling his face as he shakes our hands goodbye. “Just a little bit further, you’re almost there,” which we compute into gringo speed and calculate to be another 45 minutes. Our new friend continues on after the obligatory chorus of “bueno, bueno! bueno...” and Charissa and I watch in awe-filled silence as he trots out of sight, not a single step lost in the mud. We shrug, laugh, and nearly fall over each other as our first steps disappear into the muck.
To my perpetual amazement, we always arrive. We step out from the path carrying a new layer of mud and enormous smiles from our (kind of pathetic) accomplishment. “Acompañantes! Acompañantes!” Groups of little kids form near us, giggling at the way we say “hola," and randomly sprinting back to the safety of their mothers' skirts when their courage runs out. Accompaniers have been coming to these communities in the Ixcán for decades, so the adults greet us warmly as if we're old comrades. Trust is a precious gift, and we feel it dearly as folks invite us into their homes for a quick drink and to cool off from the heat. It’s not just hospitality though; the fact that we are allowed to be here at all is an honor. For years these communities along the Chixoy River in the Ixcán have carefully guarded their territory against outsiders, and with good reason.
In the 1970s, military dictators made the first proposals for the Xalalá dam. They wanted to make Xalalá the second biggest hydroelectric dam in Guatemala by building it at the powerful confluence of the Chixoy and Copón Rivers. In the US, we often think of hydroelectric energy as one of the options for clean, safe, renewable energy. And it can be, when it’s handled properly, distributed equitably, and consented to by the people who will be affected. But the Xalalá dam is none of these things.
Keep in mind the context of 1970s Guatemala. The military is burning down entire villages and shooting every adult and child they can find. The survivors, if there are any, flee to the mountains or Mexico and the government and international businesses use their territory for giant projects that remove resources from the land and water. Sometimes the plans for these projects came before the massacres. For example, the Chixoy Dam, located just downstream of the proposed Xalalá site, is marked with the blood of Maya Achi people who refused to leave their land for the dam to be constructed. In response, the military massacred 444 of the 800 inhabitants of Río Negro between 1980 and 1982. Many survivors have returned; many still live without electricity.
The Maya Achi of Río Negro are one of thousands of indigenous communities who for centuries have been and continue to be on the front lines of defending life. For the Q’eqchi’ people who live on the land that the Xalalá dam would destroy, their struggle is formed by a fundamental belief in the peaceful coexistence between nature and indigenous people. In Q’eqchi’ worldvision, “nature serves as the axis of balance between humanity and its sustenance, as well as the base of relationships within families and communities” (see NISGUA timeline below). “El río es nuestra vida,” people often tell us: the river is our life.
The proposed Xalalá dam would flood dozens of Q’eqchi’ communities, displace thousands of people, and destroy the foundation of life and meaning for thousands more. What’s more, the (usually poor and indigenous) communities near hydroelectric dams rarely see a single watt of electricity in return for the destruction of their homes. One company builds the dam, promising light, and another comes in to distribute the electricity, funneling the light to other countries and leaving only broken promises in its place.
In 2007 over fifty Q’eqchi’ communities along the Chixoy river formed ACODET, the Association of Communities for Development and the Defense of Land and Natural Resources. ACODET is community-based and indigenous-led, and although its chief focus is resisting the dam, it has multiple community and conservation projects. In 2007 the affected communities in the Ixcán held a community consultation. Indigenous peoples in Guatemala have traditionally used community consultations to reach consensus, but since 2005 they have also used this communal form of voting as a strategy to protect their land. Although the Guatemalan government systemically isolates and excludes indigenous people, it is party to the United Nations’ International Labor Organizations’ Convention No. 169, which guarantees indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent to the use of their territory. Therefore, community referendums, like the one in the Ixcán, can be used to demonstrate that the state and/or corporation does not have consent from the communities in question. In the case of the Q’eqchi’ people in 2007, 90% voted against the dam.
Below is a timeline of ACODET’s struggle against the Xalalá dam. I think that it gives a sense of just how creative the government and corporations can be to push forward their agendas; there were “emergency contracts,” troops to combat “drug trafficking,” and plain old deception. It also shows just how strongly and resiliently the Q’eqchi’ people have resisted the imposition of a dam in their territory. Despite violence, threats, and defamation, people with almost no access to financial resources have successfully stopped a project of major “national interest” for almost five decades. All across Guatemala ACODET is pointed to as an example of indigenous organizing at its most ingenious.
These days the resistance in the Ixcán continues, but thankfully threats have reduced. The communities in the Ixcán remain vigilant against the constant possibility of extractive invasion. Strangers are not allowed to enter without permission from community and ancestral leaders. ACODET organizes the communities to defend life in its most complete sense. There are annual commemorations of the community consultation, and in November women from across the Ixcán gathered three times to organize against gender violence. ACODET also has a pilot project for a type of stove that burns less wood and reduces smoke in the kitchen, which is safer for the women and children who spend the most time inside. The communities of ACODET are not just prepared to defend their territory, but to care for and preserve it, from the plants to the river to their bodies themselves.
For people who are my age, people who grew up in the Ixcán resistance, the fight to protect their land continues to be of essential importance. “Que siga la lucha,” a young woman water defender recently told me, her gaze taking my breath with its intensity. We were drinking coffee together, talking about her involvement in the resistance, the fight against Line 3 in Minnesota, and barriers that all women face when participating in the defense of life. Yes, I thought. May the struggle continue.
Narratives create, mold, and give life to our experiences of the world. They give us power, fear, comfort, and a sense of community. Some narratives are silly in their absurdity, like that possessing a vagina would inherently make you want to stay in the kitchen all day. We laugh at that narrative, but sometimes we look up from the dinner table and realize that it’s still gotten the best of us. Some narratives are silly in their absurdity, but we feel them deeply and allow them to control our actions: the United States is a bastion for democracy in the world, people of any color can succeed if they just work a little harder, women’s bodies are safe in our post-feminist world. These narratives may be laughable, but their impacts on the world are far from funny.
To be clear, I’m not saying that narrative = not true. I promote a narrative of US history that is characterized by the rich exploiting poor and working class people, frequently using race as an effective tool of division. This is obviously different from the Tea Party narrative that the American Dream has been destroyed by handouts and government intervention. They are both narratives, but I’m pretty confident that I have more facts on my side. However, when power comes into the equation, facts sometimes fall by the wayside.
One example of a powerful narrative that defies facts is the history of Thanksgiving. When I was in elementary school every November we faithfully made little pilgrim and “Indian” hats out of construction paper. Donned in our scratchy symbols of peaceful multiculturalism we’d listen to a lovely story of cooperation, resilience, and friendship. Leaving school we’d be inundated with the obligatory marketing rain of black buckle shoes, colorful fall leaves, and ambiguous floating feathers.
It wasn’t until quite recently that I learned the true history of Thanksgiving. In 1621, the year often cited as the “first” Thanksgiving, the Puritan pilgrims of the north east did have a feast and shooting party, but it was not a thanksgiving. And there certainly weren’t any indigenous folks present because most of them had died from disease or been enslaved after the invasion of English explorers seven years before. On November 29, 1623 Governor Bradford proclaimed a “Day of Thanksgiving” because fall rains had arrived and saved the pilgrims’ harvest. Bradford’s celebration has often been confused with the 1621 shooting party (1). One similarity: no indigenous folks were present at either event.
As the Puritans and other British colonizers pushed west in search of more land, they murdered and enslaved the Native Americans they encountered. Under pressure from the colonizers the Pequot Nation refused to sign a peace treaty, and further refused to hand over a group of indigenous people who had killed two white slave raiders. The ensuing Pequot War was the bloodiest of the anti-colonial wars in the north east. When indigenous folks were captured they were sold into the new and lucrative slave trade that sent daily slave ships from New England to “the West Indies, the Azures, Spain, Algiers and England.” (1)
In 1641 the Dutch governor of Manhattan began paying colonizers for the scalps of murdered Native Americans, and the Puritans implemented a bounty for “Natives fit-to-be-sold for slavery.” The violence continued to grow: "The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate Natives from New England. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a “Day of Thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the “heathen savages.” This was the second Day of Thanksgiving that was officially celebrated. It was marked by the hacking off of Native heads and kicking them through the streets of nearby Manhattan." (1)
The killing raids continued as the colonies grew. For every successful massacre, they began to hold a day of Thanksgiving. George Washington gave an order to the celebrations in 1789 when he declared November 26 a national day of thanksgiving (1). Eventually Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, around the same time that he ordered 38 Dakota men to be hung in Mankato, MN, the largest mass execution in US history. (2)
The narrative of Thanksgiving as a moment of multiculturalism and friendship is insidious because it invisibilizes the true history – the facts – of genocide and slavery. This is a serious act of disrespect to the victims of these atrocities, and it is a dangerous threat to their descendants, who are still suffering from and fighting against the modern colonial project.
Despite lying and cheating its way through treaties that pushed indigenous peoples to tiny tracts of land, the United States continues to violate the sovereignty of Native nations, generally through taking natural resources like gold, wood, water, and more. Many of you have likely heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which violates the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty by crossing land that belongs to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. (3) Another pipeline is currently trying to snake its way across indigenous land. Line 3, a proposed Enbridge pipeline in northern Minnesota, would violate treaties from 1854 and 1855 that guarantee hunting, fishing, wild rice, and cultural rights for the Ojibwe people. (4)
In Guatemala (and around the world) the conditions are different than in the US, but the colonial projects are the same. At the accompaniment project where I work we have four teams that each accompany multiple cases, and nearly all of them have to do with corporations violating the rights and land of indigenous peoples. One example of many is Tahoe Resource’s El Escobal silver mine, which the local indigenous Xinca people have been resisting for seven years. From their peaceful encampment in front of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court in Guatemala City, the Xinca People’s Parliament recently released a statement reaffirming that they will continue protesting until the Court comes to a decision that would permanently close the mine and recognize their right to defend their land. (5)
Of course, the powerful of the world have every interest in teaching school children that colonialism was an unfortunate mistake of the past. Narratives of “development,” “progress,” and, yes, Thanksgiving friendship, push the colonial project forward by making its invasions invisible, normal, and even desirable. It helps when those of us who have never been colonized benefit financially from the whole arrangement; weapons manufacturers make money off of the militarized police force that attacked water defenders at Standing Rock; a couple engineers from Minneapolis get well paying jobs to construct Line 3; Tahoe Resources blesses Reno, Nevada by opening its US office there. The majority of US-Americans have an abundance of reasons to choose the development narrative over that of colonialism. But those reasons don’t change the facts, and one of those narratives definitely has more facts on its side.
On my second accompaniment trip I had the honor of sitting in on an informational presentation by the Asociación para la Justicia y Reconciliación (Association for Justice and Reconciliation, AJR). The AJR works towards justice for the genocide committed by military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his head of intelligence, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. Legally they are working on the court cases against these two men, and communally they are fighting for historical memory among surviving communities.
On the chilly November day when I accompanied them in the northern Ixil region, the AJR was educating Mayan students from the Ixil University about their work and the fight for justice. To my surprise, a significant part of the presentation was the history of the genocide: the history of the students’ parents and grandparents. After a couple hours of these historical lessons, I felt a little surprised that they were taking so much time just to explain events that the students’ families had experienced so personally. It almost seemed patronizing to present the information as if the students didn’t already know it. After all, they had to know it, right?
Soon after I started to feel confused – and a little annoyed – the presentation ended and a young woman stood up to ask a question. She was wearing the traditional clothes of Ixil women: a thick red skirt with yellow designs, a richly decorated belt, and a huipil (blouse) with embroidery around the neck line. There’s almost no question that this woman lost family members in the internal armed conflict. “Thank you so much for sharing this history with us,” she said, to my shock. She continued, “We aren’t taught this in our schools. Nobody from the educational system is honest with us about what happened during the violence. They want us to think that it didn’t happen, or that it was just caused by the guerrillas.”
Hearing that young women speak as we all shivered through the highland wind was one of the most impactful moments of my life. I didn’t know just how powerful the government’s promotion of their narrative had been. I didn’t know that the post-conflict bleaching of history had been so successful. I didn’t know. Or perhaps I should say that I knew; I knew the Ixil peoples’ story while they were denied it.
If I have ever doubted the importance of historical memory and the power of education, this experience confirmed them. And it’s not just about the importance of grassroots education, although that’s certainly a crucial part of any movement. It’s also about the responsibility of those of us who have the privilege of access to information; those of us who know that our silver comes from a mine that violates the rights of the Xinca people, who know that accepting Enbridge into Duluth is an act of violence against our Ojibwe neighbors, who know that Thanksgiving is the celebration of 17th and 18th century massacres.
Personally, I have a lot of work left to reconcile these facts with the lifetime of narratives that have shaped my being. When my family called me from their Thanksgiving reunion I wept that I couldn’t be with them. My longing for family and tradition wasn’t lessened by that fact that I am definitely learning more about the anti-colonial struggle while accompanying Q’eqchi’ water defenders here in Guatemala. However, while we make our way through these real and complicated processes of un- and re-learning, the clock is still ticking and the snakes of colonialism are still slithering their way forward. We all need to process and heal, but mostly we need to act.
I offer you these actions of solidarity from a place of commitment to continuing my own education, rage mixed with love mixed with rage, and – of course – thanks.
1. Matthew Hughey, “On Thanksgiving: Why Myths Matter,” Racism Review, November 24, 2009, http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2009/11/24/on-thanksgiving-why-myths-matter/.
2. Jon Wiener, “Largest Mass Execution in US History,” The Nation, December 26, 2012, https://www.thenation.com/article/largest-mass-execution-us-history-150-years-ago-today/.
3. Jeffrey Ostler and Nick Estes, ‘“The Supreme Law of the Land’: Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Indian Country Today, January 16, 2017, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/opinions/supreme-law-land-standing-rock-dakota-access-pipeline/.
4. “What is Line 3?,” Stop Line 3, https://www.stopline3.org/about/#destructive-new-corridor.
5. “Peaceful Resistance movement & Xinca Parliament call for the permanent closure of the Escobal mine,” Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, November 2017, https://nisgua.org/16667-2/.
Everyday at dusk the birds of Guatemala City commune above the place where I live. I climb to the roof, where I watch them dip and dive and turn in an intricate dance that I'll never understand. I'm sure that they're communicating, somehow. The swerve of one affects the leap of another affects the swoop of another. As I try to make sense of their dance I'm thinking about other patterns that I'll never understand; the pulse of a crowded concert, the paths vendors make through a busy market, the rushes of human beings across geopolitical borders. The vote of one affects the job of another affects the safety of another.
The four weeks since I arrived in Guatemala have been a whirlwind of training, meetings, new friends, and reunions with dear old friends. There are six of us "nuevxs" who are joining the accompaniment team, and we've all had a lot of fun learning with and about each other. (Why does Claire keep writing x at the end of Spanish words?) Almost everyone is from Europe and it seems to me that they all speak a million languages fluently. A few weeks back I visited Quetzaltenango, where I studied Spanish two years ago, and was able to catch up with three special friends with whom I've kept in touch. Skype really doesn't cut it sometimes, and it was such a joy to hold them and hear them in person.
I want to write you all to explain a little of the background for my following letters. If you're like me and are still new to Guatemalan history, I hope that you find this non-exhaustive synopsis to be an informative jump-off point for more education. I'll try to include as many sources as possible, and I'd appreciate feedback on any parts that you'd like explained more!
content warning: war, genocide, sexual violence, torture, imperialism, colonialism
The shameful fact is that almost all my knowledge begins in the mid-20th century, but obviously Guatemala's history begins long before European invasion. If you would like to learn more about pre-Invasion history in Latin America, I have heard that 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is an excellent source.
Pedro de Alavarado invaded what is now known as Guatemala in 1525. He and his men then began to kill and kidnap the people they met, an act that would characterize the next five hundred years of colonization in this hemisphere. Most historians point to 1821 as the beginning of Guatemalan independence from Spain, but many Guatemalans feel this is a misnomer. Instead of being ruled by white monarch from a different continent, the vast majority of Guatemalans continued to be controlled by the white landowning elite who ruled through economic exploitation and a strict racial caste system. To this day it is questionable if true freedom has been achieved; indigenous Mayan peoples make up 60% of the population but only 13% of Congress, and 1.86% of producers have access to 56.59% of the land. Perhaps even more shockingly, 92.06% of producers have access to 21.86% of the land. (1)
Following "independence" a group of dictators who were supported by the US government and business class ruled Guatemala. The conditions of slavery and political repression that these dictators forced upon the indigenous majority were accepted by our government as long as the dictators continued to give cushy benefits and control to US industry, specifically the United Fruit Company (UFCO). La Frutera, as the UFCO is known in Guatemala, controlled nearly all the country's railroads, telephones, and ports. It also was one of the largest landowners, contributing to the fact that in the early 1950s 72% of Guatemalan land was owned by 2% of landowners. (2)
In 1944 the Guatemalan people overthrew the ruthless right wing dictator, Jorge Ubico, in a mostly bloodless revolution, and held the country's first democratic elections ever. Dr. Juan José Arévalo Bermejo won the election and began what is now known as the Ten Years of Spring. These ten years were characterized by modest liberal reforms, moderate gains in socioeconomic equity across the country, and a commitment to democracy that was upheld by almost all arms of government. Following Arévalo's term in office, Guatemala voted in Jacobo Árbenz, a former military officer. I do not want to imply that Arévalo and Árbenz were perfect leaders, but the democratic reforms that they upheld were a serious improvement over the near-enslavement that the indigenous and campesinx majority had suffered under previous dictators.
Despite being a moderate liberal, in 1952, during the Cold War, Árbenz created a piece of legislation that the US labelled as "communist." The Agrarian Reform of 1952 nationalized uncultivated land from large landowners and redistributed it to landless campesinxs. Now, keep in mind that the government wasn't just taking the land -- although one could certainly make an argument that this would have been a just and legitimate action -- but was actually paying owners for the whole land value that they had reported in their 1952 taxes. However, accustomed to friendly dictators who had allowed them to do anything for decades, corporations like La Frutera had under valued their property in order to pay less in taxes. Once their (uncultivated!) land was nationalized, La Frutera immediately set out lobbying the US government to stop the "communists" from "stealing" their land.
What happens next is one of the most shameful (and largely overlooked) sections of US history. Working in conjunction with La Frutera, the US embassy in Guatemala, and the State Department, the CIA orchestrated a coup against Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. You might be wondering what exactly orchestrating a coup looks like. Here are a couple acts that I think capture how involved the CIA was in everything that led up to and happened between June 18 and 27, 1954:
After nine days of psychological and physical trauma against the Guatemalan people, Árbenz gave up. He and the army recognized that with the US behind Castillo Armas there was no hope for negotiation. On June 27, 1954 Árbenz handed over power to a colonel named Carlos Enrique Díaz de León who he hoped would maintain some element of his commitment to democracy.
With Árbenz gone the US regained near-complete control of Guatemala. The loss of Árbenz led to a power vacuum, repeated coups, and a long series of military dictatorships. (3)
In 1960 three army officers rebelled against the Guatemalan government and set up a base of resistance in the mountainous campo, beginning what many know of as the Guatemalan Civil War. In my writing I will be referring to these 36 years as the internal armed conflict, as "Civil War" implies a more even division of violence and strength, not an uneven armed conflict between groups of peasant soldiers and the entire might of the Guatemalan and US militaries.
The dynamics of the internal armed conflict were complicated and changed tremendously over time. In general, there were various armed groups in rural areas that used guerrilla tactics and were supported by insurgent allies in the capital. These revolutionaries may have been motivated by democracy, land justice, racial justice, socialism, communism, anti-authoritarianism, or any/all of the above. On the other side stood the entire Guatemalan army, which was largely funded, armed, and sometimes trained by the US military. One poignant and still relevant example of US involvement in the Guatemalan army was the School of the Americas (SOA), a military academy in Georgia that trained officers from all over Latin America in "counter-insurgency" tactics. Many of the architects of the worst horrors of the internal armed conflict were trained at the School of the Americas. In 2001 Congress "closed" SOA and reopened it the next day, rebranding it as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The goals and operations of WHINSEC remain largely the same.
The Guatemalan military's participation in the internal armed conflict was characterized by massacres, rape, torture, forced disappearances, sexual slavery, and the destruction of ancestral trust between indigenous Mayan peoples. In the early 1980s the violence reached a climax under military dictators Fernando Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt, whose scorched earth policies and attacks upon indigenous non combatants constituted genocide. I am not going to go into the specifics of these administrations and policies because I'll be returning to them frequently in my coming letters. If you want to learn more now, here is a short documentary about the genocide:
In 1996 the internal armed conflict officially ended with the signing of the Peace Accords, but the violence has really never stopped, especially for indigenous Mayan Guatemalans. Many of the massacres were specifically planned to clear land for neoliberal resource extraction, so internally displaced peoples and refugees were in grave danger when they returned to their lands. As those same mines and dams were pushed forward through neoliberal policies like the 1997 Mining Law and a free trade agreement with the US in 2005 (CAFTA-DR), campesinxs continued to face violence while defending their life and land. Throughout the last twenty years there have been repeated attempts to bring the perpetrators of genocide, torture, and sexual violence to justice. Some have been some successful, some have not, and all the people involved in these fights for transitional justice have suffered threats, defamation, and physical violence from the military leaders who still have control over the Guatemalan government. (4)
Through it all, the US has been and is a dark shadow pushing forward these horrific acts which the world is still coming to understand. I know that this can be a hard pill to swallow. The fact that 200,000 Guatemalans died during the internal armed conflict is devastating. And the fact that our government was behind it, maybe even caused it? And that we as US citizens benefited and continue to benefit economically from policies of extraction and violence against Guatemalan people? Unthinkable.
As you close your computer or put down your phone I want to challenge you to sit in these unthinkable truths. The violence happened, and it continues everyday. What we often forget in our overwhelmed paralysis is that there are brave, hardworking, and resilient Guatemalans who are fighting everyday to heal their country from the wounds of US imperialism and the violence it wreaks. I hope that as we walk away we are not focused in daunting guilt, but in the ways that we can be in solidarity with the people on the front lines -- it is truly the least that we can do.
1. "Indigenous Political Representation in Guatemala," Global Americans, October 13, 2017, https://theglobalamericans.org/2017/10/indigenous-political-representation-in-guatemala/.
2. Jim Handy, “The Most Precious Fruit of the Revolution: The Guatemalan Agrarian Reform,
1952-1954,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 68.4 (1988): 677.
3. Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the America Coup in Guatemala, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
4. Carlota McAllister and Diane M. Nelson, War by Another Means, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013).
As an additional resource I recommend 95% of the five episodes about Guatemala from the podcast Safe for Democracy. I say 95% because it was mostly spot on until the last 15 minutes when it seemed like the creator, Jon Coumes, wanted to just end the episodes and tie them up nicely. In doing so he completely disregarded natural resource extraction and the ways that modern US foreign policy and imperialism play out in Guatemala. However! Like I said, all the way until the very end I think that Coumes provides a clear, in-depth, and reasonably comprehensive telling of post-"independence" Guatemalan history.
Bienvenidxs todxs! For the next seven months this "blog" will serve as an archive for the Friends and Family Letters that I'll be sending every couple weeks while I work as an international accompanier in Guatemala. As I picture all of you on the other side of the screen I assume that most of your faces are familiar -- dear friends, family members, ex-coworkers, role models, and special acquaintances who I met on some adventure or another. However, in case some of you don't know me all that well, I think it's important to give you a little background on myself. The goal of these posts is to educate folks in the US (myself included) about the realities of oppression and resistance in Guatemala and the ways that they are reflected back home. I promise that everything I write is my best and most rigorous understanding of the facts, but it is absurd for any writer to pretend that their writing isn't impacted by their unique place in the flow of global power and perception, and I hope to be fully transparent about my own positionality.
My name is Claire Bransky and I grew up in the small city of Duluth, MN, which rests on stolen Anishinaabe land at the western tip of Lake Superior. These days Duluth has a new hip outdoorsy feel, but while I was growing up it was a pretty classic tale of midwestern deindustrialization set against the breathtaking Northwoods and -40 degree weather. After high school I studied political science at a small liberal arts college in rural MN. Although I don't have much positive to say about the institution itself, my four years of undergrad were hugely impactful thanks to the incredible people I met, the farms I worked on during the summers, and the two study abroad trips to Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. I was politicized in the context of third wave feminism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and learning about US imperialism from the morally questionable position of being a tourist in Latin America.
While I was studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala I learned about NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala) and international accompaniment for the first time. Accompaniment a technique that is used all over the world in a variety of situations; in the Guatemalan context it is defined as foreigners being present with Guatemalans who face danger because of their fights for human rights. Here is the brief overview of accompaniment theory that I often share: Many Guatemalan land defenders, activists, and organizations face intimidation and violence through their work fighting for justice in a country ravaged by colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. International accompaniment is a way for individuals who recognize their complicity in these destructive forces due to their citizenship in the Global North to leverage their privilege in formalized accomplice/ally relationships. All the work done by international accompaniers is in response to specific invitations and requests by the Guatemalans who are most affected by forces of injustice, the people who are the most appropriate leaders of their own fights for liberation.
If this is your first time learning about accompaniment, those three sentences might just sound like a bunch of jargon. I'm also still learning what accompaniment looks like, so all that I ask is that you stick with me, because it's probably going to take me all seven months that I'm here to capture what accompaniment actually is.
For now, here's a maybe more concrete way of looking at it: Beginning with Guatemalan refugees who returned to their land in the 1980s, land defenders and people involved in post-conflict transitional justice (e.g. genocide cases) have requested that foreigners accompany them to bear witness to the dangers that they face. The presence of accompaniers at meetings, regularly scheduled visits, trials, travel, and protests deters violence, and this form of tangible solidarity makes up most of the day-to-day work of accompaniment. However, it is crucial to remember that the Western countries from which accompaniers come are often the main perpetrators of violence in Guatemala through their corporations and foreign policy. Therefor, accompaniment in country is less than half the battle of more complete solidarity; changing policy and norms back home (e.g. in the US) is equally -- if not more -- important.
With the need for solidarity building within the US in mind, I want to end this post with an example of the ways in which oppression and resistance are linked across the globe. A year and a half ago I was arrested at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest four days after police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile. Tens of thousands of people turned out across the country to condemn Castile’s killing, and organizers from the Twin Cities maintained a peaceful occupation outside the governor’s mansion for nearly three weeks. On the night of July 10, 2016 I joined fifty others who split off from the occupation to march down the road (literally chanting “We’re just going for a walk”). After about half an hour, a line of police blocked us, encircled us, and arrested us all.
I am being charged with two misdemeanors: unlawful assembly and public nuisance (16 months later we still have not had a trial). Unfortunately, this crack down on dissent is not just an isolated event. As is true across the country, politicians in MN are trying to more aggressively criminalize protest. As you all will read in my coming letters, such institutionalized criminalization is also common in Guatemala. As the case of Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrates, the violence that we are attempting to deter in Guatemala is often perpetrated and/or supported by entities from the US and other colonial/imperial powers, and also reflected everyday in the realities of oppressed people(s) within these parasitic countries. While I do not want to overstate the implications of my own personal case given my individual privilege, the criminalization of protest — motivated by racism and imperialism — is as real in St. Paul, MN, as it is in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, as it is in the Standing Rock Reservation, SD. Just as these forces of oppression are linked, so too is resistance across the globe.
In the coming months I will have the honor to accompany some of the leaders of this resistance in one small part of the world. May their acts of bravery and resilience inspire our own.
For ways to be involved with movement building in the US, please check out:
"More than 98% of the people say no to chemical mining of metals. Welcome to peoples in peaceful resistance." Photo from San Juan Bosco, Guatemala.
PC: Sandra Cuffe, Mongabay
Communications Fellow with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Intersectional feminist, aspiring farmer, and plátano enthusiast.