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Robert B. GilbertMarch 25, 2002

There is a bitter joke circulating among many Guatemalans ever since the nation’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996: Beware the peace, they chide, because now the government is fighting everyone. Guatemalahalf the size of Idahohas endured some of the most unimaginable human abuses in modern history. Thousands of Guatemalans have continued to flee despite U.N.-brokered peace accords, presidential promises of reform and millions of dollars in international aid.

I never wanted to come to the United States, said 59-year-old Urbano Santos, a ceramic-tile mason who fled from his homeland and now resides in Washington State. I want to go back to Guatemala. I love my country. But the situation is worse than before.

Experts blame the war on persistent government corruption, U.S. backing of repressive regimes, widespread poverty and discrimination toward people of Mayan Indian ancestry, who make up 65 percent of the nation’s 12 million inhabitants. During the protracted conflict between Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity rebels and the government’s troops and death squads, more than 150,000 people were killed, 100,000 fled, thousands were tortured and 50,000 were left missing. Recently declassified Guatemalan army files revealed that 650,428 citizensmore than 10 percent of the populationwere marked for death over the course of the war.

Most of those who died were Indian villagers long distrusted by government officials for their independent beliefs and resistance to domination. Search teams have found mass graves filled with the bodies of babies, children, young women and men, and the elderly. One such discovery unearthed 2,000 corpsesvirtually the entire population of several neighboring communities.

I saw many times how the army killed the village people, said Santos, whose work took him to construction sites around the country. One time they attacked a village and burned the houses with the people inside. When the people tried to flee, a helicopter shot them with a gun. They thought the people supported the guerillas. Babies died. Old people died. Babies don’t support guerillas.

Postwar Chaos

But ask Guatemalans what has changed since the peace accords were signed, and many will reply that too much has remained the same. Postwar violence made world headlines in 1998 when a Roman Catholic bishop, Juan Gerardi, was bludgeoned to death after he reported military abuses to a commission investigating wartime atrocities. The judge who later convicted three army officers and a priest in the killing was forced to flee after receiving death threats. But after blaming the government and army for 90 percent of the wartime killings, a truth commission recommended amnesty and anonymity for all those who committed abuses.

Meanwhile, violent crime and mob incidents have surged since the end of the war. U.N. observers attribute this both to lack of social cohesion and distrust toward civil procedures that fail to protect citizens’ rights. As a result, people have taken things into their own hands.

Mobs and gangs have killed hundreds of people since the war ended. In 2001, U.N. observers documented 123 murders through March aloneincluding an incident in which villagers hacked a judge to death with machetes after he freed two rape suspects. In July, an angry crowd tortured and fatally burned eight villagers accused of robbery. In October about 1,000 peasants attacked a police station when authorities refused to arrest a suspect in a fatal shooting. Witnesses who found some of the bullets said they matched those used by police.

A recent U.S. consulate statement warned: Guatemalan citizen frustration with crime and a lack of appropriate judicial remedies has led to violent incidents of vigilantism in more isolated, rural areas. Attempting to intervene puts one at risk of attack from others.

Other killings around the country have been linked to former army personnel intent on war-related revenge. Many officers now work within police ranks, toting machine guns as they ride in groups of up to 10 in the back of pickup trucks. According to a World Policy Report on ex-army staff, some are now kidnapping for ransom. Others have taken up armed robbery. Still others have hired themselves out as private guards to combat labor unions and land invasions. And in rural Guatemala, former civil patrollers are still armed, and are now using firearms to defend the land and homes they seized from neighbors who fled into the mountains or abroad during the civil war.

Santos witnessed violence firsthand. One of his brothers was shot dead by unknown assailants on an election day after he voted for the opposition. His second brother was seriously wounded by gunfire after he resigned from the army out of frustration over military abuses. Santos himself was tortured simply because he was a trade-union leader.

They asked me about my ideology, he said. They broke both sides of my body. I lost consciousness. It happened to so many people, but we had to be quiet. If we tried to complain or investigate, more bad things would happen. There is no source where we could go for justice.

Amnesty International has denounced the postwar violence as well as the rise in burglaries at nongovernmental organization officesapparently an effort to destroy records the N.G.O.’s use to document abuses. In October 2001 a Human Rights Procurator’s office administrator was threatened with death; his office was ransacked, and his car was damaged. The U.N. Human Rights Committee similarly criticized the government’s systematic violations of the right to life, freedom and the safety of people. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern over the absence of effective law and the continued use of lynching as a form of vigilante justice among peasants disillusioned by the lack of civil order.

The peace that was signed in 1996 is not peace in reality, said Steve Bennett, executive director of Witness for Peace in Washington, D.C. The suspension of human rights is just one more step toward reintroducing the military into civilian lifewhich is specifically prohibited in the peace accords. Impunity is a major problem in Guatemala. People are continually living in an atmosphere of fear.

Lingering Distrust

Social upheaval also has slowed the pace of reform. As a result, Guatemalans have continued to flee out of political, economic and human desperation. In fact, some of those who returned home under a postwar amnesty plan have left again after being sent to resettlement camps and left to work for inadequate wages while being scorned for having fled.

We still have quite a lot of Guatemalan and other Central American trafficabout 15 percent of apprehensions, said John Brinning, supervisory officer with the U.S. Border Patrol in Harlingen, Tex., a city with many Latin American residents and a common destination for those who cross Mexico’s northeastern border. Those I’ve come across usually break down and cry and say that they fear they’ll be killed or their family will be killed. It makes you feel very sympathetic. We try to help them if they ask for asylum. We note, He has credible fears.’

The Border Patrol arrested more than 22,000 illegal entrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in 2001turning some back across the border, imprisoning suspected criminals and detaining those seeking political asylum until their case is heard at an Immigration and Naturalization Service hearing. During the fiscal years 1989 to 2000, the I.N.S. approved 1,570 Guatemalan requests for political asylum and denied 18,579. During the year 2000, 187 requests were granted, 1,289 were denied and 1,823 remained pending.

Santos fled to ward off harassment of his wife, daughter and five sons. As a union leader, he was a visible target of government suspicion, so he made his way north through Mexico by bus. His final hurdlecrossing the Rio Grande into the United Statescost him $100. He was guided through a remote area by one of many so-called coyotes who earn handsome profits through the human-trafficking trade. The going rate from Harlingen to Houston, Tex., is $600 to $800.

In 2001 the Guatemalan president, Alfonso Portillo, asked the Bush administration to back legislation allowing more Guatemalan refugees to become permanent residents in the United States, in accordance with earlier legislation on Nicaraguans and Cubans. Some analysts say Portillo would rather keep potential troublemakers away. The president won election in 1999 despite his admission that he had killed two menand notwithstanding his close association with party leader Efrain Rios Montt, a former right-wing dictator whose U.S.-supported regime oversaw some of the worst atrocities of the war. Montt now serves as president of the National Congress.

Some people think we have no right to come to the United States, Santos said. They ignore what the United States did in Guatemala. The truth is that we aren’t here because we want to be here. The government of the United States supported the war and provided weapons. As a result, we had to flee.

Controversy Over Children

Many of Guatemala’s young also are leaving for other lands through placement for international adoptions. During 2000, more than 2,200 of the nation’s children were adopted abroad, including 1,532 who came to the United States. None was placed among Guatemalan families, despite a U.N. stipulation that home-country placement should be a priority.

According to a report by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, some of the adoptions have been fraught with irregularities. While adoptions have given many young war orphans a legitimate chance at a better life, others reportedly have been kidnapped from villages or procured through bribery and other manipulation.

In 2001, Holland temporarily suspended its authorization of adoptions from Guatemala. An official cited evidence that some women had been forced to give up their children after being pressured by criminal gangs. The same year, Spain suspended its authorization of Guatemalan adoptions pending a review of selection procedures.

International groups also have urged a halt to Guatemala’s persistent use of child labor, which may represent as much as 60 percent of the nation’s workforce. More than 300,000 children perform agricultural labor, and 50,000 work in the manufacturing sectorincluding 5,000 who work in fireworks factories and 3,000 who work at gunpowder plants. About 20 percent of children aged 10 to 14 work throughout the country, engaged in such tasks as street vending, shoe-shining, trash collection and rural jobs. At least 90,000 girls work as maids, mostly in Guatemala City, the nation’s capital. Almost 40 percent of working children are Indians. Statistics are sketchy on the number of children who work as beggars, prostitutes and drug couriers.

Price of Progress

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) and several individual nations have provided millions of dollars in assistance to accelerate Guatemala’s reconstruction. Yet some analysts fear that a predominantly economic emphasis will bolster the wealth and power of a corrupt elite, widen the gap between the middle class and the poor and destroy what remains of indigenous cultureall in the name of globalization.

Ironically, some sectors of Guatemala’s capital city rival many international destinations. The city’s national convention center draws historic global negotiations. Its more fashionable streets boast Western fast-food restaurants, huge department stores and the finest Parisian perfumes. But such wealth remains a distant dream among those who live in the city’s slums, or barrios marginales, where more than 50 percent of residents share rooms with three to five people and more than one-fifth share rooms with six to nine others. At the same time, city life is beyond the wildest imagination of the rural poor.

In late 2001, more than 20,000 rural workers held nationwide demonstrations to demand hastened land distribution, stronger labor rights, better housing and rural development as promised during the peace negotiations. The protests followed the fatal shooting of an activist who challenged the land claims of a wealthy plantation owner. Plantation guards were implicated in the killing. The owner claimed he was being robbed. Many such incidents have been documented across the country.

According to an I.M.F. report in 2001, Guatemala continues to face serious problems of poverty and income distribution. Nearly 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the income received by the richest quintile is 30 times the income of the poorest quintile, and 2.5 percent of farms take up 65 percent of agricultural land.

The I.M.F. has reported progress in working with the government on its stringent reconstruction loan requirements, and the World Bank has reported success with several projects. For example, a $31 million World Bank loan is financing a program in the northern highlands that involves mapping, property demarcation, adjudication of farmers’ land claims and title registration. Another loan of $62 million is supporting basic education programs throughout a nation in which 40 percent of the workforce lacks even a single year of formal education.

But most of the nation’s poor farmers still struggle to cultivate meager harvests on thin, terraced strips carved into dry hillsides. Others tend a few cattle. Still others work in textile factories, or maquiladoras, where clothes are sewn and then exported. The factories, once dominated by U.S. interests, increasingly are owned by Asian firms that face burgeoning labor costs back home. Nationwide, despite new minimum-wage laws, the average wage among the working poor is less than $1 a day. Fewer than 8 percent of workers belong to unions. Almost 50 percent lack health coverage.

The World Bank and the I.M.F. require deregulation of the economy, said Rachel May, a U.S. scholar of Latin American affairs. Those kinds of policies increase growthbut at the expense of exacerbating poverty. I think it’s wrong. I don’t think social justice is high on their list. Privatization will reduce poor Guatemalans’ access to subsidized health care, social security, phone communications, public transportation and other human needs, May said. She added that such reforms also will minimize attention toward addressing citizens’ civil rights.

I don’t think they’re on the right path, she added. Poverty and social justice are being shamefully undervalued. Economic growth does not necessarily guarantee Guatemalan equality. The real solution has to be international in scopeto address inequalities and social justice in developing countries.

Other analysts say economic privatization is the only realistic way to battle Guatemala’s elitism, corruption and discrimination toward the indigenous poor. It is time, they suggest, to move beyond the romantic novels about how Mayan life used to be and recognize that it is unjust to deny citizens the right to nourishing food, decent housing and the economic means to better their future in concrete ways.

If their jobs remain agricultural, the cultural framework is going to be imprisoned by old patterns from the pastexploitation and racism, said Carol Gil, a U.S. expert on Latin American history. Foreign aid can break the old patterns. The more you close an economy, the more things remain the same.

We see Mayan culture in a simple fashion, Gil continued. Mayan culture has been changing over time. Globalization has comeand I’m not applauding it. But there are certain aspects that can benefit the poor villager who might be better off not working as a rural laborer, whose kids would be better off attending secondary school, who might benefit from having a car.

No one expects the transformation to come soon. If any lesson has been learned, perhaps it is that Guatemala’s history remains as much a formidable obstacle to the nation’s future as it is a blueprint for what tragic mistakes to avoid, if the land of Mayan Indians ever is to find its civil, political and economic equilibrium.

The war is over, but the effects of the war are lingering, Santos said. The government has stopped shooting, but I don’t know how many years my country will suffer. I believe in Godand God didn’t create hatred and war and racism. God created man to live and work in peace.

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17 years 1 month ago
The article “Guatemala’s Violent Peace,” by Robert B. Gilbert, (3/25) must have tugged at the heart of every New York Sister of Charity as we recall with sorrow the assassination of our sister, Barbara Ann Ford, on May 5 of last year.

Barbara had served the poor of Guatemala for almost 20 years as a nurse and trained counselor when she was fatally shot by someone determined to steal her vehicle.

Your graphic piece leaves one appalled at the level of cruelty people are capable of when they inflict such horror on others for an economic, social or racial pretext.

The situation in Guatemala described in the article ranks right up there with the malice of the terrorism we experienced here on Sept. 11. By the grace of God, it has not deterred the five remaining Sisters of Charity who continue working among the Guatemalan people.

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