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Glimmers of Hope in Guatemala

Cornell Capa/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images
Jacobo Árbenz, then president of Guatemala, with his wife Maria, Guatemala, circa 1953

If the young generation of Guatemalans seems one promising force born out of the conflict, newly invigorated indigenous movements are another. Descendants of Mayan Indians make up much of Guatemala’s population. Since the era of Spanish conquest they have been subject to continued oppression, and they were the principal victims of the civil war. Today they are demanding rights with a fervor never before seen in Guatemala. During the last few years, foreign-operated mines have been a focus of their protests.

One conflict is over the Marlin mine, two hundred miles northwest of the capital. It is operated by a Canadian company, Goldcorp, under a concession granted by the Guatemalan government. In 2010, according to Goldcorp, the mine produced its millionth ounce of gold, and it “continues to generate significant cash flow.” On its website, the company asserts that it is guided by “a desire to work for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders” and seeks “to conduct our business in a socially, economically and environmentally respectful and responsible manner.”

Protests against mining have emerged in several Latin American countries in recent years. Those in Guatemala are notable for their intensity, the participation of indigenous communities, and the international attention they have attracted. A film about this conflict, Gold Fever, had its premiere at the Teatro Nacional in Guatemala City in April and has since been shown at festivals, theaters, and campuses in more than twenty countries. In 2011, after visiting Guatemala, the United Nations rapporteur for indigenous people, James Anaya, expressed “grave concern” over the “alarming lack of legal protection for the rights of indigenous people over their traditional lands and territories, which leaves Guatemala lagging behind other countries in the region that have made progress in that regard.”

Currently in Guatemala, the business activities underway in the traditional territories of the indigenous peoples have generated a highly unstable atmosphere of social conflict, which is having a serious impact on the rights of the indigenous people and threatening the country’s governance and economic development.
The repercussions include numerous allegations concerning the effects on the health and the environment of the indigenous people as a result of the pollution caused by the extractive activities; the loss of indigenous lands and damage to indigenous people’s property and houses; the disproportionate response to legitimate acts of social protest, and the harassment of and attacks on human rights defenders and community leaders.

Mining provides the government with desperately needed tax revenue. Few benefits, however, trickle down to people who live near mines. They say mining contributes to disease and environmental destruction, and exacerbates social tensions. In April and May a protest against silver mining in San Rafael Las Flores, fifty miles southeast of the capital, escalated into violence and the death of a police officer and a protester, leading President Pérez Molina to impose a thirty-day state of siege in the region, limiting residents’ right to meet and move freely. The political elite continues to view protest movements as antigovernment subversion rather than legitimate expressions of grievance.

Because the country is still not a safe place to live, the recovery of history is difficult. Yet the legacy of terror is on full view at the Historical Archive of the National Police. This archive is a deeply impressive symbol of Guatemala’s fitful effort to deal with its past.

Documents from the archive reproduced in From Silence to Memory offer a terrifying look at the inner workings of a murderous police force. A postmortem card bears fingerprints of a victim called XX, the name under which thousands were buried. A one-sentence note introduces a list of “individuals known to collaborate with guerrillas or subversive delinquents in the Quiché region.” A surveillance photo of a student demonstration on September 20, 1978, has a cross identifying the twenty-three-year-old student leader Oliverio Castañeda de León; he was killed a month later.

In a preface to From Silence to Memory, Kate Doyle of the Washington-based National Security Archive writes:

The report also explains how an institution charged with fighting crime and guaranteeing public order could be radically re-engineered to become an instrument of terror. The decisive moment came in 1954, when the United States supported a coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president in favor of dictatorship…. In short order, the importance of the National Police’s counter-subversive mission overcame their ordinary law enforcement functions, fatally infecting the culture of the institution.

This is the largest police archive to have emerged from Latin America. Smaller ones have been opened or found in several other countries, but access to them is restricted. In Argentina, for example, considerations of privacy prevent the release of many documents to researchers. The Guatemalan archive is open to any citizen. Documents found here have led to trials in which former police officers, including some of high rank, have been given long prison terms for political killings and other offenses.

From Silence to Memory is divided into four sections, each in the form of a richly documented essay. The first traces the history of the National Police and its degeneration into an instrument of political repression. The second describes the police force’s relations with its security partners, including the army and United States advisers. The third documents the tactics police used to control the population. I was struck by the final section, which presents the detailed cases of nine victims. One of the nine was my first Guatemalan friend.

During my visits to Guatemala in the late 1970s, I came to know a dynamic and ambitious politician, Manuel Colom Argueta. As a student he had organized protests against the military regime the United States supported after overthrowing Árbenz. He formed a left-leaning political party called the United Revolutionary Front, served four years as mayor of Guatemala City, and planned to seek the presidency in 1980. Pleased that an American had taken an interest in his country’s politics, he spent hours talking to me about its history, the nature of the conflict into which it had fallen, and his hopes for its future. On March 22, 1979, he and his two bodyguards were shot dead as they drove through Guatemala City. He was forty-six years old.

From Silence to Memory reports that researchers at the Historical Archive of the National Police have found 117 documents showing that the police were “involved in a political persecution of Manuel Colom Argueta that lasted 22 years.” They include surveillance reports, notes about Colom’s foreign travels, license plate numbers of motorcycles that he reported as having followed his car, and notes describing him as Communist and a terrorist, neither of which he was. An account of his murder says that the death squad was composed of at least three cars and two motorcycles, and that Colom fled from the scene but was killed when “a well-built young man carrying a machine gun dismounted in order to finish the victim off.” The report concludes that Colom was marked for death because of “his role as a political leader with roots in broad sectors of the population,” and because he “seemed to be capable of achieving electoral success by offering a different option on the political spectrum of that era.”

This assassination and others allowed generals to maintain their control of the presidency. With help from Argentina, South Africa, Taiwan, Israel, and the United States—President Reagan praised General Ríos Montt as “a man of great personal integrity” who had been given “a bum rap” as a human rights abuser—the army launched a scorched-earth campaign against rebels and their presumed supporters. Nearly all of the estimated 200,000 victims were civilians, and according to the UN investigating commission, 83 percent of them were indigenous people. This murderous campaign became possible after security forces cut down virtually the entire class of emerging civilian leaders, symbolized by Colom Argueta.

Although no documents in the police archive contain orders to kidnap or kill, some are damning enough to have led to convictions and jail sentences. There is no direct evidence of who abducted the labor leader Edgar Fernando García in 1984, for example, but an order was found citing four officers for commendation after an “operation” launched at a particular time and place in Guatemala City. Investigators knew that García was abducted at that time and place. Two of the implicated officers were found and convicted, along with two of their superiors, one of whom had been director of the National Police. All were given forty-year jail sentences.

Documents found in the police archive, according to the conclusion of From Silence to Memory, trace the roots of Guatemala’s tragedy to the CIA intervention of 1954:

Several decrees issued between 1954 and 1956 are a reflection of the growing anti-communist current, bringing about the creation of various agencies of repression that were gradually integrated into, and their functions taken over by the police institution. It was then that it evolved into the National Police as it was known during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s….
The documents in the [police archive] attest to the close working relationship between the various State security forces. These coordinated activities were especially common in the context of the international struggle against communism led by the United States. In Guatemala, this persecution intensified in 1954 after the overthrow of the elected president Jacobo Árbenz and alignment with the dictates of the US respecting hemispheric security policies as laid out in the National Security Doctrine.

It is still easy, as it has been for most of the last half-century, to see Guatemala as a dark place with no exit. The deep inequality that has plagued the country since the days of conquest continues. So does the culture of violence that has enveloped Guatemala since the 1954 coup. Yet the opening of the police archive, Ríos Montt’s conviction, and the commemoration of Árbenz can be seen as a historical sequence, testifying to the resilience of a devastated society and offering glimmers of hope that were all but unimaginable just a few years ago.

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