Guatemala: Voices from Silent Refuge

September 25, 2007

On February 27, two private helicopters took off from Guatemala City’s Aurora airport and headed toward the mountains of El Quiché. Less than a half hour later they landed in Cabá, a remote army outpost in the center of one of the country’s most conflictive war zones. The helicopters carried a 20-person delegation of journalists and labor and church leaders, including two Catholic bishops. In Cabá, the group was met by a crowd of 500 Indians. As the visitors approached, one elderly woman offered a straightforward greeting: “We’re glad you’ve come. We’ve been waiting for you for years.”

Another woman, her hair bound up in the traditional red cloth of the Ixil people, stood up to speak. Although Spanish was not her first language, her voice was clear and forceful: “We are living in resistance from the army. Our demand is that the government grant us true peace and freedom.”

The encounter last February marked the first open meeting with members of the “popular resistance communities” (CPRs) of El Quiché. The CPRs are groups of civilians who fled army massacres in 1982 and have remained in the mountains outside military control, despite the army’s efforts to force them to return. Months of planning went into the meeting; both the army and the guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) observed a cease-fire to give the CPRs free access in and out of Cabá. For two days, the visiting “multipartite commission” heard testimony from community leaders describing their experience “debajo de la montaña,” surviving amidst the dense brush and forest cover of northern El Quiché, eluding the army.

Breaking the Silence

The popular resistance communities are located in two areas of El Quiché: the so-called “Ixil Triangle,” surrounding the towns of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal, and the Ixcán jungle region to the north, bordering Mexico. Both were hard hit by the 1982 counterinsurgency and then resettled as part of the army’s “war of reconstruction” to wrest territory and support from the guerrillas. But outside the perimeter of army-controlled “model villages,” the displaced built their own settlements. Some 20,000 people curently live in these “illegal villages,” as the army calls them. Aside from clandestine and sporadic trade with nearby army-controlled villages, until this year the CPRs had no contact with the rest of the country. Although living conditions are precarious, the displaced farm collectively in tightly-knit communities, with their own teachers and health promoters.

The army views the displaced population as a base of support for the guerrillas. In 1987, 4,500 soldiers were sent to the Ixil region to dismantle the CPRs and resettle the displaced into new model villages. According to former defense minister Gen. Héctor Gramajo, 5,000 people were brought down from the mountains between September 1987 and April 1988. The offensive combined aerial bombardment with ground forays to rout out the displaced and destroy their crops. Military activity in the Ixil region was stepped up again in late 1990; just five days before the visit of the international observer delegation to Cabá, the army captured 68 campesinos from the San Marcos CPR in Chajul.

Because the land they now occupy is more fertile than their highland villages, the displaced say they want to stay in their new communities. The CPRs are calling for an end to army attacks and for the freedom to harvest their crops and trade with nearby villages. Most importantly, they ask to be recognized as civilian non-combatants. Marcelino, a campesino in one CPR, explained, “We are not guerrillas. They pass through sometimes, they buy some of what we produce, and they protect as from the army.”

The CPRs are just one facet of the massive upheaval of the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1982, more than 1.3 million people were forcibly displaced in Guatemala, nearly one-fifth of the country’s total population. In the hardest hit regions of the central and northwestern highlands, up to 80% of the population was at least temporarily displaced. Some 200,000 refugees fled to Mexico; several hundred thousand remained in Guatemala as “internally displaced,” flooding into the capital or provincial cities, or looking for permanent work on the agro-export plantations of the Pacific coast.

In contrast to El Salvador, where the displaced were able to organize and articulate demands, in Guatemala, the vast majority ended up in a “silent refuge,” forced out of fear to meld anonymously into the general population. For many Indians, this meant shedding signs of ethnic identity, like dress and language, which might indicate a person’s place of origin.

Several events helped bring the plight of the displaced to the forefront. The 1987 Central American peace plan identified assistance for refugees and the displaced as a regional priority, as did a May 1989 U.N. refugee conference held in Guatemala. At the same time, the Catholic Church took on a greater mediating role within Guatemalan society. As part of the regional peace accords, a National Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1988, headed by Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño. In November 1988, the Commission inaugurated a “national dialogue” which lasted for more than a year. While not really national, (since neither the army, nor the guerrillas, nor the major business groups participated), it did provide a forum for grassroots groups to take up some issues previously considered taboo, such as the situation of refugees and the internally displaced.

Parallel to, and encouraged by, these events, new organizations emerged. In 1988, Guatemalan refugees in Mexico formed “permanent commissions” to consider a collective repatriation and to present their demands to the government. These included: the right to reclaim former lands; the demilitarization of rural communities; and the right to have international observers accompany those who return. In September 1989, the National Council of the Displaced (CONDEG) was formed by displaced groups in the capital and the Pacific coast.

Last September 7, the CPRs went public for the first time inside Guatemala. In a full-page statement carried by the press they denounced army bombing raids in El Quiché and demanded that the military cordon around their communities be lifted. And they requested national and international support for their reintegration into Guatemalan society. In January, four CPR delegates traveled to Guatemala City to meet with the Catholic Church, popular organizations and foreign diplomats. The army reacted swiftly, calling the CPRs a “political arm” of the guerrilla insurgency. But it could not undo increased public awareness of the displaced, nor public desire to respond to the CPRs’ petition.

The transition from silence to open discussion did not go unmarred. On September 11, anthropologist Myrna Mack was stabbed to death outside her office in Guatemala City. Mack was the only Guatemalan researcher to publish studies on the internally displaced; many believe the army killed her as a warning to others interested in assisting these populations. The murder generated widespread protest in academic circles in the United States and Europe.

A Pilot Peace Plan

The CPRs’ tales of army harassment struck a chord in society at large, appearing at a time when the hegemonic role of the army in national life is being openly questioned. Throughout 1990, politicians, businessmen and grassroots leaders held a series of “pre-peace talks” with the URNG guerrillas, in an unprecedented show of independence from the army. Last December’s massacre of 14 indigenous peasants in Santiago Atitlán sparked a wave of national and international protest that further isolated the military.

In late April, the government and the URNG began direct peace talks. The resettlement of displaced people is on the negotiating agenda. The most difficult issue will be demilitarization, a process which has already begun in other Central American countries. With Nicaragua’s army slashed by 50% and El Salvador inching toward a U.N.-mediated settlement, the Guatemalan army is on the defensive--though it is still the region’s most entrenched armed force. As Defense Minister Luís Mendoza bluntly stated recently, “The Guatemalan army does not understand, nor does it wish to understand, the concept of demilitarization, and it rejects any suggestion that its numbers be reduced, even if peace with the insurgency should be achieved.” Since the start of the peace talks, the political climate in Guatemala has turned increasingly hostile, with a new wave of violence and death threats against the popular movement.

In the ongoing war for the hearts and minds of the rural population, aid to the displaced is a politically charged issue, as the multipartite commission knows well. Still, the commission is determined to maintain contact with the CPRs; a second visit took place in May. The visits are seen as the first step to a stronger presence on the part of churches, non-governmental organizations and international observers in Guatemala’s zones of conflict. Commission members believe ther involvement has had at least one concrete effect: Since February the army has not attacked the CPR settlements, although troops still surround the area.

The CPRs view their level of community organization as “an example and the seed of hope for a new society of Guatemala’s poor”--precisely what the army fears. Conditions for the CPRs are not likely to change overnight. But as the displaced emerge from their silent refuge to demand reintegration into Guatemalan society on their own terms, it seems unlikely the clock can be turned back.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Louise Edwards is a free-lance journalist based in Guatemala.

Tags: Guatemala, CPR, resistance, displaced, opposition

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