Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Mayan Pride Lives as Patrols Harass, Displace, Destroy

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Mayan Pride Lives as Patrols Harass, Displace, Destroy

Article excerpt

CHICHICASTENANGO, Guatemala -- The cranky Blue Bird school bus was stuffed far beyond its "maximum pupil capacity 65" limit as it edged through rounded highland mountains toward the Mayan market city of Chichicastenango.

An elderly Mayan woman, wearing a heavy woven huipil blouse with embroidered lines and characters that identified her village of origin, sat quietly under a black-lettered sign, an anachronism from the time when this vehicle wound through U.S. city streets with youngsters aboard, before it was sold to Guatemala. "Your children's safety is our business" the sign announced cheerfully -- not in Spanish, not in K'iche', but in English.

As the bus approached the Los Encuentros military checkpoint, the woman's thoughtful gaze became a bolt of fear. Her forehead tightened, inching back the thick black braid that rested, like a sculpture, along her spine.

"They are going to search them," she murmured, as soldiers ordered the men to descend from the school bus, identity documents in hand. There was an absence of chatter as camouflage-clad troops checked I.D. cards and slid their hands forcefully over the men's torsos and the inseams of their pants, one by one, looking, so it seemed, for weapons. People had good reason to fear them: More than 38,000 Guatemalans have been "disappeared" by the army since the CIA helped orchestrate a military coup in the country in 1954; at least 100,000 civilians have died as a result of repression and political violence; and in what has been referred to as genocide, at least 400 entire Mayan villages -- and almost all of the people in them -- were eliminated under the army's scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaigns.

In 1994, forced disappearances continued in Guatemala at a rate of nearly one every three days. Extrajudicial executions totaled 138 -- an "alarming rate," in the words of a February 1995 U.S. State Department report, and a marked increase from 1993.

Understandably, the passengers on that Blue Bird bus released sighs of relief when the soldiers, most of them young Mayans themselves, gestured toward the door, allowing everyone to reboard.

Despite daily news headlines heralding a languishing peace process between URNG -- Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity -- guerrillas and the government and stories announcing the arrival of U.N. teams to monitor human rights abuses, terror prevails in the Guatemalan countryside, especially at Los Encuentros.

Impunity the norm

It was not far from that military outpost that publisher and presidential candidate Jorge Carpio, brother to President Ramiro de Leon Carpio, was murdered in July 1993, along with three companions. A public announcement from the Guatemala City archbishop's human rights office that evidence exists that implicates military-organized civil patrols in the slayings failed to force the government to apprehend the ski-masked men who committed the crime or those who ordered them to do it.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch/Americas, in its June 1994 report, "Human Rights in Guatemala During President Leon de Carpio's First Year," stated that the Guatemalan army, which has repeatedly bungled the investigation of Carpio's killing, "may be trying to hide its own links to the crime."

Political observers ask: With that level of impunity shrouding the murder of such a high-profile figure, what kind of justice or protection can poor Mayan Indians expect?

Hardly any, said Luis Mario Martinez, a representative from the Archbishop of Guatemala (City's) Human Rights Office, an award-winning justice organization.

"Those who commit violations realize they are not held responsible for crimes. There is no political will from the government to end impunity. Officials make speeches, but there are no arrests," Martinez said.

Fr. Axel Mencos is the vicar general of the Santa Cruz del Quiche diocese, a region bloodied by the counterinsurgency and political violence that began after the 1954 CIA-led coup that ousted President Jacobo Arbenz and brought a military junta to power. …

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