Magazine article New Internationalist

The Dead Tell Tales: While Guatemalans Mourn Those Murdered by War, a Culture of Violence Is Still Alive and Kicking

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Dead Tell Tales: While Guatemalans Mourn Those Murdered by War, a Culture of Violence Is Still Alive and Kicking

Article excerpt

The air was still on the morning Monsenor Gerardi's coffin was marched slowly around the crowded central square. Hundreds of people from all sectors of society tossed red and white carnations on the casket of the bishop, who people suspect was assassinated for his role as head of the project for the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI), which was created to unearth the history of civil-war human-rights abuses.

But no-one was shocked when the news of Gerardi's murder hit the streets last April. In the village of Ciudad Vieja, just outside Guatemala's capital, his death was announced to all residents over a loud speaker and the church bells rang for half an hour non-stop in memoria, but people continued their daily activities as usual. It simply was not surprising that Gerardi too would fall prey to the violence that has spilled over from the War into Guatemala's so-called peace -- the 36-year-long civil war ended on 31 December 1996 with the signing of the final peace accord between the state and the left-wing guerrillas, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.

Gerardi had been forced into exile in the early 1980s after denouncing the military's human-rights abuses against indigenous people. A decade later, his REMHI report says the military is to blame for the majority of the trauma. After conducting more than 6,000 interviews with both victims and perpetrators of the crimes, REMHI concluded that 79 per cent of all human-rights abuses during the War were carried out by the Army while the guerrillas were responsible for nine per cent. The document lists more than 55,000 severe humanrights violations, including 422 mass slaughters. The report also calls for victim compensation and underlines the importance of writing the horrors experienced during the War into the history books.

Only 48 hours after releasing the report, Gerardi was murdered. As he was returning home late one night, someone smashed his head with a concrete block as he climbed out of his car. The Catholic Church's human-rights office has announced that evidence exists that implicates the military in Gerardi's death. In an interview days after the assassination, Edgar Gutierrez, Co-ordinator of the REMHI project, said: 'This has had the impact of reliving the terror Guatemalans lived in the 1980s. It is like the nightmare never ended.' Judges, lawyers, humanrights activists and journalists are still subject to harassment and regularly receive death threats.

But it is not only people working for change who must confront violence in post-war Guatemala -- everyone faces the daily risk of random assaults like kidnapping, murder and hijacking. …

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