This photo makes everything look quite normal. That’s me with my old-fashioned notebook in the midst of a group of women who are telling my colleagues and I about the work they do to improve their lives and those of their families.
Their work is supported in part by the Council of Evangelical Churches of Guatemala (CIEDEG), whose gender equity program is in turn supported by The United Church of Canada. The local work is carried forward by the Ixil Development Coordination (CODI), which serves the Maya Ixil population in and around Nebaj in the Guatemalan department of El Quiché.
Our conversations this past weekend carried reminders of what had happened here during the years of repression and resistance in the 1980s and early 90s.
In 1984, I wrote for Catholic New Times about the Iglesia Guatemalteca en Exilio—the Guatemalan Church in Exile—a group from El Quiché that I met in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Repression in the department had become so fierce that the Catholic diocese of Santa Cruz del Quiché had closed its churches and withdrawn its personnel. Tens of thousands of people fled into the mountains, to other parts of Guatemala, to southern Mexico, and as far away as Nicaragua and Canada. In the same period, some Protestant pastors banded together to form CIEDEG in 1987 as a way to defend human rights, expose violence and seek support from the global ecumenical community.
The Nebaj area was a particular target of U.S-backed military operations in 1982-83, when Otto Pérez Molina (known then as “Major Tito”) was the local military commander. He later served as Guatemala’s president from 2011-15, and is now in jail and facing corruption charges. The military dictator at the time, then-Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, is accused of 1,771 specific murders in the area. For more on the role of Pérez Molina, see the Democracy Watch interview and documentary: “Allan Nairn Exposes Role of U.S. and New Guatemalan President in Indigenous Massacres.”
Some 200,000 people were killed in the civil war, 93 per cent of them at the hands of the government’s armed forces, according to the United Nations. The report found that 83 per cent of victims were Mayans and nearly half of the human rights abuses were committed in the department of Quiché.
These days in Guatemala, conversations about peace and on-going violence tend to spin out between extremes. On the one hand, popular protests pressed forward a series of corruption investigations that saw the president—the same Otto Pérez Molina—and vice-president imprisoned since last year. Then in January, 18 senior military officials (12 of them trained in the infamous U.S. School of the Americas) were arrested and face charges related to their roles in forced disappearances in the 1980s.
On the other hand, criminal violence continues to spiral out of control—as it does in neighbouring Honduras and El Salvador. In Honduras, this escalation has many factors, some of them related to the 2009 U.S.-sponsored coup and others to drug-trafficking. In El Salvador, it has to do with ongoing violence between various “maras” (gangs) that compete for control of neighbourhoods, drug routes, protection payments from businesses, and public transit.
In Guatemala, you might say that all of those factors—it was the coup way back in 1954 that undid all potential for democratic reform in these ensuing decades—have to do with violence here.
At one point, I said to a friend that it seemed to me that the violence in these three Central American countries had to do with the failure of the peace accords that ended the civil wars, and the failure to provide some sort of authentic development in the sub-region. But my friend replied, “No, in fact, it has all worked out exactly the way that the elites and the business-owners wanted: people are fighting with each other, too afraid to raise their voices, and they are afraid of their neighbours.”
Perhaps both things are true. As in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the rich countries made promises as the wars came to an end (El Salvador’s peace accord was signed in 1992 and Guatemala’s in 1996) that were either unfulfilled or twisted so as to fill the coffers of those who already had money and power. The consequences of failure to transform the lives of the impoverished majorities in the wake of the civil wars are incredibly high rates of violence and unconstrained migration toward Mexico and the United States.
I often think that churches, even those that seem to worship the golden calf of globalized capitalism, do one thing very well. They bring people out of their isolation and into community.
Over time, if not suborned to keep their prosperity-fueled, “Jesus-and-me” rhetoric on a vertical axis only, some of them—perhaps even most—will start reflecting on the horizontal nature of community and on the Gospel call to be makers of peace and seekers of justice.
That is going on today in El Salvador (as I have described in previous posts), and some religious leaders in Guatemala and Honduras are watching closely.
(The three additional photos on this page are detail from a mural beside the Catholic Church in Nebaj.)