weeks ago, I began my work here as a human rights accompanier in the Ixcán
region of Guatemala. In a very short time, I have had the opportunity
to listen to incredible stories which constantly remind me why it is
important to continue in this struggle for justice and to remind
people (like you) about a forgotten genocide.
A civil war ravaged this country for 36
years which ended with the peace accords in 1996 and more than 200,000
civilians dead. 90% of the casualties were at the hands of the
US-backed Guatemalan army under the auspices of fighting “communism.”
In 2000 and 2001, a courageous group of war survivors filed charges of
genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against former
military dictators Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt and their
military high commands in the Guatemalan court system. Seven years
later, these cases remain in the investigative phase due to a lack of
political will to bring the accused to justice.
Living as an accompanier in these communities not only helps to deter
threats against the genocide case witnesses but also teaches the
lesson of survival and perseverance. Some people might think that this
type of work would be depressing. Simply put, the fact that
accompaniment exists is because massacres happened.
But, the stories I have heard about lost loved ones are not told with
a defeatist attitude. Yes, people still talk about the tragic losses
they lived through, but the remembrance of the dead in this culture is
very important. Many new children are named after the ones who died
during the conflict… to remember. Yes, survivors still cry and grieve.
Maybe that will never stop, but who’s to say what a normal reaction is
after living through a massacre?
What is unbelievably apparent in this community is the sense of hope.
The collective commitment is evident every day as an ongoing process
to raise the quality of life through education and better health
standards. Santa Maria Tzejá is organized and it seems that everyone
is involved in either one committee or another which is directly
related to a decision making process.
The Story of Santa Maria Tzeja (SMT)
In 1970, Mayan campesinos (peasant farmers) made the long, 150
mile journey from the highlands to the jungles of the Ixcán in search
of autonomy… a place where they could cultivate their land to support
their families and live in peace. They settled in SMT and began
cutting down trees, building houses, planting food and building a new
life for them selves. For the next ten years, they worked hard, formed
cooperatives and established a community that prospered.
Twelve years later, Monday, February 15th, 17 people were brutally
massacred; houses were burned to the ground; crops were destroyed.
Even the animals were slaughtered. One woman in particular was
pregnant during this time. She was shot and killed, her stomach sliced
open and the baby ripped out. Witnesses say the army cut off the head
of another man and put it in her stomach for others to find later. Her
little son escaped and hid under a
log and later recounted what had happened to his mother.
People have actually used the expression “lucky” to describe that day
in comparison to what took place in other neighboring communities. The
“scorched earth” campaign which began in 1981 by General Lucas Garcia
had started around the city of Chimaltenango and crossed through
central Guatemala towards the borders. The purpose of this campaign
was to eradicate the “subversive” guerilla forces but included
eliminating many innocent Mayan campesinos and their families in the
process. One slogan of this campaign was “the fish can’t survive
without water.” In other words, the guerillas were the fish and the
easiest way to kill fish is to eliminate the water… the water was
A neighboring community called Santo Tomas was invaded a day earlier
(February 14th, 1982) by the Guatemalan army. 41 people were killed
and the rest (400-500 people) fled to the mountains. SMT, being very
near the border to Mexico was fortunate to have heard about the army
coming and most of the town escaped to the mountains before they
arrived. Of course, not everyone had the opportunity to flee. Some hid
and were not found by the army. Others were killed.
Less than a month later, in another Guatemalan community on the border
of Mexico called Cuarto Pueblo, more than 350 people were killed.
So, the community of SMT disappeared into the mountains… men,
women, children, elderly, the sick… everyone. One couple, Thomas and
Maria recounted their story to me. They left suddenly and were forced
to leave everything behind to save themselves. Thomas has tears in his
eyes as he remembers how their family was prospering at that time.
They owned seven head of cattle, 60 chickens and a parcela (plot of
land for harvest) ready to harvest. He recalls years of hard work and
when they left, “the army destroyed everything.” They killed all the
animals and burned all the crops and houses.
They had three young children with them while they lived in hiding in
the mountains of Guatemala for nearly 10 months before crossing the
border into Chiapas, Mexico. Maria recalls that during this time, many
people, and especially babies died from dehydration and other
sicknesses. Food was scarce and they constantly watched their backs in
fear that the army would find them. Ten-and-a-half years they lived as
refugees in Chiltepec, Mexico as they waited for the peace accords to
Twelve years later, when the community returned to SMT, they started
over from scratch. The sole surviving building was the community
center, which was promptly converted into a catholic church.
Everything else was re-built, the land divided into parcelas and a new
school was implemented.
Since then, the people of SMT have worked hard to create a thriving
community that continues to grow through the work of the food
cooperative, the women’s union, the school committees and other
community development committees. Today, there is a library, a
computer center, many new community buildings and a proposal on the
table about building a high school.
25th Anniversary of Santa Maria Tzeja Massacre
Around 500 people gathered into the Catholic Church to attend the mass
that was held in commemoration of the dead on February 21st. People
from neighboring communities came to the church in SMT along with
Radio Ixcán to broadcast the service live.
A monument in dedication to those that lost their lives in the region
stands outside the church. It is a triangular shaped stone painted
bright green about 6 feet high which is surrounded by a small metal
fence. The names of the victims are etched into the stone on all three
sides. On this day flowers and burning candles surrounded the monument
and palm leaves covered the fence.
Members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the
survivors/witnesses, were in attendance and some spoke live on the
radio about the importance of remembering this day and the fact that
the guilty parties still have not been tried and prosecuted for their
crimes. During the service, the priest and members of the AJR read the
names of the dead five times and once more in front of the monument.
25th Anniversary of the Coup d’etat of General Rios Montt
Rios Montt headed a military regime which began on March 23rd, 1982.
He left a legacy of violence including widespread massacres, rape,
torture, and acts of genocide against the indigenous population that
still haunts the country today. Extradition requests for him by the
Spanish Courts (under international jurisdiction) have been received
by Guatemalan courts. As of today, the Guatemalan courts have yet to
issue detention orders due to an appeal filed by Rios Montt’s attorney
disputing the constitutionality of applying an arrest order with
intent to extradite the former dictator.
Montt is planning to run for President of the Guatemalan Congress in
this year’s elections in order to gain immunity from prosecution. The
Guatemalan Attorney General’s office is obligated to respond to the
AJR’s demand to move the national legal process forward, which would
mean that Rios Montt would no longer be allowed to run for office.
This action must be taken to prevent his candidacy before candidate
registration begins on May 2nd.
Please take one moment of your time to send an e-mail to the
Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office to demand that the cases be moved
forward at this link:
The U.S. government financially and militarily backed many of the
dictators in power during the Guatemalan conflict, including General
Rios Montt. This gives us an added responsibility to urge our
representatives to support anti-impunity efforts in Guatemala. They
also need to request that the US Department of Justice’s Office of
International Affairs comply with the international arrest warrants,
including investigating and freezing any assets held in the US.
Kimberly Kern is a resident of
Austin, TX living and working in Guatemala with the Network in
Solidarity With the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). She can be reached