New Internationalist

The dead tell tales

Issue 311

While Guatemalans mourn those murdered by war, a culture of violence is still alive and kicking, writes Sarah Elton.

PAUL SMITH / PANOS
PAUL SMITH / PANOS

The air was still on the morning Monseñor 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 human-rights 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, human-rights 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. The Mutual Support Group, a human-rights organization, said 1998 ‘was very difficult, despite being the second year of peace’. The group registered 850 human-rights violations last year, including 545 assassinations, 54 disappearances and 46 kidnappings.

This can be attributed to what Rosalinda Bran, an academic expert in security and politics in Guatemala City, calls a culture of violence. According to Bran, people have violent responses because they have lived for decades in an environment of war. ‘Guatemalan society has assumed a bloody character since the war. Here, they rape, torture and murder you for your watch,’ she says.

Judicial chaos means citizens have little confidence in the system and are turning to vigilante groups. Lynchings are growing increasingly common with 130 suspected criminals being killed by rural mobs since 1996.

‘Logically violence breeds more violence. It is the conditioning of war,’ says Bran. She believes it will take at least two generations to change attitudes in Guatemala and advocates achieving a culture of tolerance through education.

Others, such as Maya rights activist Keb Noj, want Guatemalans to look deeper into history. Violence in Guatemala today is the culmination of the oppression and the injustices the indigenous people have suffered for the last 500 years, he says. ‘I know a lot about the human-rights abuses and murders in the 1980s. I know a lot about the governments. But when I turned 50, I wanted to know more about the history of my people,’ he says.

Noj believes that to find peace in Guatemala indigenous people must be respected. In a country where the Maya form the most marginalized sector of society, this is a tough demand to implement.

As the hearse carrying Gerardi’s body pulls away, the crowd begins to disperse. Now a new stage in Guatemalan history begins. The Maya who travelled by bus from the highlands to pay their respects to Gerardi will return to their villages. The human-rights activists will continue to struggle for change. In February 1999, the second stage of the REMHI project began, with volunteers returning to the sites of the interviews to ensure that the war is never forgotten. And Gerardi’s legacy will be etched in the collective memory of the Guatemalan people.

Sarah Elton is a master's student in political science at the University of Toronto and a freelance writer and broadcaster.

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