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Anna-Claire Bevan is a freelance journalist currently based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines both in Guatemala and back home in the UK. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of international media coverage that this area of the world receives.

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Anna-Claire Bevan is a freelance journalist currently based in Guatemala City.

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Living on One – the reality of a dollar-a-day existence

Living on One

Living on a dollar a day in Guatemala © Living on One

Economics students are no strangers to numbers. Chris Temple and Zack Ingrasci were familiar with the overwhelming statistic that 1.1 billion people live on a dollar a day, but they still couldn’t understand it.

‘Coming from Connecticut and Seattle we just couldn’t comprehend how someone could manage such a small amount of money for all their costs,’ said Temple. ‘We wanted to get a first-hand understanding and share it with our friends – we couldn’t be the only people struggling to connect to these issues.’

So, in the summer of 2010, Temple, Ingrasci and their filmmaker friends, Sean Leonard and Ryan Christoffersen, left the comfort of their middle-class homes in the US, and rented an abandoned storage shed in Peña Blanca, an impoverished Mayan community in Solola, western Guatemala. They lived on $1 a day for two months, battling parasites, fleas, financial stress, fainting spells and a never-before-experienced hunger along the way.  

‘We knew that we could never fully replicate poverty, but we did want to simulate a few key aspects in an academic way,’ said Ingrasci. ‘We made our income unpredictable and tried to start our own business.’

To imitate the unstable income that their neighbours faced as casual labourers, they distributed their joint budget of $224 into 56 daily incomes of between zero and nine and placed each of the numbers into a hat. Each day they drew a number at random, which would give them their daily budget. Some days they got lucky, pulling out an eight or a nine, and some days they had to go without.

After mastering the essentials, such as levelling the dirt floor they were to sleep on, finding a water source and making a fire, they learnt how to barter in the local market and buy ingredients that would make their limited diet of beans, rice and tortillas go further.

Alongside the economic challenge of trying to survive on $1 a day, the four university students also wanted to gain an insight into how microfinance, giving small loans with mandatory savings to poor people, is helping to reduce poverty and spur entrepreneurship in rural areas. They took out their own $125 microloan to start a small business growing radishes, and conducted a series of financially themed interviews with their neighbours.  

‘In these interviews we saw the disparity between our lives and theirs. There’s no way we could replicate living at this level of poverty [our] entire lives,’ said Temple.

Keen to share their experience with friends and family back home, the team started editing short video blogs on the dirt floor of their hut and uploading them to YouTube – their first video made it onto the site’s front page and received 400,000 hits on its first day.

After weeks of sleeping on a dirt floor, drinking dirty water and eating an inadequate diet, the four students started to see changes in their bodies:

‘It was the first time in my life I’d ever been hungry, and it’s not just about having hunger pains: it’s about how it affects your entire mentality. You feel your body deteriorating and your mind working slower. Our nails changed colour and we worried there were going to be long-term health effects,’ said Ingrasci.

Three weeks into the experiment, Temple contracted giardia, an intestinal parasite, which gave the team an unforeseen insight into trying to cover unexpected medical bills on an already strained budget.

‘When Chris got sick, our simulation failed because we couldn’t cover the cost of medicine. It was $25 and we tried to save up for 10 days but it was impossible. $25 when you are spending money on firewood, food and paying back loans – it was impossible.’

Temple resorted to emergency medicine they had brought from home, knowing that his neighbours did not have that luxury.

When they returned to the US two months later, each of them nearly 10kg lighter, both Ingrasci and Temple felt optimistic about the potential their generation has to end extreme poverty. Their insight into how microfinance is having an effect on people living on the poverty line and empowering them to start their own businesses showed them there is hope.

With over 300 hours of footage from their time in Peña Blanca, they decided to make a documentary and use their experience as a way to connect with other students and increase awareness of the financial reality of the poor.

‘We felt like a lot of [poverty] films and documentaries are about making you feel bad about the situation and guilting you into making a difference. What we wanted to do was inspire people to make a difference and hopefully empower them to feel like they can create change in the world,’ said Ingrasci.

Shortly after returning from their trip, Ingrasci and Temple were invited to give a TED talk in Buenos Aires. Earlier this year, Living on One, which has been endorsed by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, was awarded Best Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival.

To learn more about Living on One visit: www.livingonone.org

A worldwide water revolution starts in Guatemala

Girl with ecofiltro filter

© Anna Bevan

What started out 30 years ago with a man called Fernando directing artisans on potter’s wheels in the small town of Rabinal, Guatemala, has resulted in a worldwide water revolution.

In Guatemala alone there are around a million families living without access to clean drinking water. Unable to afford purified bottled versions, they have two options: either spend a large proportion of their salary on firewood to boil water, which causes deforestation and pollutes the environment, or drink dirty water, which causes infections and can lead to death.

In 1981, Fernando Mazariegos developed a technology called ceramic pot filtration. The following year, the design was awarded the top prize by the Latin American Institute of Water Engineers for its effectiveness in treating contaminated water. It has since gone on to receive awards from the World Bank.

Born out of the idea that every Guatemalan should have access to a sustainable source of clean drinking water, Ecofiltro has been using the ceramic pot filtration technology to bring clean water to the rural poor on a mass scale since 2009. Perfecting low-cost water filters and working with NGOs to distribute them, the social business believes that the best way to make water filtration a sustainable solution, and not just a charitable gift, is to help people secure filters for the rest of their lives.

‘We organize rural communities to take control of their own health in the same way that affluent nations do: through awareness and affordable, clean water,’ said Richard Finlay, director of operations and finances.‘The water problem is the most significant thing that is impacting global health; it’s the problem that is inflicting the most pain on the most people. We try to reach people who are either very sick because they are drinking dirty water and losing days of work, or worse: are losing children [to disease and infection].’

Ecofiltro works primarily through its foundation Ecofiltro: one, which distributes the filters, teaches customers how to use them and helps them set up a savings and payments plan of around $2 a month to pre-pay the next filter, thus securing clean water for themselves and their family for the rest of their lives.

Each filter takes around four weeks to build and lasts for approximately two years. Locally sourced clay and sawdust are mixed together with water to form the filter’s shape, then left to dry for up to two weeks before being fired in kilns, coated in colloidal silver and randomly tested to ensure meeting company standards. Once distributed to their new owners, the filters are placed inside a container and clean drinking water filters though at a rate of 1.5-2 litres per hour.

‘Mothers especially love the filters. It’s one of the first things that have come into their house that they own, and they are not dependent on anyone in their village to buy chlorine tablets from,’ says Sam Snyder, the foundation’s director.

While Ecofiltro’s focus is on rural communities, its products are also available to the urban population. Last year the company sold 20-25,000 filters to rural people and 10,000 to urban residents who wanted a cheaper, more ecological alternative to bottled water.

‘We started using the filter for various reasons,’ said Charlotte Rumel, director of Alianza Francesa in Antigua Guatemala. ‘It’s a more economical way to consume water, it’s an ecological system and we think that Guatemala needs to develop a more environmental conscience.’

By using urban filter sales to subsidize filter costs in rural areas – urban communities pay market value and rural communities pay at cost – Ecofiltro hopes to solve the water crisis in Guatemala in around 10 years.  

Before using the filters, rural customers used to complain about the pains they suffered after drinking unfiltered water or the taste of chlorine that was left over from boiling it with sterilizing tablets.

Maria Clara Xaji used to get stomach cramps that kept her up at night. Thanks to a new water filter, she sleeps ‘like an angel,’ she says.

Although the filters were originally created in Guatemala, the first plant to start using the technology was built in Ecuador. Today, the ceramic pot filtration method is being produced in over 30 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

Guatemalan living in darkness to bring light to others

children holding lights in darknessFor the past three weeks, Juan Rodriguez has been living in complete darkness. Not because he can’t afford to pay his electricity bill, but because Rodriguez, CEO of solar power company Quetsol, is refusing to turn his lights back on until he has raised $50,000 for hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who do not have access to electricity.

Approximately 2.6 million people in the Central American nation live in remote locations where the traditional grid system is yet to arrive. When the sun goes down they turn to kerosene and candle light – expensive alternatives that can lead to serious health problems.

Earlier this year two toddlers in the north of the country were killed when the bed they were sleeping in caught fire from a nearby burning candle. Avoidable accidents like this occur far too often among poor families, which is why Rodriguez’s company has developed a new way to transmit affordable electricity to some of Guatemala’s poorest and most isolated people.  

Since it was founded in 2010, Quetsol has distributed over 3,000 solar power kits throughout Guatemala. Its current model supplies a small home with up to six hours of light each night, allowing children to continue studying and parents to continue working.

However, over the next five years the company hopes to reach 100,000 homes with its new pay-as-you-go system, which cuts out banks and puts people in charge of their own accounts – enabling them to generate their own electricity via a single cellphone payment.

‘The total cost of buying candles and walking to the nearest town to pay for charging a cell phone is 130 quetzales (US$17) per month. Our solution will cut this cost to 90 quetzales (US$11) a month, empowering families to sustainably develop,’ says the Guatemalan-born CEO.

So far, Rodriguez’s campaign has raised nearly $28,000 – over 50 per cent of the money needed to launch his company’s latest model.

‘The support of everyone has been the light in my dark room, and the goal [$50,000] has kept me motivated. I was very anxious before I entered, but now I can honestly say it has been one of the best experiences of my life. My patience levels have exceeded my expectations. In general, I just feel more awake, as if a part of my brain that was asleep is now alive,’ says Rodriguez.

The Guatemalan got the idea for the campaign from a man he met who had developed a therapy called Darkness Retreats. Following on from that initial meeting, Rodriguez gave a speech in Colorado last year about Quetsol where he turned the theatre lights off so that his audience could get a better understanding of how it feels to live without electricity.

Rodriguez started off the challenge on 18 February in a sound- and light-proof recording studio, but had to move after 14 days: ‘I was inhaling all the fibres from the fibre glass walls, which can be very damaging, so we completely darkened my room, with black sheets covering the windows.’

Although he has no access to light and electrical appliances, Rodriguez still uses his cellphone and laptop so that he can run his company and push the campaign. During the day he hosts interactive sessions using a webcam where he chats with followers and plays song requests for $100.

‘We want to be more than just one little solar company trying to raise money. We want to be a part of a new generation of utility companies that support rural development and protect the environment at the same time,’ he says.

You can find out more about Quetsol and Rodriguez’s campaign here.

Otto Pérez Molina and the Mexican drug cartels: one year on

Guatemalan President MolinaWhen Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina (right) first came to power just over a year ago, he promised to govern the country with a mano dura, an iron fist.

After years of Mexican drug cartels muscling their way across the border into Guatemala and Central America, it seemed as though the former army general had inherited a nation on its knees. The word on voters’ lips was ‘security’ and he assured them he would deliver: increasing the army to fight drug trafficking and secure the country’s borders.

About 90 per cent of the cocaine entering North America every year passes through Central America, according to the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, costing Guatemala billions of dollars and thousands of lives each year.

However, it wasn’t always like this. Up until fairly recently, the large majority of Latin American-grown drugs was transported to the US by plane or boat. But the ‘war on drugs’ shifted the problem inland, which left Guatemala caught in the crossfire between illegal narcotic-producing countries in the south and illegal narcotic consumers in the north.

Due to his previous job as head of military intelligence, Otto Pérez Molina has been at the forefront of his country’s drug war for more than 20 years. Now, after more than 12 months in power, has his government had any success at reducing drug trafficking?

‘Otto Pérez Molina has prevented further expansion of [the Mexican drug cartels], yes. He’s halted the effect, but not reversed it,’ says US Security Analyst Samuel Logan. ‘For drug shipment interdiction, 2012 was wholly successful and Pérez Molina allowed an unprecedented level of international access. But do Guatemalans feel more secure? I’d argue they don’t.’

Soon after taking office in January 2012, the Guatemalan President approved the creation of two new military bases in the country, upgraded a third and made it a priority to reinstate a longstanding ban on US military aid to Guatemala – a controversial move since the aid was stopped over concerns regarding abuses during the country’s civil war.

In late August 2012 around 200 US Marines arrived in Guatemala as part of Operation Martillo, an international mission aimed at intercepting illegal narcotics, bulk cash and weapons being transported along Central America’s isthmus.

Operation Martillo has divided the public: some see it as a great success, but others disagree.

‘There may be a few arrests, and there will be continuing military operations carried out in various regions of the country, in the name of fighting narco-trafficking, but there will be no fundamental changes in terms of the flow of drugs north,’ says Graham Russell from the Human Rights NGO Rights Action that works in Guatemala.

Logan agrees that the mission will not reduce the overall amount of drugs entering the US:

‘Does it slow down trafficking? I don’t think so. If you fumigate one area, the crops will spring up in another: if we squeeze trafficking in Guatemala, it’ll shoot up in Honduras.’

In addition to his involvement in the US-led mission, the Guatemalan President ruffled a few feathers when he became the first head of state to suggest legalizing drugs.

The controversial proposal provoked strong criticism from the US, as well as intense debate within Guatemala. However, it succeeded in getting the international community to discuss Latin America’s drug problem, which many believe was his objective.

During a recent press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the rightwing general appealed to world leaders for a new approach to regulating the drugs market – stating that the current method was not working.

After spending more than a year fighting against drug trafficking on land and at sea, it seems the Guatemalan President’s new approach to the ‘war on drugs’ is to urge the international community to help tackle the problem that their consumption fuels. But when the countries caught in the crossfire are on the other side of the world, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

Photo by World Economic Forum under a CC Licence

September 2012 cover imageRead our September 2012 issue ‘Legalize drugs’ 

Is this the end of the world?



From Nostradamus to Y2K, end-of-the-world prophesies are nothing new. On Friday 21 December 2012, Central America’s Mayans find themselves at the centre of the Doomsday hype, with conspiracy theorists, New Age authors and every imaginable form of media commenting on the supposed prediction that the world will end.

However, it’s not the apocalyptic vision that Hollywood has projected onto movie-goers that Mayans anticipate. Rather, 21 December 2012 signals the dawn of a new era as a period of sun that has lasted for 5,125 years comes to a close.

According to scholars, Mayans never spoke about the end of the world, but years ago used their ‘Long Count’ calendar to mark the end of each b’ak’tun, a cycle of 144,000 days. Since the number 13 is particularly sacred for the Mayans, the completion of 13 b’ak’tuns was a significant date and they indicated it as 21.12.12. Just as your calendar will come to an end on 31 December and you will put up another one on 1 January 2013, so too the Mayans’ Long Count calendar comes to an end today and a new cycle begins.

‘Unfortunately, the world is accustomed to liking the morbid concept of the final apocalypse – these themes sell and many people have made money off this type of declaration,’ says Mayan priest Julio David Menchú. ‘But [this date] will be a new era, which will bring with it a unity between humankind and Mother Nature; she will support us and we won’t contaminate her any more.’

Dating back to 2000 BC across Mesoamerica, the Mayan civilization was one of the most important in history. Famous for their impressive knowledge of astronomy and maths, the Mayans kept what many believe to be the most accurate calendar in the world.

Through observing and noting the movement and position of the sun, they left written messages charting the change of each era, and it is with these messages that archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to uncover important dates in the sacred Mayan calendar.

‘This date [21 December] is based on inscriptions or hieroglyphics which were found in Quiriguá, Guatemala,’ says Menchú.

Close to 10 million descendants of Mayans still live in Central America and along with many Guatemalans and other people around the world they will be celebrating the important day today.

Mayans reportedly follow three types of calendars: the sacred calendar that has 260 days, the agricultural or civilian calendar that has 365 days and a 5,125 year cycle. It is this final cycle that is now coming to a close.

Ancient Mayan sites are at the centre of celebrations on 21 December 2012, with ritual re-enactments, conferences and sound-and-light shows taking place at ruins throughout the country. However, many of these celebrations have been organized by the government as an opportunity to attract tourists, which has upset the country’s Mayans. They have accused the government of cashing in on their culture and hijacking their event.

‘It’s irresponsible of the state and the Tourism Board,’ says Mayan Nobel Peace prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum. ‘They don’t know what they’re doing; it’s just becoming commercialized and it makes me sad.’

So, while it looks as though another end-of-the-world prophecy will pass us by, it won’t do so without stirring up yet more tension between the Guatemalan government and the Mayan community.

Braille newspaper makes history


More than 110,000 people in Guatemala suffer from a visual disability, a problem that is magnified in rural parts of the country where medical care is limited.

Few blind people have access to a radio or television and as a consequence are largely alienated from national and international news. Guatemala’s literacy level stands at 74 per cent but is significantly reduced among blind people.

When Publinews Guatemala – a version of the Metro newspaper – launched Central America’s first ever Braille newspaper in July, the visually impaired community was overjoyed.

‘Having a visual impairment in Guatemala, like any other kind of impairment, is very difficult,’ says Jorge Mario Cifuentes, who lost his sight 20 years ago after he was diagnosed with pigmented retinopathy, a degenerative condition of the retina.

‘Most institutions that deal with this issue are private and the state’s reaction to this subject is very limited – especially on the theme of education. For me to be able to hold a newspaper in Braille is a reflection that society is gaining an awareness of the needs of blind people,’ explains Cifuentes.

Together with the Committee for Blind and Deaf People in Guatemala (Prociegos), Publinews has started producing 2,500 copies of the free newspaper, which are distributed monthly to visually impaired people throughout the country. It is sponsored by four companies: Walmart, Telefonica, Cardioaspirina and Cerveceria Centro Americana S.A.

‘It’s important for visually impaired people to have access to different forms of communication and to feel a part of society. They have the same human rights as everyone else and should be granted them by the state,’ says Edilzar Castro Quiroz, Director of Education at Prociegos.

Publinews launched Latin America’s first ever Braille newspaper in Chile two years ago and have been building upon the experience in Guatemala. Last year, it started working with focus groups to find out what specific articles and sections would be of most interest to visually impaired people in the country, and tailored the newspaper’s content accordingly. The Guatemalan version has been so popular that there is even talk of replicating it in El Salvador.

‘We detected that the visually impaired community had been a little forgotten about and we wanted to support them and prioritize their rights,’ says Hugo Perez, Director of Marketing at Publinews. ‘It’s a little drop of water, but it’s making a lot of waves.’

Sonia Hernandez, who is blind, works as a telephone operator at Prociegos: ‘I’ve always been a fan of the news and enjoy reading more than listening. I used to listen to the radio at work, but it was difficult as the phone would ring and I’d lose the thread of the story. I’m really happy with it. It’s a normal newspaper that speaks about national and international issues – the only difference is that it’s in Braille,’ says Hernandez.

The newspaper has the same 16-page format as Publinews’ flagship version and covers the latest international, national, technology and sports news. It also features an ‘Inspirational Person of the Month’, which aims to motivate other blind people to achieve their potential.

Prociegos says the newspaper opens up journalism  to blind people who are more than qualified to writing articles and helping with the production process.

Both Prociegos and Publinews agree that the most important step will be to increase the newspaper’s circulation and frequency, but say that in the short term it will continue as a monthly newspaper.

Reading between the lines: journalism in Guatemala

Man reading newspaper in GuatemalaGuatemala’s precarious positioning on the main corridor for US-bound drugs makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman and one of the most dangerous places in the Americas to be a journalist.

Efforts to improve security have only led to greater militarization, abuse within the police force and an erosion of the law. Many suggest that the war on drugs is becoming a war on women; rape, torture and killing are as common now amongst females as they were during the country’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

Journalism here is a game of self-censorship: you say as much as you can about what is happening, and as little as you can about who is doing it. Those who speak out against impunity do so in the knowledge that their words could cost them their life. So the desire to report reality is offset by concerns for personal safety.

Guatemalan journalist Lucia Escobar was forced into hiding last October after she wrote an opinion piece in a national newspaper about a social cleansing group operating in her home town of Panajachel, 150 kilometres from Guatemala City.

‘I denounced the activities of a masked group of vigilantes who were terrorizing the local population at night. It wasn’t the first time I had written about their crimes, but this time I named names. I publically accused local leaders of promoting social cleansing and being responsible for the disappearance and probable death of a local carpenter, Gilberto Senté Senté,’ she explains.

In the days following the publication of her column, Escobar received multiple threats through anonymous emails and was accused of drug trafficking by some of the individuals she had mentioned in her piece.

‘The former mayor of Panajachel, Gerardo Higueros, accompanied a local police chief and members of the Municipality’s Security Council onto a television programme, owned by Higueros. They disputed my opinion piece, threatened to kill me and said that I was a drug trafficker,’ says Escobar.

The Guatemalan journalist admits that as a result of the threats she feared for her family’s safety and considered moving to Costa Rica. However, thanks to the help of international organizations such as The Rory Peck Trust, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Peruvian foundation IPYS, she was able to relocate her family within Guatemala: ‘It’s difficult to be a journalist in Guatemala but it’s the only thing I can do for my country. It’s my passion, it’s my life and I believe in the role of the media in strengthening democracy.’

Of the four individuals that Escobar named in her column, two of them have been sentenced to 19 years and 17 years in prison.

A couple of days after moving to Guatemala, I read an article about a journalist in neighbouring Mexico. He was kidnapped, decapitated and left with a sign attached to his corpse stating that he shouldn’t have asked so many questions.

Carlos Andrino, a Guatemalan reporter on a national television channel, has compared being a journalist in Guatemala to being a journalist in Mexico – one of the most dangerous countries in the world to report on.

‘I’ve been a victim of intimidation and have received numerous death threats, primarily from drug-trafficking groups and gang members. However, thank God, they haven’t amounted to anything more than threats.

‘I don’t think that the situation for journalists in Guatemala is improving. On the contrary, I think that each day we take greater risks and are starting to live under the same conditions as Mexican journalists,’ he says.

As well as physical threats directed at reporters, there are also monetary ones delivered directly to media organizations by powerful businesses who threaten to withhold advertisements if newspapers print something they do not like.

Guatemala’s recently elected president, Otto Perez Molina, assures that his government will allow journalists the freedom to express themselves through their writing; however, many are currently too afraid to do so. Until this changes, Guatemalans will be forced to read between the lines of their daily newspapers if they are to have any hope of learning the truth about what is really going on in their country.

Photo of Guatemalan man reading newspaper by David Dennis under a CC Licence

Country Profile: Guatemala

An indigenous woman weaving a huipil

Photos: Anna-Claire Bevan.

Asi es la vida en los trópicos (‘such is life in the tropics’) is an expression that follows catastrophe in Guatemala. Whether it is raining lava, the ex-president is being investigated for money laundering or an iconic folk singer has just been shot dead, life carries on. The aroma of freshly made corn tortillas will continue to permeate the air three times a day, the sound of cuetes (fireworks) will stir you from your siesta and chicken buses will tear past you at inconceivable speeds.

People say Guatemala has no middle class – just a ruling class and an exploited class – and nowhere is this more evident than in its capital, Guatemala City. Skyscrapers and contemporary malls eclipse shanty towns that dangle off cliff edges, while disabled beggars peer in the windows of blacked-out SUVs hoping for fichas (loose change). Guatemala’s unequal distribution of wealth, coupled with its rapid population growth, has given it one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America and has no doubt also contributed to its reputation as one of the most violent countries in the world.

Guatemala’s troubled present was born out of a bloody past. Once the site of the impressive ancient Mayan civilization, it was conquered by the Spanish in 1524 and endured three centuries as a colony. Since its liberation in 1821, the country has been stained by further bloodshed: US-supported military dictatorships, social unrest and guerrilla uprisings culminated in a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. The conflict was one of the most brutal in the northern hemisphere: over 200,000 people died and up to 50,000 were reportedly ‘disappeared’. Only now are a handful of those responsible for the atrocities being brought to account. Government forces have been found guilty of genocide and recent landmark prison sentences saw four ex-soldiers jailed for 6,000 years each. The President, Otto Pérez Molina, himself an army general during the war, will be scrutinized by human rights activists in coming months as to how he handles these investigations.

Although the Peace Accords were signed 15 years ago, people say that many parts of the country are more dangerous now than they were at the height of the conflict. Daily newspapers regularly feature body counts into double figures, bus drivers face extortion by criminal gangs and even fast-food restaurants have armed guards.

Guatemalan flag

The country’s turbulent history is matched by its landscape. Sitting on three tectonic plates, surrounded by active volcanoes and bordered by both the Caribbean and the Pacific, Guatemala is precariously positioned and repeatedly falls victim to natural disasters. In the past, major earthquakes have razed cities and left millions of people homeless. Hurricanes that used to be a rare occurrence now arrive annually – bringing with them clean-up operations that exhaust already scarce resources. In 2010, Volcán de Pacaya erupted during the rainy season, blanketing the capital with thick ash that then blocked drains.

Despite these adversities, Guatemalans remain positive about their country’s future and are intensely patriotic. This long-suffering people does not expect wealth or a lawabiding government, but yearns for the national football team to make it to the FIFA World Cup.

Many Guatemalans rely on family members working illegally in the US sending money home.

Though indigenous people are in the majority – with their colourful handicrafts decorating market stalls and their ancient ruins among the most popular tourist attractions – they remain on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. Most live in the highlands, are poorly educated and poorly provided for – and their plight is unlikely to be improved by a government preoccupied with increasing security and tackling the endemic drug war.

How to nail a dictator

‘Ever since I filmed these Generals in 1982, I’ve wanted to see them pay for their crimes,’ says filmmaker Pamela Yates.

Accompanied by a fierce determination to unmask a hidden war, Yates originally went to Guatemala in the 1980s to make a documentary about the fighting between the Guatemalan Army and the leftist guerillas, called Cuando las Montañas Tiemblan (When the Mountains Tremble).

Thirty years later, material from her film, which captures some of the only footage of Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war, is being used as forensic evidence in an international genocide case against one of its interviewees, former de facto president, Efrain Ríos Montt.

Part political thriller, part memoir, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is the sequel to Yates’ internationally renowned Cuando las Montañas Tiemblan. Featuring Yates trawling through boxes of 16mm film searching for evidence for lawyers to use against Ríos Montt, and following Nobel Laureate, Rigoberta Menchú, to Spain as she initiates a court case against the war criminals, Granito is a testament to never giving up.

‘For me, Granito is a second chance to help right a terrible wrong,’ says Yates.

From the highlands and cemeteries of Guatemala; to the inner chambers of the Spanish National Court; and to film studios in New York, Granito is a journey of brutality, impunity and hope. It introduces us to undaunted Guatemalans, like Antonio Caba Caba, who never gave up on their quest to uncover the truth about their buried past – despite their own government’s attempts to conceal it.

Caba Caba survived one of the worst massacres of the Guatemalan civil war. He was 11 years old when 250 army officers attacked his rural village, Ilom, at 5am and killed 95 people.

‘They ordered the survivors to dig a grave and made us walk past the bodies and look at them. Some people saw their parents lying dead,’ says Caba Caba.

In 2001 Caba Caba travelled to Madrid to testify on behalf of his community at the Spanish National Court in the Guatemalan Genocide Case. However, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court blocked the Spanish arrest warrant and Ríos Montt could not be brought before the Spanish Court.

‘When you fight impunity, impunity fights back,’ says Yates. ‘Even after all those years, Ríos Montt wielded enough power to prevent his arrest. It was devastating for all concerned.’

However, Granito documents the fresh hope for the families of the 200,000 people who were killed at the hands of the government during the war. Alongside fearless lawyers, forensic anthropologists and a formidable group of witnesses, the team uncovers an incriminating interview with dictator General Ríos Montt and a hidden archive from Guatemala’s National Police.

‘We now know that hidden in that war was a genocide the Guatemalan military dictators committed against the Maya people. The anger I feel towards those Generals is almost unbearable,’ says Yates.

Granito is a concept I first learned in the Guatemalan highlands and have carried with me throughout my filmmaking life. It reflects the communal values that guide Maya communities and means that each of us can make a small contribution to positive social change, and together we can make great changes in favour of equality and human rights,’ she continues.

The film has already won a host of awards, including Best Creative Documentary at the Paris International Human Rights Film Festival. For more details, visit granitofilm.com

Photo of the Caba Caba family by Dana Lixenburg

Time’s up for Guatemala’s ex-president

Cash in hand by JMR Photography under a CC Licence

Photo by JMR Photography under a CC Licence

About 10 years ago, a man stole some money: US$70 million to be precise. In most countries he would have been quickly arrested and brought to trial, but Guatemala isn’t like most countries, and the man in question isn’t like most men.

Alfonso Portillo is Guatemala’s former president, but since courts in his homeland appear unable to make allegations stick on people with influence, he has so far avoided accusations of money-laundering. However, other countries are lining up with separate charges of corruption against him and it seems as though the ex-leader’s luck is running out.

Guatemala’s current president, Alvaro Colom, has agreed to extradite Portillo to the US where he stands accused of fraud and money-laundering through US banks – including one alleged instance where he deposited $1.5 million, donated by Taiwan to buy schoolbooks for Guatemalan children, in Miami and transferred it to a Paris account in the name of his then wife and daughter.

Colom revealed his decision last week, saying he had decided to allow the extradition because: ‘The president should not put his hands on the decisions of judges and magistrates.’

In a written statement, the US Embassy in Guatemala said it ‘welcomes the decision of President Alvaro Colom and the government of Guatemala to promote justice and security’.

‘The Guatemalan authorities have sent a clear message that nobody is above the law,’ the statement said.

In 2000 Portillo came to power promising a scrupulous government investigation into corruption, but many consider his four year administration to be the ‘most corrupt’ in Guatemala’s recent history and accuse him of stealing millions from Guatemala’s Defence Ministry.

Although Portillo has always denied the accusations, his behaviour suggests otherwise. When his political immunity was revoked at the end of his one-term policy, he fled to Mexico and, following a long legal battle, was extradited back to Guatemala in 2008 to face embezzlement charges at home. He was later caught trying to flee the country by boat.

Many hailed his capture as a victory for justice, seeing it as an opportunity to test the effectiveness of recent reforms to the country’s judicial system. However, the Central American nation failed to deliver, and the former president was acquitted of corruption charges – amid what many have described as damning evidence of his guilt.

In one instance, a Costa Rican prosecutor, who found two ex-presidents in his own country guilty of corruption, said the evidence against Portillo was stronger than in either of those cases.

Although a date has not yet been given for when Portillo might be sent to the north, the decision to extradite the former president has had a varied response. Some Guatemalans are pleased Portillo will be tried in a New York court, believing that US courts are more committed to punishing criminals than are their courts at home. Others say it is unconstitutional to extradite him to the US and that they would prefer that he was found guilty in a Guatemalan court and punished in a Guatemalan prison. However, so far, the country’s fractured judicial system has prevented this from happening.

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