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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 314 - July 1999

Dog Baloo
Peace accords have yet to puncture the culture
of impunity in Guatemala, says Chris Curnow.

Tourism is way down, they tell me. Hurricane Mitch has frightened everyone away. It certainly has a lot to answer for – 389 dead, 106,609 injured and 749,533 affected in Guatemala alone. But I know from the time I spent working here two years ago that there are other ‘hurricanes’ raging through this beautiful and terrible country.

My return to Guatemala City coincides with the second anniversary of the signing of the final peace accords. President Arzu has decreed a huge public fireworks display for the evening and declared this to be the Day of Pardon. As my friends Pedro and Carla drive me from the airport they say: ‘How can we pardon the human-rights abuses that happened to our friends and family – indeed to us – if no-one has even said “Sorry”?’

In April last year, just one block from my friends’ house, the Catholic Bishop, Monseñor Gerardi, was brutally murdered two days after the publication of the report Guatemala: Never Again. This collection of oral histories was put together by a project team of the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office. Brave Guatemalans, finally taking the opportunity to speak their truth, gave graphic accounts and clear statistical evidence showing that the Army was the perpetrator of the overwhelming majority of human-rights abuses during the 36 years of institutionalized state repression in this country.

After the Bishop’s murder, the authorities gaoled a dog by the name of Baloo. Father Orantes, the owner of the dog, was accused of a ‘crime of passion’ against the Bishop. The dog was put down. Regardless of who was responsible, there’s no doubt that the Bishop’s murder has had the effect of diverting media attention away from the contents of the report.

In the morning I go for a walk past the Peace Flame in the Central Square. I notice it is being re-ignited for tonight’s ‘show’. It was lit for the peace signing in December 1996 and burned for a few weeks until the gas ran out.

Returning to my friends’ house I discover the contents of my backpack strewn over the floor of my room. Carla tells me they have just been robbed. She does not appear to me to be traumatized, but Guatemalans are good at hiding this sort of stuff. Even so, what has happened is quite shocking.

Pedro and Carla run a small business and so keep their front door open on to the street. Pedro had popped out with his two-year-old son on errands. Carla was inside with their two young secretaries when four men armed with pistols walked in, yanked the phones from the walls and bound the women with the cable. They took personal effects, money and jewellery, then started to put the computers and electrical items into sacks. At this point they heard Pedro return, so they left, marching up the street with their pistols down the front of their jeans.

Pedro later confesses to me that, seeing them from his car, he was that close to deliberately ramming them against the wall – just to maim them would have been enough. He knows that, in the unlikely event of their being apprehended, they can bribe their way to freedom within days. In small rural towns all over Guatemala, where the police are in fear of bandit gangs, people have taken to lynching suspects straight away, before the police can be persuaded to take bribes and set them free.

I read in the newspaper about the postponement of the popular referendum planned for earlier this year. The referendum would have asked Guatemalans if they want a new Constitution that incorporates the principles of the peace accords. This is opposed by a group calling itself the ‘Defenders of the Constitution’, which represents the chamber of commerce, industry and agro-exporters – the traditional oligarchy in Guatemala. One of the accords deals with compensation for ancestral lands stolen during the civil war, and with land redistribution. As soon as this was mentioned the ‘Defenders of the Constitution’ moved to block its path.

With stoic Guatemalan style Pedro and Carla put the morning’s assault behind them. Night falls and the President’s ‘show’ begins. ‘Come on, let’s go,’ they say. ‘We’ll have a beer and celebrate your return. And we can watch how they waste money in Guatemala.’

Above us the fireworks explode, lighting the Cathedral columns where fresh marble tablets bear some of the names of hundreds upon thousands of Guatemalans who were killed, tortured and ‘disappeared’. President Arzu – like Bill Clinton on a recent visit – speaks of forgiveness. It’s the Day of Pardon, he says. But he does not name the guilty people.

As the light on the columns fades, I wonder if the Peace Flame will be extinguished once more when the show has finished.

Chris Curnow spent two years as an Australian Volunteer Abroad in Guatemala. He recently returned as leader for a Community Aid Abroad Study Tour visiting community groups in the country. He is now a Programme Officer for Australian Volunteers International, Sydney. The names of individuals in this piece have been changed.

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