A Human Rights Victory in Guatemala

In December, 1990, the town of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, serenely nestled between volcanoes on the shores of Lake Atitlan, declared its independence from the Guatemalan Army. It has prospered in peace since, and is either a shining example of peaceful democratic struggle or an embarrassment, depending upon whom you ask...
Mayan Man Fishing on Lake Atitlan
The Guatemalan Army, controlled by the powerful, and a power unto itself (owning businesses, large tracts of land, communications, and banks - the "Bank of the Army" was one of the biggest in the country), insinuated itself into the daily life of most villages in this country. The army was blamed for disappearances through forced conscription (many boys were picked up at local soccer matches) or more surreptitiously through middle-of-the-night abductions. Those "desaparecidos" (disappeared persons) were either never seen again or were found tortured and killed. It was a widely understood truth that "there are no political prisoners in Guatemala" - this was said as black humor by potential victims of the government. The army created civilian patrols and sent them after anyone deemed an "enemy of the people" or a communist. This list often included church workers, health workers, community leaders, priests, and those who refuse to join or cooperate with the civilian patrol. For this reason hundreds of thousands fled into neighboring Mexico in the early 1980's, and approximately one million (out of six million) were "internal refugees" within their own country.
Village of Acul
One target, the village of Acul, was burned by the Army in 1982. In 1979 I visited the "casa de queso" here where an 84-year old Italian (who had fled Italy to escape the draft - in World War I!!) lived and made cheese. His cheese had to make a four-hour horseback trip to the nearest town.

Santiago Atitlan suffered its share of hardship - hundreds killed or disappeared. Estimates range up to about 800, and photos in the town hall attest to at least 300 disappeared. A favorite priest, father Stan Rother, from Oklahoma, was gunned down by soldiers in his study next to the church in 1981. His study remains a shrine to this day. [Note - you may be able to get a copy of The Shepherd Cannot Run - the letters of Stan Rother at your library
Shrine to Father Stan Rother

Shy Tzutuhil Maya Girl
Shy girl wearing the unique woven pattern of Santiago Atitlan. Each Mayan village has its own distinct style of weaving and embroidery.

On a cool evening of December 1, 1990, several soldiers from the nearby garrison were in town drinking and becoming out of control. After harassing some local women, some villagers threw stones at them. The soldiers pulled their weapons and fired, killing one. The townspeople, outraged, gathered in the town square, ringing the church bells to assemble the town. They marched, thousands strong, in the early morning hours, to the garrison, to demand an end to harassment by soldiers stationed there. When they arrived at the gates of the garrison - men, women, and children, they were met with gunfire, and 11 were killed and 40 injured

Santiago Atitlan kids at ceremony honoring victims of the massacre.

Since Santiago Atitlan is only across the lake from a popular tourist area, the press arrived by sunrise. The Guatemalan government found it a little difficult to deny responsibility for this massacre, with photos of dead victims lying literally at the gate of the garrison. Community leaders demanded a meeting with the government human rights ombudsman (previously a mostly token position created because of international pressure) and the president. With the weight of international attention the demand for an investigation and punishment of responsible parties was agreed upon. The shock was that the third community demand - for the immediate and permanent removal of the army from the community - was also agreed upon.

A young woman pays rapt attention during a ceremony honoring those who died and were injured in the massacre.
At ceremony.

The community, reacting to the governments' concern for "security" in the area (and their desire to send the army back in), rapidly created the Committee for Security and Development. They instituted the traditional Mayan "ronda" - nightly rounds or patrols by groups of volunteers armed with flashlights and whistles. A "Peace Park" was created by the townspeople with paths lined with the stones painstakingly removed as they disassembled the garrison stone by stone. This park consists of markers commemorating the martyrs (including an 11-year old) at the exact places they fell. The letter from the president promising to remove the army and to investigate the incident (that part never happened...) has been copied on eight-foot high marble and placed in the park as a constant reminder to any future governments. During the process of creating the park a mass grave was found. Guatemalan military officials said that if any further digging took place the army WOULD return. Complying with that threat all digging stopped, but a large hole is left as a reminder

Manuel Sisay
Manuel Sisay, the Chairman of the Committee of Security and Development. Citizens of Santiago Atitlan demonstrate more optimism and joy than in any place in Guatemala I have been in many years.
Every year the anniversary of the massacre is marked by eleven days of ceremony honoring those who died. These ceremonies culminate with a catholic mass at the site of the massacre. The government has grudgingly kept its promise to keep the army out of the area. The community feels that it is very important to maintain their aggressive positivity about the future and their remembrance of the events of 1990. International representation at the annual ceremony is very much appreciated to remind the government that the international community DOES indeed remember the massacre and does expect the government to keep its promises. When I attended several years ago the MacNeil-Lehrer news hour sent a representative to cover the ceremonies, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also often makes a brief appearance.

This woman most likely has myxedema, a severe thyroid condition. This causes broadening and coarsening of the facial features.
Woman with myxedema.

This community is the most involved, together, and optimistic that I have ever encountered. Everyone is invested into its' success. Walking up the volcano behind town one morning I met Nicolas, coming down with a three-foot bag of avocados on his shoulders. He was surprised to see a gringo there, and said a pleasant "hola" and asked were I was going (suspecting that I was lost, I am sure). When I said I was just taking a walk and was in town for the ceremony, his face simply lit up. He exclaimed that it was wonderful, that before 1990 if I were to go past that very point I would not return, but that now, thanks to God and all of their very hard work, I could be free to walk wherever I wanted unmolested.

Making breakfast the old fashioned way.
The daughter-in-law of the family with whom I stayed, preparing breakfast. Her husband had been taken by the army eight years before, and they all still hope that some day they will have an answer... Tortillas are made with corn ground on the stone metate, the same as 1,000 years ago.

Members of the community are working in so many different ways to make a difference. I met Diego Chiquival, whose training is in Social Work but who now helps the local coffee growers learn to grow coffee organically. Through his efforts an organization in California visited to certify the coffee as meeting the standards required for organically-grown. Eventually they hope this will help them get a better price for their product. The local AM radio station broadcasts town meetings and educational programs in both Spanish and Tzutuhil. The widows sell their weavings in a shop by the central plaza. Juan Queju teaches orphans to weave. "Chepe" Reanda Sosof, a Tzutuhil Mayan elder, taught us about their creation beliefs and of Moshimon, one of the Mayan dieties which looks out for them. Maria Sisay is a busy midwife in the community. When the army patrolled the town she could not even walk through town at night - now there is nothing interfering with her ability to provide her services to the women of the community.

Helping in the Market.
It would be a moving experience for those who know a little Spanish to visit Santiago Atitlan some early December. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people who work hard to make community a reality, who daily undertake activities which could put their lives in jeopardy should the army return. The inspiration carries a long way, and it could change the way you look at your own community, and even your own life.
© 2000 Stephen Blythe