Laura (in blue) with international  co-accompaniers in Guatemala.

Laura (in blue) with international co-accompaniers in Guatemala.

Dear Friends,

I hope that this letter finds you well! While I promised myself to send out this note before Christmas, it looks like I have failed, but I hope

that you all had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you all the best in 2013!

As for me, I am doing well. December has been a busy month, and I feel lucky for all of the opportunities I have had to learn and grow.

As I have gotten into the rhythm of my new life in the capital, I have also had the opportunity to travel to various parts of the country, so

life has been pretty interesting!

As for how Guatemala is doingwellthere is a lot going onOn December 21stwe celebrated the beginning of a new era according to

the Mayan Calendar (you may have heard rumours about the world endingspread by people who dont understand that a calendar thats 

a circle doesnt have an end). There was a fair amount of tension leading up to the datebetween the government and indigenous 

organizationsbased on the governments efforts to appropriate the celebrations and folklorize the events to promote tourismThis led to 

some compromises on the use of sacred sitesand in the end both groups carried out celebrationsFrom my understanding of the 

significance of the date (referred to as Oxlajuj Bak’tunis that it marks the end of the 13th (Oxlajuj) 400

year cycle (Bak’tunon the Mayan Calendarand marks the beginning of a new era or Bak’tunIndigenous organizations emphasized the 

importance of using this date to reinvigorateefforts to preserve indigenous culturestraditions and spiritualityIts been interesting to follow the discourse around Oxlajuj Bak’tunOn one handbusinessesthe government and moreconservative forces in society have tried to use the date to promote their own interests (Gallothe national beer monopoly put out a Bak’tun beerwhich was pretty much their normal beer witha sticker saying Bakt’un on itand I have noticed that many conservative columnists are using the language of the new era to promote ‘peace‘ through calls to let go of past conflicts (such as, forget that genocide happenedand promote social cohesion (such as, not demonstrating resistance to government initiatives). 

On the other handand maybe I am being a bit too hopefulI washeartened by the ways in which the attention being paid to the date created a space in which indigenous authorities and organizations received rare public attentionboth nationally andinternationallyWhether I am being too optimistic or notI hope that momentum gained around Oxlajuj Bak’tun is not lostIf you are interested in reading more on Oxlajuj Bak’tun here is abeautiful article written by a Canadian living in GuatemalaEmilie Smith and here isa translation of a press release by The Western Peoples Council . For those who read Frenchhere is an articlewritten by my coworker Maxime Verdier I spent my Oxlajuj Bak’tun at a ceremony organized by indigenous organizations atthe Kaminal Juyú ruins in the capitalIt was a beautiful way to mark the beginning of a new era.

In the last week the newspapers have been running the typical reflections on the past yearand the general consensus is that 2012 was a year of social conflicts and 2013 promises to be evenmore tumultuousIt is predicted that between reforms to the educational requirements for teachersthe rural development bill and struggles over ‘development‘ projects such as mines andhydroelectric projectsthat 2013 promises to be filled with conflictOn one handthis can be viewed as something negativeand can be when social struggles are met with repression andviolencebut I also see this to be a rather hopeful predictionIt means that in 2013 people will continue to struggle to protect their waterland and the health of their communitiesIt means thatpeople will continue to stand up to their government to demand that development strategies are focused on breaking down the structures that create poverty and inequalityinstead ofperpetuating themI hope (against all odds!) that 2013 will be a year in which the government realizes that states of siege and calling in the troops are not ways to deal with public discontent, and that  protesters are citizens and their concerns must be received as legitimate voices in the discussion of what path Guatemala wishes to followI was heartened to see that in thenewspaper El Periodicothere was a feature on personalities of the yearwith the theme of “Those who Protest”. Among those named were many leaders in social movements dedicated toissues ranging from rural development to resistance to mega projectsI am pleased to say that Leocadio Juracánmember of the CCDA (Comité Campesino del Altiplano– where I did myinternship last year), was one of the leaders named for his work in promoting the integral rural development law (which I will talk more about below) and his role in the rural peoples marchlast MarchIt is good to see the work and leadership of these individuals recognized in the mainstream media.

Now, to tell you a bit about what I’ve been up to on the work front. Since I last wrote I have gone on several outings as an accompanier. While one might think of accompaniment work as being rather dramatic, often it involves nothing more than visiting people in their homes and workplaces and asking them how they’ve been. Many of the people we accompany are/were witnesses in legal cases for massacres or forced disappearances, and our visits to their communities is a way of supporting them in their work to bring those responsible to justice and to keep on top of any developments in their cases.

I had the pleasure of participating in several of these visits this past month, and travelled to communities located a couple of hours outside of the capital, in which forced disappearances and massacres took place in the 1980’s. While in the community, we stop by the houses of families affected by the violence, most of whom are active in victims associations. In one of the communities I have visited, they succeeded in bringing Felipe Cusanero Coj, the local ex-military commissioner to court, and in 2009 he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his role in the forced disappearances of six people. This was a remarkable success as the first cases in which somebody was charged with forced disappearances as a crime against humanity in Guatemala. On the surface it would appear that their struggle is over. The commissioner is in jail, they have received some reparations ordered by the National Reconciliation Program and it has been publicly acknowledged that the state carried out violence against civilians in their communities.

These are all things that hundreds of communities across Guatemala have not yet accomplished in their process of healing after the violence of the armed conflict. What I have learned however, is just how complicated justice and reconciliation is. While the commissioner is in jail, he refuses to disclose where the bodies are, so the victims continue to be disappeared in the eyes of their families who are yet to be able to bury their loved ones. Furthermore, the government’s reparation program has failed to live up to its promises, in these communities and across Guatemala. It was recently reported that in the past year the government has dedicated more money to paying former civil defense patrollers (during the armed conflict the government obliged millions of adult men in rural communities to organize civilian patrols to “protect” their communities against the guerrilla, there are many cases in which these civilian patrollers are implicated in human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings) than to paying the reparations promised to victims of the armed conflict. These realities have reminded me how complex justice and reconciliation are and make me question the extent to which the traditional justice system and reparations can contribute to healing.

That being saidI was really moved by the people I met in the communities. It is really humbling to meet people who are marginalized in so many waysbut nevertheless have taken on themost powerful sectors of society in their pursuit of justiceIt also needs to be said how rare and unique these cases areas fear continues to silence many victims of the armed conflictForexampleI was recently reading the Historical Clarification Commission’s report Guatemala: Memory of Silence which outlines many of the human rights abuses during the armed conflict. Idecided to look up Sololáthe department I used to live inout of curiosityI knew that there had been a military base in Pampojilathe community where I lived , but other than that nobodyhad spoken to me about the armed conflictIn factI only knew about the base because one day I asked why the soccer field was an octagon, and nobody could tell me why until an older friendmentioned that it used to be a helicopter landing pad for the armyNobody offered any more information so I didnt askbut I always wondered about the communitys experience of the armedconflictFinallyin the report I came across the cases of fifteen forced disappearances at the hands of the militaryall of which took place in the late 1980′s and early 1990′sMany of thefamily names of the disappeared are those of my close friendsmeaning that people I know well have lost members of their extended familiesWhile intellectually I knew that the violence musthave reached Pampojilaand I knew the extent to which Guatemalans continue to fear talking about the armed conflictit blew me away that in my eight months of living in Pampojilanot asingle person so much as referred to the armed conflict as a period of timeIt is a strong reminder of how powerful fear can be in repressing the truth as well as being a testament to the courageof those who have refused to be silentand in doing so have taken on great risks.

In December I had the privilege of being a witness to another powerful moment of rememberingOn December 7ththe descendants and families of victims gathered in what once was thecommunity of Dos ErresEl Peténto commemorate the 30th anniversary of the massacre that wiped the community off the mapApproximately 250 menwomen and children were murderedat the hands of the Guatemalan military at Dos ErresI am in the process of writing an article as a reflection on the commemoration. I will be sure to send out the article when it is completed.

In terms of my personal life, I had a lovely Christmas and New Years. At the end of December, I was able to take a weekend off and head to San Lucas Tolimán to visit my friends. It blows my mind how it always feels like there is far more going on in Pampojila with a population of 1 500 than in Guatemala City with its population of over one million. In the short 48 hours I was there, I somehow managed to attend a wedding, a pedida (a sort of common-law marriage celebration), the annual party for the lighting of the community Christmas tree and the first posada (a procession with Joseph and Mary in the days leading up to Christmas, that always involves a lot of candles, singing, sweet bread and Christmas punch). I had been warned that it was unlikely that I would be granted permission to leave the capital for Christmas, but I was thrilled to find out at the last minute that I could leave the capital for the 24th-25th, and was very grateful to spend another Christmas in Pampojila. I was not so lucky with getting time off for New Years, but I made the most of the celebrations in the capital. I was able to welcome in the New Year in the company of friends, on the rooftop in the capital, admiring the beauty of one million people setting off fireworks. The show lasted over half an hour, and honestly is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.


And now to mention some human rights news since I last wrote you.

In my last update, I talked a bit about the confrontations taking place in San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, in the department of Guatemala. Since last March, residents have set up a 24-hour blockade, barring the entrance to the American-owned El Tambor gold mine. On December 7th, approximately 70 riot police were sent to the site of the blockade with orders to evict the protesters. As the blockade is located on privately-owned land, and the protesters have the permission of the owner to be present on the land, the police had no authority to evict them and were sent solely with the intention to provoke the protesters. The provocation failed to incite violence (what the police wanted as a premise to evict them), but four community leaders who approached the police were detained, but released later the same day. While it was initially reported that an eviction took place, it was later clarified that protesters continue to blockade the entrance in their resistance to the mine. 

Also at the beginning of December, protests erupted across the country in response to the government’s failure (yet again!) to pass the Integral Rural Development bill. To give you some context, this bill was put together over twelve years ago by small farmers organizations, as a proposed strategy to address rural poverty and underdevelopment. Issues touched upon in the bill, including the marginalization of rural peoples and the unequal distribution of land in Guatemala, are all issues identified in the 1996 Peace Accords as underlying causes of the internal armed conflict. In signing the Peace Accords the government committed to addressing these issues as a necessary step towards peace. That being said, after countless promises by former and current governments and much study and debate, the government committed to passing the bill before recessing for the Christmas break. In the last sessions before the vacations, however, the bill failed to pass due to a lack of quorum (the rules for how many deputies need to be present in the Congress for legislation to be dealt with). The news was heartbreaking and a slap on the face to the many activists who have dedicated years of work to this initiative, and citizens took the the streets, protesting outside of Congress and blockading many key highways across the country. In response, the government has promised to pass the legislation in January, but the President of the Congress has already come out saying that amendments still need to be made. Meanwhile, conservative columnists and the CACIF (the Coordinating Committee for the Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial industries) have engaged in a ruthless campaign against the Rural Development bill and those who promote it. Pro-bill activists have been labelled as guerrillas and terrorists and the bill has been falsely characterized as unconstitutional, anti-development and communist. Some articles have gone so far as to threaten a return to the armed conflict if the bill is to be passed. This all indicates the extent to which elite sectors in society are threatened by a bill which would challenge both their monopoly of Guatemala’s productive lands as well as the supply of cheap, flexible labour. Rural peoples organizations, including the organization I was an intern for, the CCDA, refuse to back down and have announced that the government has three months to pass the bill as is. It remains to be seen if the government will carry through on its promise to pass the bill, and if the bill that is passed bears any resemblance to the original draft. Regardless, the tensions and conflicts around this bill promise to come to bear in the upcoming months. If you would like to read more about the Integral Rural Development bill, please visit this article published by NISGUA: .

Another very significant updateis the Guatemalan governments announcement that it will no longer recognize the jurisdiction of the InterAmerican Human Rights Court over crimes committed before 1987when Guatemala formally ratified the treaty recognizing the courtThe InterAmerican Court of Human Rights (IACHR) has been very aggressive in hearing cases of crimes committed during the internal armed conflictmost of which occurred in the early 1980′s. Due to the lack of initiative in the domestic justice system to pursue cases relating to crimes committed during the internal armed conflict, activists have used the strategy of presenting their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The IACHR is only able to deal with cases against states, and can order measures urging the government to pursue cases in the domestic justice system and demand the payment of reparations to victims. This strategy has been effective and was used in well known cases such as the case of the Dos Erres Massacre and the Plan de Sánchez Massacre, among others. Since the initial announcement the government has softened its stance by suspending the decision on how to proceed with their interpretation of the IACHR’s jurisdiction. It is unclear what the final position of the government will be and it remains to be seen what the impact will be on the advancement of cases relating to human rights violations during the armed conflict.

As I have already written way too much, I will briefly mention some good news. On January 9th, the last remaining political prisoners from Barillas, Huehuetenango had all charges dropped against them and are set to be released. The prisoners have been held since May of 2012 on charges of “Assault, racketeering, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, aggravated burglary specific, coercion and terrorism, incitement to crime and public disorder.” for their role as leaders in the protests against the installation of an hydroelectric project being pursued by a Spanish company, Hidro Santa Cruz in their communities. The liberation of the political prisoners is a huge victory for the people of Barillas, who are now focusing their efforts of having the 22 outstanding arrest warrants against activists resisting the hydroelectric project withdrawn.

To mention Canada briefly, I am somewhat lax at following Canadian news when I am here (to be honest, I find it too depressing) but I have been very interested in what is going on with the Idle No More movement. It reminds me that many of the struggles that are taking place in Guatemala, especially concerning the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of our natural resources, are the same struggles that take place in Canada and around the world. While I am inspired by the activists, I am also reminded that strategies used to vilify and criminalize activists also have no borders. In Guatemala it is very common for activists and protesters to be portrayed as criminals or terrorists. I personally find it difficult to understand why citizens blocking a highway to protest the violation of their rights is criminal, while the government’s failure to respect rights guaranteed to citizens in law, both domestic and international, is perceived as legitimate. I hope that Canadians are able to see those involved in the Idle No More movement, and in other social movements, not as delinquents or complainers, but as citizens, fulfilling their responsibility to participate actively in our democracy. It is much easier to target perceived leaders and focus attention on discrediting them personally, than to deal with the issues that are at the root of their discontent. Instead of focusing on whether Chief Spence is a good at her job, or that blocking a bridge or railway track inconveniences people, we should be focusing our attention to the very scary changes our government is making to our laws, particularly those relating to the environment and our relationships with indigenous peoples.

Well, I have already written way too much, so I will let you go. I hope that this note finds you well, and enjoying your January. I love hearing from you and I hope to write to you again soon.