Seven lay catechists and three priests murdered four decades ago in Quiché were beatified by the Roman Catholic Church on April 21, 2021. Among them was Fr. Juan Alonso (right), a Spanish missionary priest who served the parish in Lancetillo.

Second in a series by Jim Hodgson
Read the first post here

Early on Tuesday, May 3rd, the morning after the International Workers’ Day long weekend, I set out for the northern Quiché department with Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking The Silence Network’s Laura Robinson and four compañeros from the Highlands Committee of Small Farmers (CCDA). We were on our way to visit Granada Uno, a Maya Q’eqchi’ community in the Uspantán municipality whose residents risk expulsion because of a long-running land dispute. I’ll share more about their cause in the coming days, but first I want to invite you into our journey of remembrance of what had happened in past conflicts.

For a Canadian looking at a map, Guatemala looks small, but it took us more than a day of driving to reach the northern part of the Uspantán municipality. We left the capital city at 6:45 in the morning and drove northwest on the Pan-American Highway to Los Encuentros. Here, we met the four good men from CCDA who would be our travel companions for these five days. In their truck, we drove north, the highway rising and falling in tight curves as we passed through the old colonial cities of Chichicastenango and Santa Cruz del Quiché. Microclimates shifted constantly: damp and green here; dry and brown after next curve. Then we plunged deeply into the Rio Negro valley, crossing the river at Sacapulas before climbing to the top of the north side where the road splits.

CCDA and BTS members of the commission travelling to Granada Uno. from left: Laura Robinson, Leocadio Juracán, Abner Pérez, Luis Xep Jacinto, and Kevin Morales Tereta.

One fork leads to Nebaj, where I had gone in 2016 for visits among Maya Ixil communities whose agricultural projects are supported by the Ixil Development Coordination (CODI) and the Council of Evangelical Churches (CIEDEG), a United Church of Canada global partner. The Nebaj area was a particular target of U.S-backed military operations in 1982-83, when Otto Pérez Molina (known then as “Major Tito”) was the local military commander. He later served as Guatemala’s president from 2011-15. The military dictator at the time, General Efrain Rios Montt, was accused of 1,771 specific murders in the area.

The other side of the fork goes east to Uspantán. Just south of us was the village where Rigoberta Menchú, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is from; her father Vicente was among 37 people killed when police attacked the peasant farmers’ occupation of the Spanish embassy in 1980. And just to the north is the village where my friend Fernando Us is from. His father, Reyes Us, was a lay catechist who was murdered there later the same year.

We drove on to Chicamán and turned north. The first 20 km were on a new, paved road. Soon, we were held up by road construction. And then we found ourselves on a gravel and dirt road that twisted and turned and rose and fell along the western side of the Chixoy River canyon. This river, we learned, is the continuation of the Rio Negro that we had crossed hours earlier.

Construction on the road to Lancetillo.

We drove on. The river below us flowed north and would eventually become the Usumacinta River before moving through the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco and into the Bay of Campeche.

Before long we were back within the Uspantán municipality, but in its northernmost part. We stopped in Lancetillo for the night. Over supper, we learned that the parish priest here, Fr. Juan Alonso Fernández, was assassinated in 1981. Like other priests and lay leaders in the Catholic diocese of Quiché, he had led efforts to create producer co-operatives to improve the quality of life of his parishioners. But the repression grew so extreme that the bishop at the time, Juan Gerardi, took the decision to close the diocese; its staff went into exile for several years. Gerardi was murdered in 1998 two days after publishing a report on the violence of those years.

The road to Lancetillo, north of Chicamán.

That night, I went to bed thinking about where development and genocide go hand in bloody hand. We had crossed the Rio Negro and driven alongside the Chixoy canyon. Those names too are part of Guatemala’s legacy of violence. In the late 70s and early 80s, the government built a dam on the Chixoy – upstream and southwest of Uspantán – to produce electricity. Between 400 and 500 Maya Achi people were killed in successive massacres so that their land could be taken and flooded. The project was funded by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. 

In all, some 200,000 people were killed in the civil war, 93 percent of them at the hands of the government’s armed forces, according to the United Nations. The UN Historical Clarification Commission Report found that 83 percent of victims were Mayan and nearly half of the human rights abuses were committed in the department of Quiché.

NEXT: Guatemala’s civil war ended with a peace accord in 1995, and the struggle for Indigenous rights moved into courtrooms and the national legislature. The next morning, we would travel on to Granada Uno to see how communities defend their land in this new scenario.