February 20, 2004

Travels in Eastern Guatemala

Things started to move quickly after Ixil. I was traveling alone but sharing gas with various people on the way. The transport industry in Guatemala makes sense given the price of transportation and the needs of the people. A gallon of gasoline costs about $2.20 or Q17 (Quetzales), 80% of the people of Guatemala are living on one side or the other of the bread line surviving on about Q20 a day which is about enough gasoline for 28 miles or about 14 miles of travel in a private vehicle factoring in repair costs. So in order to buy a private vehicle your average Guatemalan would have to save about 5 years without food or lodging just to buy a rust bucket, hardly viable! Assuming no insurance, vehicle taxation, lodging or food costs they could then travel 17 miles every day for an average poor-persons wage.

Horses are an option for short rural journeys but most local people travel using the chicken bus system, a network of aged diesel buses driven by religious maniacs; the pick-up system, Toyota pick-up trucks with custom made metal roll-cages and strengthened suspension designed to carry about 4 cows or 35 people in relative discomfort driven by younger sunglass wearing gansta’ types; or by delivery truck which frequently stop to pick up locals on their routes to supplement their income. A few Guatemalans can afford mountain bikes but most walk the muddy or dusty tracks to get to where they need to go.

The pick-ups and buses are very cheap, a 20-mile journey being about Q3 (or USD$0.40). A typical market trip might yield a 30Q profit for a small stand selling fruit, tamales, bread or plastic Chinese-made ‘luxury’ goods like hair clips. Travel to and from the market should cost only about Q6 with the goods stored on the roof rack or on available floor space. On a good day that might be enough to feed the kids a basic diet of beans and tortillas for a couple of days, assuming a small family.

I decided I couldn’t compete in the transport business but I felt guilty driving alone with so many people waiting patiently for rides. I decided that I could find passengers from amongst the foreign traveler contingent. These people are used to paying ‘Tourismo’ coach charges (about 10 times local rates). The travelers paid a share on gasoline costs to come along. Along with the cheap vehicle repair costs and shared accommodation this keeps travel affordable.

Even with passengers I sometimes had room to squeeze in a local or two, usually older tribeswomen or younger women with babies. Many were visibly bewildered traveling inside a vehicle especially with my alien music. At the end of the trip they were visibly relieved to exit and when they asked “how much?” in their faltering Spanish I happily replied “nothing”. This happy surprise I fantasized would provide excellent gossip.

And so I traveled from Ixil to Antigua in a day, driving almost due South. After three days in Antigua two more driving days across country heading ENE through some very remote of Baja Verapaz then picking up the tarmac road north of Guatemala City heading NNE to the ugly regional capital of Coban. In Coban a lunch stop and having picked up some provisions it was on WSW over three hours of dirt to the watery paradise of Lanquin and Semuc Champey. Both deserve special mention, as gateways (and traveler destinations) to the unique jungle Karst topography of one of the more remote and unspoiled regions of Guatemala.

After spending a week in a palapa and tent in El Retiro, Lanquin I was off SSE over incredibly difficult mountain terrain via Finca El Volcan and Senahu to El Estor Lake Izabal. The local electoral representative was besieged by Gold mining interests battling with local fishermen over whether or not to build a local gold smelting plant. Typically wary of Western mining companies, in this case the Canadian firm Eco, the local fishermen believed that any plant built on the lakeshore to smelt gold and other minerals would be built with inadequate environmental protection and would be detrimental to their interests.

After El Estor it was a short day due East along lake Izabal’s North coast, stopping at the gorgeous hot water waterfall of Finca Paráiso (an excellent natural cure for insect bites). Then 30 miles east to lake Izabal’s eastern mouth at Rio Dulce. Rio Dulce is one of the richer towns in the state of Izabal and is a major mooring for luxury leisure craft passing up and down between Honduras and Belize. One suspects that much of the cocaine heading North moves this way as well. In 2002 the US estimated that full 50% of the cocaine moving north through Central America came through Izabal, the state with Guatemala’s only Gulf coastline. Much of this passed through Puerto Barrios where scheduled airplanes and ferries travel North to Belize and East into Honduras.

From Rio Dulce it was only a half day on good sealed road to the Honduran border at El Chinchado Guatemala, and Corinto Honduras. But crossing with a vehicle into Honduras at this remote site, yet again on a Sunday, is quite another story.

Posted by Tony Phillips at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2004

Burying the Dead

Chajul is a remote indigenous town in the Ixil triangle, about 150Km. north of Antigua in Guatemala. Ixil is an area of east-west valleys surrounded by higher mountain peaks. It is home to the Ixil people, a group of related Mayan tribes. Though their Mayan dialects are linguistically related, the people of Chajul find the language spoken in capital Nebaj incomprehensible. Nebaj is just 25K down the road.

The arrival of a regular chicken bus service and the recent road improvements has little altered the lives of the people of Chajul (Chajulense). Private cars are virtually unknown and many locals have never been outside Ixil. Most employment is in agriculture and services. In the surrounding countryside men and women can be seen carrying tremendous loads over long distances. The men and children carry Maize, coffee, firewood and building materials tied by rope in a bundle attached by a strap to their foreheads. The women balance smaller loads on their heads such as baskets of clothing washed by hand in the river. Other employment includes care for livestock: mainly cattle, fowl and pigs. Urban employment is mainly in retail, selling locally made or Chinese goods in small shops (tiendas) or markets stalls. Other employment includes artisan trades, and transport work: mainly mechanical repairs, and driving local buses, trucks or pickups.

Recently an indigenous industry has sprung up under the auspices of the co-operative movement. The “Association Chajulense” has two small factories in the food-manufacturing sector, one producing coffee and the other cheese all from locally sourced raw materials. Tourism industry development is also in advanced stages but the remoteness of the village and transportation issues means that the luxury hotel designed and built by local carpenters is often underutilized or used to house engineers working in the cheese plant.

Many women practice handcrafts outside their spacious one-room dirt floored houses. Most of this work involves the weaving of colorful traditional clothing. Each village in Guatemala has its own distinctive clothing style. In Chajul the women wear a simple red or brown striped skirt cut below the knee, woven cloth belts and a range of colorfully embroidered tuck-in blouses: white for feast days and various shades of burgundy the rest of the year. Again most source materials are made in the village.

Life was not always so idyllic in Chajul. The Ixil region was one of the epicenters of the Guatemalan 36-year war of insurgency and repression. 1982 and 1983 were the years of the fiercest fighting as government troops ruthlessly wrestled control of the region. 'The General’, President Ríos Montt commanded the troops at this time investing public funds in expanding the armed forces by 50%. Montt came into power (via a coup) in 1982 and ruled with an iron fist for two years. He now faces genocide charges in multiple jurisdictions. The people of Chajul are anxious for justice.

Chajul town square in front of the parish church was the scene of the torture to death of Patrocino Menchu the brother of Rigoberta Menchu. An excerpt from her book “I Rigoberta Menchu” describes the event:

'My name is Rigoberta Menchu Tum. l am a representative of the "Vincente Menchu" [her father] Revolutionary Christians ... On 9 December 1979, my 16-year-old brother Patrocino was captured and tortured for several days and then taken with twenty other young men to the square in Chajul ... An officer of [President] Lucas Garcia's army of murderers ordered the prisoners to be paraded in a line. Then he started to insult and threaten the inhabitants of the village who were forced to come out of their houses to witness the event. I was with my mother, and we saw Patrocino; he had had his tongue cut out and his toes cut off. The officer jackal made a speech. Every time he paused the soldiers beat the Indian prisoners. When he finished his ranting, the bodies of my brother and the other prisoners were swollen bloody, unrecognizable. lt was monstrous, but they were still alive. They were thrown on the ground and drenched with gasoline. The soldiers set fire to the wretched bodies with torches and the captain laughed like a hyena and forced the inhabitants of Chajul to watch. This was his objective-that they should be terrified and witness the punishment given to the "guerrillas". – Rigoberta Menchu Tum

The townspeople were forced to watch the torture under threat of being branded ‘Communists’ and sharing a similar fate. Rigoberta has devoted her life to healing the wounds of this war and has accepted a strategic position in the new Guatemalan Government formed in January 2004 under president Oscar Berger. She also won the 1992 Nobel peace prize for her work. There were more than twenty massacres in the Ixil region, most during the two-year period of Montt’s bloody rule. The victims were largely Ixil villagers and insurgent forces but there are also mass graves of government troops. Among the victims was the Father Jose Maria Gran Cirera shot just outside Chajul on June 4, 1980.

Baltazar Raymundo Riviera presides over the Chajul “Officina Juridicio Legal”, the local office of human rights. This one-man office is situated just beside the parish church in what was once the barracks of the government troops before the townspeople forced out the government troops. His walls are covered with posters, maps and photographs with a common theme: the posters depict assassinated bishops and priests and collages of the faces of family members of the disappeared. Of particular interest are amateur 35mm. photographs arranged in three collages; these depict recent exhumations of victim’s bodies out of mass graves across the Ixil region. This task is coordinated from his office as are the burials of these remains by survivors.

Baltazar’s association has been coordinating the disinterment and subsequent burial of more than 200 victim’s. The mass graves are located in more than 20 sites in Ixil. Many volunteers involved in the digging, labeling and transportation of remains are relatives and friends of the deceased. Where possible relatives of the deceased carry the coffins to their final resting places after they are identified in the pathology lab. Baltazar’s diary is filled with the grueling details of exhumation schedules, shipment dates of corpses to forensic laboratories and the scheduling of the decent interment of the remains of the victims some twenty years after they have been slain.

The scars of war are deep but with the courageous efforts of people like Baltazar there is hope for the Ixil people. The recent appointment of Rigoberta Menchu as “good will ambassador to the peace accord” in the Berger Government is encouraging for determined individuals like Mr. Riviera. However his efforts did not wait for her appointment. Human rights work has survived through various less-friendly regimes for more than 10 years now.

The parallel development of the financial projects of the Association Chajulense is also a source for hope for the people of the region. The Ixil coffee brand made in Chajul is sold mainly in the German and Dutch markets as a premium organic product bringing much needed development income. The success of the Association Chajulense is touted as a prime example of recovery and progress in Guatemala.

It is ironic to think that the children forced to watch the brutal torture in the square some twenty years back under threat of being branded ‘Communist’ grew up to become adept community Socialists!

Posted by Tony Phillips at 04:12 PM | Comments (3)

February 03, 2004

Border crossing to Guatemala

Just this week I entered Guatemala for the first time driving across the Chiapas border from Mexico. Looking across from the Mexican side one could see things were different there but I really was not prepared for what I was to learn so quickly, what I am still learning on a daily basis.

The process of driving across borders in Central America, like most things, benefits from impeccable timing. Timing has never been my forte and I arrived just too late to export my vehicle out of the country. The Mexican customs office had closed for the evening at 17:00 hours. At 17:20 I drove to the neighboring town of Comalapa to look for a hotel with secure parking. My mission complete, I proceeded to gorge myself for the last time on my favorite Mexican delicacies: excellent tortas and juice combinations of betabel and zanahoria (red beet and carrot) freshly made by a local Goddess. Finally time for bed, early start tomorrow to cross into Guatemala.

Borders are always interesting places. The power relationship between the neighbors is usually quite apparent. The more powerful the country the better its land, the greater control of the water supply, the more buoyant and convertible the currency. Looking across from the verdant plains of eastern Chiapas it is quite apparent that Guatemala got the short end of the stick. Immediately east are extraordinarily steep mountains, crossing the next day confirmed that we were moving from the second world into the third. Guns though prevalent in Mexico are everywhere in Guatemala, even the Pepsi delivery truck requires on-board shotgun protection.

Having been late for the customs the previous day, we pulled in early. So the Mexican customs people decided to open late for us. Opening with a skeleton staff of one we immediately hit snags. The lady complained that we had overstayed our temporary vehicle importation by a couple of weeks; we needed to pay a fine (multa) before leaving their jurisdiction. Like a plotline from Catch 22, we couldn’t leave without paying and she had no authority to determine the exact amount that we should pay. Her superior could but didn’t work Sundays we would have to come back Monday. The fact that we would be re-entering the country illegally having had our exit visas stamped didn’t seem to worry her.

Having spent some time in Mexico, a little too much maybe, I just sat down commenting that I was “fucked” and waited. Eventually my presence irritated her sufficiently that she decided to take matters into her own hands and let us through for free. Onward to the border zone of Ciudad Cuahtemoc and into La Mesilla. Welcome to Guatemala!
About a mile up the road began importation proceedings. Relatively painless, $6 a person and $8 for the car but only Quetzales were accepted, no problem, Mexican Pesos and US Dollars were readily exchanged. The Quetzal, Guatemala’s currency is the only currency named after a bird. The feathers of the quetzal were amongst the most prized possessions of the Maya and the Aztec tribes. Like the gold dust they were traded for, quetzal feathers were traded far and wide. I guess money did grow on trees in Mayan Guatemala.

We were waved through the customs and fruit check though they sprayed the tires and then it was off up the steep mountains toward Huehuetanango. Many chicken busses had slipped off the sheer cliffs, their wrecks below marked on the roadsides by clusters of crosses and small shrines.

Driving in thick fog near to the highest point (at 3,670 m) of the Inter-American highway I passed through another dusty town which was if anything worse than the resettlement towns on the Chiapas side of the border. A kid cycling by pointed at me formed his fist into the shape of a gun, aimed and pulled the trigger. Maybe cars with US plates were not so welcome to Guatemala?

In Mexico the army is considered to be somewhat of a joke. They have so little to do that the USA has convinced their government that they should be used to search cars for guns and drugs to keep up US prices in the Global War On Drugs. Somehow exempt are drugs like Kentucky Bourbon, Virginia Tobacco and 1,000,000 more that are Taxable, FDA approved and protected by the inappropriately named TRIPS agreement. The Guatemalan army is somewhat different and to be given a wide berth where possible. The recent election results mean that the Army is keeping a low profile, it will be interesting to see how they react to the new president’s latest proposal to reduce their number by a third.

Just down the road was an imploded volcano, now the deep lake of Atitlan surrounded by the remains of the walls of the great volcano long evaporated. Seems like there is a safe place deep below us called San Pedro. Might be a spot to take the weight off the chassis and chill for a while? What an excellent idea!

Posted by Tony Phillips at 09:45 AM | Comments (0)

Guatemala on the cusp

The Guatemalan army is a force to be reckoned with, or if you are smart, to be given a wide berth. It has fought a 36-year war of counterinsurgency preserving the US-backed right wing Republican Front of Guatemala (FRG) against left wing rebel forces. In 1996 a UN negotiated peace accord was finally signed ending the 36-year war. But this did not mean the end of the FRG or of Guatemala’s most prominent statesman ‘the general’. José Efraín Ríos Montt, a protestant minister became president after the 1982 coup and still wields power. Montt is currently facing an indictment for genocide and has failed in his election bid for presidency, 2004-2008. He may have lost the election but he’s not out of the picture.

When he came into power Montt doubled the size of the army and initiated a scorched earth policy sending the army and it’s right wing death squad buddies in to eradicate the enemy. These were by far the bloodiest years of the long civil war. Of the 200,000 dead about one half died during his term (83% of them indigenous Mayans). The death toll on the government side was less than 1 in 10. Mayans Guatemalans now represent only 60% of the population.

Driving through Western Guatemala from the Mexican border signs indicate the location of former Mayan villages. The people responsible preferred not to waste bullets in massacres of the indigenous. Wholesale slaughter was meted out using fire, bricks and machetes. Placks on the sides of the roads mark a selection of more than 400 razed villages.

Montt has been indicted on many charges in many countries but still enjoys immunity in Guatemala . An FRG-friendly court laid down a decision negating the effect of a constitutional law banning re-the candidacy of leaders who have previously taken power through a coup. Montt’s name finally appeared on the ballot in late 2003, a matter described even by the Bush regime as ‘problematic’.

Montt was eliminated in the first round of the election. An extraordinary turnout of first time indigenous voters voted mainly for their own preservation. Many more however, largely non-Spanish speakers, voted for the man whose army brings them fertilizer for their crops. Montt’s opponents Berger and Colom made it to the run-off elections in December 2003. Óscar Berger squeezed through to replace the FRG’s Portillo in January 2004. The relationship between Portillo and Montt was reminiscent of Bush and Cheney.

The signs still attached to the buildings round here read: “With Berger we all win!” How true might this be? How will things be for the four-year term of this ex-mayor of Guatemala City? Berger is a rich farmer whose interests are closely aligned with his backers the Guatemala elite and their CACIF lobby group (the Coordinating Committee of Commercial, Agricultural, Industrial, and Financial Associations). He has his work cut out for him!

According to the BBC Berger’s stated priorities are to fight crime, corruption and poverty, and to implement the peace accord that ended Guatemala's vicious 36-year civil war in 1996. His first few weeks in power were busy indeed. Along with stimulus tax cuts for his buddies his policies were similar to Mexican President Fox’s first term, liberal social policies, neo-liberal economics.

Berger offered a government position to Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winning indigenous activist who fled the country for Mexico after receiving multiple death threats in 2001. Menchu accepted and now in charge of monitoring government progress on the accords. Also offered a position was political activist Helen Mack, sister of murdered anthropologist Myrna Mack.

With the oligarchy back in the driving seat of Guatemalan politics how will Berger’s new business-oriented government face the challenge of reconciling the interests of its agriculture and industry backers with the needs of a nation of 9 million poor (2 million not)? The Bush government is firmly convinced that Berger is a gun totin’ neo-liberal like his protégé Fox. US based corporations are counting on Berger’s compliance on trade agreements designed to offer their firms a preferential tax environment and access to local markets not available to their European and Asian counterparts. Already Citibank brokers government loans and Walmart distributes Guatemalan beer. The US recently "decertified" Guatemala due to its inability to counter drug trafficking but Bush is bullish on Berger. Geoff Thale, a senior Central America associate for the Washington Office on Latin America was quoted in the Miami Herald on December 30th. 2003 as saying: “There’s no question [Washington officials are] happy about this [election],” He believes Berger’s economic policy is “very similar to that of the Bush administration: pro free-trade and pro-business.” In a gesture of goodwill Bush sent his brother, the infamous Jeb, to Berger’s inauguration. Bush needs all of the friends he can get to work with him on his agenda of pushing through CAFTA (like NAFTA with a ‘C’ for Central).

Neo-liberals don’t often implement social programs but Berger is implementing emergency food aid to the starving in more than 100 remote villages. His wife Wendy is taking an active role in organizing the distribution. Social programs are difficult in countries burdened with an external debt of USD165Mn. Berger may find resistance to such spending in his negotiations with the IMF but he may be emboldened by recent deals in Argentina and Nicaragua.

Maybe there is room for policy maneuver in a nation with one of the most unequal wealth distribution in the world?

The situation is in Guatemala is critical. The currency is fluctuating rapidly and the ratio of international debt to GNP is fast approaching 4% (a figure cited in weaker economies as cause for ‘concern’.) The civil sector and its military counterpart are at odds. Berger is proposing a reduction in the size of the military by approximately one third. It will be important to cushion the blow to the unemployed soldiers? Another stability consideration is the 1,000,000 members of the rural militias or PAC’s (Civil Self-Defence Patrols). The PACs were responsible for much of the killing during the civil war and remain loyal and somewhat financially dependent on Montt’s FRG. In a show of force in July 2003 many thousands of PAC members were paid $40 a piece (plus meals) and bussed to the capital to riot in support of Montt’s candidacy. With machine guns and machetes in the streets FRG luminaries mixed comfortably with their paid muscle. The police did little to stem the chaos. The resultant disruption caused the death of a journalist from a heart attack. Another was dragged to safety at the last minute: doused in gasoline he faced being burned alive. Journalists shipped their family out of the country for the period or resorted to bodyguards.

Montt’s pre-election show of strength may have been a tactical reminder but his failed bid for the presidency means he is about to lose his immunity from prosecution. The question remains as to what will Berger will choose to do with the powerful Septuagenarian? During his election campaign Berger refused to commit himself on whether he thought the former dictator should stand trial in Guatemala. Considering the volatility of the situation caution might be the better part of valor however compliance with the ’96 peace accord requires action.

Continuous International pressure will help to embolden the young government to honor its side of the peace agreement. Payback to the Guatemalan oligarchy is to be expected. Berger is also likely to provide support for Bush on CAFTA and other Latin American accords regardless of their long term impact on the Guatemalan poor. It may be some time before Guatemala can bury the 200,000 war victims and re-house the more than one million displaced. Stability could result in lasting peace but International support will be crucial in the next few years.

Posted by Tony Phillips at 09:33 AM | Comments (1)