Incredible Stories and Experiences in Guatemala – Newsletter from Rob Mercatante

Hey everyone,

It is a warm evening here in Guatemala City. I’m in my apartment, sitting in front of the laptop, wondering how to begin this letter. It has been a long while since I’ve felt compelled to write a newsletter of any sort. What with email, Skype, Facebook, and cell phones there are now countless ways for me not to keep in touch with all of you. (Ok, I admit it… the mea culpa of non-communication.) 

I’ve recently taken a good, hard look at my life in an attempt to discover which areas could use some improvement. Turns out there were a lot more than I thought. (Sigh.) One problem that stood out, however, was the fact that I have lost touch with many of you who are my foundation, my strength and my support. This is my first step towards righting that wrong.

I am now entering my 23rd year living and working in Guatemala. Which means that I’ve spent half of my life here. (I don’t know which is more shocking: the fact that I’ve spent nearly two and a half decades in Guatemala, or the fact that I’ll soon turn 46.) 

For the past year I have been honored to be working with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission. Much more than a job it has been an experience, at times frightening, frustrating, exhausting, depressing, stressful, and heart-breaking… and other times moving, motivating, exciting, uplifting, and life-changing. Working with GHRC has allowed me to accompany the oppressed, defend human rights, speak out against injustices, and work alongside many of my personal heroes. I am, without a doubt, blessed. 

I am also blessed to have you in my life: my family and friends. My amazing coworkers, interns and board members of GHRC. The communities of faith that support us. The incredible men and women who have visited Guatemala in delegations. And all of you who are committed to peace, justice, and human rights. I couldn’t do this without you. 

And so, in a feeble attempt to repay my long overdue debt to you, I will do my best to start sharing some of these incredible stories and experiences with you. After all, they belong to you as much as they do to me.


Rob Mercatante

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The river was silver, reflecting the overcast sky. Riding between the smooth waters and the flat sky was like gliding across an enormous mirror. Brown pelicans skimmed the surface of the slow-flowing river. The faraway shore was covered in the mist of the retreating rains. The only sound was the rhythmic chug-chug-chug of the motor and the soft spray of the water against the bow of the boat. 

Abelardo, the young man sitting in front of me, turned and said in a barely audible whisper: “This is where they found my sister”.

Guatemala: a country of beauty, a country of pain. It strikes me time and again, that some of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen… places that could easily pass for paradise… are also the sites of some of humanity’s darkest crimes and and most despicable acts.

One year ago, on February 12th, three young indigenous activists were heading home after a day of studying at the university. Every Saturday afternoon they would climb into their small boat and ride it down the Rio Dulce river to their village of Quebrada Seca. Only this time they didn’t make it home. The boat was found the next day, containing only their backpacks and a watery pool of blood. The bullet-ridden bodies of Sebastian Xuc Cac, Alberto Coc Caal, and Catalina Mucú Maas… Abelardo’s sister… were later found floating in the river. Amilcar Choc, who had simply hitched a ride in the boat, was also assassinated.

All three, despite their young age, were respected leaders in their Maya Q’eqchí community. Sebastian, 30 years old, was a teacher in the village’s school. Alberto, 26, was a spiritual guide and involved in the campesino (peasant farmer) movement. Catalina, 23, was was the first woman from Quebrada Seca to graduate from high school, and a passionate advocate for women’s rights. Together they fought to defend their community’s lands against theft by a rancher with ties to a Colombian drug cartel.

The impact of these cowardly and cruel murders is impossible to measure. Lives were prematurely ended. Spouses were widowed, families were thrown into heart-breaking grief and depression. Sebastian had five children, Alberto had three. Catalina and her husband had decided not to have children until she finished putting her younger brothers through school.

And the terrible loss doesn’t end there. Who can say what legacy these three talented, intelligent, and committed young people would have left to their village, to Guatemala, and to the world at large?

I looked into Abelardo’s eyes, and saw his anguish. Words of comfort failed me. Sometimes, in the face of pain so great, loss so overwhelming, the only option that remains is to stand in silent solidarity with the suffering. To affirm, by the mere act of being present, “you are not alone.” You are not alone in your grief. You are not alone in your struggle. You are not alone in your hope for healing and justice.

I traveled to Quebrada Seca this past weekend to accompany the families and the community in commemorating the one year anniversary of the tragedy. I was in good company, joined by friends from UDEFEGUA (the Guatemala Human Rights Defenders Unit), Encuentro Campesino, and the Fundacion Guillermo Toriello. When we arrived the entire village convened in the community center. A solemn and somber mood lay heavy on the gathering. Even the weather seemed to be in mourning. Despite the fact that we were in the middle of the dry season, dark clouds had gathered overhead. After a brief while –as if the heavens themselves couldn’t contain their grief– the skies cried and the rain came pouring down.

The commemoration was attended by every man, woman and child in the village. One of the community members read a poem that he had composed in memory of the martyred youth. Others demanded justice for the barbaric crime. Still others urged the children of the village to remember and emulate Sebastian, Alberto and Catalina’s example of selfless dedication to the greater good. 

After the event we went to visit the homes of the grieving families. The torrential downpour didn’t let up. Dirt paths turned into raging rivers of mud, and the soccer field became a shallow lake. The rain-soaked ground sucked greedily at our shoes as if trying to swallow us whole, soggy-socks and all. We ended up at the home of Catalina’s family, where Abelardo and his mother served us Kak’ik, a traditional soup made from turkey, tomatoes and spices. While we gladly warmed ourselves with the delicious meal, I noticed Abelardo shifting uncomfortably in his chair. Finally he summoned up the courage to speak. “My mom is worried that she doesn’t have enough money to keep my younger brother Victor in school. Catalina was paying his studies, like she did for me. But now…” Abelardo paused, and I felt my heart go to my throat. After a moment, he continued: “I wrote this letter. I was wondering if you know of anyone who might be able to help us.” He handed over a sheet of paper containing a long hand-written letter. “I know that it’s asking a lot, but we don’t have any other option. We just want Victor to be able to finish his studies.” 

Much to Abelardo’s surprise everyone started smiling. Unbeknownst to him and his family, I had a secondary purpose in visiting Quebrada Seca: to deliver scholarship funds to the children of the victims. And, in a special exception, to Catalina’s and Abelardo’s younger brother, Victor. (GHRC, with the financial support of St Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, MD is helping to guarantee the education of 40+ children of human rights defenders throughout Guatemala who have suffered threats, attacks, or violence because of their work.)

I watched as Abelardo translated the good news into the Q’eqchí language for his mother. Various emotions flitted quickly across her face: confusion, surprise, and then, finally, relief. As I handed the funds over to the family, assuring that Victor would be able to stay in school, a single phrase sang out in my mind: I’m in the right place at the right time.

I have to admit that I get that feeling a lot. Which probably goes a long way to explaining why I have spent half of my life in Guatemala. Yes, much of this work is physically strenuous, mentally demanding, and emotionally exhausting. Yet these encounters with the survivors of humanity’s most inhumane acts move me, inspire me, and light a fire within me that all of the rain in Quebrada Seca couldn’t possibly extinguish. 

And I know, without the slightest doubt, that the words of Helen Keller are true: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”


Guest Post by Marvyn Pérez: The Return of the Military/El retorno de los militares

The Return of the Military
(español abajo)

General Otto Pérez Molina’s ascendency to the presidency of the Republic of Guatemala has provoked frustration and sadness in some and joy in others. For those of us who lived and survived the war, this fact can be hard to understand, as the general is accused of crimes against humanity including  carrying out massacres against the indigenous civilian population in the Ixil region at the beginning of the 1980s. There are also accusations of forced disappearance and extrajudicial execution such as that carried out against the insurgent Efraín Bámaca, who was captured alive and then was “disappeared.” The dark and tenebrous past of the general is benefited by his supposedly “moderate” posture within the military, which brought him to be the army’s representative during the negotiation process between the government and the insurgency and a signer of the Peace Accords, signed on the 29th of December 1996.

Despite the accusations presented against him, no case has been successful in the Guatemalan justice system. This includes the first week of January, when the criminal charges against him with the greatest chance of moving forward were dismissed by the Public Prosecutor’s Office based on the report/analysis put forth by a Peruvian army officer who serves the Prosecutor’s Office as an expert in military affairs. This report concluded that there were not elements that tied Pérez Molina to the chain of command responsible for the execution of the insurgent Efraín Bámaca. However, the report pinned the blame on other high military commanders who were also part of the criminal complaint brought by Jennifer Harbury, wife of Efraín Bámaca. The report apparently did not take into consideration the documents declassified by the State Department where Pérez Molina is mentioned as one of the people responsible for the captivity and eventual execution of the insurgent.

If the Prosecutor’s Office continues to work independently and without pressure of any nature, it’s likely that in the near future we will see other legal processes and arrests against members of the army accused of crimes against humanity. The arrival of Claudia Paz y Paz as the Attorney General has allowed the Prosecutor’s Office to move forward professionally and independently in many cases which were bogged down/shelved in the justice system. The advances in the investigations has allowed some military men to be captured, taken to jail and charges brought against them such as the case of the Kaibiles who participated in the massacre of Dos Erres as well as Francisco Arrendondo who led the feared “Command Six” of the National Police in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Other high ranking officers, soldiers and civilians have been sentenced, and others are facing charges for crimes committed in the past.

These open processes against military men and civilians have provoked the rage of retired military officers and ultra right-wing civilians who fear that they will be charged in the future or that their names will come to light and they will be connected to the investigations. These conservative sectors, accustomed to impunity, have launched a dirty campaign against the Attorney General. This campaign is meant to rid the Prosecutor’s Office of the Attorney General and thus stop the cases and other investigations which are being carried out. The dirty campaign consists of tying members of her family with the old insurgency, trying to create the idea that she is biased and only interested in damaging the military. As part of the same campaign, these ultra conservative groups have filed complaints with the Prosecutor’s Office against those who they claim belonged to the old guerillas, hoping in this way to equate the crimes against humanity committed by the army with those of the guerillas. The conservative groups have put together and presented to the press lists of the supposedly implicated, many of whom died long ago or were children when the crimes occurred, as is the case of the columnists and human rights defenders. These lists seem to send a message of terror to those who are still alive, in the style of the death squads who functioned with the help of the State and ultra conservative civilians during the war years and who are responsible for many of the forced disappearances.

It is very likely that these right-wing groups feel encouraged and emboldened by the arrival of General Otto Pérez Molina to the presidency in Guatemala. This step is not just the arrival of a military commander. His entire inner circle is also made up of military men who have accompanied him throughout his long military career. The security institutions, such as the Interior Ministry, the Secretary of Administrative Affairs and Guatemala’s Presidential Security, just to mention the closest, are all now controlled by military men. In this way, it doesn’t seem to be just that a military man is assuming the presidency, but that it is a return of the military men and the counterinsurgent military officers who are accused of committing the worst crime—bringing about the last genocide on the American continent.

Without a doubt, the institution which will face the most difficulty will be the Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General, which will have to closely follow the support offered by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to the institutions charged with justice as well as the willingness of the new government to request the extension of the CICIG at the end of his time in office. Human rights defenders will surely be under the microscope of the ultra right-wing groups and, why not add, of the military and civil intelligence apparatus.

It appears that the future will continue to be difficult, civil society will have the complicated task of making sure the precarious rule of law is not turned back and will have to look to alliances with the international community to fortify the routes to denounce and pressure the new government. It seems that the international community, especially the countries which assisted with peace process, do not look favorably on the ascendency of a military officer to the presidency. This was clear from the lack of participation by heads of state and international delegations in the inauguration on the 14th of January. This could mean that the international community will closely follow the developments and steps taken by the new government, especially those which impact or violate human rights in the country.

Those of us Guatemalans who live outside the country, especially those of us who reside in the United States, will have the task of closely following the developments in the country and helping civil society with their just demands. It will be vital in this new period to fortify alliances with groups interested in Guatemala. For us, recipients of the Voiceless Speak Fund, who are working to keep war crimes from languishing in impunity, this could mean an opportunity to seek alliances with different sectors of whatever country we find ourselves in. We can participate more actively in bringing representatives of civil society in Guatemala to this country to denounce or share their experiences with their counterparts and taking delegations of various sectors of the social movement in this country travel to Guatemala to know, first hand, the developments and history of the country.

The Voiceless Speak Program opens opportunities to us survivors to help us continue denouncing the crimes against humanity carried out by the military with the complicity of many civilians. We have to knock on many doors—universities, religious groups, community groups, and unions— looking for youth, men and women to educate them about our history. Or obligation as survivors will continue to be the quest for justice through legal mechanisms, and to continue denouncing the crimes of the past to preserve memory and truth.

El retorno de los militares

La llegada a la presidencia de la republica de Guatemala del general Otto Pérez Molina ha provocado frustración y tristeza en muchos. Para los que vivimos y sobrevivimos la guerra éste hecho puede ser difícil de entender porque el general está acusado de delitos de lesa humanidad como ordenar masacres contra población civil indígena en el área Ixil a principios de la década de los 80´s. También hay señalamientos de desapariciones forzadas y ejecución extrajudicial como la llevada a cabo contra el insurgente Efraín Bámaca quien fue capturado vivo y luego desaparecido. El oscuro y tenebroso pasado del general se ve beneficiado por su postura aparentemente “moderada” dentro del ejército lo cual lo llevo a ser representante del ejército en el proceso de negociaciones entre el Estado y la Insurgencia y signatario de los Acuerdos de Paz firmados el 29 de diciembre de 1996.

Pese a las acusaciones presentadas en su contra ningún caso a prosperado en la justicia guatemalteca, incluso la primera semana de enero del presente año una de las demandas en su contra con mayores posibilidades de avanzar fue desestimada por el Ministerio Público (MP) basándose en un informe/análisis  elaborado por un  militar peruano que trabaja para el MP en calidad de experto en asuntos militares. Dicho informe concluye que no hay elementos que vinculen a Pérez Molina en la cadena de mando responsable por la ejecución del insurgente Efraín Bámaca. Sin embargo, el informe sí señala como responsables a otros altos mandos del ejército que forman parte de la denuncia presentada por Jennifer Harbury, viuda del insurgente Efraín Bámaca. El informe aparentemente no tomó en consideración los documentos desclasificados del Departamento de Estado donde sí se menciona a Pérez Molina como uno de los responsables del cautiverio y posterior ejecución del insurgente. Si el Ministerio publico continúa trabajando independientemente y sin presiones de ninguna índole es probable que en el futuro cercano podamos ver otros procesos legales y arrestos contra militares acusados por crímenes de lesa humanidad. La llegada de Claudia Paz y Paz como fiscal general ha permitido que el MP avance profesionalmente e independientemente en muchos casos que estaban atorados/engavetados en el sistema de justicia, el avance de las investigaciones ha permitido que algunos militares hayan sido capturados, se encuentren en la cárcel y enfrenten procesos legales como el caso de los kaibiles que participaron en la masacre de Las Dos Erres y de Francisco Arredondo quien dirigió el temible comando seis de la policía nacional a finales de los 70´s y principios de los 80´s.  Otros militares de alto rango, soldados y civiles han sido condenados y otros enfrentan procesos por crímenes cometidos el conflicto armado interno.

Estos procesos abiertos contra militares y civiles ha provocado la ira de militares retirados y civiles de ultra derecha que tienen miedo a ser procesados en el futuro o de que sus nombres salgan a luz y se les vincule en las investigaciones. Estos sectores conservadores  acostumbrados a la impunidad han lanzado una campaña sucia contra la fiscal general, dicha campaña tiene como objetivos: sacar a la fiscal general del MP y de esta manera detener los procesos abiertos y otras investigaciones que se puedan estar realizando. La campaña sucia consiste en vincular a miembros de su familia con la antigua insurgencia, pretendiendo así crear la idea de que ella es parcial y sólo tiene interés de dañar al ejército. Como parte de la misma campaña estos grupos de ultra derecha han presentado denuncias en el MP contra civiles a quienes ellos acusan de haber pertenecido a la antigua guerrilla, buscando de esta manera equiparar/igualar los crímenes de lesa humanidad que cometió el ejercito con los de la guerrilla. Estos grupos  elaboraron y presentaron a los medios de comunicación las listas de los supuestos implicados, muchos de los cuales murieron hace mucho tiempo o eran niñas cuando los hechos ocurrieron como es el caso de dos columnistas de medios escritos y defensoras de derechos humanos. Estas listas parecieran llevar el mensaje de atemorizar a los que están vivos, al estilo de los escuadrones de la muerte que funcionaron con apoyo del Estado y civiles de ultra derecha durante los años de la guerra y que son responsables de muchas de las desapariciones forzadas.

Es muy probable que estos grupos de derecha se sientan  animados y envalentonados con la llegada del general Otto Pérez Molina a la presidencia y es que no se trata de la llegada de un militar sino que todo su círculo cercano son militares que lo han acompañado a lo largo de su carrera militar. Las instituciones de seguridad como el Ministerio de Gobernación, la Secretaría de Asuntos Administrativos y de Seguridad de la Presidencia de Guatemala (SAAS), el secretario del Consejo Nacional de Seguridad y su Secretario Privado, sólo por mencionar a los más cercanos son militares. De esta forma pareciera que nos es un militar el que va a asumir la presidencia del país, sino que es el regreso de los militares y de los militares contrainsurgentes, aquellos acusados de cometer los peores crímenes: llevar a cabo el último genocidio en el continente americano.

Sin duda la institución que probablemente enfrentará más dificultades será el Ministerio Público y su fiscal general, habrá que seguir muy de cerca el apoyo que pueda seguir dando la Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) a las instituciones encargadas de la justicia, así como de la voluntad del nuevo gobierno de solicitar la ampliación de la CICIG al culminar su mandato. Los defensores de derechos humanos seguramente estarán bajo la lupa de los grupos de ultra derecha y porque no decirlo de los aparatos  inteligencia militar y civil. El futuro seguirá siendo difícil, la sociedad civil tendrá una tarea complicada de vigilar que el precario Estado de Derecho no retroceda y tendrá que buscar alianzas en la comunidad internacional para fortalecer las vías de denuncia y presión sobre el nuevo gobierno. Pareciera que la comunidad internacional, particularmente los países que apoyaron el proceso de paz no ven con buenos ojos la llegada de un militar a la presidencia. Esto fue evidente con la escasa  participación de Jefes de Estado y de delegaciones internacionales en la toma de posesión el pasado 14 de enero. Esto podría significar que la comunidad internacional estará vigilante de los acontecimientos y medidas que tome el nuevo gobierno, en particular aquellos que afecten o violen los derechos humanos en el país.

Los guatemaltecos que vivimos en el extranjero particularmente los que residimos en Estados Unidos tendremos la tarea de seguir muy de cerca los acontecimientos en el país y apoyar a la sociedad civil en sus justas demandas, será vital en este nuevo periodo  fortalecer  alianzas con grupos interesados en  Guatemala. Para nosotros, los becarios del Voiceless Speak Fund que estamos interesados que los crímenes de la guerra no queden en la impunidad puede significar una oportunidad para buscar alianzas con diferentes sectores en cualquier parte del país en que nos encontremos, podemos tener una participación más activa buscando que representantes de la sociedad civil  guatemalteca viajen a este país a denunciar o trasmitir sus experiencias con sus semejantes. Y que delegaciones de diferentes sectores del movimiento social de éste país viaje a Guatemala a conocer de primera mano los acontecimientos y la historia del país. El programa de Voiceless Speak Fund abre la oportunidad y facilita que nosotros los sobrevivientes/supervivientes podamos continuar denunciando los crímenes de lesa humanidad que llevaron a cabo militares con la complicidad de muchos civiles. Tendremos que tocar muchas puertas: universidades, grupos religiosos, grupos comunitarios, sindicatos, buscar a los jóvenes, hombres y mujeres y educarles de nuestra historia. Nuestra obligación como sobrevivientes/supervivientes seguirá  siendo la búsqueda de la justicia a través de los mecanismos legales, continuar denunciando los crímenes del pasado para preservar la  memoria y la verdad.