Toward “Conciliation” in Guatemala: Two Guatemalan Perspectives
During the spring semester of 2013, the authors of this piece took a course titled “Exploring the Archive: Guatemala History through the National Police Archives,” taught by Dr. Virginia Garrard-Burnett (UT Department of History).1 The course explored the modern history of Guatemala through the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (AHPN). This included a research project and final paper using the AHPN Digital Archive, which was launched in December 2011 as a collaborative project with LLILAS, the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Benson Latin American Collection, and the University of Texas Libraries. This course was unique in that it also included the participation of five students of Guatemalan nationality or descent. The authors of this piece represent two very different segments of Guatemalan society and diversity. Edwin Roman-Ramirez is a mestizo from the department of Chilmaltenango. Giovanni Batz is the son of Guatemalan immigrants and paternal grandson of K’iche’ Maya born in Los Angeles with a Maya surname, and conducts research in the Ixil region.
Authors Edwin Roman-Ramirez (left) and Giovanni Batz (right) with Batz's father and grandmother at Casa Herrera in Antigua, Guatemala.
In order to strengthen the ties between UT and the AHPN, we organized a weeklong trip in mid-April 2013 to the AHPN in Guatemala City to share our experiences in using the Digital Archive and to access the physical archives there for the purposes of our final projects. The goals of this academic trip were to provide a space for dialogue between students at UT and the AHPN to better achieve the objectives of the collaborative project launched last year, as well as to obtain a greater understanding of the institutions working in recovering, creating, and transforming the historical memory of Guatemala.
The trip began with a visit to the AHPN, where we learned about the history of the archive, which included a guided tour of the facilities where we saw how the personnel cleaned, maintained, scanned, digitized, and preserved these documents. This is where we learned how the archives were discovered in 2005, the politics and difficulties in making the police archives public, and that the building where the archives were housed used to be an infamous torture chamber and prison during the conflict called La Isla. Alberto Fuentes, one of the experts at the AHPN and guide to the facility, told us that academics could utilize the archives to examine topics and issues such as disappearances, the persecution of homosexuals by police, and security system structures, among other topics. There are approximately 80 million pages of documents, some dating as far back as 1882, 12 million of which are available online.2
After two days of intense research on our respective projects for the course, we continued the trip with a visit to the Palacio de Justicia (Palace of Justice) where we witnessed the trial of former U.S.-backed dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982–1983) and former intelligence chief José Rodriguez, who were being tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. This was the first time in history that a state was prosecuting a former head of state for genocide. The following day, we visited the laboratory of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, FAFG), where they explained their work, focusing on the methods they utilized in exhumations.3 During our visit, we saw the remains from a recently exhumed site at a military base in Cobán, where 400 skeletons were unearthed, making this one of the largest discovered clandestine mass graves in Guatemala. While the majority of these bodies were men, there were also women and children. The FAFG uses various techniques such as DNA and testimonies from family members to try to identify the bodies. The last activity of our trip was a visit to the Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales (AVANSCO), an institute dedicated to academic research focused on social justice, which was subjected to a break-in in January 2013, in which files, computers, and other equipment were taken.4 Many observers view the break-in as a political and intimidation tactic due to the work being produced by AVANCSO. It was a reminder of the difficulties of having a space for critical thinking in the face of repressive forces that want nothing more than to keep people silent, a theme that recurred throughout the trip. While this proved to be an extraordinarily interdisciplinary academic trip, our experiences went well beyond intellectual stimulation and left a powerful and emotional impact that is further explored below.
Reflections from a Chimalteco
The Guatemalan National Police Archives course was of much importance in my academic and personal growth. Despite being a Guatemalan who grew up in the most violent era of the armed conflict, my knowledge about Guatemala’s past was based on personal stories from friends and family members more than through books, particularly since information about certain eras of Guatemala’s history was scarce. During these times, speaking about the war was prohibited, so our parents taught us that the best strategy for survival was to see, listen, think, but never to express yourself in public. I grew up in a town that did not have a library, which made my perspective on history to be that of the “official” story. Yet, having academic friends and entering the university in 1996, the same year as the Peace Accords that ended the armed conflict, I was able to gain more information.
In this course, I was able to recover two important aspects of my understanding of Guatemala’s history. First, it allowed me to read more literature about Guatemala that I was unaware of, and it helped me expand my knowledge and apply a more critical analysis concerning the history of Guatemala. This course allowed me to conduct research on my own town, and, in this way, to discover the importance that this type of study has in recovering local histories, which stay in the shadows of national history. In my research, I particularly focused on examining the history of indigenous leaders of Chimaltenango who were part of the Frente de Integración Nacional (National Integration Front, FIN), which was formed in 1976. The FIN worked to build a better Guatemala, but one by one the leadership’s voices were eliminated in approximately eight months since they were viewed as subversives, despite the fact that they did not belong to any guerrilla organization. The second aspect was personal. The duration of the course became an emotional rollercoaster that made me reflect about the past and try to understand what had occurred in Guatemala’s recent history. This class became a time machine that transported me to the darkest era in the history of Guatemala, but with the eyes of an adult seeing through the eyes of my parents, who demonstrated the difficulties civilians had to survive; helped me to understand now why my parents did not want us to speak about our ideas; and in this way caused me to admire their ability to survive and understand the complexity of our history.
Reflections from a “Gringo Guatemalteco”
Growing up in Los Angeles, I was unaware of my Maya/Guatemalan history for a multitude of reasons beyond the scope of this article.5 This course was part of my own ongoing process of recovering and learning more about Guatemalan history. It was not until I was an undergraduate that I learned that Guatemala had endured a thirty-six-year civil war where 200,000 people died, the vast majority Maya; and it was as a graduate student that I would learn that even in times of “peace,” the violence, repression, and impunity continue. I now work in Cotzal, El Quiché, located in the Ixil region, one of the most heavily hit areas during the armed conflict, where I am examining a resistance movement against a hydroelectric dam that has been met with state repression.
While at the AHPN, I was able to find information for my class research project that examined the politics of kidnappings in the 1960s. It was also there that I found a document detailing the deportation of my dad from Los Angeles in 1975 at the age of twenty-one during his first migration there. I also found another document detailing the attempts of family members to locate a missing Ixil community leader in Cotzal who was disappeared in the 1970s, and whose nephew is now a community leader in Cotzal. At the genocide trial, it was an intense experience to see the prosecution of Ríos Montt, who needed to ask permission to use the restroom, and who was face-to-face with the Ixils who suffered genocide during his dictatorship. A few feet away from me sat an emotionless ex-dictator who appeared to be calm despite being accused of creating the worst forms of violence since the Spanish Colonization. Yet, despite this gain within the justice system, Guatemala still has a president who was the army officer in charge of the Ixil region under Ríos Montt and who is also accused of genocide. The kidnappings, imprisonment, torture, and murders of community leaders and social justice activists continue, such as Daniel Pedro Mateo, a Q’anjob’al leader, who was missing at the time of our visit and found dead with signs of torture days after.6 I will never forget the eerie silence of horror produced by the bones at the FAFG; the apparent silence is not enough to quiet their demands for justice.
The trip ended with an opportunity to spend time with my dad (who was visiting) and my ninety-one-year-old abuelita who lives half of the year in Guatemala City and the rest in Los Angeles. She told me how life was growing up in the 1920s and working in the fields; the era of General Jorge Ubico; how she migrated from Xela to Guatemala City in the 1940s, and then to La Limonada (a district of Guatemala City) in the 1950s; the 1976 earthquake; and how she migrated to the U.S. as a “mojada” at the age of sixty and was forced to take off her traje (Maya dress) for the first time, among other stories. These were the memories and oral narratives of racism, sexism, migration, and resistance that cannot be found in archives and books, but are extremely valuable in the historical memory of Guatemala’s past. It was a powerful, interdisciplinary academic, and emotionally charged trip, and I left Guatemala with mixed feelings of hope and pessimism.
May 10, 2013: Se Hizo Justicia. Sí Hubo Genocidio. Nunca Más. Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.
May 20, 2013: Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturns Ríos Montt’s genocide conviction. At the time of this writing, the matter has not been resolved.
During our tour of the AHPN, we were shown how the documents were scanned. In one instance, there was a big book containing pictures of people the national police were investigating and/or had under surveillance, and we were shocked when we saw a photo of a little boy who was surrounded by countless men. While his first name is illegible due to the damage of the picture, we know him only as Mainor Lemus Conde, who was subject to an investigation on December 30, 1972. Why was his picture taken by the national police and placed among men? What happened to him? Is he still alive? How many children were under police surveillance and why? These are the stories and memories that need to be recovered at the AHPN.
Toward the end of our tour at the AHPN, Fuentes showed us a statue that sits in front of the building. It was two large concrete walls broken in half that read, “Memoria y Esperanza: Dignificar a todas las victimas, Unificar un pais fracturado.” He explained: How can we talk about “reconciliation” if there has never been “conciliation” in Guatemala in the first place? The Past is and informs our Future. We are the Present and we are committed to a better, more just and inclusive Guatemala.
Giovanni Batz is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, and Edwin Roman-Ramirez is a PhD candidate in LLILAS. Both authors are graduates of the LLILAS master’s program.
(Funding for the trip to Guatemala was made possible by the College of Liberal Arts, the Graduate School, LLILAS, the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program. Logistical help for housing and transportation was provided by Milady Casco and Rene Ozaeta at the Casa Herrera in Antigua.)
1. The other participants in the course were: Brenda Xum Palacios (MA student, LLILAS); Cristina Metz (PhD student, Department of History); Anelise Coelho (PhD student, Department of History); Regina Mills (PhD student, Department of English); Edward Shore (PhD student, Department of History); Derek Otto (PhD student, Department of Anthropology); and Eyal Weinberg (PhD student, Department of History). Special thanks to Dr. Virginia Garrard-Burnett for her wisdom, guidance, and warmth inside and outside of the classroom. Thanks to Kent Norsworthy and Christian Kelleher for providing technical and research assistance in navigating the AHPN Digital Archive.
2. The government and police denied the existence of the National Police archives until they were found in 2005. To access the AHPN and for more information on its history, visit: http://ahpn.lib.utexas.edu
3. For more information on the work of the FAFG, visit: http://www.fafg.org/
4. For more information on AVANSCO, visit: http://www.avancso.org.gt
5. For more on this topic, see Giovanni Batz, “Maya Cultural Resistance in Los Angeles: Recovering Identity and Culture among Maya Youth,” Latin American Perspectives, forthcoming.
6. Pedro was missing for twelve days and found dead on April 16, 2013. He was an activist fighting against mining and hydroelectric dams in Huehuetenango, his home department. For more information on the case, see: http://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/breaking-news-community-leader-daniel-pedromateo-kidnapped-and-murdered-guatemala