Lost Colors--Stories from Guatemalas Ongoing Civil War
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There, despite being in the middle of the tropics, altitude causes cold, damp nights. These dawns give the region a taciturn mood, as if it had not ever been able to expel the ghosts of its terrible past. Like in other countries where the Cold War materialized into armed conflicts, Guatemala in the mids and s endured a series of right-wing military dictatorships— orchestrated and backed by the United States— that resorted to terror to crush student and union movements, amidst the armed confrontation with leftist guerrillas.
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Here, the conflict also had an undeniable ethnic dimension. The indigenous peoples were the focus of a campaign of violence during the civil war It is estimated that more than , people died in the conflict, most of them during its most savage episode, between and The terror against the indigenous peoples has far deeper roots than the civil war. Spanish colonizers enslaved the indigenous people and discrimination carried on well beyond Spanish occupation—indigenous people were forced to work without pay until Power has remained in the hands of a few landowning families for centuries, as the descendants of the colonizers have worked with the army to protect the status quo and favor the monopolies under their control.
It continues to draw deep boundaries between those who have and those who should not have, so that they can be a permanent source of labor, as well as ignorant. The situation is worse in rural communities, and even more dramatic for women. In , after more than three decades of armed conflict and several years of negotiations with the United Nations as mediator, the government and a coalition of leftist guerrillas signed the peace accords. Aiming to prevent the recurrence of violence, the accords were meant to address structural problems in the country like the rights of indigenous peoples, land ownership, socioeconomic structures, the role of the armed forces, and the strengthening of civil society.
Most of these proposals either never left the page or have made limited progress. The ones that were able to advance somewhat farther were the Commission for Historical Clarification CEH , responsible for investigating and revealing the truth of the crimes that were committed, and a National Reparations Plan to manage reparations to the victims of the conflict.
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Operating in a very fragile environment, the CEH conducted its investigations between and To establish an objective account of the human rights violations that had taken place during the conflict, the CEH collected over 7, testimonies and visited almost 2, communities in eight months. The CEH also faced some relevant limitations: it was not allowed to attribute any individual responsibilities in its final report , which was issued in Although the peace agreements did not foresee that perpetrators of war crimes would be brought before the courts—largely because during the negotiations the military were able to exert enough influence to secure their freedom—civil society and human rights organizations quickly began to mobilize to demand justice.
Ilom, the legend says, was the first village where the Ixil people settled. Large cracked slabs still trace the ancient paths, so steep and irregular that only horses and donkeys are able to traverse them.
The soil is soft and fertile. Dozens of children play barefoot in the warm mud. A warm and humid breeze cuts through the first palm trees, heavy with bananas, hinting at the tropics beyond.
At 46, Antonio Caba Caba knows every single corner of the village. He wears jeans and a light-blue shirt, which contrasts with the traditional red vest of Ixil men he wears over it, with black stripes and embroidery. His coal-colored hair is rebellious and shoots up like a brush.
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He knows the village just as he knows its bloody history. As he speaks, his features tighten beneath his bushy brows, black and straight. He also remembers Elena, the woman who died amongst the flames, inside her own scorched house. In a corner, behind an old flower-patterned sheet, rests his sick wife.
A rooster runs between the two low, randomly placed chairs. The soothing sound of a trickle, constantly falling into the sink in front of the house, seeps in between the wooden plank walls. A black hose, about meters long, brings drinking water from his small plot on the outskirts of the village to his home, tangled through the tops of trees and poles. In the kitchen, an adjacent wooden cubicle, Antonio dips a tortilla in black beans while he looks towards a big farmhouse on the other side of the valley.
They are the plots of the Santa Delfina coffee farm, where Antonio and his family were forced to move for a year. During the war the army established their detachment on a bordering farm, the powerful La Perla, and from there they made incursions into the nearby villages where, arguing that they were chasing guerrillas, they robbed, raped, tortured, murdered and destroyed. The survivors were forced to walk among the dead and dig the mass grave where they would be tossed.
Afterwards, most of them fled to Santa Delfina.
They burned the entire community. We were left without clothes, without food. In Santa Delfina, living conditions were so deplorable that many did not survive. Men, women, and children were forced to work without pay. They often slept outdoors, spent hours in the rain and received no medical attention. In three months more than children died, Antonio says, among them his nephew. A year later they returned to Ilom.
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Although Antonio was only 14 years old, the army forced him to join the Civil Self-Defense Patrol PAC , a paramilitary body of enforced recruitment for all men over 14 in the communities, often led by people trusted by the army. Their obligation was to watch their neighbors. During the military offensives, PAC members were often used as the first line of attack so the army could avoid losses. Some went to the mountain, others took refuge in Mexico, and we had to accept being slaves to stay alive.
After the peace accords were signed, a pending debt continued to torment the hearts of the people of Ilom: to bury their loved ones with dignity. They are human. It is piled up in columns of four, five, even six boxes. Inside them, close to 2, skeletal remains are waiting to be delivered to their families.
In the genocide trial, FAFG presented cases, documenting the violent deaths of hundreds of men, women, children and the elderly. Instead of carrying out exhumations themselves, State institutions allowed independent bodies such as FAFG to carry out tasks that would typically be the responsibility of public institutions. On the one hand there is the social work, which consists of interviewing the relatives of the victims to collect ante-mortem information: age, gender, height, specific physical characteristics, what clothes they were wearing the last time they were seen, information on the context in which the disappearance happened.
On the other hand, there is the scientific work, which is conducted in laboratories, to identify the exhumed remains and try to discern the cause of death. A dozen young anthropologists in white gowns focus on their work at FAFG's laboratory, while the afternoon sun filters through the glass wall.
The coziness of the space contrasts with the activities that are being carried out. A young man wearing a ponytail and glasses scrutinizes a green tray for small bones, setting some to his left as if they were pieces in a puzzle. In the center, almost complete skeletons rebuilt bone-by-bone lie on long navy blue tables. A pink fluorescent stick pierces one of the skulls, entering through the right temple and exiting diagonally through the left cheekbone: it marks the trajectory of the bullet that killed that person.
The most unsettling grouping is an amalgam of small, yellowish, brittle, worn out shells that occupy less than half the table. Anthropologists determined that it was a baby because the skull, still in the process of forming, crushed into pieces. For me, while it is a privilege to have been able to accompany the relatives, at the same time it is something that should not have happened. Forensic anthropology investigations play an essential role when seeking justice before the courts, because they provide scientific confirmation that the person died violently: that it was a crime.
But for the relatives there is often an even more urgent need: identifying a loved one to end the limbo which has lasted decades. People are always hoping to find their relative, any way they can. Alonso remembers cases, especially ones involving mass graves, where some communities buried the remains that could not be identified as if they were the remains of their missing relatives. They thought that, if someday one of their relatives was found in a different place but could not be identified, someone would do the same thing they did.
The conservative elites have tried to deny the story that forensic analysis tell.
Associations like AVEMIGUA, formed by military veterans, presented its own evidence claiming that people who were buried in mass graves died as a consequence of an earthquake. In the storage rooms and hallways of FAFG, packed in cardboard boxes, more than 2, skeletal remains are still waiting to return to the earth. They also contain crucial evidence that awaits to put those who killed them to trial, contributing to ending impunity one box at a time.