Iduvina Hernandez

Interviewee: Iduvina Hernández, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy.
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Alice Klien
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC



Alice Klein (AK): Why are there so many human rights violations in Guatemala and why do they go unpunished?

Iduvina Hernandez (IH): This question has two types of answers. These things are happening right up to this day, 12 years after having signed the Peace Accords, through impunity, which is of a structural nature in Guatemala. There was the signing of the Peace Accords: for example, in the accord on Strengthening of Civil Power, a series of changes in the security system that particularly indicated the army as the main agent in the committing of human rights violations during the armed conflict. The creation of the Historical Clarification Commission was also agreed, a commission which had some limitations, because it was unable to identify by name the people responsible – the way it was phrased is that they were unable to individualise responsibility.

You could say that the state committed human rights violations or that the army was responsible for something, but you couldn’t say such-and-such general ordered such-and-such plan, ordered such-and-such thing, was executed by this Colonel, with this captain, with these soldiers, at this place, on which day. The commissioners were very intelligent in how they used their mandate; what they did was carry out, to the finest detail, the place in which the violation was carried out, the unit responsible for carrying out the action, and the victims. This report had very positive support, it was drawn up by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric, with Monsignor Juan Gerardi at the head, who identified by name many of those responsible.

Another important help was the release of documents by the National Security Archive, a U.S. NGO [she says NGO, but I don’t think it is.] that revealed information about the Guatemalan army from secret U.S. files, including names of officials and units with the years in which they were in specific locations. It’s not entirely complete, because as the enquiry has deepened, it has become clear that there are some things missing, that there are some officials who seem to have their biography protected by the U.S., as the details of their missions in Guatemala don’t appear. Therefore it is difficult to fit one thing to another … but it has been a big help.

All of this is external help, because there wasn’t any conviction to pursue the violators of human rights during the armed conflict, from which to start a judicial process, from which to send a lesson to the future that these violations were not going to be tolerated. From the moment in which the dust settled on the Peace Accords – and what I’m going to say I have said in other places, I don’t have any problem in saying again – there was a certain level of complicity from the UN’s own office, which had to have verified, acceptance of conduct which did not match up with the disposition to overcome human rights violations. And it turns out that the person assigned as verifier for compliance of the Accords [director of United Nations Verification Mission] is Jean Arnault, who was also the UN moderator during the negotiations for the Accords. In the end he was a kind of judge, and because he was responsible for verifying the Accords which he had helped create through the process of mediation, he was quite lenient towards failures on the state apparatus’ part, especially the army. The Guatemalan army finally found mechanisms for evading full compliance with the Peace Accords, with regards to correcting conduct which allowed it to become the most criminal institution that could exist in Guatemala, and for the most part in the whole of the Latin American continent.

This carries on up to this day. With the exception of Lima – father and son, who are in prison for the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi  – there is not a single high ranking military figure in prison with a clear sentence for having committed an act of human rights violations against the population, nor a General, nor a Colonel, not one person accused of genocide or forced disappearances. All these policies have created a system of terror and barbarity in our land. By these means the army considers itself victorious, and if it considers itself victorious and society accepts that what it did was OK, that conduct, maintained through a tolerance of impunity, prevents the Guatemalans from getting angry at human rights violations, at the many human lives that are lost day by day. They don’t get angry that a women is mistreated, that a group of judges decide to alter documents to pass the illegal adoption of three children, that one has to go on hunger strike to incite the slightest bit of feeling. But they kill bus drivers, they kill children, they kill young people, people are lacking basic resources and society doesn’t get angry. We have lost the ability to get angry because we have developed a high level of structural tolerance, because it works this way in the Justice system with judges, in the Public Ministry with the public prosecutors, lawyers, specialised in developing mechanisms of impunity for crimes against the Guatemalan population.

These structures that functioned during the armed conflict were allegedly for pursuing the rebels, but they went much further than that, because the same rebels were pursued violently, annulling the country’s own laws, they weren’t dismantled, the crimes that people committed during this time weren’t processed … they continue to this day being powerful structures. In this sense a schema of human rights violations exists and survives in Guatemala, because there is a system of structural impunity that maintains itself in the non-compliance with the essence of the Peace Accords signed in 1996.

AK: In your opinion what are the causes of femicide?

IH: There are two terms: femicidio and feminicidio. I’m not a technical expert in the matter because I’m not an activist in the feminist movement, where there is the debate about whether it is femicidio or feminicidio. But I can talk about the murders of women, which are becoming more and more violent each time they occur.

I want to say that this rests much on what was raised in the previous question, but that it also feeds off the cultural sphere in which we find the roots of personal character beyond the Guatemalan State. This is a mutually exclusive and expulsive State, economically and socially – those that have less are those that are mistreated. With regards to gender, women – in the field of State conduct and of society – are the people that are least protected legally in all spheres, and most unprotected with regards to using and claiming their rights in society. The woman is seen as a machine for having children or as an object of desire or in certain social strata if it is a woman who furthermore – and here comes another factor for exclusion – is of ethnic origin. The indigenous people make up the greatest part of the population in Guatemala, but at the same time they are the most excluded. So, if the reason duplicates itself in the sense that in addition to being a woman, she is indigenous too, there is a double reason for discrimination, which indentifies them as people suitable for servitude, as domestic staff in the houses of wealthy people, practically a system of slavery.

In Guatemala a good number of families have the means to pay a woman, generally indigenous, and often very young, a minor, for permanent domestic help, from 6 in the morning to 10 at night, without rest, responsible for everything, for sweeping, mopping, washing the clothes, cooking, going to the market, doing a thousand things, a system of slavery, which is culturally reproduced and inherited through families.

This way of seeing the woman as an object of reproduction, as an object of desire, and as an object of servitude, builds the elements that are also reproduced in the media. And the result is that, if the woman in a poor district of Guatemala is young, the single fact of her having a tattoo means she is identified as a member of a gang. And since she is a gang member, the media practically say that she deserves it. I’m not expecting the media to make political propaganda, or publicise in favour of human rights, but neither do they have to publicise in favour of what is happening. In continuing to feed these prejudices, the media should stress, at the same level and in the same space, actions such as the murder of the lawyer Rodrigo Rosemberg, the murder of any woman, of any person, but especially of any woman.

In Guatemala we have a print media, in an illiterate country, which is a ‘boom’ business in Latin America. There’s a tabloid with the highest circulation in Latin America per capita; it’s called Nuestro Diario and it’s dedicated to sensationalist crimes full of images, because photography stands out. So if the title is “they find her chopped to pieces”, it’s feeding the morbidity and it’s earning money and profiting from the death of people, in this case from the death of women, of which there are plenty. The discussion in the sexist opinion that prevails in the spheres of the security authorities and justice and in other spheres, like with some conservative columnists is – on the deaths of women, if the proportion of deaths of men is always much greater than women … they complain if there are less women that die in comparison to men … so the men should claim that there are hombricidios because the women claim that there is femicide; the womens’ fight to put violent murders on the agenda is questioned and condemned by the male voices in the media, and by the authorities.

But there are various factors that set out the construction of these terms: one relates to the brutality of the murders – generally men are shot, whereas with women, in 90% of the cases the attack is sexually violent, there is mutilation, often to the breasts and the extremities, apart from other types of evidence of mistreatment prior to the murder, so there is a cruelty and rage against the person’s feminine expression; and furthermore, in a good number of cases, there are connections with the partner living with the woman, which implicates the existence of an extreme expression of domestic violence. These are the factors, not the number of women as such, because there may be more than men and because numerically, from the point of view of how many cases are reported, there has been a substantial increase of more than 500%, or be it, from 100, 200, to 500, 700 or more in only one year. Therefore it is a number which really alerts us in an impressive way about the need for this to be documented. If we had to compare this with the case worldwide that raised the alarm about this situation against women, the case of the women killed in Ciudad Juárez [North Mexico], in Guatemala the number is higher, in the same period, despite Guatemala having a smaller population than Mexico, or from the point of view of Guatemala City in comparison with Ciudad Juárez. Therefore, in the context of this foundation of tolerance, of impunity, threshold of tolerance, culture of acceptance of all violent acts and social exclusion, and of the description “she deserved it because she was part of a gang”, or in the past, they said that she was with the guerrillas – and that’s why they were killed. We haven’t overcome this attitude as a society and in the case of the media, we haven’t even been capable of questioning it, nor capable of questioning it in the educational field, all of which feeds these types of situation.

AK: …..?

IH: Amongst other things for reasons that I have already raised. We would see, and that is also what feeds the maintenance of these cases. If the woman is a person who has a tattoo, that stigmatizes her as a member of one of the gangs or as a person linked to a gang, even if she only got a tattoo because she liked it or wanted one. With this argument, the police say “she’s a marera”, and then it’s a case of not having to bother to investigate [the death]. They inform the Public Ministry and the Public Ministry validates the police decision because neither of them want to demand an investigation. It stops being a priority case for investigation. The judges also go along with this and the media explain that a body has appeared, etc, and that it has a tattoo, and that a tattoo is a social code which signifies that this person is disposable. We have built up a social perception that there are disposable people in our society, in terms of gender, relations, characteristics, age, youth.

Martin Mowforth (MM): Are there no daily papers which press on these issues? For example, I have read a daily paper, the first three pages of which were about CICIG. I know that the message of the report was from the right, but at least it gave coverage of the problem. But are there any other daily papers which are a little more questioning or investigative?

IH: No, here in Guatemala when we talk about investigative journalism it’s El Periódico. So it is called, but in reality it uses a team to get evidence, at times facilitated by a source who has their interest against a given functionary. That is to say that they use the concept of investigative reporting to carry out campaigns against a given actor/person in the State when it suits them to affect/get at someone. I’m a journalist by profession. I said that I was going to take a year’s sabbatical and I’ve had 12 years of sabbaticals. I’ll probably never return to journalism. In the period in which I worked, there was a weekly paper, the Crónica, which probably wasn’t the best that Guatemala had or the best example of journalism, but in its time it did have a different attitude. It was mid-conservative and its owner was conservative, but the journalists who were working there had some power, and we even managed on occasions to prevent the publication of certain stories or certain slants of given stories with the arguments of professionalism. So being that the owner was a conservative man as well as the President, it became clear that the Crónica was a media a bit too questioning and so it was disappeared by the government of Álvaro Arzú. After the Crónica was stopped there was no written media in Guatemala which took a questioning stance. Of the traditional media, that is Prensa Libre, El Periódico, Siglo XXI, La Hora, which have national circulations, I would say that La Hora is a little more questioning, but with many weaknesses from a professional point of view.

Beyond that we are talking of a kind of reporting which in reality takes advantage of the moment when it can exploit someone. Technically we can question this kind of reporting. I was a Professor of Journalism and I read the media critically – I held my head in my hands every time I saw these barbarities, almost every day.

Beyond that, independent media don’t exist with the exception of a critical journal called La Cuerda, which is feminist. It’s produced by a collective of feminist women, it’s more open, more democratic, and obviously its focuses are from a more feminist perspective, which in my opinion has some limitations. It’s for an elite – the informed elite of the feminist sector of the capital city of Guatemala who receive it by subscription. The women of La Cuerda are great activists and very strong women in Guatemala’s feminism, but their communication media is very limiting. Also there’s an opinion journal called La Coyuntura which is circulated every 15 days by internet which also means that whoever receives it has to have access to the internet, which is not great.

As regards the radio, which is the most extensive media, ownership of commercial radio is concentrated in four family groups. Open television is concentrated in the hands of just one person and cable television is controlled by three companies which are also associated with the radio and written press because there is a characteristic of the written press. Prensa Libre started as the property of five families, each have 20 % of the shares. So there was no overall majority stakeholder. As the first owners died off, the children developed another vision for the running of the business and began to sell off some shares. Some of the associates began to accrue more shares than others until today when there are just two families who own 80 % of the shares of all the holdings of those companies which make up Prensa Libre, which is not just the daily paper but includes much more such as a cable television channel. And very probably, one of the owners of the daily La Hora is the person who is jumping to the defence of the new owner of Siglo XXI, which was bought a month ago when ownership changed hands.

What this means is that the press, radio and television are concentrated in very few hands and independent media don’t exist. That’s what facilitates the reproduction of an image of social conservativism in Guatemala. It’s very similar in Honduras – the difference is that in Honduras you don’t have Presidents of the Republic who are owners of newspapers. Here that still hasn’t happened, but we have aspirations.

AK: Talking of CICIG (the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), has it brought about any changes?

IH: I believe that yes. Originally, CICIAG, which was the first proposal pushed by human rights organisations in the year 2000, and which ruffled a few feathers amongst the conservatives and ultra right in Guatemala, was rejected. It was President Oscar Berger who found the perfect excuse not to insist on the ratification of the agreement which would have created CICIG, which had a wider brief than CICIAG. During Berger’s government they began to negotiate a new commission, which was CICIG. We said CICIG is CICIAG. Sholca, sholco in Guatemala is someone who lacks teeth. CICIG had teeth, but CICIAG is CICIG without teeth, maybe with some teeth lacking because the brief it had was very limited.

I think that the Commission, like the Commission on Historic Enslavement, has used every last point of its mandate to advance the investigation. We, like other civil society organisations, have also supported changes in the government authorities and in the Public Ministry because CICIG is obliged to liaise with the National Civil Police and with the Public Ministry, something which the other Commission was not obliged to do. For more than a year, CICIG wasn’t able to do anything worthwhile – in Berger’s last year – because government authorities, who were in charge of the police, did not give sufficient support to ensure that CICIG could employ qualified researchers, and most importantly whose honesty was proven. The same happened in the Public Ministry.

With the change of government, one of the merits of Álvaro Colom’s government is that for some reason the pressure which we are exerting has worked on high government officials and they have managed to make changes in the Ministry of the Interior and the Public Ministry. That marks a radical change of course in the functioning of CICIG. CICIG manages to find …??? … in local institutions with which it has to liaise in order to further its process of investigation. I would say that CICIG started off as sholca, but found someone to put on a prothesis.

I would say that sadly, for what it signifies, the death of Rodrigo Rosemberg gives to CICIG the support of another actor that isn’t widespread but is powerful and has the media, and that is the actor who begins to complain that he doesn’t trust the responsible authorities in CICIG. This says a lot, that is to say, CICIG is not the emblem of human rights organisations and that the press have built us up as the ones who arrest delincuents. No, CICIG is the instrument of society, we believe that to have managed to build this image and to have created this degree of confidence is a positive change. And we hope that there is an attitude of relative honesty on the part of the media who have pushed this, an attitude of understanding that if the symbol of CICIG falls there is not going to be an argument about campaigning against it. So what we want to do now is to make certain that CICIG produces a sustainable change, and that sustainable change in my opinion can only come about through the generation of local capabilities to fulfill their functions. Otherwise, we will have won some cases, but not as a society. We need to have a good enough tool to produce a structural change.

AK: In the Prensa Libre there is an interview with Carlos Castresana, but before that there was an article which says that CICIG is not Guatemalan and that that is not fair. People here in Guatemala, the authorities, say that they don’t want it because it’s a foreign organisation and therefore has no credibility.

IH: It’s a United Nations organisation, so it comes from outside. It’s an external actor, not a local one. It’s not a national entity and has no legitimacy and no credibility. That is part of the arguments which some time ago were used against CICIAG, against CICIG and against MINUGUA because always as far as human rights violations go in Guatemala foreign authorities have been very strong in their remarks. So whoever has supported the system of impunity rebukes this foreign image, which highlights bad Guatemalans, paints us in a bad light internationally and speaks badly of Guatemala. That’s what the military said during the armed conflict, and now some actors still say it and consider the presence of the United Nations threatens national sovereignty. It’s a concrete expression of a very strong xenophobia that is well rooted in that type of actor. It’s a selective xenophobia because it’s towards the external actor who takes a position of questioning the exclusion, the discrimination, the human rights violations. If the US Army comes here, they have to let them enter; if the FBI comes, the FBI must have an office here – there’s no intervention in our sovereignty, there’s no intrusion into our internal affairs. It’s a selective xenophobia which has class origins and an ideological position. I’m impressed – I didn’t know that there was also an article in Siglo XXI (the article that Alice mentions). It’s an indication of a very strong push by the Press Office of CICIG and at times it makes me fearful when they give so much space to CICIG in the media because it could also generate high expectations and the hope that everything can be resolved. When in fact CICIG can’t rise to that, they’ll throw all the rubbish of the world at it.

AK: What are the dangers for a defender of human rights such as yourself?

IH:  In general terms we are in permanent confrontation with a conservative position in the sphere of the media which uses the work of human rights defenders to question all national struggle and all social struggle for the purpose of bringing about national change. We are under the world’s magnifying glass, and when I say all the world I’m referring to the media, to a conservatism so marked from the military intelligence services to the prosecution service of Guatemala. We are questioned because we work with funds from international solidarity and we have practically built something positive in our own culture by paying our dues. This is different from Guatemala’s big companies which seek out every possible way of avoiding paying their taxes.

Our organisations are under the magnifying glass of all types of persecution that we must be sure to have covered all angles of all legal matters. As for prosecutions, in recent years we’ve been cited for prosecutions on three occasions, as an institution and in my case in a personal capacity. In all cases things have worked out well because all our papers are in order; but at each step the organisations feel a kind of persecution by these means, when we’re actually at a strong level. At least it’s a waste of time because you have to assure yourself and get through a full day when we are feeling very strong, and to go a full day whilst they prepare and bring over your documents.

If those aren’t the problems, then the other risks are the threats. As far as we ourselves are concerned these haven’t been a problem, but we have seen human rights defenders who have lost their lives. The number of assassinations is rising in the field of human rights defenders, so the risk even includes death. In our case, in May this year we had a series of threats. Between the 2nd and 5th May, six members of our team received 20 text messages by mobile phone that included death threats and demanded the turnover of declassified information. Declassified information is information which has been held by the security forces, like reports, etc., and which has been made public. So to declassify it was to remove its secrecy. Our organisation worked in support of the Human Rights Attorney in 2003 on the declassification of files relating to the now defunct Presidential Staff, which was the military detachment which provided security to the President of the Republic. According to the Peace Agreements this body was closed down and replaced by the creation of a civil entity. When it was closed down all its documentation had to be incorporated into a public archive. It wasn’t made public, but the Army and the Attorney General’s Office were given the possibility of accessing the information. Our organisation worked for more than a year taking digital photographs and we got 800 disks with almost a million images that contained the information.

One of the text messages insisted that we were going to deliver this information to the Attorney General; but he already had this information. We did all the work, and the Attorney General still had not made it public. But it was as if the military wanted us to deliver this and other information that they believed we had, but which wasn’t in our power.

What information do we have? Declassified information which is already in the public domain, because we have an agreement with the National Security Archive of the United States. We have it and we make it available to the public and we give training mostly to organisations which are pursuing issues of genocide and to lawyers who are working on human rights. We’ve trained them in how to use the documentation to press for judicial procedures, in what kind of information there is, where they can find it and what steps they have to take to ensure that a judge will accept these documents as valid proof when a human rights case reaches them. We’ve been doing this as an organisation, so we understand that this kind of threat could come from them.

Two years ago my house was broken into and the office car (which was at my house) was opened and left open, but nothing was stolen. This is the kind of action we have faced. Others have had burglaries in their offices where documentation has been taken, offices destroyed. Others have been temporarily kidnapped, or beaten, or in extreme cases assassinated. For example, a little while ago youths who were gang members decided to join organisations which were working to re-insert youths into society – they do theatre and cultural things. They killed, assassinated six of them from the same organisation. So, in extreme cases, death can occur.

Up to now, over the ten years that we’ve been operating, we’ve received threats, harassment calls which are emotionally upsetting and have an impact. One has to concentrate on the protection and to invest in psycho-social support. We are 14 people in the team, and six received threats over the course of five days. This had an impact on their work and its quality. At times people think that it’s going to be passed on to the family, and so they think it’s better to get out of here. They begin to think about training another person, because the work we are doing here is so specialised and you simply don’t meet others in the street who are trained in this. So you have to begin to think about training as a part of the process of work.

AK: Talking of impunity, why are some of the ex-militaries working with the police and government?

IH: In fact until September last year, President Álvaro Colom had ex-militaries as his own bodyguard. President Alfonso Portillo had as his Chief of Staff a soldier who was being prosecuted for corruption. Retired General Otto Pérez Molina is the Secretary General of the Patriot Party and during the government of Óscar Berger he worked for a period as a National Security Commissioner and as it became convenient for him to conduct his political campaign he returned to the Congress as a deputy. He also competed as a candidate for the presidency, but lost. So he is the Secretary General of a political party which is an important part of the opposition in the Congress.

In Congress, beginning with Efraín Ríos Montt (who is accused of being the principal architect of genocide and who is a deputy in Congress), and along with him in other parties there are approximately 6 or 7 ex-militaries. Another military man is Colonel Otto Noa. He is at the head of the Santo Tomás de Castilla company in the Guatemalan Caribbean port which is one of the places through which it is suspected that the major part of Guatemalan contraband enters the country in an organised way – all types of contraband, vehicles, drugs – they’re very diverse in their business.

And I would say that they [ex-military men] are in various positions of the state, which are often not visible but they’re key positions and they maintain the structure of impunity.

MM: I don’t want to put you in a difficult position, but what do you think of Álvaro Colom and the possibilities of changing the structure of Guatemalan society?

IH: I don’t think that Álvaro Colom would propose making any change that would imply a structural transformation. I think that up till now he has been an apparently well-intentioned man, but he’s a well-intentioned man without a political party capable of helping him to push, even minimally, his good intentions. In Guatemala there is a phenomenon which shows itself at different levels, in both politicians and in social organisations. I know sister organisations with which we have serious differences on account of the way in which they relate to power – from a poorly understood political pragmatism they accept the idea of giving way on whatever things for the sake of gaining a tiny bit. We believe that negotiation is important, and one can negotiate certain things for the sake of seeking others, but it’s not necessary to negotiate questions of principle or to negotiate so many questions of principle that you end up not knowing where you are and what you stand for. I believe that that has happened to the President of the Republic. In order to reach the presidency and in the belief that having got the presidency would enable him to do everything, he allowed any kind of person to get into his party and to get to Congress and accepted whatever kind of financial support they gave for his campaign. In the end, he remained trapped inside those networks, and not in the social support networks in which he had intended to integrate himself.

So, some changes can be positive, but they are not changes of a structural nature. I begin to doubt if this country’s structure can be changed in the short term in an easy way through politics. I think there’s a need for a sustained effort over the long term, for the construction of an alternative politics which right now does not exist for the vast majority of the Guatemalan population. I strongly questioned the candidacy of Doña Rigoberta Menchú in the last election because it brought out the coffee-growing oligarchy which was the major promoter of the most retrogressive and most racist laws in Guatemala, and which probably explains why, without there being a clear and strong public movement, many of the Mayan population didn’t vote for her but rather for Álvaro Colom.

I believe that in a strongly self-critical approach, she got the message and is very probably trying to construct a new project. I don’t know how easy it’s going to be, because she lost/wasted the most valuable opportunity. But perhaps she will be able to regain this capability in the future, or someone within the movement might manage to build a solid base. At the moment, coming as I do from the left, I can see no possible alternative within the left nor any capacity to build this alternative. So I think that although it doesn’t represent a solid ideological position of the left, perhaps a proposal which arises from the grassroots of the Guatemalan Mayan people may manage to develop some structural change, but it’s not going to be in the short term. And that means that whatever happens, there will be a confrontation with the oligarchy which continues to be the powerful boss of this country, and which, in my opinion, is in large part tied to mafia capital.

MM: I was asking because I recall the hope which was associated with Álvaro Colom’s election, but also the reality is that the things which you face are structural – changes are not going to happen in the short term

IH: I think that he is creating things which could help towards the future, certainly in these programmes which have a secondary or subsidiary effect. But there are people that don’t have anything, don’t have enough to eat from day to day. People have to forget their concerns because they have to concern themselves to provide food from day to day, and also they have to ensure that their daughters and sons get to school, because many of the benefits are conditional on their sending their children to school. That is generating a different relationship between each actor and the state, creating minimum conditions of empowerment and citizenship. That’s not going to yield results, not even for this government; but I believe that it will do so further on in time.

AK: And Rigoberta Menchú – are you hopeful?

IH: I think that if she manages her position in a self-critical way and seeks wide alliances – not in the capital but with other actors – she could be a figure who could convince people from the grassroots. What happens is that political campaigns in Guatemala require millions; people believe that if you don’t have millions, then …. But I believe that there are still possibilities to win over social groupings which are committed to a hard and constant struggle but which offers the only possibility of change and of compromise.

MM: Do you also work with Casa Alianza?

IH:  No, we don’t do anything with them at the moment. We did join forces with them on some activities a few years ago, particularly when the executions of street children began, and especially of those who had tattoos. For us, Casa Alianza was an important ally when it carried out its research into this. That was really the relationship that we had with them. It was very painful for us to know that … the director of the organisation. [This latter refers to Bruce Harris who used to be the Director of Casa Alianza until he left under a cloud – which I can explain some time when we meet up again.][Please also note that this was a silly question really because earlier this year the Guatemalan office of Casa Alianza had to close because of a lack of sufficient funds.]


“Guatemala is Designed for Impunity” Interview with exiled Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez

We are grateful to Rights Action for their policy of allowing and encouraging further reproduction of their work and reports in other media, in this case in The Violence of Development website. The original article by José Luis Sanz can be found in the digital newspaper El faro at: and the Rights Action website can be found at:  We are grateful to El Faro and to Rights Action.

Introduction by Grahame Russell (Rights Action)

The U.S. and Canada maintain full economic, military and political relations with Guatemala a “democratic allie”, condemning the majority population to endless exploitation and poverty, repression, corruption and impunity

It is hard to imagine how the situation of repression, corruption and impunity in Guatemala could be worse. Knowing all this, the U.S. and Canada maintain full economic, political and military relations with the country, directly empowering and emboldening the elite sectors of society – the Pacto de Corruptos (Covenant of the Corrupt) – that plan, implement and benefit from the corruption, repression and exploitation.

Here, we re-publish a moving and informative El Faro news interview with exiled Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, including a link to an earlier El Faro article – “Disassembling the Death Squad Dossier Case” – that details how the Pacto de Corruptos regime has dismantled the extraordinary Diario Militar (Military Diary) war crimes trial.

“With the Death Squad Dossier, I understood that Guatemala is designed for impunity”
By José Luis Sanz, April 10, 2023

Since November, Miguel Ángel Gálvez has been living out of a suitcase. In the hotel room that serves as his home for the week, the coffee pot has been placed on the floor, next to the bed, to make more workspace on the desk. When I arrive for our interview, he shuffles a stack of papers and moves them from the small table to improvise a place for us to talk.

This is what exile has meant for him: always improvising, always adapting. And always keeping busy. He spends nearly every day denouncing persecution against him and his fellow judges. Nearly every day, he breaks down while talking about his and his country’s plight.

Prior to his exile last November, Gálvez, 64, was the judge of the historic “Death Squad Dossier” enforced disappearance case. In his career he also sent former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to trial for genocide, imprisoned ex-President Otto Pérez Molina on charges of corruption, and handled a major government corruption case implicating banks, construction companies and the media.

He was preparing to retire when he found himself in the judicial crosshairs of the very apparatus of corruption he had been attempting to dismantle and was forced to flee the country.

By then, the daughter of Ríos Montt, Zury Ríos, was leading the polls in her bid to become president of Guatemala.

Gálvez speaks about the situation plainly and with unmediated dignity, without hiding his pain or holding back his vulnerability. “Exile hits so hard because you’re already experiencing it even before you leave,” he says. “It’s like if a doctor tells you what day you’re going to die. There are times when you start to think that maybe it was a mistake to believe in the justice system at all.”

He blames his departure on a diffuse “them,” encompassing the current government, the private interests that support it, its enablers in the justice system, and above all, the military, which he says has once again taken control of the country’s institutions to procure impunity.

For ordering military officers to trial, “they” have forced him to flee his country, Gálvez says. On March 20, speaking before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, he warned the Guatemalan representatives: “I hold you responsible for anything that happens to me, not only to my own wellbeing, but also to the wellbeing and safety of my family in Guatemala.”

Two weeks ago, Gálvez came to Washington, D.C., to testify in person before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and meet with U.S. officials.

Gálvez says that those meetings made clear that the United States has no interest in taking tougher actions against the officials who are turning the country into a kingdom of impunity and corruption: “The U.S. already has so few allies in Central America, and they don’t want to lose Guatemala.”

Q. You continue to appeal to international bodies and denounce your persecution, but I assume you don’t have any intentions of returning to Guatemala?
When the permanence of the CICIG [the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala] was still an open question, we were in an arm-wrestling match, and now that they’ve won, the judiciary has totally deteriorated. They no longer respect the law. The current magistrates are acting foolishly…. The dismantling of the rule of law has been incredible to witness.

So, yes, under these conditions, I know I won’t be returning to the judiciary.

Things have deteriorated so much… Just imagine this: one day, I was in a packed courtroom when suddenly [Ricardo] Méndez Ruíz and [Raúl] Falla [attorneys for the Foundation Against Terrorism, or FCT, a group of far-right operatives with ties to military] stuck their heads through the door and shouted “jueeeez prevaricadoooor!” (“crooked judge!”), in the middle of the hearing!

Everything is falling apart. The justice system in Guatemala has completely collapsed. Completely.

Q. What you’re describing sounds like schoolyard bullying.
Exactly. There’s such complete insolence and immaturity, so much cynicism, you would think that even these bullies might have some principles, some ethics. But no, this is the situation. These are the people in power now. To me, that’s the issue.

Look, before this all happened, I was planning on just finishing up a few cases and then retiring. I was going to ask Rafael Landívar University, where I was teaching at the time, to give me a few more classes, and with my pension and the courses, I thought, “I can make up the income and live in peace.” But they didn’t give me enough time.

Q. What cases were you hoping to wrap up?
The Cooptation of the State corruption case, the Diario Militar trial [Death Squad Dossier]…

There were some very interesting and important cases, at different levels, like one pre-trial hearing against a judge in Izabal related to drug trafficking. I thought, if I set my mind to it, I can finish those cases in a year, or a year and a half, and then I can retire in peace.

Q. What made you decide you had to leave?
I mean, I’ve had bodyguards since 2000. I was one of the first judges in Guatemala to be assigned a security detail. And in 2015 they gave me an armoured vehicle. I always knew I was at higher risk than other judges, who all take on some level of risk.

But then last year, there was a point when it became too great and I couldn’t stay any longer. Ever since Méndez Ruiz threatened me in May, there was an intense campaign of harassment unleashed against me. They even started to follow me, break into my home… They threaten me with total impunity.

And then the risk experts did an analysis, taking into account all the cases I’ve brought against the military, and all the corruption cases, and they told me that they couldn’t rule out the possibility of an attempt on my life. A kind of countdown began, a countdown to a moment that was coming, coming, coming… and then would one day arrive.

Why? Because in Guatemala, the institutions of state are being militarized, the Ministry of Governance especially. They’re restructuring it to be like it was in the 80s, when each department had a military officer. From studying the Diario Militar case, I understood exactly what was going on.

Q. What do you mean by that?
That Guatemala is designed for impunity. Romeo Lucas governed from 1978 to 1982; Efraín Ríos Montt forced him out with a coup and governs from ‘82 to ‘83; in 1983 Ríos Montt was forced out by a coup and Mejía Víctores took the presidency, then called for a constituent assembly.

But how can you justify, in the middle of a constituent assembly, with all the pressures to sign a peace agreement, during years when the guerrilla groups and the government are sitting down to dialogue, that they continue killing professionals and students? What could justify the continued dismantling of the Law School and the Economics Department at the University of San Carlos? What explains the continuation of repression?

In Guatemala, peace was imposed. The military lives off war, but they knew the conflict couldn’t last forever, and they tried to make sure there would never be any real change in the country; they wanted to destroy everything intellectual, any possibility that Guatemala could rise up and become a better country.

The Diario Militar case shows how they killed professionals, students. That’s where you start to understand what the objective of the military really was.

The new constitution finally took effect in 1986, on January 14, and that constitution created what are known as “postulation commissions,” with the goal of involving the University of San Carlos and the Guatemalan Bar Association — some of the few institutions remaining after the armed conflict — in the political life of the country.

But the real objective was to break the educational system in exchange for political gains, because giving San Carlos the power to participate in the election of the Attorney General, the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice, the magistrates of the Constitutional Court, the Public Defender’s Office — up to 53 public positions in total — meant that the political parties started focusing on controlling the university, which is now in the business of training voters, not professionals.

And wherever they made inroads into the university, there was power to be grabbed. It was a strategy in stages, where sectors of political power took over the university, which had already been weakened, because they had killed everyone.

Q. Some say that, in just the few months since you left the judiciary, the Death Squad Dossier case is already facing setbacks. Do you have that impression as well?
Definitely. That’s why the case raised my profile so much.

Q. Do you mean that you were forced to leave the court and the country because of that case?
There’s a larger context. There are other trials. I had the burning of the Spanish embassy case, the Sepur Zarco trial, the genocide trial… It’s not like they had a lack of reasons.

But the Death Squad Dossier got the attention of certain elements in the military, and it’s the one that made me feel pressured to leave the country. This explains why Toribio Acevedo was released from pretrial custody as soon as I tendered my resignation. That tells you a lot about why I was pressured to leave.

Q. What are your thoughts on Acevedo’s release from pretrial detention?
A judge has the power to grant pretrial release. That’s not in dispute. The problem is, how is it possible that [senior anti-corruption prosecutor] Virginia Laparra can be imprisoned for four years and meanwhile, someone accused of crimes against humanity, extrajudicial execution, torture and enforced disappearance is granted pretrial release? It’s totally unbalanced.

Besides, in cases like this one, the number of victims must also be taken into account, and the fact that, in the Death Squad Dossier, the victims are extremely vulnerable people. We’re not talking about one, two, three deaths.

The dossier has 175 photos; and these photos don’t just represent 175 murders, disappearances or cases of torture, because for each one of those faces, there was a wife, children, loved ones who endured their death, torture, disappearance.

Releasing the accused from pretrial custody puts survivors and witnesses at risk.

Q. Do you think they’re dismantling the case?
Of course. And not only the Death Squad Dossier case, but all the cases I was involved in. Let’s start with the basic issue: who else could they put in charge who would understand the Cooptation of the State case, considering it took me years to begin to understand all of its details and ramifications?

And the same for the La Línea [customs fraud] case: the people who are left in charge don’t even understand the process. What possible future could the case have under these conditions?

That was the objective. Who worked with CICIG? The FECI. Well, they took them out first. They took Juan Francisco [Sandoval] out, and two years later, the FECI was completely dismantled.

But the judges remained, and that’s why Érika [Aifán] was the first to leave. Then came my case, precisely because our courts were created expressly to hear cases involving criminal structures.

Q. What has living in exile been like for you?
It’s hard. Only those who have experienced exile can understand it. I left my country after 23 years when my only income was a monthly salary. I have absolutely nothing, because in those 23 years I could only do so much. But imagine leaving with just a suitcase, leaving behind your books, your clothes. To be in another country, not even having a sweater, a shirt, with all your things at home, it’s…. It’s as if a part of your heart is still there.

Q. You’ve been to Europe, you’re passing through the United States, and heading to Costa Rica, but you haven’t found a place to settle down.
No. One option is Spain. There’s also Mexico or Costa Rica. But it’s not easy, because I’ve been offered a stipend to study, but that would only keep me entertained. What I need is to work, to do some consulting, research, find a stable job so I can bring my family and my son, who are still in Guatemala, with me. To decide where to settle down before doing that would be irresponsible.

Q. Is your family safe in Guatemala?
No. And the problem is that the more I speak up, the more danger I put them in.

Q. Blackmail and threats seem to follow you wherever you go.
Yes, definitely. I’ve been out of the country for five months and cars keep showing up at my mother’s house. They park outside, taking pictures of people coming in and out. And there are people in my family who have been forced out of work.

It’s as if we were still at war: If you’re one of their targets, they won’t be satisfied with just attacking you; they want to destroy everything around you.

Q. Have you spoken with other exiles from Guatemala?
Yes, all of them.

Q. What have they achieved by leaving?
Look, international cooperation is ending. There’s no more support for the people who are outside the country, nor for those who are detained, nor for those who are still in Guatemala and who it’s clear will also need to leave.

There’s a lack of interest at the political level to force Guatemala to return to the rule of law.

Q. You’ve been in Europe for a few months. Do they understand what’s happening in Guatemala?
They understand what’s happening, absolutely. The exclusion of the MLP made them see exactly what kind of democracy we’re talking about. Yes, they’re aware, but they have other priorities.

The challenge is to get Europe and the United States to take up the issue, not just of Guatemala, but of Central America more broadly, which is a ticking time bomb.

Q. What’s been your takeaway from the meetings you’ve had in Washington?
It’s even worse here, because they understand the situation even better, but the challenge is to convince them that, without their support, conditions in Guatemala will never improve/

Q. What kind of support?
With sanctions on economic powerholders. And on the military. The United States has the tools but refuses to use them.

Q. Why?
The United States already has so few allies in Central America, and they do not want to lose Guatemala. That’s why they’re asking themselves how far it’s prudent to go. And there are a lot of international pressures. There’s the issue of China, Russia… The landscape is quite complex, and they’re afraid that, if they take stronger actions, Guatemala will start leaning toward another power.

Q. A year and a half ago, you made a visit to Washington with Érika Aifán and other judges. They were still on the bench, but the possibility that the pressure would increase and they would end up in jail or exile was already very present.
During one meeting their compatriots were offering them words of encouragement and jokingly saying, “We don’t want to see you around here.” At the time, did you believe that this situation could be avoided, or did you think it was only a matter of time?
With the way the situation was developing, I knew it was just a matter of time. That’s why exile hits so hard, because you’re already experiencing it even before you leave, and you start to think about the people around you, and you start to reflect…. It’s like if a doctor tells you what day you’re going to die. The mind and body freeze, and you wish you could stop time.

Then you… [Judge Galvez starts to cry but holds his gaze and continues talking]. There are times when you start to think that maybe it was a mistake to believe in the justice system at all. Because you get wrapped up in what you’re doing, and you detach yourself from reality. The cases are your whole world, and you wake up, get ready for the day, walk, and then everything is the case, the case, the case. You dream about the case, and you no longer have time for anything or anyone else.

The truth is that only those of us who are experiencing it can understand it. One would think, why ask for help if we can do it ourselves? How sad. Why do things have to be like this? But we have to admit it: ‘Given the condition the country is in, no, we can’t do it alone.’

Sister Hermana María-José López

Interviewee: Hermana María-José López
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Alice Klien
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC



Sister Hermana María-José López (MJ): With Médicos MUNI, as far as health goes, we made an agreement for 2 or 3 years – they made a clinic with both conventional and alternative medicines. We have one sister who studied natural medicine and she trains many women in the communities. And now it’s the women from the communities who run the clinic with the alternative medicine. There’s a small laboratory and a big room for conferences and work. We’ve got a laboratory to make micro-doses of pills and a different laboratory to take samples of blood and urine.

We coordinate with other NGOs and groups and we have people who come as volunteers or through other NGOs – for example with ASTON. They do agreements for a year or two. Médicos MUNI make their agreements for two years, so they built an apartment which serves as a hostel for cooperantes [development workers].

Martin Mowforth (MM): Is that the programme of training for indigenous leaders?

MJ: That’s the one close to the city and the one that I work on. It’s with another congregation. I’m full time with them as a cooperante. It’s different from what the group of other sisters do.

Then we have a project of grants for youths – those who receive the grants make a commitment with their community areas. Developmentally and educationally our commitment to the youths is very strong – it’s important to have trained and professionally educated people for their work and community. The group with grants is less than it is in Nicaragua – there are about 70 supported youths.

The IGER educational system, which is a Guatemalan popular education project, is in a zone where the Sisters have full responsibility for carrying out the project. They have teacher coordinators, youth coordinators and they have adults who study. Their school-leaving qualifications are validated by the Ministry of Education and they can then go on to university.

Regarding Antigua Guatemala – they have a well-organised system for the reception of tourists, for the cleaning of the streets, for the tourism infrastructure of the streets, and there’s no violence – there’s nothing like the violence in Guatemala [City]. I’ve walked around at 9 or 10 in the evening in Antigua and everything is easy, people are in the streets, everywhere is still open, restaurants, internets, cafes. Antigua is very impressive – you can stroll around – they know how to look after their space.

INTERVIEW 2: Translation of Transcript 2

MJ: I’d like you to know about our project. Part A is what we’re working on right now; Part B is our proposal for workshops. Part A is a bit of history, motivational, which we’re currently doing through workshops. Part B is our new work, a bit on the big side, but I wondered if Martin could collaborate with the trainers, which is where we have problems. Each year it costs about $1,200 and we support the person who gives the workshops with about $100. This is in Guatemala.

MM: [explained that the SRF articles of constitution do not allow us to work outside of Nicaragua.]

MJ: The problem for us is that the trainers have to go out from Guatemala City to other places. At the moment I’m using all the fund for material. It’s a small fund and it’s just that we need funds for the trainers and their work.

MM: [explained re Gangsters and that we have sent the questions to MJ by email.] First, is it possible to define or list the factors which prevent development and the alleviation of poverty in the Central American countries?

MJ: From my experience at the national level, when you see the reality of poverty the development that you can try to create is at a minimum. I’ve seen development when I’ve been immersed in smaller, more focussed group; for example, en Colomba here in Tacuca, the Sisters work more directly with small projects like those that you know in Nicaragua. So we see the people generate their own process of development at a minimum level but with hope for the good of their children. When you organise a limited group, say of 15, 20 or 30 families, you can see a bit of development …, so that the conditions of health and nutrition improve for the women and education for the children.

In Colomba, the Sisters have an alternative clinic with projects for making soya bread and alternative medicine products, and they’ve created a community organisation. There are 200 women organised in this project. It’s not just one of the Sisters’ projects, we also cooperate on it with social organisations – it’s not just our work. But we give accompaniment with the work and it gives a bit of hope in the long term.

If you measure the reality of poverty and you want to see results in a year or two, I don’t know whether we would see any change.

Guatemala has a huge problem in that its wealth is in the hands of ten families and it’s these ten families who influence the government. Before the signing of any democratic law it passes through this group of families: businessmen, military personnel – it’s a social group which here we refer to as the bourgeoisie – it’s very strong and the politicians make agreements and alliances with these families. At the national level we are dominated by this group of families, and right now with this situation of crisis the issues are getting worse particularly in the cities where the population is now greater than it is in the rural zones. The rural area is not experiencing the crisis in the same way as the urban area.

The current government already knows this and has put into operation its programme called ‘Social Cohesion’ which is a system of family assistance. It has helped a lot of the population, but as well as its positive characteristics it has some negative ones too. The project uses Lula’s idea from Brazil – ‘Zero Hunger’. Nicaragua has a similar project called ‘Zero Famine’. Here the programme is directed by President Colom’s wife and for this has faced severe criticism. The president’s wife here is holding political office without having been elected by the people. For me, democracy here is very difficult to understand – that is to say, she is someone who has not been elected by the people, so politically she should not have any authority. She is Sandra Torres.

MM: In England we have a similar system – the House of Lords. It’s well established in our political system – none of them have been elected.

MJ: the Social Cohesion project has three lines: ‘the solidarity bag’, which includes the basic foodstuffs: beans, maize, sugar, milk and other things which I can’t remember. Another line is ‘the school napsack’, which is for the childrens’ schooling and gives something like 300 quetzales to each family.

In campesino areas, the average wage of a campesino is 600 quetzales. So they are seeing that with what the government gives them, Q300 worth of basic foodstuffs plus their quota for the childrens’ schooling, this comes to more than Q600, which is the basic wage for picking coffee and working in the plantations or the mines. So this is generating a conflict between the workers, because if the government gives them more money than they can get by working, they don’t work.

Others have a more critical awareness – if the government gives me Q600 because I’m not working, then if I am working my wage should be higher than Q600. The Social Cohesion programme is leaning more towards the campesino areas. In the city the problem is different because everybody works in services such as banks, retail, markets, maquilas – many maquilas – and they all earn less than what is needed to cover the basic necessities of life in Guatemala.

Do you know how much the Director of the National Library gets? Q1,300 – 1,400 per month – something like $100 per month.

MM: Less than the ‘canasta basica’?

MJ: Yes, less. In my case, I don’t get much, but wherever I go I have my car and I can buy things … When I go out of the country, my commitment is that I pay. But compared with a Director of a National Library, that is despicable.

There’s a very big contrast between the urban area, the campesino area and the indigenous campesino area. It’s not possible to solve the situation in Guatemala City at the same time as the campesino area and with the indigenous campesino area. They are three separate worlds. In my opinion, only one thing unites them all: violence, in all three areas.

Two colleagues, one an Italian missionary who had spent 40 years in Quiche province, were assassinated. Supposedly, it was a common highway robbery. There were three missionaries. Then others, from Germany and Spain who were in Quiche, one in Alta Verapaz and another in Quiche, were also assaulted and robbed. There’s supposedly more to this.

MM: I heard of the assassination of four priests in the north of the country several months ago.

MJ: The violence if generalised. Here there is so much social violence in the city. It’s not a city to walk around in. At 9 at night there’s nobody on the streets, and the last bus runs at 6 pm.

MM: It’s the same in Tegucigalpa too. But because of the gridlocked traffic the buses finish at 7 pm.

MJ: Guatemala has another problem which is a product of its poverty; that is, emigration to the United States.

MM: And that causes what kind of problems?

MJ: The family remains in debt because they take out a loan for one of them to travel to the States. If they get caught by the immigration laws, they have to return. On being returned back here they take out another loan to pay off the first. So the economic situation gets ever worse. At the social level, it causes family breakdown; the family role breaks down in the rearing of children. …

Then we have human rights violations of all types. There’s a strong group working at the frontier, a group here in Guatemala City and another at the frontier with Mexico. There are agreements between the NGOs which are working with refuge houses for emigrants, at least seeing that their human rights are not violated. It’s called ‘Human Mobility’. It’s very interesting because they analyse all types of human mobility, and within the broad group they have found that there is not only movement for work, but that there’s also a lot of trafficking of persons, especially women, who are deceived. The woman says, ‘Is there a job?’, to which they are lied – and it later turns out to be prostitution. The data show that there is also beginning to appear male prostitution, where before there was none. Right now it appears that within this trafficking of people there is male prostitution and child prostitution, the majority being children.

Alice Klein (AK): Is there prostitution in the city?

MJ: Well, above all it’s at the frontiers, but it’s also in the cities.

MM: Because there are loads of lorry drivers there – that’s where the clients are.

MJ: It’s by the frontier roads where there are lots of drivers. The network [of traffickers and trafficking] has been discovered throughout Central America. Sister Rosario was in a meeting about human mobility in Costa Rica in which there were groups of people making presentations about the work of ‘Human Mobility’.

Other people enter and chat.

MM: Can you tell us a little about the programmes of the nuns?

MJ: Our mission has similar characteristics to others throughout Central America. We always work with the most impoverished populations, those with very few economic resources. Our idea is to look for alternative solutions to situations of impoverishment or to situations in which people cannot live a dignified life with their rights. So we work on projects such as agricultural development – crop production or cattle ranching – health and education.

Where we work here in Guatemala is in the rural areas, with the impoverished, the campesinas, which is different from Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, they at least own their land; here where we are the majority do not own their land; here we have only two communities where the finqueros [small farmers] are re-conquering their land, as they call it.

There’s one community more developed which for me is an experience. It’s like a torch in that it helps us to see what we want for all the communities. They’ve taken over their lands, and they own their own coffee. Each family already has its own hectares of coffee, but they sow communally. They have a very good organic coffee project. Everything is decided communally, their sowing, their harvesting, their storing. But within all the communities with which we deal, there is only one in this situation. The others are communities of campesinos who are still living in the land owner’s finca. So their reality is more difficult. With them we have emergency situations, like Hurricane Stan. The Sisters built 15 houses for these families. Stan was in 2005, and the zone where we work was really badly hit.


Norma Maldonado

Interviewee: Norma Maldonado, member of the International Gender and Trade Network (IGTN)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth, Karis McLaughlin and Alice Klien
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
Notes: Most of the interview was in English, apart from the following introduction, the translation of which follows.


Norma Maldonado (NM): So all our work is related to the Association Agreement, megaprojects, transnational companies. We created a tribunal against the transnational companies during the Social Forum of the Americas. Today, before coming here, I was finishing off an article about the Social Forum which was in October.

There are many things which we deal with which are related to the gender issue. The issue has remained a little outside the mainstream, and not because women wanted it so, but because the women have almost no say in managing the issue of the macro-economy. The woman is in the house. So the sphere of macroeconomics is a bit difficult, even for feminists. It’s a major effort to get the macro issue inserted into discussions about globalisation, transnationals, climate change. It’s a task in which we still have to self-educate ourselves, through training manuals on these issues. So this is a type of virtual training, using the internet for leaders who have a computer and who are in the city, and especially for community leaders. I work in the communities with a school of policy for indigenous women.

The remainder is a transcription of the interview which was conducted in English.

Alice Klein (AK): What are the problems with free trade agreements for Guatemala and for Central America?

NM: In general, we see these trade agreements as a big imposition by the developed nations. When we were celebrating the derailment of the WTO in Cancún, for Central America it was the opposite because that’s when the United States deliberately negotiated by portions of the nations because the WTO negotiations were derailed. And so the big economic blocks launched trade bilateral agreements with the small nations. To give you an example, NAFTA, the trade agreement with North America, took four years of discussions, ten years with Chile. This negotiation with Central America took nine months and I think that the Dominican Republic took three months or something like that – ridiculous. So, for thousands and thousands of words – and everything discussed in English – not even the lawyers, the lawmakers in Congress knew what this was about – the business people. So for us, immediately, as soon as we knew it was a United States negotiation, we knew it was not good news. So it was easier to mobilise the people because everything that comes from the United States is a threat to us.

Historically, it’s not something we made up; if you know the history of Guatemala, particularly in 1954 the United States, with the United Fruit Company, with the CIA, they orchestrated a coup and overthrew the government that lasted only ten years. So, after that we had a series of dictatorships and the killings and the history of blood that has cost the …. And overthrew the Arbenz government. And so it was because of this huge company, which now – I was just reading before I came here – as Chiquita brands has a lot to do with what happened in the coup in Honduras because Zelaya raised by 60 per cent the minimum wage. And so, who are the big employers there? Chiquita brands, Standard brands, the United Fruit Company – so they are directly involved, and so are the pharmaceuticals. So it’s not surprising to hear that the rules of big business are those the United States has imposed.

So the trade agreement we knew … it was negotiated in secret. That means that it was not good. If it was good, it should have been public. We demonstrated for four months – there were people killed; Congress was surrounded by military – we couldn’t get close to Congress to deliver our petitions. We had over 25,000 signatures against the trade agreement. Constitutionally, we only need 5,000 to ask for a referendum. The head of Congress by then was Hebrucher, from a big oligarchic family. He said “even if you brought a million signatures the decision is already made.” After that decision was made, I had a memo that the organisations in the United States had sent us to the organisations here, where the government of the United States said what law should be changed here and there. They sent the memos of what had to be changed to modify the Constitution. And so the CAFTA is above our Constitution. There are so many articles modified; and so the secrecy, the fact that it comes from the United States, the history of imposition, the lack of information. So we needed to know that this was something of a trick to the majority. And that’s what it is. It’s nothing less than … You see, we already have trade with Europe. Everything that we need to be traded is already traded. We didn’t need any other thing. They needed the certainty, the legal certainty in certain issues, especially in the intellectual property rights – so they needed those things changed.

I remember to tie this to the issue that interests you. The World Bank has financed the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and only 2 per cent of that corridor has been exploited by companies, and that’s biotechnology. So this corridor has 98 per cent possibilities for business – that’s financial. So here we have the Plan Puebla Panama, the …, the CAFTA, the law. This was the legal …. And so they needed certain people for the things that they were going to start doing, especially in biotechnology – patents for plants. So that’s why we know they’re not here to trade with us. We’re sending everything that we have, so far.

AK: Norma, with the Plan Puebla Panama when it was renamed, Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, when it was disbanded and renamed – is the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor still happening?

NM: You see the page on the internet – the Biological Corridor is still there intact. They just changed the … , it’s called the Mesoamerican Project. The Plan Puebla Panama is intact and serving the interests of the geopolitical … And we have maps which show people even in communities how the trade with Asia and China has been easier through the Panama Canal. So they need this dry route they call the ‘Corredor Seco’ to trade. And so we know that blocks increase in the Asian Pacific – the South Pacific trade – and the trade comes from the eastern side of the United States. So they need our territory from the Teohuacan isthmus in southern Mexico – that’s where big companies on the energy things – wind farms – in Oaxaca, in Chiapas, and of course the water for the huge hydro-electric and the big corridor, the companies for biotechnology for plants for medicinal purposes. So they’re after the territory, and so with the trade with Europe, we have everything that there is to trade. But the idea is that these companies can come here and have the rights to exploit and have a national treatment like companies from here. They have even more powers than the local companies. So we know the law, the paper, the article. So those agreements are above the Constitution – they’re supernational laws. And I think the difference, maybe, between CAFTA and the trade agreement with the European Union is that Europe has come with this discourse about political cooperation and democracy, and the other is trade – like a three-legged thing. But you always think that maybe Europe has missed its course with the democracy and they want integration. So they seem confused. But if you see the trade agreement with Europe, it’s worse than the WTO. It’s WTO plus – worse than the one with the United States. But there hasn’t been enough discussion here about the trade agreement with Europe – unfortunately. Although I’m jumping

AK: I was just going to ask what the specific effects have been of the free trade agreement with ALCA?

[Editors note: ALCA is the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and was effectively killed off in 2005.]

NM: Well the immediate effects have been in the interests of companies on land, on soil, have led to the displacement of a lot of people in communities. You can see, especially where the real interests such as African Palm to the new matrix of energy have changed – the interests being in water, in territory and land for planting sugar cane; and so you see that [13:59] a lot of people come from that area, from the Kekchi Group. Tomorrow I’m going to Satapa where a friend of mine is being imprisoned and they’re giving him eight years for defending the territory. He was imprisoned because he lives by there, and there’s a woman from the oligarchy group who claims that he’s a threat. He’s been in prison – tomorrow he’s going to be a debate, and because of him the community captured seven Belgian – four Belgian tourists – I don’t know whether you heard that – last year in the Río Dulce area and the … ; and so the people are really angry; and so government works so that my friend has eight years. So maybe tomorrow they’re going to try to reach 30 years. So we’re going there tomorrow.

Martin Mowforth (MM): Can I just very briefly explain why I chuckled and laughed a little bit, because we’ve just spent a couple of days with a Belgian delegation up in San Marcos and San Miguel Ixtahuacán. So when you said the Belgians were arrested – did you say?

NM: They were kidnapped. They were taken by the campesinos in Río Dulce to press for the government. But instead the police came and they killed one of the persons and raided a friend of mine who’s doing this investigation, this paper that we’re doing. She was there because her husband is the one in prison – she was carrying my digital camera; they took everything that she had and she dropped some other stuff in the water. It was kind of like a big drama in 2008 last year. He’s been over a year now in prison.

AK: What’s his name?

NM: Javier Choc. Check on the web because he’s the first political prisoner of this government because this government talks about they’re going to be for the poor, blah, blah, in a … speech. Then a month after they took my friend in prison. So he’s a political prisoner for defending the territory. Because he’s Kekchi. You see a lot of Kekchis working as security people, as policemen – private. They haven’t migrated like any other group to the United States or other places. They have travelled within the country, especially tours to Belize, but this group is now for the first time migrating to the city. You can see them, men and women, they don’t go to the United States because most of them are monolingual – they only speak Spanish, especially the women and men can pick it up.

So, this is where the mining is, the oil is, the bioprospecting, this is where the water is. This is a very, very rich area, and that whole area is Kekchi. So that’s one of the first things I can tell. You know, the displacement, total displacement of communities, the migration, the buying or renting of land. You know, a lot of people, when they came back from the refugee camps, they were given land [18:10] around that area – you know, ….  So now these people don’t have enough to feed or to work the land. A lot of the kids are half-Mexican, half- [silence]; a lot of them are back in Cancún. So a lot of these people are selling to these huge companies or renting soil for African palm. But African palm will destroy soil in 25 years. And they’re renting those lands for 25 years. That means that when they come back, it will be totally useless. And I’m in the process of making a documentary on that. We have a lot of footage already, trying to get the camera people and the people to work together and to script them. But we have lots of hours already collected from different seasons. So that’s been another way of – how do you get your land from the narco-people, the drug people? They put their money down – you know, I give you 10,000 for that. So you have to sell. But with this company, they know that the people are not working enough the land, because the kids are not working, because the value of the land. So they go and they say, we’ll rent; and also some of them work in those farms. Women work on the nursery of the African palms. They have a huge hall. I went to see – they can’t carry that physically – [19:51] they’re big transplants. So men do the hauling and women help in the nursery.

So they have some income there but not enough for the whole year. So that’s another reason for the migration that is going to the United States. Men leaving the women to stay behind. Womens’ issues for example in Alta Verapaz where I work – only one per cent of women work in public offices – you’ve heard that in Chiapas there are Consejos Comunitarios de Desarrollo but only one per cent of women participate in those. But the issue of water is a women’s issue. In the documentary that we are doing, women are walking four hours to get buckets smaller than that because huge transnationals have already taken the water. And so a lot of the water streams are dry. [21:17] So they have to sell because they can’t handle this amount of energy [???] and a lot of the issues are not being even addressed in these Comités Comunitarios de Desarrollo – those issues directly affected are womens’ issues; and the women have to do the laundry, women have to do the cooking, washing the kids – entirely womens’ issues.

So what we’re doing here, especially in the Alta Verapaz area where all this is happening, we’re doing the water collection systems – we’re building like one a day, by a house. It’s a cheap way of setting them – it’s very different from … [???] … there’s a big discussion about why, but if you see them, they’re not the largest group linguistically, but territorially they’re the largest. So of course if you’re going to have one [new] way of water, they would have to change their entire culture. We get them together so that they can have true running water. So, according to the culture what we do here is save the rainwater because there’s like 4,000 mm of water a year. It rains there ten months of the year – it rains and rains and rains. So that’s why the companies are there obviously.

Of course there are many others that you will know about – you know, the trade agreement thing; good jobs for women – can’t go to the bathroom, don’t let them drink so they won’t go to the bathroom, the pregnancy test in the maquiladoras, and a lot of people come from the rural area to these huge free trade zones to be exploited, and they don’t have any voice [23:55] because this free capital … if you don’t give them the prices, if you don’t lower your prices, they go to the next one. A lot of them were going to Honduras. Honduras is the cheapest in the area, you know – nine cents for a collar, or something ridiculous like that. So that’s the threat constantly to the people. So you can’t organise; you don’t have any rights; you can’t accumulate anything; you can be fired any time; and the government doesn’t enforce anything. So when they say, “Oh no, we’re bringing development to the Third World”. And what kind? And at what cost? And for how long? You know we’re not going to have a country left. So that’s the way we approach trade agreements. We don’t think ….

And also if you see the map of the world, this part of the world has from 3,500 to 5,000 species per sq km. In Europe because of climate, 200 per sq km. And the United States, just … So we’re destroying the planet. [25:41] We don’t want to be like the North – that’s too costly. We can’t afford to … globally, we can’t; we’re doing the work of protecting for the Third World, not only for us, but for Honduras. What’s happening there we can’t allow because for the vested interests.

AK: While we’re talking about women and the water issue, maybe we can move onto that question because I was going to ask why free trade agreements like this affect women disproportionately; other than what you’ve said, are there any other reasons why women are particularly affected?

NM: When you duplicate the work of women doing what you have to do daily, but now it’s even worse, when you don’t have the resources, obviously you’re not going to have anybody doing public office. You don’t have the energy. I live in communities with them, and I remember that I thought I was going to write a book. I couldn’t write anything. It’s so … work, just gathering wood, collecting water, washing. By the time you want to sit, it’s already late and you don’t have the energy to do any public office or … A lot of women have stopped going to organisations and getting organised … They have to deal with domestic [27:18] surviving with gathering food for the people. And this is happening not only in communities, but in rural areas where you see struggling women selling this – I know a woman who this morning I talked to – she brings something that she sells like … ??? … then she doesn’t have time to get to the meeting. Also the church, especially the Protestant church, has known about that, so when they can stop marketing they go to church. The people know they need to relax and music and dancing or something to let go. A lot of the help I get for this … and that’s what makes it so popular. But I think that the interest is – I’ve seen less and less women participating [28:32] in public office, in studying and other things and in developing other areas and events – just surviving and gathering for others, for the elderly and health.

That’s why the big issue in Honduras is with the ALBA, they were going to have to make medicine for huge prices. The prices here for … are ridiculous. It’s 9 quetzales for a dose so you can cure your amoeba. So you’re going to go back to stew yourself a punch, which is a good thing though because the medicine is unaffordable. So is education. Education and health are unaffordable. There are so many people that I know in communities that have never seen a doctor other than a Cuban doctor that are helping. And so the Cubans have come and helped. The first doctor they’ve seen in their lives is a Cuban doctor. And so the medications are so expensive – it’s such a business – so that’s why the generic thing is a big issue for Honduras, and that’s what you see has happened to them – directly involved in that coup are the huge companies.

AK: Norma, are you talking about anti-retroviral drugs which are patented like, say, that kind of medicine?


NM: What’s really helped is Medecins Sans Frontières. They brought the anti-retrovirals for the people, but the government doesn’t have – I think the budget for Guatemala is something like 9 cents a year, so you can’t really have anything with that amount of money. I even went for my glasses to the Cuban doctors in Alta Verapaz, because they’re the best – the best examination I ever had for my eyes. I thought I was needing glasses because my mum is blind now. But we can’t afford surgery, let alone treatment. Glasses – people just go without them.

AK: So was ALBA going to offer generic copies of patented drugs for cheaper?

NM: Yes, with ALBA countries, Cuba sends generics and they exchange for other things with Honduras. And doctors too. Lots of doctors in Honduras, Cuban doctors here in Guatemala. In Cuba studying – and students of the University of Havana they come here and they study. A lot of help, a lot of scholarships to the students who go to Cuba. We get very expensive medicines here that are unaffordable. I have some medicines that I …???… I get it from the States because I couldn’t afford it here. I have a family doctor there – she sends me the pamphlets for a few of the affordable … For the bones, for osteoporosis, there are over 100 types of pill. If you had a diet like I had, because I was the last child and my mum was malnourished. I have osteoporosis, and I couldn’t drink milk because we have lactose intolerance, and so I have very bad osteoporosis; but I can’t afford the medicine. My friends from the States send it in the mail. It’s too expensive. They don’t have generics, and if they don’t, with this law we can’t have those cheaper medicines.

AK: With the free trade agreement with the European Union, what are the specific areas that you’re worried about? What particular sectors?

NM: More worried than any others than CAFTA? What difference?

AK: Yes.

NM: Well, I think that with Europe we have exchange for over 500 years. Well, we know it’s on their agenda – the territory, especially huge companies like energy companies, like Union Fenosa – it’s Spanish – it’s all over. [34:27] There are people standing against it. In Mexico there are people not paying their electricity because, you see the map, all the water in this country comes from the mountains where all the indigenous people live. They’re guardians of the mountains. It’s their water that we have. So why do we have to buy our electricity from our own rivers? And that’s the argument. Why do we have to buy? So these companies, especially …???…

I was in Peru when Zapatero in Lima announced that there was going to be 1,500 million dollars on aid for water issues. And immediately Alan Garcia named his Minister of the Environment – he didn’t have one, so he named one during those days, and he was a German national who met with Merckel and then they decided they had 200 projects for water because they’re going to be doing this little Mickey Mouse water budget because they’re taking a huge chunk on this issue – so it’s a huge amount of money being set aside for this issue of people’s water. They’re doing foros, huge summits for water, things like that, because this is an issue, and these companies are actors. They’re not going to come – they’re already here, European companies – I think there are 72 companies already operating, and so we do expect that there will be more and more, from the biotechnology, huge companies, two water companies, two services, companies that are going to be in an area more and more.

You see we’re one of the countries that exports more food in the world; for example we are the biggest exporters of broccoli in the world. 60 per cent of the food that Salvadorans eat is from Guatemala, from hortalizas, from vegetables, and 40 per cent of our fruit. We export to Mexico, to El Salvador, to Honduras, and to the European Union, we export to the United States, and we are one of the most malnourished countries in the hemisphere. So we’re already sending everything there. We compete with Haiti, Honduras and Bolivia for the worst victims of infant mortality and malnutrition in this country; and we are producers of food. Why is that? And in this little book I try to explain that.

When Europe up to the middle of the Industrial Revolution was going into a lot of famine, corn helped, because at the beginning corn was fed only to animals to do manure to treat the soil. Corn has higher yields than other grains and gives a jump to the Industrial revolution in Europe because the soil was better off, feeding all the animals with corn. And now corn for oil, for ethanol; again corn is being used, and you know that for us corn is sacred, not just a food. For the Kekchi, 90 per cent of their diet is corn, and for them corn is food, guagua in Kekchi means food and means … For huge companies, for those interested in the ethanol, in Europe, that means our soul, our land and more of our basic food – what do you think is going to happen if you don’t have food produced in this country? [39:35] We have to import, but that’s what’s in the interests of these nations – that we become consumers, that the world consumes what they produce. Even if it’s genetically modified, the issue is they need consumers, people making money. But we don’t have jobs for these people – where are they going to go? To the United States? They’re building a wall there. Half of them die before getting there, so it’s a trap. What else?

So that’s how we see this issue of so-called development – it’s a trap for daily life and for the people. It’s definitely not negotiable any more; it shouldn’t be mentioned any more; it’s ridiculous; it’s short-minded; it’s not sustainable.

AK: That brings us to the next question, which is ‘What are the effects on urban and rural migration and poverty? To some extent you’ve already answered that, but is there anything you would like to add on what the effects of free trade agreements are on poverty in Guatemala?


NM: Well, the United States and Europe are putting all these laws on migrants, horrible laws, which are xenophobia on Latinos and their treatment there. And people are coming on planes every day deported from … families are being separated; kids are being left; their parents are here daily; you see these drama; and nobody cares how they come; and they re-integrate; and they’re in debt; they leave their homes. That’s pushing people; it’s drying out people; entire communities. They need to come to the city, and what’s happening in the city is that 70 per cent of the work here is informal, in the informal sector. So you have all these people here doing the street-selling, anything, to the point that they raid the pirate discs off movies and things because of the copyrights. In El Salvador there have been huge raids against people who were selling the discs. All these issues that are like totally ridiculous. So they’re defending the shareholder’s interest, and the wages are getting lower and lower. We call that the race to the bottom. [43:05] So we’re making more people more miserable and more impoverished; so this is a huge issue for this country because we see a lot of South American and Central American nationals in the English nations being abused by the authorities in every country – for example Ecuadorians being abused in every single country until they make it, if they make it to their final destination – they’re being abused, with no rights at all.

I worked in the United States for a while, and I used to tell immigrants that before they start walking to the United States, whatever they were going to get in the United States was already paid with the external debt – going to the hospitals, to the schools, we already paid for that. Don’t feel intimidated; you need to show this this year; medicine is not a benefit – it’s a right. And of course migratory status is a benefit; it’s not a right. If it’s up to them, that’s how they use health too, and education. And so you have to enforce that to the people, even before they leave we have to reinforce that because they are eventually going to start walking and they have to have that clear. It’s really a daily drama for most people who are desperate are trying to provide; and that’s why all this narco-business is like … for many because you try and try and try, so it’s easier to assault – so we have these levels of violence and these levels of being ripped-off, levels of crime; and also corruption – so many levels. From Wall Street down to stealing – it’s horrible.

MM: Gangsters.

NM: Gangsters, exactly. Imagine that this guy, stealing millions and then asking for our taxes to be paid to this ….


AK: And in El Salvador when people migrate, normally adults or the men, and quite often the younger people end up in gangs as a way of forming a social bond because their family has broken up. Is that happening here as well?

NM: Oh, yes. Here because the families are separated. The grandmother is maybe dealing with the kids. They just get sometimes the cheque, the remesa [remittance]. They live in the streets. If you go to Livingston on the other side, the Garífuna, the black community – all of them are in New York; only the older ones, like grandmother with some kids are left in the community; the youngsters are already there. The kids don’t have any work; they’re hanging outside at night, and there are tourists in that area and in that area there’s a lot of drugs. A lot of drugs have been distributed in the area too because they’re very close to the Belize border and through to Mexico. So lots of drugs – can’t relate it to the unemployed. And of course, women more than …???…

I have adopted four kids like Angelina Jolie. One was from the refugee camps – he already graduated; he’s in Tijuana with his sister, and he calls sometimes and wants to come back here – he will be supporting Mexico in the refugee camp. Then I have another one who’s 21. He’s from another eastern state of Jutiapa where there’s a lot of poverty and battered women. And then another one, Kekchi, from that group in the northern area who was going to be a policeman, with the police for a while, then the army. Then I talked to the mother and said you can’t have this brilliant kid in the army. So he’s with me in my house. He plays the marimba, so I bought him a marimba. So he plays marimba and he is going to school. And another one who’s graduated already and who’s married. But I have a great four. We have to help this fabric of society – from the conflict to the economic, we have to help each other. Like in my house is like a cooperative – it’s a community there. So I can have a safety life where I get work in communities, a man won’t even have a job. Somebody has to support that lifestyle. So it’s like a community. So that’s the only way, I guess, that society is going to … But it’s not been an easy thing. We want to be artists; I like to be a poet, but you can’t be in this country because you have to patch a band aid here and there, and that’s in the workplace, always patching. So where’s the …, the beauty, the indulgence, all these other things that we as a society could be doing? [50:30] But I’m just warning you about all the mess that we get.

I went with Vicky Carr – I don’t know if you know her from  … in the UK. I was in the UK. I spoke in the Amnesty International building.

AK: Is she from the WDM? She’s a trade campaigner.

NM: Yes, she invited me last year because there was a bilateral meeting in Europe and they had some Latin American speakers. Someone went to Madrid; I went to the UK; others went to Belgium; and we had a discussion in Belgium and we went to the EU Parliament and we spoke to the progressive ones to help us, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know. We tried. But I think it needs a lot of work in Europe too, so there’s a lot more pressure in those governments.

AK: So many people, I think, in Europe are unaware that these negotiations are even taking place.

NM: Yes, they don’t even know. And also bringing more leadership from there to here so they can see first-hand – like more active. I definitely think that publications think they’re making things count more.

[Martin makes the point about ENCA and its newsletter and invites Norma to contribute to future issues – after agreeing on the point about the difficulty of getting the message around. Norma agrees, and also agrees to our use of the material in this interview.]

AK: I just have one more question – I was just going to ask you about Plan Puebla Panamá because a couple of years ago – there’s a newspaper in England called The Guardian – and they wanted an article about Plan Puebla Panamá, especially about there was going to be a hydro-electric project there on a river along the border between southern Mexico and Guatemala. Then they were going to cancel it; and now I don’t know what the situation is because different people are telling me different things. But I was wondering if you know of any examples of hydro-electric projects in southern Mexico or in the northern part of Guatemala which are definitely going ahead?

NM: Well we know that the Plan Puebla Panamá was so unpopular, they were going to have to change the name. And I don’t think they got hold of all the finance – it was so much money. But they started doing the Sistema de Integración de Centro América – that’s already going – that was at the end of last year. So that’s the connection with this country’s electrical system. But it obviously had to do with a lot more than just electricity, so they’re still working on this in Sololá, this area that I work in, in Alta Verapaz and Sololá, a huge dam. In the Río Usumacinta, there were going to be seven – a huge one called Lodomedio [???] – that was the first one to be. That alone will flood 750 sq km, like one third of the Petén where there are 700 minor sites – so it’s been very unpopular because that was only one of them and they were planning seven others for the Usumacinta River.

So I think because of the huge issues on the environment, but also on the crops in this area around there, a huge business of African palm. So I think they need to do one or the other – or which one first? My concession is that they have to do biotechnology and they’re investing in the … future sites …???… Probably what’s going to happen is that they have to diminish the scale. Like for example, the one that we have, the Chixoy, you know that, obviously the maximum. We went to a tour there with a group of local organisations, but the guy there told us that the huge area affected has only twenty years left – twenty years is a short life of utility, because when you have so much deforestation, all the sediments are … so if you don’t have the maintenance – of course nothing has been done; and when it rains all this sediment collects. So it’s going to collapse very, very soon. So they need to work because of what they’re seeing in the long term, and not because they’re nice and good. I think they’re probably still going to ignore the scale. But in seminars, I always show the maps of those seven because a lot of the lands around them were given to people in refugee camps. So there’s [59:23] one close to the Usumacinta River that you almost think that they knew that they were going to flood the soil [land]. That’s why they gave the land to the refugees, to the people who came back. That sounds like they knew they were going to flood these areas. But the pressure on these other ones has been – every government has been putting these off and off because people would just go up in arms. People are defending those rivers like in Sololá they have huge manifestations; they have a popular referendum; they have massive demonstrations against those projects. [1:00:24]

AK: Did you say it was called Lodomedio?

NM: I can show you the map. Lodomedio it’s not. It’s in Río San …???… I can’t recall. But that’s the biggest one. … And the river divides Mexico from Guatemala.

AK: Do you know what company it is? That’s going to build it?

[A brief exchange between Alice and Norma about the website of Plan Mesoamerica and formerly Plan Puebla Panamá.]

AK: Of all the work that you’ve mentioned in Alta Verapaz?

NM: Today after I have talked to you I’m going to the printers because we’re taking a document to where my friend is going to be in the tribunals (courts) tomorrow. We have made a document and that shows where all these huge companies …???… 1871 was when the coffee came with the German scheme. Then there’s another map with 1894 …er… 1944, the United Fruit Company; then another map with the 90s in: then another map. And all the log was from all these companies in these areas. If you can visualise the interests of all these companies in these maps. It’s easier if you don’t know how to read you can see this map and you can summarise – you see, the thing with us is that we have to give presentations to people who have never done this before and who don’t know how to read and write. And still I have to explain to them from corn to the WTO and everything in between. And I did that, from what you eat, from what you know to here. And I do these presentations and they have to be in a very visual way to explain that so that people can get it. It just depends on how you present it.

[A brief exchange between Martin and Alice about the Consejos Comunitarios de Desarrollo and Alta Verapaz.]

NM: The Consejos are all over the country.

AK: And where are you building this system?

NM: In Alta Verapaz.

AK: In a specific community?

NM: In all the communities that we work in. I work in an organisation that covers 13 communities, and in all these communities where the water is an issue – and the ironic thing is that these communities are along the river, the Cahabón River, but that river was a really changed course. So they just get dirty water, really dirty – they’re washing and drinking from that and the last time I was in a community a woman said “You know I’m not that ugly that I have to drink from this dirty pond”. She said it was sucio. I got sick from coming back from that. … We were there like 40 people for 3 days building a cistern, so we had to camp there in the community, and there was no water. So it was just very, very sad.

In telling this story, of course everything was very cheap. You’re washing your clothes and then you touch the faecal stuff, dead animals, anything that comes from … I studied public health in the United States, but I never thought that I was working on public health. A friend of mine said “you work on public health?” She thought I was working on agriculture and the other issues of natural speech and native speech, which I do, but actually it’s more like public health because people are just …

I think that the issues of having to walk in your life, of how many hours you walk in your life, if you quantified how many hours of the life stage you spend walking to get the basic things like water, how much time you could spend doing other things, then …

AK: I wrote an article about that for children that can’t go to school.

NM: I’m planning on this documentary something like that to show that in those four hours somebody just gathering water, what are other people doing? Maybe flying from here to Miami or …

AK: Are you working with a production company? Or are you making it yourself?

NM: I have made a YouTube three YouTube – three small ones – one 21 minutes long and these are going to be one on African palm, one on water, and one on the construction of the cisterns. Usually, there’d be a North American peace woman helper until … and we go on doing the shooting. Then I collect all the footage. We have lots of shooting edits with a friend of mine who has a company who has helped me. But shooting is ….


Omar Jerónimo

Interviewees: Omar Jerónimo
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Adam Lunn (Peace Brigades International, PBI)
Location: STavistock Hotel, London
Date: Sunday 21 June 2015
Key Words:Guatemala; human rights defenders; indigenous communities; land conflicts; the dialogue process; corruption

Martin Mowforth (MM): An interview with Omar Jerónimo, from Chiquimula in Guatemala.

Omar Jerónimo (OJ): In Guatemala.

MM: And also with Adam Lunn from Peace Brigades International, to talk about the violence of development. So, firstly, Omar, could you give me a little bit of background about your organisation, about what it does, by way of introduction, to introduce yourself?

OJ: OK, well my name is Omar Jerónimo, I am a Maya Ch’orti, a Maya people in Guatemala, in the east of the country, on the Honduran border, with Copán. We work on the issue of human rights, especially the collective rights of indigenous peoples and development; and also the right to food, of Ch’ortí children in the region. This leads to doing two basic things: – one concerns justice for the violations of territorial rights of the people; and the other is to develop productive economic possibilities in a territory which is deemed the driest in Central America, developing technologies which we adopt from our Mayan knowledge of the territory.

This is what I do, what the organisation is about; my educational training is in Economics and Human Rights, the two things which seem different but which are fundamental to our understanding of what is happening in this area.

MM: OK, thank you and could you tell me about the most common problems faced in this area, with these organisations?

OJ: Well, in principal, we are an organisation of indigenous communities, more than 70 indigenous communities. Of these, 7 indigenous communities are recognised by the state. We are in the process of getting recognition by the state, and these of course face, as do all the brothers and sisters in the country, a territorial dispute with businesses which want to establish hydroelectric and mining sites. Which are the two big economic channels of national and international capital. And, logically, far from being a possibility for development for the communities, in fact they are a tragedy for the communities. What we’ve had to face many times has been physical violence and emotional violence. Often we’ve had death threats, they’ve taken us to the courts, inventing crimes, they attack us, and they try to corrupt the communities. And often they even offer money for us to be assassinated. So, that’s development for the people, and for us it’s the biggest tragedy that could happen; and perhaps we could say that the most common theme, is not how much they attack you, but that five centuries later they still think of the Mayan people as like animals, that we don’t know how to think, that they can manipulate us, that they think we don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. And the companies and the rich people have responsibility for the country, have the right to decide for us how we should live and what’s good for us. We could say that the tragedy of five centuries is racism.

It’s a far cry from real development.

MM: Yes, 5 centuries of development. So, the developments at the moment are in the government’s discourse and with the companies. These are hydroelectric, mining and environmental developments? Do they have problems with the food manufacturering companies? With the farmers?

OJ: This region is one of the least productive, agriculturally speaking, in the region. It suffers from constant droughts, right now we are concerned because we are already in winter [the wet season] for food production and we are suffering another drought. These are beautiful lands, rivers, mountains, hills, but they are lands which after the Conquest were left to the Maya Ch’ortí people. These lands have two fundamental virtues, and that’s water, a river which is a benefit for the people, and, of course, precious minerals. That benefit for the people has also become a tragedy for the people since the economic crisis of 2007 when the companies turned their attention to producing energy, hydroelectric energy resources and the mining of precious metals. What’s happening here is not a dispute about territory, because a dispute is when we’re not sure who owns the land and we are fighting to see who stays there. The land we have clearly belongs to the Maya Ch’ortí people, and a company called: Tres Niñas Sociedad Anónima, belonging to the Pos Gutiérrez family, which is one of the most powerful families in the country. They own more than a hundred companies, multinationals, and they’re interested in creating two hydroelectric plants in about 15 kilometres of river, incidentally the only river on this land. And so the current disputes matter because of losing the water, the only water supply for this land. And the other, less crucial, concern is the issue of mining exploration licenses on this land. The companies are active in this but the owners of at least two important licenses called La Bandera and the other Cocóta are part of the Exmingua consortium and are doing a lot of exploration with companies based in Guatemala. So, there are constant attacks to discredit us and aggression coming from this company, Las Tres Niñas Sociedad Anónima, people who say that they work with them and many times with the support of the town mayors; and they even criminalise the workers of the Public Ministry in this region..

MM: Yes, it’s the same in El Salvador, the mayors are at the beck and call of the companies.

OJ: Totally.

MM: But are they are mixed up with families and foreign business too?

Because Las Tres Niñas, belongs to ..

OJ: To the Pos Gutiérrez.

MM: A family from here.

OJ: So, what happened is that right now Guatemala, for some years since we could identify where the investments came from, they established some arrangement where Guatemalan companies are associated with foreign companies; and it’s very difficult to say if there are foreign investments and where they come from. But normally the Pos Gutiérrez have investment relations with Spanish and English companies. Remembering that there is now an English company participating in investments in Guatemala together with a Colombian company.

So, in Guatemala there is a very close relationship between the distributor and the producer – many times they are the same. Unión Fenosa, precisely. Unión Fenosa which was Spanish and had investments in commercialisation and distribution, but also was investing in construction.

MM: Yes, it’s the same in Nicaragua.

OJ: And in Guatemala, where now ….

So, the banks create certain structures in such a way that access to information about who is investing, makes it very difficult for us, because also there exists a famous law in Guatemala, which is the secret bank. So nobody in Guatemala can find out who has or who is making any important bank transactions. In such a manner we can’t keep track of the transparency of investments. And this is a delicate question. What we normally say to European Governments and companies is: that no profit from money is good if it is stained with blood of innocent people. I cannot imagine eating bread covered with the blood of the people. And this is important – why? Because European governments demand transparency of information and the right of non-acceptance of violence towards the populace. This is the fundamental meaning for us.

MM: And the countries which influence them bring about national commitments.

OJ: Exactly. Totally, because there is the issue of not investing in companies that are not transparent. And that is a guarantee that we can only have, from the beginning, a political will from Europe to be in step with Human Rights.

MM: Indeed, a question that I must mention to you is land registry and is there a programme of establishing land titles? What is happening? Is it favouring the Mayas or not? I imagine it’s not.

OJ: In the Peace Accords they talk about the registration of properties. The historical problem and the greater problem, which results in many Guatemalan deaths is the agrarian problem. It’s an agrarian problem, difficult to resolve. From that they created the Registry, the RIC, the Registry of Property Information, which ought to work and be able to respond to these problems that arise from the process of land titling. Through this it also recognises that we, the Mayan peoples, exist in Guatemala, that we have our own form of organisation and property. And so it agrees that the community territories should be registered as communal lands. The Registry of property, real estate, the Registry of Land Property, the RIC – what it has done is to identify what the property is like, what are the difficulties it has. Then it informs companies which are interested in investing, gives the companies information but doesn’t give the communities information about the legal situation. This is a problem of serious corruption – it’s terrible that far from solving the conflict, it aggravates it. The Ch’ortí communities have had such an experience with the Land Registry, they’ve sought, legally, to register their communal lands in accordance with the law and its rules. And what we have found is that the RIC constantly delays the process. To date the RIC has not been able to make a single register of communal lands in Guatemala, not a single one.

MM: Is the registry not promoting individual cases?

OJ: Individuals. Individuals and not collectives because the discourse is always: you ought to register your lands individually, because in that way you will be able to buy and sell, or you could receive a credit. That’s the discourse which the Registry of Land Information constantly gives me; there is no possibility of considering within the process that property is a guarantee of development for communities and individuals; only a plot that can be commercialised and can have a compulsory purchase made on the people. That is the reality. In the end the RIC has become an institution which has the deepest distrust of the communities towards it.

MM: And does the RIC only have funds from the Guatemalan Government or does it have funds from the World Bank?

OJ: Its funds are credits from the World Bank. And other funds are joint, and jointly all the credits that it had for the Ch’orti territory were for the measuring of the community lands. In fact they haven’t managed a single community land measurement; the credit has been used up. And we have said to the World Bank that it cannot continue to finance irresponsible organisations. Because it not only corrupts the state institution but also it puts the people into debt without having any significant result in terms of the land. And this, perhaps, this year is going to be a process that we are going to engage various organisations in dialogue about this with the World Bank – how the awarding of credit should be.

MM: A more specific question: do you have problems with the timber industry too?

OJ: Yes, no.

MM: Yes? They do too, OK.

OJ: The Ch’ortí territory has one of the most important mountains of Central America and that’s El Merendo Mountain. This mountain, El Merendo, has a cloud forest, the fifth largest in Central America.

And it has a rich and unique ecosystem. And naturally it is an area that supplies drinking water to more than 300,000 inhabitants. And these inhabitants are at risk from logging companies like Aracel Alto, and some private fincas who sell valuable wood. They are constantly felling. The Ch’ortí communities and some rural groups, mestizos, from Secampa, have opposed this, and we have told the Government that it should be declared a protected area, a community administration, this unique space of forest, untouched and unique in the east of the country. Not to do it is to put at risk thousands and thousands of people. The response has been, constantly, that the State can do nothing. To jail leaders like José Pilar, Álvarez Cabrela who is a Lutheran priest who has been close to the communities and is alongside other community leaders who are constantly being threatened with death. And this, in total impunity. Many of the unknown who threaten us are relatives of judges, people inside the of the Public Ministry, friends of the Governors or deputies. So, essentially no, this corrupt system which is now also in dispute throughout Guatemala, and is taking to court various dubious locals and including even the President, is what provokes these constant ecological tragedies. One such is that happening now in Trigo la Pasión in Guatemala, which is causing 200km of contamination by palm oil.

MM: Yes. I was going to ask you about palm oil. I’ve seen it in Olancho in Honduras, and after after the coup d’état in Honduras, they took the liberty of starting their illegal activities again. And I was wondering if it’s the same in Guatemala, I imagine it is, for sure.

Another thing, a little difficult. What is the situation with regard to construction or the plans for hydroelectricity? What is the situation like?

OJ: One of the advantages of this territory is that the communities are very well organised. There are communities well known to each other. And they have not allowed these companies to begin working for nearly nine years. For nine years these companies have been constantly aggressive, constantly taking the leaders to the courts. At the moment we have two indigenous brothers in jail, accused of a killing that they did not commit. And the judge has sentenced them without proof. And so even with all this aggression, the companies haven’t managed to establish themselves. The communities believe that the best kind of company is one that isn’t able to enter the area, you see? Because if they get established they begin to have armed internal groups which then are against the communities. So these communities have understood that this has happened to their country. In the country the companies arrive, establish armed groups, begin to kill, to assassinate, to imprison. As in Santa Rosa where the Chief of Security is in jail. We have learned of these things, these stories from other territories, and we have undertaken a constant action not to allow them entry and to denounce the violence of these companies. In this way we don’t give any shelter in the region, and we are constantly calling attention to the municipal mayors, who even though they are in agreement with the companies, don’t give legal permits for them to become established. And the mayors know that the communities are not likely to vote for them if they give legal permission. And because of this they haven’t allowed them to give permissions. But it’s every day, every day a constant work and aggression.

MM: Yes. So, this, I imagine, is hard for the communities, for the people of the communities – they have to struggle every day, daily.

OJ: And every day they are under attack. Fifteen days ago, a son of one of the indigenous authority of Cuarecuche, a Ch’ortí mayor in Cocotá, they came into his house and killed him at night. And the question arises, Who was it? Well, people who work with the mayors who were in agreement with the company. Why did they kill him? Because, essentially, they didn’t agree with him. So, in the first declaration the assassin made to the Jury for the community, is that they paid me to do it. A value less than 10 euros in Guatemala. But when the Public Ministry made the accusation against the perpetrator, the assassin, they made it for minor offences. What is a minor offence? A minor offence is when someone treats me badly or someone who pushed me, and I can get off with a fine. However, in Guatemala a minor offence is murder!

MM: Incredible, incredible.

OJ: I said, the lawyers have acted in this.

MM: Can you refer these cases to the CICIG?

OJ: What happens is that the CICIG works on the issue of organised crime which is inside the structures of the State, without question. One such case is the customs fraud which has been one of the most important scandals in Guatemala to have raised the awareness of the people. The case of the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security, this type of internal criminal network that the mayors have, it’s probable that that’s how it started. On the issue of Human Rights, cases of people killed for their involvement in defending rights, don’t have any realistic chance of being investigated in Guatemala. There is a help system for people defending human rights, but I presented a case two years ago of a death threat which offered a hundred thousand dollars for my death. Well the two years have passed and no one has said whether they have investigated my case. So, if the defenders who can make denunciations get nowhere, then no, they are not investigating our situation. The brothers in the community are totally unprotected legally.

MM: So, are they able to make use of the resources of any international organisations?

OJ: Yes, this is important, when you were just talking about the networks, that the organisations of people who are collaborating. We appreciate this and appreciate it deeply for two basic reasons. Many people in America perhaps know us, but understand that there is a risk in this universal work, the work of defending human rights. And this is what we appreciate deeply. And secondly, sadly, those governments which could denounce what is happening in America and could discuss with governments which violate human rights are yours. You who could be here, who could make it across a network, perhaps electronic, to get closer to those who govern. Because for us, the only tool we have to defend ourselves is the accompaniment of organisations, international organisations for human rights. It’s our only tool. We cannot believe in the Guatemalan State, we can’t believe in anything more than our own community organised networks and in the solidarity and support of the organisations which accompany us.

MM: And, you have been an accompanier too, Adam – for a long time?

Adam Lunn (AL): In 2002.

MM: And so, how much time have you spent? And you’ve worked with ….?

AL: Well, I spent a year in Guatemala and now in the PBI office. And there I was working with the CCCND.

MM: And, your accompaniers have to be trained before going, and they spend a year there, always? Or ….?

AL: Yes, the voluntary period is for a year, and there are three training periods. (Difficult to understand and to hear.)

MM: My reason for asking is that I would like to write a little article about the PBI. So, it’s important to clarify for people that it’s not something you can do in a weekend. We need much more, it’s a solid commitment, very solid. And it’s not a short experience for students.

AL: A year, it’s a full year for the accompaniers, it’s quite a difficult year, isn’t it? Because it sometimes puts people into difficult moments of conflict. When aggressions occur they have to know that they are there for nothing more than observing the situation. It is perhaps one of the most important challenges of all.

MM: So, Omar, do you think that, when you return to your situation is it going to be a little better? Your level of threat or your level of danger? The same, I imagine, but, I suppose that the reason for my question is to ask if it has been useful, a good thing, this visit to Europe?

OJ: For us, the most important objective we have when we come is to tell the history of our communities. No, we don’t dream of anything more than telling, that our voice is heard elsewhere. That at least our version of what is happening is heard. Normally, it’s only the voice of the companies, of the governments, that is heard, but not the voice of the people. We make an effort to be the spokesperson of these communities. Perhaps we don’t do it well, perhaps we make mistakes, but perhaps when I get back I’m going to be able to say that we achieved the objective of giving the community’s version. With that I think that the objective has been achieved.

And secondly, if this happens, and we see the intimidations diminishing, we believe this is a good outcome, is it not? But, a lot of the time it’s not in the hands of the people outside or in our own hands, but rather in the thoughts of the people who attack us, right?. So, these are things which are difficult for us to gauge; we ask only that what we can tell is heard.

MM: Yes, so often. So, when you go back, I imagine that …. – what are your problems going to be, the biggest that you will encounter?

OJ: Yes, when last year I visited various other countries, and when we returned home, what we found was that the company was bad-mouthing us, saying that we were coming here to get money, that we were getting a lot of money. We could say it was a smear campaign, and these are always things that happen when we return. The important thing for us is that we know what we do. And to have the security of knowing that what we did was thinking of the community. So, it could be that when I get back I meet even worse attacks because they don’t like someone giving the version of the community. Or it could be that I find that the owners are thinking how they might get away with doing these things. Because an important thing that we ask of them is that it is important that they talk to the people truthfully, tell the people that that is what they’re going to do, what it’s for, what it’s not for. And if the people have the information as it is accept the project, then they do it with the information, aware of its effects. But if the people knowing the effects don’t accept it, it’s the company’s responsibility to accept that they don’t want it. And that is the basic formula of democracy, to respect the decision of the people.

MM: Yes, to go ahead being informed.

OJ: And this is what we constantly ask of the companies, we don’t ask anything else of them, only that they be honest and transparent. We believe that honest and transparent businesses are more useful than those which try to corrupt world systems.

MM: Thanks very much. Do you have reports for people?

AL: Yes, we have an operation called Alerts. And, a year ago we sent out an alert, specifically about the situation of resistance. We had a very serious case of attacks and threats, between March and November we had 109 cases. And every three days someone here is threatened, is slandered, and we sent out an alert about the high risk situation.

So, also there was and is a situation in Guatemala where last year we had a general deterioration of the general human rights situation. There were very, very serious situations where they weren’t just attacks, but also a violent displacement of the social organisation, an increase in criminal activities and also of denunciations against civil society.

MM: Perhaps you could add the name of ENCA to your email list. We have a list of people who are relatively active – relatively. We try to do a lot but we are all volunteers, but we are also active too; we try to respond to this kind of alert or action in general. So I could give you the email addresses of this group. I say this, because we have another group who are relatively inactive.

Alerts to this address go to more or less 20 to 30 people. The majority of them will probably respond. And the other thing is that, if there is news from your campaigns, your struggles, your problems, or whatever, I would like to give you my email as well.

OJ: Likewise I’ll write to tell you about it.




MM: And the problems there might be with the dialogue. I could explain a little about your experiences with the dialogues, yes?

Just a minute. (Voices and noises in the background)



MM: Maybe, Omar, you can explain a little about the process of dialogue with the communities affected by the disorders.

OJ: Firstly it needs to be said that dialogue is not perhaps the most appropriate word in Guatemala to describe the moments when we have tried to talk about the problems with the State, the companies and the communities.

Since 2004 I have participated in hundreds of roundtables where dialogue on particular issues has been established by addressing each theme, especially agriculture, mining, hydroelectricity, monocultures in the country. And always we finish with the feeling that these committees serve only to delay discussions, to identify those who are the leaders of the community and to be able to know what are the needs of these leaders and how they can be manipulated. It’s about being able to identify those who can be threatened later, imprisoned and criminalised. Or to identify particular moments, or type of language they could use – these people who are involved in the dialogue are those who threaten and it enables them to make a legal case against them. Very often it’s these people who are at the roundtable dialogues who later are captured and put in prison. So, there has never been a process of dialogue in Guatemala. And, it’s exactly because the communities are considered not to have any rights, they don’t have claims and it’s not necessary to have a dialogue with them.

And all our life we have believed that dialogue is the fundamental tool to construct democracy – it is our approach; and even after all the times we have been disillusioned after finishing talking, we have returned to the table. Not naively, not because we don’t know how the processes will finish, but because we believe it is a fundamental tool we have to use.

In the last three years of General Otto Peréz Molina’s government, the dialogue has suffered a deep setback in which the companies have become involved in these conversations. We believe that when we are talking about the future of these communities, the companies should not be involved, it should be the government and the communities. That is to say, it should be the government and the townspeople, not the companies and the townspeople. The government ought to be the guarantor of rights, and not the mediator of rights. And the Guatemalan Government has established itself as the mediator of rights between the companies and the communities. And very often a mediator favours the side of the companies. A State cannot take a stance in favour of a company, instead it should be a stance in favour of the wellbeing of the population, which is a substantial difference.

Secondly, a State ought to guarantee Human Rights and the rights of the population before the rights of whatever company. That hasn’t been the fundamental principle of conversations in Guatemala. Rather it is these principles which the processes of dialogue are always considering as a fundamental premise; that the communities don’t understand, don’t listen, don’t need to be informed, because they are not going to understand, that they are manipulated by leaders, by foreigners sometimes, by communists, and that it’s necessary to talk with these manipulators and not with the community. And in that way, they see it as the companies which have the solution to the problems of the communities. And so the dialogues are not to see what sort of dreams, objectives, aspirations, plans the communities have, rather it is to inform them that they are going to be evicted and prosecuted. There isn’t and there hasn’t been perhaps in Guatemala since the Peace Treaties, a single roundtable dialogue which has been a listening dialogue, for both parties to listen to each other and come to understand each other’s position. Instead they are essentially spaces where the companies can, with impunity, often threaten people. We have suffered in many arbitration roundtable meetings, in which the indigenous communities have been cited by the Public Ministry, and the companies with their lawyers, managers of the companies and lawyers are in the Offices of the Public Ministry to threaten community leaders in the Public Ministry. Saying to them “If you don’t let the companies get on with their work you are going to be responsible for all we have invested, then you will have to pay for it. And if you don’t pay you’ll got to prison”.

That’s how the dialogue finishes.

MM: Thank you for this …