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Guatemalan Ex-guerilla Trades Gun for Microphone

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XELA, Guatemala -- It's been 14 years since the brutal civil war that gripped this country for over three decades finally came to an end, and the former combatants that once manned guerilla posts in the mountains have all gone back to civilian life. For many of them, though, the battle for justice and equality has just taken a different form.

Take Alberto "Tino" Ramírez Recinos, for example, a community radio organizer who fought with the guerillas from the age of 15 after his father was kidnapped and killed by the military.


Alberto "Tino" Ramírez Recinos diagrams the logistics of the wartime guerilla radio operation in a Xela café.

"The war was my university," said Tino, who was one of nine children in a poor campesino family. "I learned things I'd never dreamed of learning. I learned broadcasting, producing, technique - the war gives you the opportunity to learn other things besides killing people."

After nearly a decade on the front lines, Tino was assigned to La Voz Popular, the short-wave radio station that transmitted the voice of the Guatemalan resistance. He worked with the production crew on the Mexican side of the border. And then, once a week, he'd wrap a cassette tape tightly in plastic bags and swim across the river that divides the two countries and through enemy territory to a broadcast post on the Guatemalan side. There they set up their short-wave radio and broadcast up to Tajumulco volcano, where that crew caught the message and transmitted it to the world.

The station reported the atrocities committed by the military, the massacres of villagers, the kidnappings, the terror campaign targeting the civilian population in the countryside. Most of what was happening was hidden from the rest of the world, because the mainstream media was censored and controlled by the military.

"People knew there was a war in Guatemala," he said. "But what they didn't know was the policy of targeting civilians on the part of the government and the military."

An estimated 200,000 were killed during the war, most of them indigenous farmers in the countryside. Many of Tino's compañeros died in that conflict, but he survived to carry the battle to a different field.

When the war finally came to an end in 1996, the peace accords called for a network of community radio stations to provide the people in the rural communities with a means to broadcast in their own language. But the government set up a bidding process for the frequencies, and the mostly indigenous groups that wanted to do community radio couldn't afford the frequencies. So they set up their own pirate stations and began broadcasting anyway.

Currently some 200 community radio stations are operating without a license, broadcasting news, public health, educational and environmental programming in the native languages, but have been subject to harassment, raids and even imprisonment by local governments who dub them "pirates."

Now La Voz Popular has evolved into Mujb'ab'l yol, whose name means "Meeting place of expression" in the Mam Maya language. Tino is one of its lead spokespeople, rallying groups around the country to support a new law that would legalize nearly a thousand community radio stations around the country and guarantee a frequency for at least one station in each of the country's 333 municipalities.

"The war has ended; the guns have gone silent," said Tino. "But since 1996 we're continuing the struggle with a weapon that can be much more powerful: The microphone."

It's not the first such initiative; several others have been presented in the national legislature, but have all died in committee. Mark Camp, the director of operations for Cultural Survival based here in Guatemala, has been working with Mujb'ab'l yol to support their efforts, and he says he's optimistic about its passage. It's the first time the bill has gotten out of committee, and it's garnered the support of the party currently in power, as well as the major opposition party and a number of smaller parties.

Meanwhile, the congress is in a recess until Aug. 1 and he, Tino and other community radio activists are meeting with each legislator to try and persuade them to support the bill. Their goal is to be ready to take the issue to a vote on Aug. 9, International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

"We're not there yet, but we feel our prospects are very good," Camp said.

Below, a few photos Tino shared from the front lines of the battle to legitimize community radio in Guatemala.


Rosendo Pablo, broadcaster and founder of a community radio station.


The Maya grandmothers find in community radio the space to express their ideas, their dreams and their hopes.


Tino participates in a Maya ceremony invoking the passage of the community radio law.


The Association of Maya Women conduct a ceremony in favor of the community radio law.


Community radio has become the voice of the Maya priests.

Tracy L. Barnett is the founder of The Esperanza Project, a bilingual, multimedia initiative profiling sustainability initiatives throughout Latin America.