When Government Power Goes Unchecked

Human rights defenders in Guatemala know this first hand and stand up against such power. We in the U.S. must stand alongside them, for their sake and for ours.
09/06/2017 06:16 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2017
Sebastian, a survivor of the Rio Negro massacre, led us up the mountain trail to  Pak’oxom and told us the story of the day i
Trischa Goodnow
Sebastian, a survivor of the Rio Negro massacre, led us up the mountain trail to Pak’oxom and told us the story of the day in 1982 when Guatemalan civil defense patrols and soldiers murdered 70 Maya Achi women and 107 children there because their village had opposed the hydroelectric dam that would flood their community and destroy their homes and sacred sites.

I was in Guatemala with The Human Rights Defenders Project and a group of Oregon State University students last week when President Jimmy Morales declared UN anti-corruption investigator Iván Velásquez persona non grata and ordered him out of the country. Velásquez’s investigation had already implicated the president’s son and brother and was nearing Morales for campaign corruption when he announced the investigator’s expulsion. The nation’s highest court stepped in and stopped the expulsion, allowing Velásquez to continue his investigation.

We don’t hear much about Guatemala in the U.S. ― not now, not during the U.S.-backed coup in 1954 that removed a democratically elected president, and not during the U.S.-backed 36-year internal armed conflict with its genocide of indigenous Mayans that occurred in the 1980s and ’90s. But I can think of two really important reasons we in the U.S. should care about what goes on in Guatemala: 1. The atrocities there (past and present) are an affront to human dignity and worth, and the U.S. plays a significant role in what happens in Guatemala; and 2. The parallels between Guatemalan corruption and what’s happening in our own government are striking, and we should learn from what we see in Guatemala about the dangers of unchecked government power.

In 1954, the U.S. backed a coup against land reform-minded President Jacobo Arbenz. The U.S.-based United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), whose investors included a number of high level U.S. military leaders and politicians, opposed Arbenz’s plan to buy the company’s unused land and redistribute it to the peasant farmers from whom it had been taken, and so the U.S. isolated Arbenz and Guatemala politically and economically, forcing his resignation. Castillo Armas became president and launched a series of executions of suspected Communists and crushed labor unions, leading to decades of military dictatorships and repression of Guatemala’s indigenous people, poor, and the Left.

The internal armed conflict began in 1960 as guerilla fighters challenged military oppression. The government responded with a program of disappearances and executions that led to the deaths of more than 200,000 Guatemalans, most of whom were Mayan. In one region, during an 18-month period, the government wiped out five percent of the Maya Ixil population.

By the 1980s, the government developed a scorched earth policy that labelled many indigenous Mayans as guerillas. The thinking was, “Drain the lake. Kill the fish.” The government assumed villagers were supporting the guerillas, and so the military entered the villages, killed the entire population, and burned their homes and crops.

One of the most horrific massacres, however, had nothing to do with the guerillas. It happened because a Maya Achi village opposed the Chixoy hydroelectric dam project that would flood their village, including many Mayan sacred and archaeological sites, and dislocate them from their ancestral lands. Because of this opposition, the government labelled the villagers of Rio Negro guerillas, and that meant soldiers could do anything they wanted to them, with impunity.

In February of 1982, the men of Rio Negro were called to a meeting in a neighboring village where paramilitary “Civil Defense Patrols” ambushed and murdered them. One month later, the same paramilitary, escorted by soldiers, came to Rio Negro. Sebastian, who was 16 at the time, was our guide as we walked up the mountain toward Pak’oxom. Sebastian’s mother had warned him to run if he ever heard the dogs in the village barking because it meant the soldiers had arrived. On that morning, Sebastian heard the dogs and fled into the mountains, where he lived for the next 2.5 years. The 70 women and 107 children of the village, however, were forced to march up the mountain (I had to turn back after two hours of climbing because I didn’t have the stamina to make it to the top). Along the way, a 98-year-old Mayan priest was tied up and thrown over the edge. At the top, the women and children were brutalized, raped and slaughtered.

The families who survived reestablished the community higher up the mountain because of the flooding of the valley. The small village is isolated and poor, and, in a twist of irony, only got electricity a year ago. Reparations are slow in coming, despite the wealth generated by the hydroelectric dam.

In recent years, Guatemala has made some attempt at justice for the genocide, particularly through the efforts of one woman, Claudia Paz y Paz, the former attorney general who created the conditions to carry out a genocide trial in 2013. The former general and dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide by a Guatemalan court. However, the Constitutional Court, bowing to pressure from political and economic elites, reversed the ruling just ten days later arguing a legal technicality. The court has been slow to retry Rios Montt, who is ailing and confined to house arrest. The survivors, however, are encouraged. They understand justice as more than simply seeing Rios Montt behind bars. They’re content that he is now widely seen as guilty, even without a second trial, and that the genocide is being talked about, which they hope ensures it never happens again.

Yet atrocities persist in Guatemala. On March 8 of this year, 41 girls died, and 15 more were severely burned in a fire at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción just outside Guatemala City. The girls were in shelter because they had been reported missing at some point ― running away from abuse, kidnapped, trafficked. They were not criminals. But when they attempted to escape from the shelter because of their mistreatment there, government officials, including President Morales, abdicated responsibility for the girls and turned them over to the national police who captured them and locked them in a small room, not even allowing them to use the bathroom. The girls eventually set a mattress on fire near a window thinking the police would see the smoke and let them out. The flames, however, quickly spread out of control, engulfing the tiny room. The police, instead of freeing the girls, stood and watched them burn.

Currently 400 people (half of them children) are living in the border between Guatemala and Mexico because the government of President Morales sent 1,700 members of the Guatemala security forces to evict them from their village of Laguna Larga because it is located in an area designated as a protected reserve. The government has provided them with little shelter, food, healthcare, or education. The families are living in limbo, fighting for survival until the government offers a solution to their desperate need for land, a place to call home.

Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala say the internal armed conflict tore apart the country’s social fabric. Through creating divisions in communities and families, imposing mega projects (such as dams and mines), allowing unchecked government corruption, intimidating journalists, inflaming racism, attacking human rights defenders, ignoring basic rights to food, housing, education, and health, and allowing state violence with impunity, the government of Guatemala has facilitated the wealth of its ruling elite while crushing the majority of its citizens, particularly the Maya. Government power to harm is practically unchecked in Guatemala, and so what happens with Jimmy Morales matters immensely in Guatemala’s move toward or away from the rule of law.

I daresay the parallels to the current situation in the U.S. are obvious. The current U.S. administration seeks to exert unchecked power, using many of the same tactics as Guatemala’s military and economic elite. We in the U.S. want to believe that it can’t happen here, as Sinclair Lewis so aptly titled his 1935 novel during the rise of fascism in Europe. But the lesson of Guatemala is precisely this: when government power is unchecked and the forces of military and economic power align, citizens suffer, and the vulnerable and marginalized suffer the most.

Certainly the Dakota Access Pipeline echoes the imposition of mega projects on indigenous communities in Guatemala, and the criminalizing of Black Lives Matter looks an awful lot like the labelling of resistors as “guerillas.” Ending DACA shows the same lack of compassion and empathy Morales and his government have shown the families of Laguna Larga and Hogar Seguro.

Guatemala’s President Morales was a TV star with no political experience when he ran for president as an outsider on an anti-corruption platform. Sound familiar? In another ironic twist, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley issued a statement in support of the special investigator: “As head of ‎the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala‎ (CICIG), Mr. Velásquez is a critical voice calling out corruption and upholding the rule of law. He has the full support of the United States and the international community. We expect the Guatemalan government to allow CICIG to do its critical work without interference. Fighting corruption is essential to the future security and prosperity of Guatemala, which is something we highly value.” I wonder if the Trump administration would say the same of Robert Mueller.

I am deeply moved every time I visit Guatemala by the courage of its human rights defenders who are working for justice in a system that is completely stacked against them. I’m struck that a place of such beauty could also be a place of such horror, but its people have not given up on it, the government, or themselves. Survivors have never abandoned hope, even after waiting 30 or 40 years for justice. People take to the streets to protest corruption. They even brought down the last presidency and may bring down this one. We in the U.S. can also learn something from their determination, persistence, and resistance. Unchecked government power is dangerous. Human rights defenders in Guatemala know this first hand and stand up against such power. We in the U.S. must stand alongside them, for their sake and for ours.

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