Working for Human Rights in Guatemala

By Aaron Bates | 2003-07-01 12:00:00

ADIVIMA is a grass roots human rights organization in Rabinal, Guatemala that promotes justice, dignity, and economic opportunities for survivors of past crimes against humanity. The country is still recovering from 36 years of civil war, and is still heavily militarized. I am living with the family of a respected community organizer and activist, and I feel blessed to be working with ADIVIMA, which outspokenly criticizes the Guatemalan government. Its activists, including Carlos Chen, with whom I live, have received death threats, some of them thought to come from the powerful paramilitary. Because of these threats, three members of the police stay at our home every night, though Carlos doubts that their presence is a source of any real protection.

ADIVIMA is working with the National Commission for the Search for Disappeared Children, to locate and identify children who were kidnapped and disappeared, or adopted during the years of repression. In 1999, a United Nations Commission concluded that over 200,000 people (mainly Mayan) were massacred or disappeared, close to 1.5 million were displaced from their homes and communities, and that hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned. The Truth Commission found that the Guatemalan regime (then as now fully backed by Western countries, the World Bank, major companies and banks) carried out genocide in Mayan regions of the country, including Rabinal.

Some survivors marched to a military base and presented a petition stating that they had witnessed one massacre. It is a positive sign that some of Guatemala's least powerful citizens now have the social power to confront an institution that at one point did its best to destroy them. However, a sign of how little some things have changed in Guatemala is the way the commanders responded to the petition. Many bad things happened during the war, they stated. This is the unfortunate nature of warfare. The modern military, they continued, is doing its best to work with the people. And so on.

The families left the base with nothing more than a vague promise that the military would search its files (which it claims are destroyed every three years) for information regarding the massacre. However, the survivors also left with the knowledge that they had met with their former oppressors and told their stories to those who kidnapped their children and tortured their families.

Orphaned Children Adopted Abroad

In Pacux (where survivors of the 1982 massacres now live), a Catholic Sister who had worked with orphaned children during the conflict brought photos of 32 children adopted by families in Ireland, Norway, and Sweden. During this meeting, four children from the surrounding villages were tentatively identified by family members. Three of these children had been held captive by the military, while the fourth was given to the Catholic Church, as the mother was raped by a member of the military.

Identifying lost children (these "children" are now all adults in their 20s) is not a first step in reuniting families. Potential reunion of these families is a complex and heart-wrenching process, in the best case scenario. These young adults in Europe speak English, Norwegian, and Swedish. Their biological families speak the Mayan language of Achi, and perhaps Spanish as a second language. So far, only 12 of the 32 children have consented to have their biological families contact them. It is likely that few of the children have much knowledge of the repression and genocide that occurred to their home communities when they were infants.

Power is to be held tightly

I do love my work. Neither I nor anyone else in ADIVIMA has "professional" training in anything we do. When they might have been in some kind of training, they were either in the rebel forces or hiding in the mountains, providing basic medical care to others after their own families had been slaughtered. Their whole outlook and understanding, then, comes from a violent and militaristic perspective. These same people are now trying to piece the social fabric of this country back together, even as they still struggle with a violent vision of the world. Power is to be held tightly. Information is to be guarded carefully. Leaked information can lead to your death and the death of those you are with. You never know when others you trusted with information may be captured, tortured, and killed because of the information they have.

I am still struggling to understand, and not be frustrated, by leadership styles formed in the context of the civil war. I do not think I will ever become fully used to this.

Yet, despite structural and financial problems, despite threats coming from ambiguous sources, ADIVIMA manages to do amazing work. In February, as part of a larger national movement, they mobilized over two hundred widows and orphans to march on the National Congress demanding that the National Program for Victims of State Genocide be enacted as law. They continually disclose the existence of mass graves (where the military and paramilitary buried massacre victims), and lobby for their exhumation and subsequent inhumation.

Over 25 mass graves have been exhumed by ADIVIMA. This allows the family members to properly grieve for their loved ones and allows forensic anthropologists to study the remains and attribute responsibility for the deaths. Such work is beginning to chip away the politics of impunity that has defined the country for generations. ADIVIMA is also building monuments to dignify the deaths of massacre victims. My work is to publish a popular version of the Victims of Genocide Program, which will be distributed to communities around Rabinal, and perhaps further, to educate people about their rights. It is hoped that increased knowledge about the program will lead to pressure in Congress to approve funding.

CompensatING the Perpetrators

Sadly, the opposite seems to be happening. In a move to manipulate the vote in Guatemala's national elections in November, the government has promised to "compensate" ex -paramilitary soldiers, the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses during the civil war. The money, not surprisingly, has been slow in coming, and for a while the ex-paramilitary forces blocked major highways, demanding payment. Meanwhile, the victims of their crimes remain without compensation. The European Union has been outspoken in condemning the politics of compensating victimizers (the ex-paramilitaries) before victims, and has threatened to withdraw much of their official aid to the Guatemalan government. Many paramilitary members are also indigenous and remain as poor and marginalized as their victims, who were often their neighbors. The Canadian and American governments have been disturbingly silent (perhaps both are more worried about quickly signing free trade agreements with Central America; negotiations are currently underway.)

It is at once gratifying to know that my work does play a role in the larger fight for human rights and dignity, and agonizing to see that so many forces are working against this. I need to take a break from time to time, and try to understand what all of this means.

I have been touched at how people have integrated me into their lives. I have been invited to Mayan healing ceremonies, to the homes of families mourning loved ones, to commemorations at massacre sites, and also to birthday parties and family celebrations. People have shared their private tribulations and personal victories with me. This is even more rewarding than the official "work" I do.

It Began with a coup

Being here during the US-led war in Iraq, I view current events through the lens of Guatemalan history. The stage for Guatemala's civil war was set in 1954, when the CIA-sponsored a coup to oust Arbenz, the democratically elected president. He was seen as a threat to American agricultural interests (most importantly the United Fruit Company) due to his policy of nationalizing land and distributing it to small farmers. The "liberation" in1954 then led to more than four decades of state terrorism here.

Only now in Rabinal, more than 20 years after the worst human rights abuses, are people once again taking control of their lives and coming terms with the horrors that happened to them. I wonder whether, 20 years from now, Iraqi people will also be trying to understand what happened to them.

Aaron Bates is an intern for Canadian International Development Agency with the Tatamagouche Centre, now working with ADIVIMA in Rabinal, Guatemala. For more information contact or

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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