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Journey to lands of beauty and harsh, man-made reality

Guatemala and Mexico

The Guatemala City dump is not a place where you’d expect to find tourists. The scene is horrific on so many levels: a vast environmental catastrophe of waste, picked over by people who survive on the findings of discarded cardboard, glass, food. A sickly sweet smell of decay hung in the air. Flies and buzzards swarmed.

Yet there we were, 22 travelers clicking our cameras as fervently as any tour group at a beautiful historical landmark, before we piled into our bus and headed back to the hotel, with the smell of the dump still lingering in our clothes.

We were tourists of a kind, but ones who had opted out of the usual round of museums, shopping, natural attractions and Mayan ruins to spend a trip in a foreign country learning about the political and economic situation there, gathering information and first-hand stories to effect change at home. We were taking a chance to delve deeper into the worlds of Guatemala and Mexico, looking beyond the incredible beauty of the landscape to the stories of tragedy that had happened there. From an indigenous community struggling to revive itself after being brutally driven out by the Guatemalan military over 15 years ago, to a Chiapas, Mexico, village facing violence and oppression today, we got a glimpse of reality that few tourists encounter.

From Aug. 14-29, we traveled in Guatemala and Mexico, members of a delegation jointly sponsored by Witness For Peace; the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean, known as EPICA; and SOA Watch, an organization working to close the School of the Americas, a training program for Latin American military officers whose graduates have been implicated in human rights atrocities.

For activists, such a trip can keep you “rooted in what is reality,” in the words of Meghan McVety, a delegate from San Francisco. “I can get lost in the image that’s portrayed in the United States,” McVety, 28, said. “This grounds me in the universal struggle for human rights.”

As part of a social justice delegation, you’re not going to see the usual sights, nor stay in the usual places. As one might expect, on a trip meant to build solidarity with the poor, you will not be at the Sheraton. Most of the trip was spent in small hotels and guesthouses with varying amenities -- luxury was a bathroom with hot water in your room. We always had roommates, sometimes more than one. And for two nights spent in rural communities, it became more like a back-to-the-basics camping trip.

The first five days were spent in Guatemala City at the homey, comfortable Casa San José. We were served communal meals, shared up to four to a bedroom and lined up for the showers in the hall. As the delegation members trickled in over the first two days (several flights were delayed), we started to acquaint ourselves with these people with whom we’d be spending 24 hours a day for the next 15 days.

The age range was broad: The youngest delegate was 17, one of the nine delegates under the age of 30. The oldest were in their 60s. There were students, professors, pastoral ministers and human rights activists, as well as people working in real estate, computers, construction and engineering. Half were Catholic. Most were from the United States, but we had two Canadians and one German currently working for SOA Watch. Those of us (including myself) with limited or nonexistent Spanish skills had reason to be grateful that we had a fair number of Spanish-speakers.

Struggling for peace

In Guatemala City, we began to piece together a picture of a country struggling to build peace. Speakers, most from human rights organizations, told of their experiences in Guatemala’s brutal civil conflict in the 1980s and of the difficult and not always successful attempt to reassert their rights following the country’s peace accords of 1996. We even met with a former general -- a School of the Americas graduate -- to give us the perspective of the Guatemalan army.

An unplanned encounter on the first full day gave us our first taste of the mix of hope and caution that prevails in Guatemala today. A walking tour of the city’s Zone 1 led us to the Church of San Sebastian, where assassinated Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera had been pastor. There, a sacristan offered to lead us to the garage where Gerardi was murdered. A shrine with his photo has marked the spot since the day his body was found. As sunlight poured down into the garage, the sacristan, Vinicio Cardona, shared his memories of Gerardi, calling him “martyr for peace.” Gerardi was killed two days after the archdiocesan human rights office he headed released the report of the Recovery of the Historic Memory project, known as the REHMI report. The report detailed human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war, laying the responsibility for most of the atrocities at the feet of the military.

“The day he was killed, I said to a friend, ‘Look how radiant he looks. He must be so happy his project is successful,’ ” Cardona told us, with one of our group leaders translating. “Little did he know that 10 hours later he’d be dead.”

The REHMI report and Gerardi’s death remain a benchmark in Guatemala’s struggle toward peace -- an indication of how far the country had come -- that so many were willing to come forward and tell their experience under brutal repression -- and how far there is to go. Among human rights workers, the prevailing belief is that the bishop’s death was at the hands of the military, and that the lack of progress is merely a cover-up.

A three-part driving tour gave us a taste of the economic divisions of Guatemalan society. The first stop was the Guatemala City dump. About 3,000 people live and/or work there. Some families have lived there for several generations, working their way up to the top of a dump hierarchy -- people who have been there longest have first pickings of the best trash. Efforts to help these people have met with little success: It was found that they were unable to function in normal society and would return to the dump.

The next day, we drove to the city cemetery, populated with astounding monuments to the rich and their dead, next to rows of small tombs for everyone else. The tombs are rented -- if a family does not make payments, the body is removed and the space rented to someone else. The cemetery is owned by the powerful Castillo family, which also owns beer and glass companies. The joke in Guatemala City is, “Even when we die, we still keep paying the Castillo family.” The Castillos’ own tomb is a massive Egyptian-style monument.

The far end of the cemetery overlooks a ravine that runs through Guatemala City. A green tangle of vegetation leads down the hill where, in the 1980s, bodies were thrown after being tortured and killed next to the tomb of a 19th century general.

Elegant houses, walled away

We moved on to a scenic drive through a fiercely gated wealthy neighborhood. Elegant houses were partially obscured by high walls topped with barbed wire and multi-pointed iron spikes. Private security guards patrolled the streets.

Our own accommodations were in Guatemala City’s congested, polluted and reportedly crime-ridden Zone 1. Many of our meetings were held there, especially in the first few days of cultural orientation, discussion of issues and personal sharing.

Sharing our feelings and processing what we had learned was a fixture throughout the trip in the form of morning reflections and “debriefings” after meetings. To be honest, I sometimes felt it was time that could be better spent. We sat in meeting rooms of hotels talking while a whole foreign country waited outside to be explored. In our packed schedule (many days ran 12 hours, and we only had one free day during the whole trip), the processing meetings could have given way to outings for a little cultural exposure to augment the political focus of the trip. I was not alone in feeling this way. One member of the delegation said at a meeting, “I’ve come here to learn about Guatemala and Chiapas. I can do this at home.” Another said privately that she found the amount of time spent processing a little self-indulgent.

But for the most part, that seemed to be a minority opinion. Most participated enthusiastically. In the end, I chalked it up to a matter of personal preference. In fact, Maureen Doyle, a Catholic Worker from Columbia, Mo., who had been on three previous delegations with Global Exchange, praised this experience for not only being better organized, but also offering more time to work through, as a group, what we were experiencing.

Visit to a burned-out place

The heart of that experience in Guatemala was our visit to Ximbaxuc (Shim-ba-shuuk) once an indigenous community of over 150 families in the province of Quiché, northwest of Guatemala City. Residents were burned out of their homes by soldiers and paramilitaries in the 1980s. Some families of Ximbaxuc settled in nearby communities, others emigrated to the southern coast and to Guatemala City. In the past five years, 15 families have returned to attempt to rebuild the community.

The road leading up the mountain to Ximbaxuc was washed out by rain. So after a 20-minute truck ride from Santa Cruz del Quiché, we set out on foot for a 3-hour hike into the mountains, through mud, fording streams and traversing through a vista of astonishing natural beauty. Our taciturn hired guide left us just outside the farms of Ximbaxuc, and we tramped in, covered with mud, dehydrated and exhausted.

We were greeted by Juan Castro and his brother Rosalio, members of a family leading the reestablishment of Ximbaxuc. After a short rest, we set to hiking again, as the two brothers gave us a tour of Ximbaxuc -- a collection of farms spread out over the mountains. Cornfields blanketed the steep expanses between homes. Over half the corn was stunted, attacked by worms, Juan Castro said. Another cornfield had been taken away by a landslide just days before.

Our tour through Ximbaxuc took us past burned out houses, now overgrown with vegetation, as Juan Castro told the stories of the people who had lived there. A mother and daughter had been pushed into their house and burned alive. Juan’s neighbor Antolina Perez was shot in the knee before he was captured and burned alive in his house.

Most wrenching was the story Juan told outside the remains of his brother Pedro’s house. Juan pointed out the beautiful flowering tree growing behind the burned and crumbling walls. His brother had planted it, he said, a type of tree that Mayan priests once used to communicate with God. Pedro did not live to see the tree grow to shelter what was once his house. In November 1982, brothers Pedro and Gustavo Castro, two cousins and two neighbors were kidnapped by soldiers, tortured for 15 days and then killed.

Some family members were able to visit them while they were in captivity, Juan Castro said. The soldiers were asking them about the guerrillas, Juan said, “but they didn’t know anything.” He said they had been hit so many times their teeth were loose, and their bound wrists were cut to the bone by their bindings. The six men told them of having needles stuck into their eyes, of being given feces to eat and urine to drink. “This is what they told us,” Juan said. “With their own voices they told us.”

For years the family didn’t know where the six men were buried. Later the family was able to get information about the burial of three of the men in a clandestine grave, and they requested an exhumation from the Quiché diocese. “They were exhumed and reburied in a Christian way” in October 1998, Juan said. “In the other grave, they were thrown in, buried like animals, on top of each other and intertwined. It was sad to see them this way, a really difficult moment.” The bodies of the other three have not been found .

Lives were lost, and so were many improvements the community had made in the years leading up to 1982. Juan’s father, Bernardo Castro, had led the way in getting a road to come into the community. It’s still there, though impassable when we arrived. Lost were the school and the church Bernardo Castro had helped build, burned to the ground by the military. A water project that was underway was abandoned.

Despite these losses, and the loss of two sons, Juan said his father, now 76, “is still helping us and giving us ideas to rebuild the community.”

Back at the Castro house, Bernardo told us that he had survived three attempts on his life by paramilitaries before his family fled Ximbaxuc. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I didn’t kill or steal. I’m not a bad person. I don’t know why they did it. Maybe they were bad people.” Many of his friends were killed, he said, but he was spared. “I don’t know why, but God didn’t allow it.”

It has been difficult returning, starting over with nothing, he said. “I didn’t have my house, my animals -- I didn’t have anything,” he said. “We’re very poor, but at least we’re living in peace.”

No water for bricks

Juan and Rosalio brought the delegation to a clearing that they hoped could someday become the new center of the community. They have dreams of building a new church and school, but are stymied by the lack of readily available water, which is needed to make adobe bricks. They have their eye on some land with a spring but lack the funds to buy the plot, which is set at about 20,000 quetzal (approximately $2,600). They have not been able to get assistance from the government, Juan said. “In the peace accords it said the government commits itself to helping victims,” he said. “I think we’re victims -- you can see all the things we lost here.”

Once they get a water source, they are willing to complete the project with their own labor, Juan said. “We may be a small group, but we’re thinking big things,” he said. “But it might take us a long time to realize these dreams.”

Only one note of caution was struck by our presence in the community. Juan was concerned that our guide might be a member of a family of military commissioners. Indeed, the guide spoke very little on the way up and had told some delegation members as we passed the burned remains of a house that most of the destruction in the area had been caused by the guerrillas, not the military. Our group leaders asked us to refrain from talking too much on the way down about why we had come up to the community -- a single occurrence in Guatemala that was to become the norm in Chiapas.

Despite that bit of nervousness, both Juan and Rosalio said they did not have any problem with former members of the civil patrol who lived in the area. For the most part, the civil patrols were people forced into committing human rights violations by the military, Juan said. “Maybe some did volunteer because the soldiers convinced them, and they didn’t realize the crimes they were committing,” he said.

Today, Rosalio said, “these people can’t bother me, and I won’t bother them. Only this way there’ll be peace -- if they’re thinking of God and I am as well. They work paying their bills and I work on mine, and there will be peace.”

Most of us spent the night at the house shared by Juan Castro and his parents; a few stayed at Rosalio’s smaller house. So as not to impose too much, we brought our own food -- rice with a little bit of tomatoes and onions. Packed in side-by-side, we slept on the earth floor of one of the adobe buildings, a few of us spilling out into the courtyard. There was no bathroom, no latrine: There was the cornfield.

I found myself ill-prepared for the camping experience. Witness for Peace sent a generic list of packing suggestions for delegations, but it had said that if a sleeping bag and hiking shoes were needed, it would be on a second list specific to our delegation. About half the group did not receive that second letter, including me. Enough sleeping bags were rounded up in Guatemala City, but I wished I had brought tougher walking shoes to slog through the mud, clothes that could get grubby and a flashlight. Lesson learned: If you don’t get a packing list specifically for your trip, call and ask for it. Mine was waiting on my desk when I came home.

After an early breakfast, we immediately set off down the mountain to catch a truck into Santa Cruz del Quiché, fetch our luggage from the hotel, and then pile onto a bus for the long, long road to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Unwashed, muddy and unkempt, we hit the border between Guatemala and Mexico by 7 p.m., and got our first taste of the tension of traveling through Chiapas.

Pervasive paranoia

Customs agents determined they were going to search all our bags, looking for arms and drugs. Our Mexican driver talked them out of it after they searched three or four bags and found nothing.

A few yards down the road was Immigration, where we would get our tourist visas. Each of us was given a visa of 15 days -- even though U.S., Canadian and German citizens are eligible for tourist visas of up to 180 days. Then our delegation leader was given only five days. When he questioned the immigration officer, he was told, “You’ll find out when you go to the immigration office in San Cristóbal de las Casas.” Five days was shorter than the eight days the delegation planned to spend in Mexico, and the five-day visa put a kind of unofficial flag on the group that could cause trouble at the military, police and immigration roadblocks dotting the highways of Chiapas.

As it turned out, we made it through the rest of the roadblocks that night without incident. Indeed, for the rest of the trip, we did not encounter any trouble, and the five-day visa was successfully extended. But that did not lessen the pervasive feeling of paranoia that was part of traveling in Chiapas, as we walked the line of pursuing the delegation’s mission while being “just tourists.”

There were plenty of recreational tourists in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which is a truly charming town, with beautiful architecture, plenty of shopping and a wealth of accommodations and amenities. But for travelers trying to learn about the political situation, the threat remains that they could end up among the around 300 foreigners who have been deported since the conflict in Chiapas began in 1994.

We discovered in Chiapas an unexpectedly volatile situation. The night before we arrived, three human rights observers -- two foreigners and one Mexican -- had been attacked by a group of government supporters on a road heading toward La Realidad. The next day, the governor of Chiapas made a speech whose message was, in part, “Foreigners out.” All this was part of a larger picture of increasing tensions in the area of Amador Hernandez, where indigenous people were confronting military attempts to construct a road into Zapatista territory.

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, we were instructed to keep a low profile. Never assume people can’t understand English, we were told, and don’t speak about the delegation’s work in public. Don’t wear political T-shirts, don’t congregate around the ubiquitous stalls selling Zapatista souvenirs, don’t carry political literature. And always carry your passport and tourist visa -- immigration officers had been known to take foreigners back to their hotels to get those items, and subsequently search their rooms. The day we visited SIPAZ, a peace organization staffed mainly by foreigners, an immigration vehicle was parked down the street. Were they there for SIPAZ or for us, or both? We never found out.

Article 33 of the Mexican constitution says that foreigners may not involve themselves in the political affairs of the country, and it is under that law that foreigners with tourist visas have been deported. Special visas are available for human rights observers, but they are difficult to obtain and greatly limit freedom of movement. Witness For Peace maintains that because the primary purpose of its delegations is to influence U.S. policy, they do not violate Article 33. We traveled with tourist visas and played the game at the roadblocks, as Witness for Peace delegation leader Jess Hunter put it. “Each person has a role to take,” Hunter told us. “We do our dance, and they do their dance in return.”

Although that tactic worked for our delegation, it is not always successful. Doyle had been part of a Global Exchange delegation to Chiapas over New Year’s, 1999, in which three delegates received citations at a military and immigration roadblock. Presented with a citation, the foreigner must present him or herself at immigration for interrogation. The interrogation could end with instructions to leave on the date of one’s return plane ticket. It could also lead to another interrogation in Mexico City and possible deportation. All along there is the option of skipping out of the country, an option taken by two of the cited delegates earlier that year. Failing to appear for an interrogation and leaving the country instead results in being barred from Mexico for an undetermined number of years.

If immigration officials decided to cite members of our group, with “journalist” on my visa, I wondered if I would be singled out. Hunter said, “It would be better for you to identify yourself as anything other than a journalist.” When it was suggested that I say I work for a Catholic organization, Hunter said, “That’s not much better.”

A day at Union Progreso

We met with human rights workers who helped us make some sense of the ongoing conflict in Chiapas. But again, the heart of the trip in Mexico was our visit to the indigenous community of Union Progreso. Again we were in the mountains, but this village was nestled in a valley. Four-wheel-drive vans took us at a creeping pace down the winding, muddy road, through a succession of gates in barbed-wire fences. This time, there was no hiking -- incredibly, the vans made it out the next day in the pouring rain, wheels spinning in the mud. High above the valley, looking down on Union Progreso is Los Platanos, a pro-government community and reportedly the home of paramilitaries.

While we met only one family in Ximbaxuc, a much larger group came out to meet us in Union Progreso, a community of about 20 families. As darkness fell and rain splattered on us, we stood in a basketball court and were introduced to a crowd of about 70, women and children on one side, men on the other, and us in the middle.

Nearly all in Union Progreso are Zapatista sympathizers; one family supports the government. On June 10, 1998, members of the army and pro-government paramilitaries attacked the community. Community members told us that thousands of soldiers and police surrounded Union Progreso. Most of the community fled into the hills, but seven young men who were working in the fields were shot. Five of them, between the ages of 18 to 24, were killed. Two were wounded and taken to jail; one was released after seven months, and the other four months later.

A group of men who had stayed in the community were rounded up as soldiers went through the houses and stole anything of value -- farming tools, corn, chickens, TVs -- and looted the cooperative store.

“The state and federal government keep putting in more and more soldiers,” a community leader told us. “There are lots of rumors about more attacks. Sometimes we cannot work. We see planes and helicopters pass over and public security passing on the road to Los Platanos, and we are afraid.”

They said that in December, public security police tried to enter the community, and once again the residents fled. That time they lived for a week in the mountains before they felt it was safe to return to their homes. Now they have guards that keep watch 24 hours a day.

The real core of the visit to Union Progreso was scheduled for the next morning. But unfortunately, I was struck down by a particularly nasty cold and spent the morning in my sleeping bag, missing what several delegates said was emotional, tearful testimony from the families of the five young men who were killed.

In notes shared with me, Rick Axtell, a delegate from Kentucky, told of old men asking how they can work in the fields without the help of their sons, and young widows wondering how they will support their children without their husbands. The police said the young men were armed, which the community denies.

“These five were responsible members of our community, also working for justice,” said one man whose son-in-law was killed. “The government continues to tell lies, to deny anything happened in this community. The government lies and says we support them, but we continue to struggle for justice, to resist and to support these families. The government says the Zapatistas are turning in their arms and have lost support. That is a lie, too. The government thought they could make us come over to their side. We will never go to their side. All of us feel such sadness, but we must carry forward the struggle.”

What I missed that day sharply illustrated the impact of the community visits: The stories of Ximbaxuc, heard firsthand, gave all that I had learned in Guatemala an emotional resonance that was harder to grasp in Chiapas. The second-hand stories from my fellow delegates were certainly informative, but I did not get as close to it. I did not see the women silently crying; I did not see the old man fiercely clearing weeds from his sons’ graves, revealing the monument that said, “If pain and sacrifice are a prayer without words, I am praying for you since you left us.”

It was for these firsthand stories that we had come on this trip, looking for a deeper understanding and a personal face to the issues. In our last two days in Mexico City, delegates got their first taste of bringing the experience back home, in an off-the-record meeting with representatives from the U.S. embassy. It was a chance to speak to those in power about what we had seen and encourage them to go out and see for themselves the impact of both U.S. and Mexican policies.

In a final four-hour debriefing, we discussed numerous ways to put what we had learned into action: writing letters to Congress; demonstrating against the School of the Americas; and joining campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 that challenge unjust economic policies. Educating others played a big part in people’s goals. Members of the group said they would seek speaking engagements with church groups, schools and other organizations, or spread the word through the media. Some delegates aimed to find a way to raise funds for Ximbaxuc’s water project.

Early in the tour a delegate expressed both hope and fear that the trip could radically affect his comfortable life at home. By the end, that was something many in the delegation aspired to: living a simpler lifestyle in solidarity with the poor, and holding the experience in Chiapas and Guatemala in our memories as an inspiration to continue the struggle for justice.

Delegation sponsers

The following are organizations that sponsor peace and justice delegations and some of their upcoming destinations:

Center for Global Education
(612) 330-1159 or 800-299-8889
Guatemala, Mexico, South Africa

Christian Peacemakers
(312) 455-1199
Mexico, Middle East

Global Exchange Reality Tours
Cuba, India, Ireland, Mexico, Israel, South Africa, U.S.-Mexico border

Witness For Peace
(202) 588-1471
Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chiapas, Cuba, Haiti, Honduras

Costs vary greatly, depending on the destination, the length of the trip and what is covered (airfare is often not included). It can range from $425 for a 3-day trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, to over $3,000 for two weeks in South Africa. The Witness For Peace/EPICA/SOA Watch delegation to Chiapas and Guatemala was $1,270. It did not include airfare from and to the United States, but covered virtually everything else -- very little extra spending money was needed.

In addition to these national organizations many local parishes organize trips, often arranged with a sister parish or other contacts in the foreign country.

Teresa Malcolm is NCR’s assistant news editor.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999