Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Guatemala: A Janus View of Guatemala

Interrogation of woman and child, suspected subversives, at army garrison, Chajul, Quiché. Photograph courtesy of Jean-Marie Simon, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny.

By Julio Godoy
Courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

GUATEMALA CITY (IDN) - Something extraordinary happened in Guatemala City on December 2: Jean Marie Simon's historic photos of the crimes committed by the Guatemalan army during the civil war's peak years that exsanguinated the Central American country between 1979 and 1983, were shown in a unique exhibition in what used to be the Guatemalan government's headquarters, the so-called National Palace, downtown in the capital.

The exhibition is unique, because Simon's photos, irrefutable proof of the indescribable brutality of the Guatemalan army's operations against civilians, including children and women, are now being shown in what used to be the centre of military power in Guatemala.

Generals ruled Guatemala in those bleak dictatorial years from that very palace -- a dictatorship that killed more than 200,000 people, including children and women, kidnapped more than 40,000 civilians, forced some one million into exile, out of a population of less than six million at the time, and transformed the country into an unfathomable nightmare. The National Palace was then the heart of Guatemalan darkness.

One horrendous, memorable photo of the exhibition shows the tortured body of Beatriz Barrios Marroquín, a 26-year old school teacher kidnapped on her way to the airport. Army death squads captured her on December 10, 1985, just while she was trying to flee to Canada, where she had found asylum. Her body, discovered a couple of days later, had no hands -- her killers had amputated them. The body shows also numerous slices and burnings wounds. Her killers had tortured her to death. The teacher had also been sexually abused.

Simon remembers that a piece of cardboard was found near Barrios' mutilated body, with her name written on it and the words "more to come".

Simon adds: "When security agents arrived to take fingerprints from her severed hands, Captain Armando Villegas, head of the Honor Guard G-2 (military) intelligence office was already there. When they asked him, 'Hey man, what happened?' Villegas responded by taking out a card on which he had written Barrios' name, and told them that it was she. The writing on Villegas's card matched that on the cardboard message."

A couple of months later, Villegas was named director in the official personal guard of Vinicio Cerezo, who had been elected civilian president. Cerezo was the first civilian president Guatemala had since 1952. Villegas never faced any charge.

The photo, which Simon shot in a morgue near Guatemala City, is now being shown as an overdue homage to Beatriz in the very corridors where her death was decided and planned. Another grim detail of the exhibition -- the U.S. government, allegedly a mentor of the criminals who killed the teacher and thousand others and converted Guatemala into the inferno it is now, was represented in the opening of the exhibition by its current ambassador, Stephen McFarland.

The photo of the tortured teacher's body is but one of the numerous proofs Simon collected of the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army in those years, and had been published before, in a book printed in the U.S. in 1988.

During the more than 20 years that have gone past since, Simon's book, 'Guatemala: Eternal spring, eternal tyranny', a photo essay accompanied by a written account of the atrocities the photos documented, circulated in Guatemala in its original English version only among very restricted circles. But this year, Simon could publish a first Spanish edition, printed in Guatemala by a courageous publisher, supported by international institutions such as the Foros Foundation and New York-based human rights groups.


The very fact that the book is now available in Spanish to Guatemalan readers is already a significant step in the writing of country's modern history in Guatemala itself. It offers local society the irrefutable evidence of the crimes committed by the army.

This proof is necessary, for Guatemala has never openly discussed its recent history, least of all the involvement of the ruling oligarchy in the army's campaign of scorched earth in the countryside and of systematic killings of political opponents, students and unions' leaders in the cities.

The few attempts to debate modern history -- such as the report by the Catholic Church's office of human rights, published in 1998 -- were smothered to silence by more ruthless violence. The church report's leading author, Juan Gerardi, was assassinated only a few days after the document was made public.

Furthermore, army officials still justify these crimes arguing that the Guatemalan military during the civil war only fulfilled its constitutional role and was protecting the rule of law. To begin with, the Guatemalan army started manipulating elections and killing annoying political opponents as early as 1954 -- long before the war reached its infernal heights of the 1980s.

The army's manipulations of elections continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s and until the early 1980s, accompanied by corruption of the military, unparalleled in Latin America. To pretend that the army, by killing civilians and manipulating elections and illegally amassing fortunes, was defending the country's constitutional order is simply absurd, not to speak of hypocritical. Guatemalan rulers obviously seriously suffer from denial.

The recent publication of Simon's photos in Guatemala has triggered a heated debate on memory and justice in a society not accustomed to discuss any national matter in a civilised manner.

Expectedly, the oligarchy and the army condemned the publication as a provocation only aimed at resurrecting the country's past, and thus contribute to reopen the unhealed wounds left by the civil war.


Some exhibitions and lectures had to be cancelled, under terror threats. Some even accused Simon of being French -- comments addressed at Simon were published, in incorrect French, in the local newspapers. Jean Marie is actually a U.S. citizen -- although she might be a Guatemalan at heart. Obviously, some members of Guatemalan upper class are so irrational, that accusations of being European is the worst insult they can think of for those whom they see as their class enemies.

Jean Marie Simon first came to Guatemala in 1981, as an unofficial observer for the human rights group Americas Watch. She had worked as photographer in New York, and she continued to do so in Guatemala. As reporter for Americas Watch, Simon was pivotal in formulating the group's yearly reports on Guatemala, the first to denounce the genocide the army was committing against the Mayan Indian population, and also the infernal cadence of killings against civilians in the cities.

But Simon was more than an observer and a reporter. She became a close witness to the suffering of widows and mothers and sisters who had lost husbands, children and siblings at the hands of the army death squads.

Simon would visit every morgue in the country -- and come back with photos of the dead and shocking testimonies of what human beings can inflict upon their fellows. She would offer emotional comfort to the relatives, be their friend and protector, and sometimes even financial patron.

Simon also helped people under death threats to safely leave the country. Surely it is not an exaggeration to say that in those disastrous days, Simon alone made a larger contribution to the defence of human rights in Guatemala than all the diplomatic corps and organisations active in the country. For that reason, the publication of her book and the exhibition of her photos in Guatemala is also a modest homage to her uncompromising work.

But, in a way, the release of Jean Marie's book in Guatemala and the exhibition of her photos at the very heart of darkness are both a proof of how much the country has changed since the late 1980s, and also an irrelevant exercise in civil courage.

Guatemala is today disposing of the better press it has ever had. Freedom of speech, something undreamt of in the late 1970s, early 1980s, when journalists would be killed every day, is today taken for granted. Numerous newspapers and other media also give room to a variety of voices, though journalists may still be harassed.

Also, some subjects remain a tabu -- for instance, the involvement of leading economic and military personalities in illegal cocaine dealing, in money laundering, and in other forms of international organised crime. But still -- compared to the climate of repression and self-censorship three decades ago, Guatemala's is on the whole a country with freedom of speech.

And yet, this civil virtue might help to conceal the unchanged undemocratic, corrupt, brutal nature of Guatemalan society. Some 6,000 people are killed every year in the country -- related to its population, this crime rate makes of Guatemala the most violent country in Latin America.

Women are a preferred target of crime. Every year, some one thousand women are killed, in what local activists have dubbed feminicide. Sexual violence against women and children occurs on a daily basis.


Furthermore, today's random violence is somehow worse than the political motivated sadism of the 1970s and 1980s. In those years, even if terror was palpable in everyday life, you knew who could be target of a hit squad. Even if you were a political activist, if you were cautious enough, you could survive.

Today, crime is omnipresent, and it hits where you expect it the least. This randomness of crime has transformed former idyllic neighbourhoods and regions into high security tracts -- not only in the old gated communities of the rich, where oligarchs and military and their servants hide away their incommensurable wealth, but also in the most modest districts, where poor dwellers are forced to live behind bars lest that ruthless gangs attack them and take their last possessions.

Corruption continues to be rampant, and goes up to the highest echelons of political, military and economic elite. Poverty is as dramatic as ever, despite the enormous wealth amassed by army officials and oligarchs.

Thousands of Guatemalans still die of hunger every year, in a country endowed with natural resources, from gold to oil and a potentially rich agriculture. To make crime worse, impunity is all but absolute. Less than two percent of crimes are ever elucidated. This impunity has led international observers to dub today's Guatemala a paradise for assassins.

In a nutshell: Guatemala might now have a freer press and hold regularly free elections, than it ever did since independence from Spain in 1821. But the other, ugly, ruthless face of Guatemala is unlikely to change.

Oligarchs have been threatening to carry out a coup d'état against the powerless, incapable elected government of President Alejandro Colom, only because he has been trying -- rather unsuccessfully -- to introduce a modest tax reform. They even orchestrated a seemingly perverse complot involving the suicide of one of their own, and raised unfounded charges of assassination against Colom. Meanwhile public schools and hospitals decay into ruins and in prisons inmates kill each other as if they were protagonists of a Hollywood horror movie.

Obviously, oligarchs have learned that freedom of speech and free elections is a price they can afford, even if they keep complaining about it. What they won't let happen are the fundamental social and economic changes Guatemala needs to survive as a functioning state and perhaps become a civilised society.