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Guatemalans Welcome Home the Remains of Victims of a U.S. Backed War

Monday 22 October 2018, by siawi3

Source: https://progressive.org/dispatches/guatemalans-welcome-home-the-remains-of-victims-of-a-u-s-bac-180702/

Guatemalans Welcome Home the Remains of Victims of a U.S. Backed War

The U.S. government for decades intervened in Guatemala to throttle indigenous efforts toward land reform—including training the country’s military in making people “disappear.” People there continue to reckon with the loss.

by Jeff Abbott

July 3, 2018

Photo: Guatemalans bring home the unidentified remains of 172 people, disappeared and murdered during a U.S.-backed war that ended over twenty years ago. The remains, carried in small wooden boxes, arrived on the back of a flatbed truck decorated with floral wreaths. They were brought to a memorial on the former military base where they had been unearthed over a decade before.

The morning of June 21 was a somber one in the indigenous Kaqchikel Maya town of San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Hundreds of people gathered near the town entrance to welcome home the unidentified remains of 172 people, disappeared and murdered during a U.S.-backed war that ended over twenty years ago. The remains, carried in small wooden boxes, arrived on the back of a flatbed truck decorated with floral wreaths. They were brought to a memorial on the former military base where they had been unearthed over a decade before.

“We cannot forget the past,” Roselina Tuyuc of the National Coordination of Widows of Guatemala told me. “We baptized this place as a ‘landscape of memory’ in honor of the memory of the victims.”

Guatemala’s internal war killed over 200,000 people and disappeared 45,000 between 1960 and 1996. During the height of the 36-year-long armed conflict in the 1980’s, Comalapa was one of many strategic locations for the Guatemalan military. The base, established on a Mayan sacred site, served as a center for operations in the surrounding area, where people “of interest” were brought, tortured, killed, and buried in mass graves.

Guatemala’s internal war killed over 200,000 people and disappeared 45,000 between 1960 and 1996.

Between 2003 and 2005, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation unearthed fifty-three unmarked mass graves in the old military encampment, holding a total of 220 bodies. The Foundation was unable to identify the remains until 2011, when they received a donation from the Gene Codes corporation, makers of the technology used to identify the victims in the 2001 World Trade Center attack. With the new technology, forensic anthropologists identified the remains of forty-eight people, all from Comalapa and the surrounding area.

Tuyuc, who lost her husband in the war, worked with her organization to purchase the land in 2002 at the decommissioned base, and in 2016 to build the memorial. Local painters adorned the building at the center of the memorial with elaborate murals depicting the painful history. Alongside the tombs for the 172 victims sits another monument with over 6,000 names of people reported to the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation as disappeared.

Photo: Local painters adorned a building at the center of a memorial, established by the National Coordination of Widows of Guatemala, for the disappeared and dead.

In total, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation has uncovered nearly 350 clandestine graves across the country containing almost 3,000 remains. “These places served as hubs,” Fredy Peccerelli, the executive director said about the old military base. “[People can be traced] back to where they were captured. We found people from other locations. It remains an ongoing investigation.”

“It is necessary to feel what occurred here,” said Father Ricardo Falla, a renowned Catholic Priest and anthropologist who documented atrocities in northern Guatemala during the war. “To have discovered that, and to come and see this is a powerful symbol for the historic memory in Guatemala.”

Comalapa was specifically targeted by the military in a “counter-insurgency campaign” designed to generate fear and disrupt small farmers trying to organize. In the end, this counter-insurgency was devastating for the indigenous civilian population. Some 83 percent of the victims were Mayan, according to the United Nations and Catholic Church-backed Historical Clarification Commission, which has designated the military’s actions as genocide.

“Comalapa was one of the points of the Committee for Campesino Unity, an organization that shook the country with a 1980 strike that stopped production on cotton plantations and in the paper mills on the coast for two weeks,” explained Falla.

The atrocities committed by the military were rooted in efforts by ruling elites and multinational agricultural companies to indigenous efforts toward land reform.

The atrocities committed by the country’s military were rooted in decades of efforts by ruling elites and multinational agricultural companies to interrupt movements for indigenous rights and land reform. The signing of the peace accords granted the indigenous peoples new constitutional rights to their identities and mechanisms to exercise those rights, but all too often the elite and military leaders continue to consider them as subversives.

Historically, after the October Revolution of 1944, Guatemala had experienced a period of progressive reforms. During the so-called “ten years of spring,” new rights were granted to women, labor unions, and indigenous peoples. The spring culminated in the passing of a progressive land reform in 1952 during the administration of President Jacobo Arbenz. This reform expropriated unused lands from the largest landowners and provided them to landless farmers.

The country’s largest landowner, the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, lobbied the United States government to intervene. Under Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. State Department and the CIA created a campaign to portray the land reform movement as a communist plot. In 1954, these U.S. agencies supported the overthrow of the Arbenz administration and imposed Carlos Castillo Armas, a military officer that the CIA had primed, to carry out the coup d’état against the democratically-elected president. The newly-installed Castillo Armas administration quickly rolled back the reforms of the ten years of spring. By 1960 a small group of cadets, inspired by Arbenz and the “Guatemala Spring,” rebelled and started the first insurgencies against the U.S.-backed government.

Again, the United States intervened. Faced with the growing insurgency in Guatemala, the CIA sent advisor John P. Logan to the country in December 1965 to teach the Guatemalan military how to carry out a campaign of disappearances. Two years later, in 1967, the U.S. State Department recognized, in an intelligence report obtained by the National Security Archive, the “successful” disappearances through “kidnappings, torture and summary executions” of hundreds of people carried out by the Guatemalan military and paramilitary campaign of countering leftists. This same document also questioned whether the counter-insurgency was getting out of control.

The Uruguayan poet and author Eduardo Galeano wrote about the campaign of forced disappearances in his book Days and Nights of Love and War. In the book he recounted how the Guatemalan military would throw bodies into volcanoes, rivers, and into the ocean, in order to disappear dissidents.

Recently declassified cables from the 1990’s reveal that these tactics were well known to the State Department and the Pentagon.

For decades, the war raged and human rights violations mounted. In the late 1970’s, the Carter administration suspended military aid to Guatemala. This embargo on aid was largely ignored by the Reagan Administration. Then in 1990, the U.S. government once again suspended military aid to Guatemala during the George H.W. Bush Administration.

But the campaign started by CIA advisors had morphed into a campaign of terror against indigenous peoples, which targeted any suspected bases of support for the guerillas, as well as anyone standing up for their rights.

In the minds of military leaders, to be indigenous and demanding your rights to land was the same as being an insurgent.

In the minds of military leaders, to be indigenous and demanding your rights to land was the same as being an insurgent.

“My father was a campesino who struggled for his rights and a better future for others,” said Maribel Yolanda Ru’kux Quila, who traveled to Comalapa in search of her missing family members.

Since the war formally came to an end in 1996, the Guatemalan Public Prosecutors office has carried out a number of high-profile trials against former military leaders for crimes against humanity committed during the war. In May 2018, four high-ranking former military leaders, including Benedicto Lucas García, the former head of the armed forces, were convicted to fifty-eight years in prison for the 1981 disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen.

Yet the prosecution against military leaders has faced intense resistance from the Guatemalan Congress. In June 2018, members of the far right proposed a reform to the National Reconciliation law, which would provide amnesty for military leaders accused of crimes against humanity.

The families of the victims continue to demand justice for their loved ones.

“We cannot forget the history of genocide in Guatemala,” Tuyuc said. “We must continue to demand justice and a dignified reparation for all the victims of the internal armed conflict.”

Ru’kux Quila was one of many that traveled from nearby towns to Comalapa in search of missing family members. She came looking for her father, uncle, and aunt, who were disappeared in a village near the town of Tecpán during the war. Her grandfather and aunt were both massacred by the Guatemalan military in the 1980s as part of the counter-insurgency backed by the Reagan administration.

“This is very difficult for us,” said Ru’kux Quila, who carried photos of her father and aunt with her. “Here are 172 remains for whom their families have not been found.”

Families like Ru’kux Quila are left without the means to pay respects on days such as the day of the dead.

“I have no place to leave flowers for them,” she said, on the verge of tears.

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Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. “The Other Americans” is a column created by Abbott for The Progressive on human migration in North and Central America.