Yesterday, my coworkers gave a wonderful presentation on Guatemalan history to give our incoming students some much-needed context for the work that we’ll be doing. The country’s history is long and complicated, but I’ll try to summarize a bit and draw a few connections between the country’s historical past, contemporary situation, and the work that I’m doing here today.
I’ll start with the Civil War, which lasted for over 30 years – from 1960 -1996. The war was prompted by a slow-brewing guerilla resistance force, which began in pockets of the Western highlands and slowly spread around the country in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, the conflict exploded under the military government’s “Scorched Earth Campaign,” during which the government sought to brutally and forcibly eradicate all guerilla resistance and opposition. All in all, over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, and 400 communities were completely destroyed – the majority of which were indigenous Mayan communities in the ixil triangle (a trio of three towns including the town where our organization was founded, Nebaj).
That brings me to the genocide trial, which has been all over international news over the past few months. Over the past year, former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was tried – and ultimately convicted – of genocide against the Ixil people. The trial was monumental for Guatemala, Central America, and the world, as it was the first time that a former dictator was tried and convicted by his own country’s judiciary.
But just a few days later, the verdict was overturned and the trial was annulled because of so-called “procedural issues.” What does that mean? Well, for one, Rios Montt goes free, the genocide remains unpunished and the intense corruption within Guatemala’s government and judiciary continues. But it also puts all of the witnesses in difficult situations, all of whom to great personal risk to testify in the first place. Many of those witnesses are now back in their communities, living in extreme danger. And it’s unknown whether or not any of them will be willing to testify again…if the trial is even re-started, which is also unknown.
So what does this history mean for my work? It means that I’m working within a context of historically repressed and under-served indigenous communities, corrupt and unresponsive governments and national systems, deep structural violence, and persistent inequality. Beyond that, many of my Guatemalan coworkers – not the mention many people in the communities where we are operating – were affected directly by the Civil War, and continue to live in the shadows and memories of its atrocities.
Working here is not easy. It’s physically draining, emotionally taxing, and above all, overwhelmingly frustrating. Progress is slow, interruptions are constant, and “success” is both hard to define and hard to measure. But it’s the small things that I see on a daily basis – the “gracias a Dios!” exclamations of older men and women as they put on their new reading glasses and can see clearly for the first time in years, the nuanced reflections and contributions of my students as they throw themselves into the fieldwork, the passion and camaraderie of my coworkers, both American and Guatemala, who are more and more beginning to feel like my family.