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LADB Blog: A View of Government Impunity in the Community of Nahualá in Rural Guatemala

In one of the articles in NotiCen this week, Thomas Shannon, a top-level US State Department advisor suggested to reporters that El Salvador and Honduras would do well to follow Guatemala's lead and set up anti-impunity commissions of their own, similar to Guatemala's Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad (CICIG), a powerful judicial instrument established nearly a decade ago in collaboration with the UN. "Each country would have to determine what the structure would be, but the CICIG has worked well," said Shannon. The Salvadoran government rejected the proposal. Read more

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The CICIG seems to have found some level of acceptance in Guatemala, and the reason is because the commission is international in nature. Very few Guatemalans would actually trust an anti-impunity commission that was comprised with government officials that linked to the impunity that had prevailed in the country for decades. Many Guatemalans remain fearful of what their government does to its own people when the world is not watching.

This extremely widespread, popular distrust is rooted in the countless massacres and assassinations, the hundreds of thousands of innocents killed at the hands of the government during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960 1996). Although the peace accords in '96 ended the internal armed conflict on paper, the Guatemalan people have continued to watch as the brutally repressive actions of illegal or clandestine security groups with direct or indirect links to state officials and judicial institutions go unpunished.

Government mistrusted

Many communities throughout the nation, particularly indigenous villages in rural areas that were most affected during the war, have become accustomed to expecting very little of their government officials, and at times having to take matters of local security and justice into their own hands. One such community is in the city of Nahualá, where I spent five weeks this summer living with a family in the center of town while attending a linguistics field school for the K'iche Maya language.

Nahualá is a K'iche Maya town, which means that essentially everyone there identifies with the K'iche Maya ethnicity and almost everyone speaks K'iche Maya as their first language, not Spanish. My host father, Tat Mash (in Spanish, Don Tomás), was born in the late 1950s and has for most of his life lived through the internal armed conflict.

If you ask an elder in Nahualá what it was like during the infamous year of 1982, the year of many massacres of indigenous communities, they will respond with a comment like "the army never entered Nahualá, because we didn't let them. So nothing too terrible happened here, thank God." But what do they mean by that, 'we didn't let them enter the town,?'

It is extremely rare that people will talk about such topics at all; in fact, it seems the culture of fear and silence permeates even the most fiercely independent of communities. However, one evening the topic was brought up over dinner.

The Discovery Channel Effect

That night over dinner, they asked me where my family came from and said that I looked Arab. I told them "sort of" and explained the complicated story of the wandering Jew. Little Diego said "You mean the ones that killed Jesus!" I laughed to lighten the worried looks of the adults sitting around the stove fire, looking on intently. I told them that most of my family had immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust. Victor, the 30 year-old son of Ta Mash and Al Talin, said he had seen a few documentaries about World War II on the Discovery Channel and he saw how millions had died in the gas chambers and the firing squads. He said something like "but I believe one must have a better understanding of history before watching a documentary like that". The room agreed.

The humility with which they treat highly complicated information impacted me, considering we consume very serious material on the Discovery Channel in the United States as casually as the way one might eat an ice pop or cheese crackers. I said I didn't know much, because acting as an authority of information here, where education about the genocide of past generations is so fraught, is a bit like taking out dollar bills and throwing them on the floor. And, anyway, how much do I really know about my grandparents and their experience?

How much does our historical memory actually serve us? At other times, in other places I may have been ready to blabber on about a few stories I had heard. But, becoming accustomed to the silence, humility and sacredness with which the Nahualeños treated the massacres of '82, I decided not say more. And then, as if feeding the unknowable silence, Ta Mash began talking a bit about the Guatemalan Civil War, a very delicate subject you don't hear much about here.

Revisiting the massacres of 1982

He talked about the massacres in 1982, when so many were also killed in front of firing squads and other awful techniques of state-sponsored ethnocide. He said here in Nahualá, the people set up self-defense watches and had rifles and alarmed the town when the army was coming. He said the army only entered a few times, and they kidnapped a couple people suspected of cooperating with guerillas, but they never massacred like they did out in the rural areas. Out in the rural areas!!! I suppose everything is relative.

Outside in the patio, pine wood smoke was wavering in the wind above dozens of corrugated tin rooves. Ta Mash finished by saying "I suppose every place in the word has their wars, their massacres, their terrible sadnesses, just like every place has their own beautiful customs, hairdos, and dresses." We all took sips from our hot drink, a sweet milk with cinnamon and Nescafe served in clay bowls. The room fell silent, but somehow comfortable.

Over in the corner was a stack of garments ready to be sold at tomorrow's market. Then Al Talin asked me what type of huipiles they wear in Nuevo Mexico, and the middle generation laughed, knowing that we wear Lakers t-shirts and blue jeans. Al Talin's face got red and scrunched as she laughed, and I wished I could say more about the Navajo and Apache traditional garments we have up there in El Norte, where the desert serves as a grave for unidentified bones of migrants who can't follow their coyotes any longer.

"My host family in Nahualá may not be willing to say that they know what happened or how to change things, but they certainly know that not enough people have been brought to justice for it."

And just like that, we moved on to another topic. Why waste any more time discussing tragic topics that are anyway so inevitable and uncontrollable. You get the sense here that such systematic and structural forms of state violence appear natural. I suppose lowering one's expectations of the government and of respect for human rights is an organic reaction to so many unending years of repression and violence without justice. Although the crimes themselves may not be seen, nor the faces of their perpetrators, the impunity never goes unseen. Impunity never goes unseen because it is precisely the not happening - the lack of trials, the absence of convictions - in the face of so many unmarked graves and clandestine mass burial sites. My host family in Nahualá may not be willing to say that they know what happened or how to change things, but they certainly know that not enough people have been brought to justice for it.

To kill with impunity; to rob, extort and exploit with no fear of punishment; to do wrong without having to contend with justice and the forces of righteousness - for those who have ever occupied themselves with the binding together of social order, the prospect of judicial impunity is both frightening and ancient. Indeed, the construction of political mechanisms that prevent instances of impunity is absolutely central to the construction of the modern, democratic nation-state itself. In Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Papers No. 27 on Restraining the Legislative Authority, he writes:
The hope of impunity is a strong incitement to sedition; the dread of punishment, a proportionably strong discouragement to it.

Interestingly, what Hamilton was writing about is that the federal state or nation will have the ability to crush impunity through the watchful eyes of the states' union. This is in stark juxtaposition to the present-day context of fighting against impunity in the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where impunity is a problem that emanates directly from within the state itself. In fact, the context of impunity in the Northern Triangle nations today takes on almost exactly what Hamilton describes in the absence of a federal union: "A turbulent faction in a State may easily suppose itself able to contend with the friends to the government in that State".

"It is not a state of resistance, not a state of anger nor action - it is a state of being accustomed to hearing politicians speak of peace and justice and witnessing the very opposite."

Back around the kitchen stove in Nahualá, loudspeakers are heard from the streets outside, where megaphones are lashed to the top of pickup trucks blaring out the slogans of political parties in K'iche. The two major parties, Patriota and Líder, are battling for the upcoming elections not only at the municipal level but at the national level. Regardless, the people here are paying attention to the mayoral race, and it is as if the national election does not exist. Everyone is interested in the immediate local system, the one they can feel, taste and touch day in and day out. Caring about the federal government, so far off in the capital, so uncontrollable and untrustworthy, seems a futile act.

No one mentions the CICIG here, nor the trials and the cases it fights for. It is not that the people are not happy to have an institution like that working on behalf of justice; it is simply that no one, not here at least, is ready to put their trust into anything that bears the government seal. It is not a state of resistance, not a state of anger nor action - it is a state of being accustomed to hearing politicians speak of peace and justice and witnessing the very opposite.

Also in LADB This Week...

NotiCen

NotiSur

SourceMex

About LADB

The Latin America Data Base (LADB) is one of the longest running premier news and educational services on Latin America. Established in 1986 as a unit of the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico (UNM), LADB has had an internet presence since 1996. LADB features three weekly electronic publications: NotiCen, NotiSur, and SourceMex, and a fully searchable archive of over 28,000 articles that provide timely information and historical perspective on a variety of Latin American issues. LADB is a subscription service made available at no cost to the UNM community. For more information, contact vnelson@unm.edu.

Image: "Nahualá, Sololá, Guatemala." Reprinted courtesy of Jacob Sandler.

--Posted August 17, 2015. Reprinted from the LADB blog post, "A View of Government Impunity in the Community of Nahualá in Rural Guatemala," written by Jacob Sandler on Friday, August 14, 2015.