Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A few more thoughts about buses

There are a few more positive aspects to travel by bus. As well as some other drawbacks.

Positives that I forgot:

1) I don't have to worry about macho drivers who are ticked off because I am "driving while female.

2) If there is a flat tire or mechanical breakdown (and there were none during the past 20 days), I don't have to fix it. It's someone else's problem. 

Which means....

3) No money spent on auto repairs.

4) No time spent searching for replacement parts for a Mazda (not the most common make of car in Guatemala and consequently, when I am in remote rural areas, it's not always possible to find parts).

5) No waiting for parts to be ordered, repairs to be completed.

And then some other drawbacks:

1) Comfort. Or the lack thereof.

2) Being the only person like me on the bus and therefore sometimes the object of scrutiny. This is actually a kind of neutral observation, not really positive or negative.

3) Being jostled around when the driver makes some wild maneuvers.

4) While I have been very lucky in my bus travels, it seems that a fair amount of the highway accidents that you read about in the newspaper involve buses. 

About buses

This trip I have not had access to my pickup -- well, I've had access to it but the registration was stolen (someone broke the window and took all the papers, and no, I didn't have copies, and yes, I know I should, but that's a lesson for the future) and it's taken longer to get the registration replaced than I thought. so I have been getting around by bus. There are many positive things about bus travel, like not having to worry about maniac drivers (well, I have to worry about them but I don't have to personally exert any effort to avoid them). There's being able to write this blog post on a bus (my smart phone has a wifi access point and so I have been taking advantage of that). There's being able to nap - that is, if one has a seat, isn't being squeezed by 17 other people and their bags, and if you can sleep with music blaring the entire journey. On the luxury buses (I am on one now) you get a guaranteed seat and a reasonably comfortable ride. Or at least theoretically a guaranteed seat: a clerk had apparently sold the seat next to me twice, but there were additional seats on the bus. They also stop at actual rest stops. 

The everyday camionetas (converted school buses) and the microbuses (mini-vans) that travel between smaller towns will sometimes stop out in the country, which allows the men in the bus to get out and pee but doesn't really offer much to women passengers. I once got out and climbed down a slope and behind some bushes to pee, much to the amusement of other passengers (all the other women stayed on the bus), and the driver nearly left without me. The camionetas and microbuses will sometimes stop at the central plaza of one of the towns along the way and the driver will announce a 20 minute rest stop, but that seems quite variable. On my way up to Santa Eulalia the bus stopped in Soloma, the town just before Santa, and I grabbed an ear of freshly grilled corn. However, the "Pullman" buses stop at specific restaurants along the highways that have bathrooms. Pullman refers to the quality of the bus -- some microbuses are also Pullmans (larger, nicer, more comfortable seating, and reerved seating; regular microbuses are often jammed to the gills with several people standing), and I don't quite know how the name got attached. Of course the class and racial composition of the buses are also different.  In part this has to do with the racial geography of the country -- there are not that many white people who live in the rural areas that are only served by microbuses and camionetas. There are some indigenous people who use the nicer buses when they can afford them, but clearly this is a mode of transportation only accessible to those with a certain level of economic security.

I guess I could put on the list of positive points the chance to see cheesy movies. On one trip I saw some ridiculous comedy film about a man who ends up with a baby, accidentally becomes a stunt man, and then fights for custody when the baby's mother turns up eleven years later. On the last trip I saw part of another film about the CIA torturing an American Muslim who has planted bombs. I didn't see all of either film so I can't tell you the name or the actors. 

However, there are some disadvantages to traveling by bus. For one thing, I have to listen to whatever music the driver wants to play. There seems to be an unwritten rule that all buses must have music playing all the time, no matter whether it is 3:00 a.m. or 5:00 p.m.  I took an overnight bus from Huehuetenango to Barillas and thought, naively, I could get some sleep on the bus. Guatemalans obviously are more more talented at sleeping than I am, because on every bus that I have ridden, regardless of how crowded or noisy, no matter how bumpy the road, there have been people sleeping. I'm not quite the Princess of the Princess and the Pea, but I can barely get sleep on a regular bed. I once asked a bus driver to turn the volume down, on that overnight bus ride to Barillas, and he looked at me as though I had asked him to stab his mother. He turned it down imperceptibly -- that is, I did see him touch the dial, although I didn't hear much difference in volume -- probably muttering to himself about prissy foreigners.

Another disadvantage is that I cannot stop for my favorite roadside food. When I go up to northern Huehuetenango, I try to time either the trip up or the trip back so that I can stop at the Comedor los Cuchumatanes, which serves a wonderful estofado (a kind of stew) of lamb. It's always meltingly tender and the tortillas are made of yellow corn, thick and hearty. Then there are the roadside stands, staffed almost exclusively by women, along the Interamerican Highway just north of Chimaltenango, that serve freshly grilled corn. The women stand over small grills, using straw fans both to fan the flames and attract customers. There's the open-air restaurant just north of Tecpan that sells queso Chancol, a Swiss-style cheese made on one farm in Nebaj (of course from the perspective of Ixil people from Nebaj, that is "the finca", which implies a set of historically structured class and racial relations). 

Traveling by bus one is bound by the bus schedule. The last bus out of Barillas that stops in Santa Eulalia leaves at 1:30 p.m.  That's right, I:30 p.m. That means I either have to finish whatever I am doing by noon, or wait until the next day. There are buses at 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., and so forth. But they stop at 1:30 p.m.  

And I cannot make what would be relatively quick side trips but just go in a straight line. So, I have a favorite store in Antigua where I often buy chocolates and coffee as presents for people (coffee definitely for myself). Shade grown, organic, you get the idea. It is one of the places that keeps chocolate for eating (as opposed to chocolate for making hot chocolate) in stock. According to one of my giftees, this is the best chocolate she has eaten. The store is in Antigua, Guatemala, 32 km. from the capital. It's accessible by bus or shuttle, but since I was returning to the capital less than 24 hours before my flight leaves, I would have had to schlep all my bags in a shuttle, ask the shuttle company to watch my bags, and then take a shuttle to the airport. An expense of about $20-$30 for the two shuttles. If I had my car, I could have stopped off in Antigua on the way back to Guatemala City, picked up my gifts and then continued on to the city. It's a short detour by car, but more of an operation by shuttle. So, no delectable 80% cacao chocolate bars this trip.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Visitando a los presos politicos: la biopolitica de la carcel

Here is a text that I wrote to introduce a few words that Rigoberto dictated to me the second time I visited him in the Preventive Detention Center on Saturday, July 18. It's in Spanish but you can use the "translate" button above. I will eventually do a version in English, which probably will not be 100% identical to this one.

Aquí les comparto un texto que escribí para introducir algunas palabras que me dictó Rigoberto la segunda vez que fui a visitarlo en el Preventivo. 

Siempre es un privilegio a pasar unas horas en la compañía de Rigoberto Juárez Mateo, encarcelado injustamente en el Centro Preventivo de la Zona 18. Esta vez, el pasado 18 de julio, acompañé a su esposa, uno de sus hermanos quien recientemente llegó de los Estados Unidos y un representante de UDEFEGua, una organización que apoya los defensores de derechos humanos.

Una visita al Centro Preventivo, en ciertos aspectos, es como visitar a otro país u otro mundo, con sus propias reglas y su propio orden (o desorden) social, con su propia cultura y sus propias estructuras socio-político-económicas. Pero hay que recordar que, a la misma vez es un país o un mundo formado por la sociedad guatemalteca, y refleja la sociedad mas amplia.  Esto no es un análisis u observación netamente original –hay muchos estudiosos y otros presos políticos quienes han analizado y criticado el dicho “complejo prisión-industrial” como componente esencial en mantener el sistema capitalista. Podemos nombrar, entre otros, la experta legal Michelle Alexander y el preso político Mumia Abu-Jamal. Entonces podemos mirar al Preventivo como un microcosmo de Guatemala.

El sistema penitencial es un sistema de control y disciplina– no solamente para disciplinar a las personas que tienen la mala suerte de haber sido señalado de haber cometido lo que el sistema jurídico ha identificado como algún delito  y quienes constituyen los sujetos de un sistema que está diseñado para robarles no solamente de sus derechos pero de su dignidad, su identidad, su membresía en su comunidad y en la nación, o sea, robarles de su humanidad y de su ciudanía. Es un sistema construido a deshumanizar a los presos—por lo menos, los presos que vienen de las clases populares. Las visitas y la regulación de las visitas son mecanismos de mantener cierta disciplina sobre los reos, porque las guardias pueden negar a un reo el derecho de tener visitas, por lo tanto que las definen como privilegio y no como derecho. En el caso de los compañeros presos políticos en el Preventivo, solamente tienen derecho de visitas el día sábado, mientras otros presos pueden recibir visitas en algún día entre semana.

También el sistema penitencial y el sistema jurídica son diseñados a controlar y disciplinar la población fuera de los cárceles, La existencia de las prisiones y la grande población encarcelada sirve como recordatorio para la población en general de la precariedad de sus vidas y las consecuencias de caer mal a alguna autoridad.  En esta instancia, la prisión ejerce un control sobre las familias de los presos, que hacen grandes sacrificios para visitar con sus seres queridos y ofrecerles apoyo emocional (por su presencia) y económico-empírico (por traerles alimentos, otras necesidades como jabón o ropa, y dinero para cobrar sus gastos). Porque también el cárcel tiene su propia economía interna, como nos comentó Rigoberto la primera vez que le visité en la cárcel hace 2 semanas. Los familiares y los amigos quienes vienen a visitar tienen que someterse a la disciplina de la prisión el momento que bajan del transporte y suben la loma a la entrada de la prisión. O quizás empieza antes, en las preparaciones, porque uno tiene que recordar que no puede portar reloj, billetera, mas de Q500 en efectivo, tacones, teléfono, leche en polvo y docenas de otras cosas prohibidas. Es una disciplina o tecnología de control netamente física, porque el sistema determina como uno usa su propio cuerpo. Como señalan las feministas, para el sistema capitalista-extractivista, los cuerpos de las personas son nada mas que otro territorio a colonizar. Las visitas también representa una ruptura en la rutina cotidiana y la economía domestica para las familias de los presos, sobretodo los que, como nuestros compañeros, son encarcelados en una prisión muy distante de sus comunidades. Cada visita representa una gran inversión de dinero para familias de escasos recursos, y tiempo que no pueden dedicar a sus cultivos, sus ganados, sus pequeños negocios u otras formas de actividad económica. Visitar el Preventivo desde Santa Eulalia implica un viaje de 9 o 10 horas en bus cada vía, es decir salir el día o la noche antes para llegar al Preventivo a las 5:30 o 6 de la mañana, para obtener una buena posición en la aparentemente interminable cola de visitantes ansiosos. 

Aunque hayan regulaciones sobre las visitas, en realidad mucho depende en el humor de las guardias de torno en algún día determinado.  La primera vez que visité, el 4 de julio, pasemos por los primeros pasos – registrando los nombres y una inspección somera de las bolsas y paquetes – en una manera bastante ordenada, pero este ultimo sábado 18, las guardias de torno no estaban preparados y esta causó tanta frustración entre los visitantes que hubo una desbandada hacia el portón. Luego, a llegar a la mera entrada de la facilidad, los visitantes se arreglan en colas por el sector que van a visitar y esperan y esperan y esperan.  A veces abren la puerta a las 8, me confirmó la esposa de Rigoberto, Juana Méndez, mientras el sol subió y comenzó a calentarnos, pero a veces abren hasta las 11, sujeto al capricho de los guardias de turno, dejando muy poco tiempo para la visita, solamente suficiente para dejar las cosas que uno ha traído, porque en general se termina el horario de visitas puntualmente a las 2 p.m.

También, aunque en alguna de las salas de espera hay unas listas que las cosas prohibidas y permitidas – desde los tipos de zapatos que los visitantes pueden usar hasta las variedades de frutas que si se permite entrar (sandia, melón y papaya) – en realidad, esto también es sujeto al capricho de los guardias de turno. La primera vez que visité traíamos tamales y nos obligaron a desenvolverlos uno por uno. La segunda vez traíamos chuchitos y no nos obligaron a abrir todos, en el primer punto de inspección detallado la guardia de turno solamente me pidió abrir uno parcialmente.

Hay tres puntos de inspección de los paquetes y una inspección física, y es posible que el guardia en el ultimo punto de inspección rechaza algo que pasó por las otras inspecciones. La esposa de Rigoberto me dijo que una vez rechazaron unos medicamentos costosos – y ya estando adentro no sabia que hacer porque no hay un servicio de portero donde uno puede dejar las cosas rechazadas hasta que uno sale. Ella metió el paquete en un rincón de la sala de inspección y afortunadamente pudo recuperarlos cuando salió. La resulta de este proceso largo, arduo y caprichoso es crear un ambiente de inseguridad por los y las visitantes. También para los presos porque no saben si van a poder recibir cosas mas esenciales como medicamentos. Es como una prueba de resistencia para los y las visitantes. Yo solamente lo hice dos veces, y esas experiencias aumentaron mi aprecio para las valientes esposas de Rigoberto y Domingo, quienes lo han hecho fielmente durante los 4 meses que sus maridos han pasado en este cárcel.

Ya pasando la última revisión de sus paquetes, los y las visitantes pasan por un torniquete de entrada, donde se encuentran sumergidos en un mar de humanidad, perfumado con una mezcla de miedo, ansiedad, anticipación, alegría, tristeza y un sin de emociones. Pero afortunadamente Domingo estaba esperándonos, y nos condujo a la mesa que él y Rigoberto habían reservado, donde pudiéramos sentar, compartir una comida, entregar unas cartas y otras encomiendas, y mas importante, conversar con ellos. Ellos nos comentaron que para ellos, cada visita es como una sorpresa inesperada, que nunca se dan por sentado que sus amigos y seres queridos puedan superar los obstáculos que una visita representa. 

Nos confiaron que la situación dentro de la cárcel se ha hecho un poco inestable y precaria. Rigoberto nos dijo que “Han pasado muchas cosas terribles”, y hace poco han instalado un nuevo director del Preventivo quien está intentando, según Rigo, “a establecer mas control.”  Pero informó Rigo, no para la seguridad de los presos sino para el beneficio del sistema penitencial.

Durante el transcurso de la visita, nos hablaron sobre la incapacidad del sistema de justicia. Dos días antes de nuestra visita, jueves el 16 de julio, varios de los solidarios fuimos a Huehuetenango para estar presente en una audiencia para ellos, pero un poco después de las 9 de la mañana, los abogados salieron de la corte en Huehue para decirnos que se suspendieron la audiencia hasta el 18 de agosto, en parte porque el sistema penitencial no pudo trasladar los presos para que estuvieron presentes a la hora determinada.  Pero en la cárcel, Domingo nos dijo que si les habían sacado del Preventivo, les habían metido en la palangana de un picop, con sus manos atadas con esposas, “como si fuéramos animales”, pero no llegaron en Huehuetenango hasta las 11:30 de la noche, cuando la audiencia fue programada para las 8:30 de la mañana. Rigo agregó que era una experiencia muy dura y humillante, porque eran expuestos al sol, y luego lluvia , que no les dieron comida y “nos trataron como coches.”

Sin embargo, tanto Domingo como Rigoberto muestran su determinación a seguir con su lucha, no solamente para liberarse de la cárcel pero la lucha para defender el territorio y la vida. Después de haber terminado nuestro almuerzo, los presos tuvieron que salir para alinearse y ser contados, pero luego regresaron y resumimos nuestra conversación. Rigoberto me pidió sacar mi cuaderno para que yo pudiera transcribir algunas de sus observaciones para compartir con sus compañeros y compañeras.

En mi caso en particular, no puedo hablar para Domingo, porque cada quien tiene sus sentimientos, en los 4 meses que vamos a cumplir ahora, cada día nos va rectificando que la lucha de nuestros pueblos es mas justa y necesaria ahora que nunca. El sistema implantado en este país, y las estructuras creadas por los colonizadores aún sigan vigentes. Nuestros pueblos siguen siendo olvidados ahora como hace 497 años. Entonces los tres poderes del estado que funcionaban para crear y mantener la real colonia, desde 1524 hasta 1821, estos tres poderes funcionaban  y los pueblos fueron olvidados. Desde 1821 para acá estos poderes se recomponen para el beneficio de los mismos – los elites, los ladinos.  Y eso no ha cambiado nada y no ha contribuido nada para el bien de nuestros pueblos. Ellos han recompuestos sus leyes, solo para el beneficio de ellos. Las estructuras se han reconstruido para el beneficio de ellos. La lucha se ratifica que es mas urgente hoy que nunca.

El sistema de justicia no ha cambiado nada para nuestros pueblos.  Ha sido mas sutil  la manera de represión. Han sutilizado sus mecanismos.  Cuando un indígena, una persona indígena va en la cárcel, cuando queda preso, las condiciones se dificultan. Pero cuando es uno de ellos las cosas cambian.

Y los que estamos como presos políticos, quizás cuando estamos afuera, sabia que yo soy metido en estas luchas. Pero cuando uno está en la cárcel, la familia, quiere o no quiere su familia, a veces se suma a la lucha política. La familia de uno va adquiriendo nuevos compromisos, nuevos conocimientos que expanden sus perspectivas. La experiencia los exponen a nuevas cosas. Estas sus unas de las consecuencias de estar presos en este sistema.  Hay una percepción negativa por parte de los enemigos a nuestra familias.             Pero también, a la misma vez, hay mucha gente que empieza a tener un aprecio para la familia de uno, que en el alrededor de uno hay personas que aprecian y que dan apoyo. Es un apoyo incalculable para mi saber que para mi esposa, hay quien la aprecia,  hay quien la apoya, hay quien la abraza con mucho cariño.

En mi caso, estando aquí en la cárcel, no hay nada mas que hacer que leer, que estoy leyendo mucho. Hay otras actividades que a lo mejor parecen muy insignificantes pero tienen su importancia. Por ejemplo, aquí no hay lasos para la ropa. Pero yo inventé a manera de hacer lasos. Si tenemos costales o tenemos morales, podemos deshacerlos y usar los materiales para confeccionar lasos. Parece que los hago bien, que los trenzo bien, y entonces ahora me piden lasos. Ya se cobra, unos diez quetzales, 15 quetzales. De un costal sale un laso. Ya no se pierde nada.

También, yo lavo mi ropa. Yo lo lavo bien. Entonces hay gente que manda a lavar su ropa. Por ejemplo, hace unos días dentro del mismo cárcel, mandaron manteles para lavar, y yo cobro otros pocos quetzales. Pero no lo hago para el dinero. El valor para mi nos es el valor económico, no es el valor del dinero. Es el valor de hacer algo productivo mientras estoy en la cárcel.

También, unos otros presos me han pedido cursos sobre los idiomas Mayas. Y alguna gente están interesados en la cosmovisión. Y estamos mirando como podemos programar una charla, quizás no solamente para personas de este sector pero para otros sectores también. Ellos necesitan fortalecer sus conocimientos.
Además, estoy tomando un curso. Dentro del sistema penitencial ofrecen cursos para los presos. Ofrecen cursos de idiomas extranjeros, cursos en corte de cabello, contabilidad, electrónica, computación, enfermería o sea primeros auxilios. Yo me inscribí en el curso de electrónica. Eso es para adquirir mas conocimiento y para ocupar mi tiempo.

Hoy sábado me pongo a lavar cuando ustedes se vayan. Domingos por la tarde hay un horario para el estudio de la biblia. Lunes es el curso de electrónica. Martes me dedico a la lectura. También tenemos un grupo para adultos mayores, es decir, los con mas de 50 años. Nos juntamos los días martes en la tarde y se hace ejercicios, para mantener el cuerpo. Tengo problemas con la columna y pensé que no podría pero eso si me ha ayudado mucho. Miércoles tengo libre pero posiblemente tengo cosas que lavar. Jueves también es libre. Muchas veces los abogados vienen a visitarnos entre semana. Sábado es día de las visitas, entonces así paso la semana.

Estoy participando en el grupo de lectura de la biblia para afirmar mi propia espiritualidad.  Sabemos que la cristianismo fue impuesto para dominarnos y no para el bien de nosotros y mi participación en este grupo de estudio me ha confirmado.  Hay grupos de estudio de la biblia domingo, miércoles y jueves.  Pero siempre se aprende algo.

En vez de ver la cárcel como algo malo, si lo miramos por otra perspectiva, te permite analizar la cantidad de problemas que tiene el país. El sistema es incapaz de resolver estos problemas para las personas, y la cárcel refleja la incapacidad del sistema. 95% de la población dentro de este centro preventivo está aquí sin tener ningún delito. En el sector 13, un 75-80% de los presos están aquí por delitos que se inventan. Si el sistema de justicia fuera mas efectivo, no habían tantos cárceles.
Los 73 personas aquí en el sector 13 fueron personas productivas. Se han quitado del pueblo de Guatemala 73 personas que podrían ser útiles, productivas. Yo no estoy defendiendo los que han cometido delitos, solamente observando que el sistema de justicia quita de la sociedad muchos miembros productivos. En el fondo la gente tiene su parte positiva. Aquí no podemos rechazar a nadie. Lo que se han hecho mal es el sistema. Nos han hecho guardar mas rancor para el sistema. El sistema es el que pierda, por tener tantas personas presos, no la gente.

Cuando terminó de dictar estas palabras, Rigoberto nos dio de conocer que para él, es muy importante que los movimientos y las personas se unen. Es decir, no olvidar las diferencias, pero superarlas para poder enfrentar al sistema que ha fomentado divisiones para hacer daño a los pueblos. “Las diferencias hay que superarlas y trabajar. Todos tenemos que sumar a la lucha.”  Al pronunciar estas palabras, ya llegó la hora de la salida de los y las visitantes. Me urgió compartir sus pensamientos con los compañeros y compañeras de los movimientos. Retrasamos nuestros pasos al torniquete, donde esperábamos para el guardia de turno a abrirlo. Mirando a las caras de los reos y sus familiares uno observaba un arcoíris de expresiones y emociones. Ya los familiares pensando en el largo viaje a casa, y como están los niños o los animales que han dejado, quizás planificando como juntar los recursos para la próxima visita, o en algunas tareas o pedidos que les han dado sus seres queridos presos.  Ya vino la guardia, entonces rápidamente los últimos abrazos fuertes y besos, y su esposa y yo pasemos la barrera que nos dividió de Rigoberto y Domingo para el momento. Animadas por la energía de la visita pero a la vez dolidas por la brusca ruptura de la cercanía que habíamos compartido por unas horas, nos mirábamos atrás para una ultima vista, y subimos las gradas, recogimos nuestros documentos, pasemos la ultima puerta y así regresamos al mundo que nos esperaba afuera de la cárcel.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Visiting political prisoners, part 5: "la vida es un carnaval"

There was no way that Rigoberto could have known that I was coming to visit him, since we hadn't been in touch since well before his arrest, and although I asked one of the attorneys to pass my regards along, I have no way of knowing whether he did. But he didn't look surprised when he saw me, as we finally approached the table where he and Domingo were already seated with some of their relatives. He stood to greet me and wrapped me in a long, warm embrace. I joked, "Well, the last time I was here you wanted to see me and we couldn't meet up, but now here I am, although this is probably not where you wanted to meet me." He laughed and we embraced again, and then sat down to eat and talk.

They had only reserved one table -- I learned that prisoners had to request a table in advance -- and there were 10 adults. But we managed to scrounge enough chairs and then we squeezed ourselves in. We unloaded the trays of tamales, and Rigoberto's wife Juana unpacked a large container of vegetable salad -- peas and carrots and green beans with mayonnaise -- and we started to make up plates for everyone. We flagged down one of the prisoners who was circulating taking orders for food, and asked for tortillas, which one of the "waiters" soon brought over. We had our atol and a couple of large containers of water, but this being Guatemala, our table ordered a large bottle of soda (I think Coke, but I'm not sure). 

The dining room where we were seated had about 30 square plastic tables of the kind that you see all over Guatemala, and the U.S. as well, and plastic chairs. The tables were all covered with colorful plastic cloths, decorated with flowers. The prisoners were dressed in street clothes -- that is to say, regular pants and shirts -- with the exception of the prisoners who were managing the food and who were serving as waiters or vendors. Those were distinguished by orange t-shirts. But they weren't a uniform style of orange t-shirt. There were all different kinds of shirts that happened to be orange. One of the prisoner-waiters wore a Syracuse University t-shirt. It seemed as though the prison staff had gone to a "PACA" (one of the places that sells used clothing from the U.S.) and just picked out whatever was orange and purchased them for the prison.

As we ate and talked, there was a constant flow of prisoners walking around offering items for sale. Some had large cafeteria trays with plates of food - fried chicken and tortillas, pieces of cake. Others were selling inexpensive plastic toys such as Spiderman (well, a knockoff of Spiderman). Still others had vases made of folded pieces of paper, intricately braided together, each holding a single flower, also made of paper. Rigoberto explained to me that all of these were businesses that the prisoners ran, and that there was an entire internal social system that was established within the prison. He said, "I'm not very good about writing things, but if I were a writer, I could write a couple of novels about this prison." I asked how the prisoners got the supplies for all of the businesses, and he said that either their families brought them or they had worked out some arrangements with the guards (which seemed clearly was the case -- since half of the items that were for sale included ingredients that were on the prohibited lists). I asked who were prisoners who were permitted to have these sales, and he explained that they were prisoners who had already been sentenced -- this seemed to be relatively benign form of social control by the guards, since if they allowed those prisoners who were serving sentences to have some means of income and also some outlet for their energies, and a position of some relative authority and power, they might be less likely to express their discontent in another way.

The atmosphere was actually very similar to that at a patron saint feast in a small town -- given that we were in a prison. We were in an outdoor patio covered with a tarp, seated around tables, with people embracing, chatting, eating -- sometimes all at the same time -- calling out for service children scurrying around underfoot. There were flowers, vendors circulating among the tables, calling out their wares, background music, and in general a festive atmosphere. The only things missing were the convites, marimba music, the Baile de la Conquista and the fireworks.

At a nearby table, there were five women, mostly middle aged, one somewhat younger with a child. At one point I looked around and saw that there was a very muscled man giving one of the women a massage on her head and neck. He seemed quite good, from what I could tell.  He had one of those Rubbermaid-type storage boxes with some tubes of what I imagined ot be creams and lotions -- a portable beauty salon. When he finished with the massage, he produced a roll of some kind of adhesive tape, and proceeded to do the woman's eyebrows. When he was finished, they chatted for a moment, and then he moved on to other women at the table. I think he gave massages and eyebrow waxing -- after a fashion -- to at least 2 or 3 of the women there, but then I didn't see him again. Perhaps he moved on to another room.

Rigoberto looked amazingly good for someone who had been in prison for over 100 days. He lit up very subtly when he saw the unexpected visitors, just a slight gleam in his eyes and the tiniest hint of smile, but he didn't seem surprised. His eyes were clear and focused, and his face was calm, composed. Serene, perhaps, is a more appropriate word. His speech and gestures were as thoughtful and deliberate as they always have been -- he is one of the most unflappable people I know. Even when we were stopped at that roadblock last summer and our traveling companions told me that he was very anxious since he had several outstanding arrest warrants, he didn't betray any visible nervousness or anxiety, and worked to reassure the others and to try and keep the entire situation under control. These are qualities of a leader, or rather a particular kind of leader, one who works quietly, carefully and almost undetectably. 

I sat next to him so that we could talk as best we could, with all of the hubbub surrounding us. Domingo, whom I didn't really know -- I had seen him, but I don't think we had ever spoken -- was wrapped up with his family, and because I didn't have the same degree of familiarity with him we only spoke one-on-one a little. Rigoberto said he was in fairly good health -- in the beginning he had had some digestive problems from adapting to a different diet and a different routine, but that had settled down and he said that he felt good. I had a letter for him, and also a copy of the Guatemalan Penal Code, and he seemed pleased by both. We asked if there was anything he wanted that was within the limits of what could be taken inside the prison, and he asked for some books. He wanted a book published by the Academy of Maya Languages, called El Alfabeto Unificado de los Idiomas Mayas and another book on the Maya cosmovision -- he wasn't sure of the name but thought it was something like Nuestra Cosmovisión (our cosmovision). He explained that he and Domingo were spending a lot of time talking with the other prisoners, and that the prisoners had expressed interest in learning more about Maya culture, language and spirituality, and so he was going to offer some talks or workshops. I had my notebook but we hadn't been able to bring any pens into the prison. However, the prisoners who were running things and taking food orders had pens and so we flagged down one of the "prisoners in charge" and asked if he could lend us a pen, so we wrote down the titles in my notebook. He told me that they were organizing the prisoners and had established a kind of council. He was also participating in two study groups that met weekly to read the Bible. Anticipating, perhaps, that I might raise my eyebrows and give him a quizzical look, he explained that those were the opportunities that were available in the prison to meet and talk with other prisoners. I said that it made perfect sense, and that from what I knew of political prisoners in the United States, many of them took advantage of similar opportunities to do a kind of political education or consciousness-raising. 

We ate and talked, talked and ate. Domingo bought his son a Spiderman toy, which kept him busy and happy for most of the visit. One of the women at the next table made up some kind of game with him, where she pretended to be about to take the toy away, and he squealed with delight as she play-threatened him. We talked a little about the overall political situation and the unfolding crisis in the country, and the other political prisoners. Rigoberto said he wanted to talk to me in more depth and told me to ask the attorneys to see if they could get permission for me to visit on a day that wasn't the general visiting day. He and Domingo are only permitted visitors on Saturday, and because of the noise and excitement -- and also the presence of so many family members, who had their own matters to discuss with their dear ones -- it was hard to have a consistently in-depth conversation. I promised I would ask (but it turns out that it is not so easy, and there has been so much else occupying the attorneys that I only asked once). He also said it would be good if I could attend one of the court hearings, and luckily -- in a matter of speaking -- there were two scheduled during my trip. So I promised that I would.

We had asked, earlier on in the visit, about all of the food and other things for sale, and Rigoberto leaned over confidentially and said that he wasn't very good at writing, but that if he could write, he would be able to write an incredible book about all of the things that happened in the jail. Momís asked if he and Domingo wanted to write a letter that we could then share with everyone, and so I passed him my notebook and then pen we still had, and he thought for a moment, and then wrote a few pages, and we promised to publish it. We asked Domingo if he wanted to write something, and he dictated a short note that Momís wrote out. 

After we had been there for maybe an hour, RIgo told us that they would have to leave so they could line up and be counted, and that the male visitors would have to leave, but that if we wanted, we could stay and wait for them to return and be able to visit a little more. So we waited, and after about half an hour they returned and we were able to chat a little more.  But Rigoberto's and Domingo's families had long trips back to their homes -- neither was going to spend the night in Guatemala City, and since there are only a limited number of buses that go to Santa Eulalia, she had to make sure that she caught her bus. We walked back out to wait for the guards to open the gates -- visiting hours end at 2 p.m. In the small courtyard, one prisoner was methodically grinding blocks of ice to make granizados (snow cones). He had an ice chest along side and removed and unwrapped one block after another, placing each on a metal wheel that had a scraper on the bottom, turning it with a handle as the shaved ice fell down into a container below. Next to him another prisoner had a small stand selling gum, candy, combs. Off to one side, a young man stood with his mother, and then slipped behind her and wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on her shoulder, and she leaned back into him. Along the wall leading to the exit gate, there were 3 or 4 telephones and prisoners lined up waiting to use them. These were obviously prisoners who had not had visitors that day, and I imagined that some were calling their families to find out why they hadn't come or when they might come. 

Domingo's wife started to tear up as the moments wore down towards 2 o'clock, and tried to fight back the tears. Everyone seemed to get a little tense, a little teary as the visitors knew that they would be leaving the prison, and leaving behind pieces of their hearts, and the prisoners knew that they would soon slip back into the regular routine of prison life. Eventually a guard came down and joked with a prisoner, and we thought he was going to open the door -- we were effectively locked in -- but he just asked one of the vendors for something and then walked back up the stairs. A few minutes later -- which seemed like an eternity -- another guard came and opened the gate and we filed through, tracing our way back through the places we had passed on the way in -- except that we exited through a different doorway. It took us about seven or eight minutes to retrace the route that had taken us over an hour on the way in. There was one last inspection before we finally exited - what we were supposed to have acquired in the prison, God only knows. And then we were back on the other side of the fence, only a few dozen yards away, and with no maximum security barriers or thick concrete walls separating us, but we might have gone to a different planet. We retraced our steps back down the slope. Rigoberto's wife stopped to check for something she had tucked away behind a bush but it wasn't there (I'm not sure what it was; probably some food that was prohibited). We retrieved our bags of fruit from the stand where we had left them, and then found enough cabs to accommodate us, and set off to our various destinations -- Rigoberto's family went to where the buses leave for Xela, and the rest of us back to the Zona 1 (the historic center of Guatemala City).  We made sure that Domingo's wife Juana was able to meet up with the people who were helping her pay for her travel, and then we started our walk back. 

In the brief time before I plunged into the next part of my day -- the weekly protests in the Parque Central in front of the National Palace -- I reflected upon Rigoberto and his composure and conviction. Prison hadn't dampened his conviction in the least; on the contrary, it had sharpened his analysis and strengthened his commitment. I was reminded of a verse in the song by the British ska group The Specials, "Free Nelson Mandela": "His body abused/but his mind is still free." 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Visiting political prisoners, Part 4- inside the prison gates

Saturday is the only day that political prisoners Rigoberto Juárez Mateo and Domingo Baltazar are allowed to have visitors. They had been in jail for over 100 days when I went to visit them on July 4, and it seemed an appropriate way for me to spend independence day. As I matured, July 4 has become much less about fireworks and picnics and more a moment to reflect upon the incompleteness of American democracy. The vision of the so-called founders excluded the indigenous peoples who had inhabited the continent for thousands of years prior to European arrival, enslaved Africans and free blacks, and also women. The U.S. still plays an outsized role in Guatemalan politics -- during the recent and ongoing political crisis in Guatemala, the U.S. Ambassador is widely viewed as propping up the regime of Otto Pérez Molina, while making some mild statements about electoral reform.  
The weather was mild as the taxi wound its way through the streets of Guatemala's outlying zones. The terrain was at once unfamiliar -- I had never been to the prison before and was't sure I had even been in Zona 18 before -- and completely familiar. There is not a lot of architectural variety in the working class and poor neighborhoods of Guatemala City, and so although I might not have traveled down those specific streets before, I have traveled down streets that looked very much like them, with houses that looked very much like these ones, with the same range of colors. There were comedores (modest eateries) and places advertising tortillas a los 3 tiempos (tortillas at "the three times" -- breakfast, lunch and dinner). There were women sitting on stoops with small baskets of avocados or limes for sale. The store names repeat themselves. Wherever you travel in Guatemala, there is nearly always a Comedor Mary, and a Tienda Susy. A Tienda El Buen Precio (Good Price Store). The presence of Evangelical (Protestant) Christianity in its particularly Guatemalan variation can been in the proliferation of businesses or hospitals with the names Eben-Ezer, Shalom, Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace). And so the neighborhood or the town becomes easily legible to the visitor.

We drove past a military installation of some kind and along some stretches of dirt road (there are parts of Guatemala City with unpaved streets and even fields), and then pulled up at an intersection about a hundred yards from the entrance to the prison, settled up with the driver and unloaded ourselves and our bags. There was a broad unpaved "drive" or path that led to the prison entrance, and on either side some stands selling food, beverages, an assortment of clothing and other things -- typical small open-air stands that you can find in marketplaces throughout Guatemala. There were a lot of other people coming to visit their lovers, relatives, mostly women of all ages, from grandmothers to teenagers in impossibly short and tight dresses, many with children in tow or tied to their backs. It was still quite early in the morning, and visitors were chatting among themselves as they climbed up the rocky slope, but the atmosphere was subdued. Clearly many of the visitors had made the trip many times before, and many of their faces and the way they carried themselves displayed a kind of resignation or exhaustion. We had only traveled from the city, but because the prison contains prisoners from all over the country, I had to imagine that there were visitors who had been traveling all night or since the previous day, coming from distant parts. There was almost no one who was empty-handed (aside from children). Some had large black garbage bags, others had sturdier woven-plastic or fabric sacks called costales (singular: costal, accent on the last syllable) that are used to store ears of corn or beans, or to bring goods to market. Some had boxes or crates. I felt that our contributions were very modest by comparison.

We also learned that there were more rules about what could be brought inside the prison that we had originally realized. Jovita had warned us that we would need to unwrap the tamales before going inside, as she had been there before (she is one of the attorneys working on the case) -- this was the first visit for Momís and myself. As we maneuvered our way up the slope, a woman saw that we were carrying bags of fruit and called out, "You can't take fruit inside." The three of us looked at each other-- no one in Guatemala wastes food if they possibly can, even people who are gainfully employed like Momís and Jovita. We had no place to store the fruit, and wondered out loud what to do. The woman helpfully suggested that we could go to one of the vendors' stands and pay the owners a few quetzales and they would store our things for us. So we did -- and we were obviously not the only ones who did not know all the prison rules, as the floor inside the stand was starting to get crowded with packages of what visitors had obviously not known was contraband.

In front of the gates we saw a row of guards, and to the left, a line of people. Someone told us that we had to stand on the line and register. So we did. The "registry" was a young woman sitting at a small concrete table, with a couple of pieces of unlined paper and a pen. Each person who came before her presented an ID and she wrote down the next number on the list and added the name and the person passed on to the first inspection by the guards. When it was my turn, she looked at my passport and although my name is clearly written, she couldn't quite figure out what to make of my last name since it was obviously unfamiliar, and so she wrote it as "KNUR". I didn't bother to correct her; I don't know what the prison does with the lists of names. It looked somewhat informal: there didn't seem to be anything printed on the paper that made it official. Do they keep tabs on who comes to visit and how often? Maybe they were just keeping a tally on overall numbers; we weren't asked what sector we were visiting nor the name(s) of the prisoner(s). 

Then we passed to the first physical inspection: three or four armed guards lined up and they looked in our bags. The guard who inspected my small leather backpack partially unscrewed the tops of my water bottle and the half-bottle of mineral water and sniffed, assured himself that they contained water, poked into the pockets and saw nothing prohibited. The only thing I was carrying of the stash we were bringing into the prison was the plastic bag containing styrofoam plates, plastic forks and napkins, and he patted that, looked inside, and let me go on.  There were more guards behind: we had to be patted down. Then we were permitted to walk through the entrance and up the hill to where a mass of people stood outside a stucco building, that was the gateway to the prison complex. There was a chicken-wire fence that cordoned off the prison dormitories and other buildings from the road where we stood. There seemed to be two more or less defined lines, one stretching along the fence to the right if one stood facing the building and another stretching to the left, and then a gaggle of people in the space between the two lines -- sort of a third line. We looked around to see if there was anyone we knew, and Jovita quickly located a woman she identified as Domingo's wife, Doña Juana about halfway back in the line to the right, accompanied by a restless little boy and a young man who turned out to be SImón, the friend/colleague whom Jovita had told me would be coming. He works for the Guatemalan Federation of Radio Schools, a media organization that was founded over 60 years ago, but he also worked with the radio station in Santa Eulalia (he is Q'anjob'al). Maria, Domingo's wife, had a huge black plastic bag, and a baby wrapped in a shawl that she had tied diagonally across her chest and back. She had been there since 5 in the morning, Simón told us.

Then in one of the other lines Jovita and Momis identified Rigoberto's wife, who was there with some of Rigoberto's nephews (two nephews and one of their wives? I was not sure). I told her we had met before, the first time I met Rigoberto, two or three years ago, when he was still spending most of his time in Salcajá. She nodded, but then about 10 or 15 minutes later she actually remembered having met me and said, "Yes, you came to the house once." We also saw the wife of Don Tello (Adalberto Villatoro), one of the other political prisoners from the town of Barillas, accompanied by a few relatives. Don Tello and his wife Ana are the owners of the Hotel Virginia, located right on the central plaza of Barillas, and as they are supporters of the resistance movement and Don Tello is a member of the Gobierno Plurinacional, a regional alliance. I embraced Ana and asked her how she was holding up; she said she was okay, but clearly this is a huge strain on her to run the business herself. I told her that I still had the small bag of cardamom that she had given me the last time I was in Barillas and that every time I used it I thought of her.

There were vendors circulating around the waiting crowds, offering ice cream, snacks, chuchitos (the difference between a chuchito and a tamale is that chuchitos are smaller and the dough is much firmer so they hold their shape when you unwrap them). There was also someone grilling tacos, and a few buses and cars lined up on the other side of the road. It looked very much like the outside of a school or a bank or anyplace in Guatemala where people are lined up waiting for something -- there are invariably vendors who appear and peddle their wares.

The others conferred about what we were going to do since the prisoners were only allowed four visitors each and there were more than four of us Jovita and Simón very generously suggested that Momís and I go in, along with Domingo's wife and children, since there were already four visitors for Rigoberto, and they were pretty sure that the children wouldn't count, at least not the baby. I think there was one other relative for Domingo, or there were five for Rigoberto but we managed to work it out so that there were a total of 8 adults. Jovita handed me a slim volume, the Guatemalan criminal code, which she said Rigoberto had requested, and slipped a hastily-written note inside.

And then we had to wait. Since I don't wear a watch -- not out of any principle, but the last time a watch broke I never got around to replacing it, and started to rely upon my phone -- and we didn't have phones I am not sure how long we were waiting. but people began to get restless. Some had been there for hours, and the sun was fairly bright and people were getting hot and frustrated. Some began to pound on the locked door, to try and get some response from the guards. There were rumors about which line was going to go first, since each line was for a different sector. One of the doors opened and a few people walked out. It wasn't clear whether they were visitors; they clearly weren't guards. People pressed forward. Still no movement. More shouting, "We've been here for hours, there are women with young children." For a moment I thought it was going to get nasty, and then the guards would come out to repress a visitor riot and then no one would get in. But luckily my worst fears weren't realized. 

People began to crowd towards the doors, and then an official opened the central door and started to let people in. Many people pushed forward and I worried that there would be a crush. Doña Juana's son, who must have been about 3, kept on wandering off and I was worried that we would lose him or that he might get trampled. Doña Juana had the baby, and we were helping her move the heavy bag, and I was trying to keep track of her son, although he didn't seem to want to hold my hand or stay close. Then they closed the door again. About 10 minutes later they opened it and started to let people through, and again people started to push, to the point where one just gets swept into the flow of people. I worried about losing the people I was with or one of the bags breaking or the guards deciding to shut the door again before we could get through but we managed to squeeze inside without losing anyone or anything. There were a few guards inside the gatehouse, and they just kind of looked us over and let us go out the side door, where we scurried along a dirt path that went along the fence, and then sloped down and around some walls. Doña Juana moved very quickly and took a few shortcuts across the grass and Momís and I tried to follow her without losing our footing. Then we came to another building, where we had to wait outside an open door. Again, people started to get somewhat cross with the wait. Some of the visitors asked the guards if they couldn't let the men through who were not carrying anything -- most of the people who were laden down with boxes and packages were women, although there were some men who had packages too. So, they were allowed to pass into the next room, and then eventually so were we. As we were waiting. Doña Juana's son was trying to scramble up a wall and was snaking himself around people's legs and again I was worried that he would get lost or hurt. 

Finally we were allowed through the door and directed to get in line. There were some rows of chairs, like auditorium seats, connected, and the line made an S, across the first row, and then down, and across the second row in the other direction, and so forth (about 3 curves). We got into line, and put some of our packages on the chairs so we didn't have to move them every time we inched forward. The room was open on 3 sides, and the floor was painted concrete.  There was a doorway into the next area, and there was a metal detector in the doorway. High up on the wall were sheets of paper printed with all of the restrictions about what visitors were not allowed to bring into the prison. Among the prohibited food items were oatmeal, flour, powdered milk and Cremora -- obviously anything that was a light-colored powdery substance that could possibly be a way of smuggling drugs. No high heels, no platform shoes. I glanced down at my clunky Dansko sandals and wondered how they were defining "platform".  Batteries, phones, knives, wallets, backpacks. Alcohol. Anything in glass. There was a short list of fruits that were permitted: watermelon, melon, and papaya. It was hard to discern the logic behind a rule that prohibited mangoes but allowed papayas. 

When we made it through the metal detector, we passed into a room with tables on either side, and a non-working x-ray scanner -the kind they have in airports. This was where the guards did a hand inspection of all the packages. Doña Juana had brought some packages of oatmeal which she couldn't take in. So that they wouldn't be thrown out, Momis offered to take them out to the place where we had stored our fruit -- visitors were allowed to leave with offending items and then return empty-handed. The guard who was looking over my things opened my water bottles again, and then opened my billfold and ruffled through the paper money. "No dollars", she told me. I had a few hundred dollars in U.S. currency. I panicked-- there was no place to put the money. Momís had returned with the news that Jovita and Simón were still outside the prison so we decided that she would take my wallet and leave it with them. By the time she came back I was busy unwrapping all 7 tamales under the watchful eye of a guard-a messy business as the tamales were very soft and liquidy. We pulled out the styrofoam plates and tried to put the tamales on the plates and then stack the plates on top of each other. I had a pretty slippery and precarious stack of styrofoam plates -- we found one plastic bag that wasn't completely destroyed and managed to slip it around the stack of 7 tamale-filled plates. 

Then we were ready to move on to the final two hurdles -- presenting our identification again and stating whom we were visiting, and one last physical pat-down. We lined up in front of a row of windows that were one-way mirrors: we couldn't see the people in the booths but they could see us. To communicate with the person in the booth, you had to stoop down as there was a small opening at around waist height- about 5 by 7 inches. So you slid your documents through, and then had to stay bent down to answer questions, and then stand up to be photographed (there were cameras on the outside wall of the booths. As we were waiting, Momís conferred about what to say when asked what our relationship was with the person we were visiting. She was going to say she was a cousin -- as she is Maya, she wouldn't be questioned on that front. But I am very clearly not Maya and not Guatemalan. I thought I could say I was the wife of a cousin who was living in the U.S. Momís said I should say I was his goddaughter. That seemed to work. I handed over my passport, waited while my information was typed into a computer (I couldn't see but I could hear), named the prisoner I was visiting and said I was his goddaughter (I added "por la iglesia" -- in the church -- for good measure). 

However, things were not going so smoothly for Doña Juana. She had ridden all night on a bus with an infant and a toddler and a huge sack of provisions. She was bringing her newborn daughter so that the father who was already in prison when the baby was born, could see her with his own eyes. She made it through the first several levels of inspection, only to find out that the guards would not accept the birth certificates she had brought for the two children because they were copies, not originals, and they would not let the children in. We huddled to think about options: we could take the children outside to be with Jovita and SImón. She could run in and leave the children with me and Momís and then we could go in after she had returned. But Momís decided to try and reason/argue with the faceless guards in the booths and explained that Doña Juana had traveled a long way, that she didn't know what the procedures were, that the father hadn't seen the baby, and so forth, and succeeded in wearing them down so that Doña Juana and the two children were allowed in.

The last step before finally being able to go into the area where the prisoners were, was to submit to a physical examination. There were three doors on the right hand side and the guards called women in, pretty much two at a time (that is, if they looked like they were in a family group).  Momis and I precariously balanced our bags of food against the wall and stepped inside. We were not strip searched, just patted down again, and then released. At last!  We followed the stream of humanity along the corridor and then came to an open area where we could see a solid wall of prisoners, their faces pressed against the grillwork, hungrily straining to see if they had visitors. They were mostly young men and there were also some cat calls since most of the visitors were women, and many of them young. There was a turnstile through which we passed and then we entered a warren of passageways. We didn't really know where we were going but followed Doña Juana. We went down a passageway lined with small stands at which prisoners were selling the same sorts of things that you find in rural markets or street markets in Guatemala Cities -- plastic toys, toiletries, packets of cookies, individually wrapped candies. There were prisoners, and some with their families or girlfriends, sitting along the cement steps that lined the passageway. There were stands selling prepared food, someone with a microwave who had packets of instant noodles that he was preparing for people. It was very much like market day.

We came down some steps and into a dining room with a high ceiling, crowded with individual tables, all covered with flowered plastic table cloths. People were crowded around the tables and there was a thick chatter of voices. We scanned the room quickly but didn't see Rigoberto or Domingo. Within this huge space there were dozens of personal dramas unfolding.  Couples embracing, women sitting on their boyfriends' or husbands' laps -- more physical intimacy than one would usually see in any Guatemalan public space, except with teenagers. So on through another passage, walking past dozens of prisoners and their relatives, and into another dining room. Still no sign. Then down one more passage, up some stairs past where some prisoners had set up a small kitchen and were rushing about with trays of food, and into the last dining room, where we spotted Rigoberto, his wife and other relatives, and Domingo. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Visiting Rigoberto Juarez and Domingo Baltazar, part 3

Yes, this is still background but I promise I will get to the description of the visit to the jail in the next installment. It was quite a day yesterday, July 4, starting off in the early hours preparing to meet my friends and travel to the jail, the visit itself, and then spending the afternoon and evening participating in the latest in a 2-1/2 month long series of protests calling for an end to corruption, demanding the resignation of the president, rejecting political parties, calling for an electoral reform and a postponement or suspension of the 2015 elections.

That movement, however, is an important part of the story of what has happened since Rigoberto and Domingo were captured. They were arrested March 24, and in the few hearings that have been held in their case, it seems clear that the government is interested in incapacitating the political movement in defense of life and territory. As I mentioned in an earlier blog in this series, Rigoberto and Domingo were -- at the time of their arrest -- just the latest in a series of human rights defenders, popular leaders, anti-extractivists, whatever we might want to call them, who have been targeted by the Guatemalan government and the transnationals with which it is allied. 

And then a month after their arrest, on April 25,tens of thousands of Guatemalans flooded into the Parque Central in Guatemala City, also known as the Plaza of the Constitution, in front of the National Palace, in response to revelations by the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), about a huge criminal network headed by the private secretary of the Vice President, Juan Carlos Monzón. The protest was organized via social media by a handful of young people who were not affiliated with any of the traditional left organizations, and who didn't know each other, and the thousands who turned out included many who were not traditional political activists but just ordinary citizens who were fed up. Many carried signs using the hashtag, #RenunciaYa ("resign already"), which became one of the slogans of the movement. While the first protest involved mostly residents of the capital --and was predominantly non-indigenous -- it led to a series of protests that spread to other parts of the country where the population is mostly indigenous. The annual May 1 marches came less than a week after the April 25 protest, and although they had been planned long beforehand, they took on the slogans and demands against corruption and impunity. Another rally was announced for May 6, and then May 13, and May 20.. so it became a weekly event, and after the vice president resigned on May 8, attention shifted to the president, including his role in the genocide during the armed conflict, and the protestors started to demand not just his resignation, but the postponement of the elections scheduled for September of this year and getting rid of all the corrupt politicians including the Guatemalan Congress - in short, a thorough overhaul of the political system.

The protests are continuing -- after returning from the prison yesterday, I participated in the weekly protest at 3 p.m. in the Parque Central, which was sparsely attended, and then a much larger candlelight march in the evening. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Since Rigoberto's and Domingo's arrest I have stayed in touch with some of the attorneys representing them, as they (the attorneys) are friends of mine and have represented several of the other political prisoners arrested for their leadership roles in the peaceful resistance movements. When I began to plan this trip, I contacted my friends Juan and Jovita to see if it were possible to visit Rigoberto, and they explained that there were regular visiting hours on Saturday and that would be the best time to visit (as it turns out, unless I were able to get special permission, it is the only time that anyone other than attorneys can visit). Juan was going to be out of town when I arrived, so I contacted Jovita and we agreed to go to the prison together. She told me what we were allowed to bring -- basically food, nothing packaged or in cans -- and said that we should set out early, perhaps at 6 a.m., since we would have to wait on a lot of lines. I was arriving at 10:30 on Friday night, so this would mean a quick turnaround. Since I wouldn't have a working cell phone when I arrived -- I usually have to go to the phone company to reactivate my phone after several months of not using it -- we made plans to meet at 6:30 in the morning at the bus stop at Parque San Sebastian, a small oasis that houses a monument to Monseñor Gerardi, the archbishop who authored one of the key "truth commission" reports about the genocide and who was assassinated 2 days after the report's publication. 

Luckily my flight was on time -- I had some mild anxiety about what should happen if my flight were delayed substantially and I somehow were not able to make it --and I made it through immigration fairly speedily, and then retrieved my bag and passed through customs fairly smoothly as well, although there were more arrivals than usual for that time of night. But even though my flight had been delayed by about 20 minutes in leaving Mexico City, less than an hour after the scheduled arrival time, I was settling into my room at the Hotel Colonial, complete with a high, wood-beam ceiling and french windows that open onto the ground floor passageway. 

I barely slept -- not unusual for me when I am traveling, at least for the first night. Although I have traveled to Guatemala a lot and was extremely tired since I had not slept much the night before I left, I spent much of the night awake, and did not really need the 5:45 a.m. knock on the door from the hotel's overnight desk clerk. The streets were still fairly empty at 6:15 when I headed out the hotel and walked a block uphill to La Sexta - Sixth Avenue -- and turned right to walk down to San Sebastian. I had brought my phone as a timepiece, and also because I hoped to be able to go to the Tigo store (Tigo is one of the three major cell phone companies) and see how to reactivate my phone. I hadn't brought my camera as Jovita had warned me that there were no pictures allowed. Guatemala City, or at least its ordinary working folk, gets moving early, and although there was not a lot of automobile traffic, and most of the stores and restaurants on La Sexta were still closed, there were people on their way to work, municipal employees wearing bright green vests sweeping the sidewalk and picking up trash and several joggers making their way along the pedestrian strip. I looked at them with envy -- I didn't think I would have been able to get up early enough to go for a run and still make my 6:30 rendezvous with Jovita. I didn't know how to get to the Preventivo, as the detention center is familiarly called, other than that it was in the Zona 18, also an unknown area to me.

I arrived at the designated meeting place just a few minutes after 6:30. There was a group of people inside the park standing in a circle in front of the church. They looked purposeful -- but to what purpose, I didn't know. I walked around a little, walked inside the park, where an older man sitting on a bench reading the paper looked up at me and then looked back. There is an elevated platform along one side of park where the Transmetro buses stop-- shiny new buses painted a bright green. There was a police officer stationed there, presumably to ensure that no one fare jumps. Two turnstiles -- one for a farecard and one for coin entries. Everything seemed very orderly. A few buses stopped, discharged passengers and then loaded up and took off. There was a young Maya woman at the corner, with a baby slung across her back, tied in a shawl, with a large basket covered with a couple of large woven napkins, dispensing food and beverage. Half an hour went by and then I began to get a little concerned. I didn't have a functioning phone, and so if Jovita had needed to get in touch with me, she wouldn't have had a way (I had written to her the night before in a Facebook chat message, as the hotel had wifi, but she hadn't responded). I fished around in my wallet and turned up a few coins, thinking that I could find a payphone somewhere. I walked up the block and found a woman waiting outside a small store and asked her if she knew where there was a phone. She pointed me back to near where I had been sitting along the park's fence, but I actually spotted a phone just down the block from where we were standing and looked up Jovita's number on my phone and then called one of the two numbers I had for her. No answer. I didn't leave a message since most Guatemalans don't listen to phone messages. At least in my experience. Since the call was only 25 cents but I only had a 1-quetzal coin, that left me with a credit of 75 cents, so I called her other phone. Also no answer. I didn't have her boyfriend Ronal's number and I was trying to think of whether there were anyone else I could usefully call. And who would not be angered by a 7 a.m. call. I decided to call my friend Lorenzo in Santa Eulalia, who would not have any idea about Jovita's whereabouts but who would be happy to know that I had safely landed and that I was on my way to see Rigoberto as they know each other well.  Lorenzo answered and was glad to hear from me, but the money soon ran out and so we hung up.

I went back to sit down on the low wall supporting the wrought iron fence around the park and waited. I had nothing much with which to amuse myself. I had a notebook but I had forgotten my pen in the hotel -- and it wouldn't have mattered, in any case, as we would not have been allowed to bring the pen inside the detention center. So I watched and waited. It was a Saturday and so less traffic than on a weekday, but still a lot of people out and about on weekend, and many of them looking like they were going to work or to study. 

Nearly an hour had passed and I started to get a little anxious. I also hadn't made any alternate plans for the day so I was thinking about what I could possibly do to make productive use of my time if it turned out that we weren't going to the prison. I went back to the little store and bought myself a bottle of sparking mineral water so I could get change - change is in short supply in Guatemala, especially coins, and I cannot count the number of times that I have have to have a bill rounded up or down (usually up) because the vendor didn't have correct change. I went to the phone and again dialed Jovita's number but then I heard a voice calling out my name and looked up the street: there in a cab pulled over to the side was Jovita. I replaced the phone and ran over and we hugged and I got in. She told me that she had overslept and then had forgotten her personal identification document and had had to turn around and get it. 

Then we went looking for our friend Norma Sansir, an independent journalist, better known as Momis. Jovita thought that maybe she had gone to another nearby park, Parque Morazán, so we drove there, didn't see her, and then drove back to San Sebastian and found Momis walking along the Sexta Avenida. There was another person, Simón, who was supposed to meet us, but Jovita thought he had gone off on his own. She took a look at my hands and face and told me that I couldn't wear any jewelry, and I couldn't bring a phone, so we went back to my hotel where I took off the offending items and left them in the room. Did I have my passport? Yes. Okay, ready to go.

But we needed to bring food for the prisoners, but there are very strict rules about what you can and cannot bring. They wanted to bring atol and tamales so as we drove toward the Preventivo (as this particular prison is called for short), Momis and Jovita kept up an active dialogue with the driver about where were likely to find someone selling atol or tamales on the street, whether this or that señora who usually sold those items was likely to be on this or that corner. Finally we found a small market and Jovita and I ordered the tamales and atol (they had brought a large container to carry the atol), and Momis wandered off to get fruit. Jovita told me we would have to unwrap the tamales when we got to the prison, but we thought the men would enjoy them. Our goodies all packed up with some styrofoam plates (inevitable here) and forks and napkins, in some dubious plastic bags (the bags didn't seem sturdy enough to me but that was what the vendors had) we went back to the cab and finally set off for the prison.