Friday, July 21, 2017

Another death unforeseen

A little over a week ago, I received a message on Facebook from Sandra, one of the women I'd befriended six years ago when I was in Guatemala and working with the women's organization Ixmukané. Sandra was on staff of Ixmukané back then, and although she has long since left the organization, we stayed in touch intermittently. She is married to the son of Doña Matilde, one of the women whose political campaign I had helped with back in 2011, and Doña Mati's daughter Yanet also became a good friend, so on the occasions that I've visited Quiché since then, I've nearly always stopped to visit Doña Mati and her family. 

But I hadn't heard from Sandra for a long time and nothing prepared me for the message she was sending. I was standing on the sidewalk outside a Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island, and a message popped up on my phone. "Liza murió Kan." (Lisa, Kan died). I started at the screen in disbelief, and then typed back, "Qué pasó? No lo creo," I replied (What happened? I don't believe it). 

Kan was one of several young people who worked for the organization during the year I spent in Guatemala. He was bright, funny, and we became good friends. He was technically adept, and so he was often helping out at the radio station that the organization had set up, making sure that equipment was connected properly, helping soundproof the studio, and so forth. We spent a lot of time together, since I volunteered at the station, and often wound up talking about music. We exchanged a lot of MP3s; he turned me on to Guatemalan reggae groups like Barrio Candela and Mexican rock groups like Molotov, and I gave him American music. Rancheras -- a kind of traditional Mexican ballad, often with very sentimental lyrics about love, betrayal and despair -- are popular in Guatemala and most community radio stations have at least one show devoted to rancheras. Kan and I used to improvise our own lyrics, and imitate the "grito mexicano" (a kind of howl that is done during the breaks in the song). We joked and teased and laughed and were often very, very silly, but also had some serious conversations about Guatemala and Mayan culture, among other things.

But like many young Maya I met in Guatemala, Kan was both conversant with and a fan of global popular culture, and at the same time deeply committed to traditional Maya culture. He was a member of a men's dance group that performed the "Baile de los Toritos" (the dance of the little bulls), a traditional dance that is performed at the patron-saint feast in Chichicastenango, his home town. He invited me to attend a rehearsal for the dance. But it was hardly what most of us would consider a "rehearsal." It was actually a performance, although the dancers were not costumed. It was a huge event, held in a large house with an open patio, which was used as a dance floor. There were over a hundred guests, seated around the performance space, and the Guatemalan version of valet parking (a few guys helping people maneuver their cars into very limited space). 

The event was broadcast on one of the local radio stations, and there were many visiting dignitaries, such as elders from some of the cofradías (cofraternities -- nominally Christian brotherhoods but in the Mayan highlands they have been a way of keeping Mayan spirituality and traditions alive). Most of the dancers appeared to be in their 30s, 40s or even older, so Kan was one of the younger participants. During breaks he introduced me to his parents, and an aunt and uncle who were sponsoring him in the dance group, and made sure that I got moved inside into the room with the dignitaries so I could eat lunch at a table (and not balancing a bowl and plate on my lap). At one point he pulled me out onto the floor to dance with him, handing me a rattle and instructing me in the steps. I asked him if he was sure it was okay, since it is a men's dance and no other women were out on the dance floor; he assured me it was. 

On another occasion, I invited Kan and a slew of the other young people from Ixmukané to Antigua, where I was renting a room in a lovely, large house. They actually invited themselves, and I consented (I later paid the price as my housemates were not thrilled at having 8 or 9 young Guatemalans sprawled on the living room floor, and at least one was intoxicated to the point of silliness). The next day we wandered the streets and came upon a marimba group playing on Fifth Avenue, which is closed off to vehicular traffic on the weekends. Kan started to dance and again pulled me out to dance with him. Those are some of my fondest memories of him.

Later, he ended up leaving Ixmukané -- the director of the organization (who happened to be his aunt) was somewhat exigent, and there was a fair amount of turnover. I don't actually know whether his departure was his idea or hers, but he told me he was going to work in his family's business, which was dyeing threads for weaving. 

After I returned to the U.S., although I have returned to Guatemala at least twice a year since I haven't been to Quiché that often, and I'd only kept in touch with Kan very sporadically. He had become quite interested in photography and so I would see some of his work, but we didn't have much direct contact. 

But Kan had always seemed -- at least in my memories -- lively and full of life, so I was shocked to learn that he had died. According to Sandra, he had been drinking for several days, and then authorities found his body in a car parked on the street somewhere in Chichicastenango.. She sent me a link to a news article from a local source, confirming that Kan's body had been found. Within an hour, at least two other people whom I had befriended during that year in Guatemala wrote to me to tell me about Kan's death. When I got home, I went through my photographs and found a few of Kan -- one at the inauguration of the radio station, and another at the dance rehearsal that I described above, and posted them on his Facebook page, which had by then become a memorial page. I wrote short notes to his sister Ixchel, and his cousin Lucero, both of whom were friends of mine.

When I got to Guatemala, I determined that I wanted to go to Chichi to see Kan's parents and express my condolences in person. Since I was spending several days in Antigua, I decided that the best thing would be to take one of the many tourist shuttles that leave Antigua and make the round trip to Chichicastenango on market days, since I didn't have other plans to be in Quiché and I didn't want to schlep my suitcase around or have to find a place to stay, and the tourist shuttles are usually more comfortable than inter-city Guatemalan buses, which are most often converted school buses. So I checked with Ixchel to see if her parents would be able to see me on Thursday (which is one of the market days) and then I booked a ride through my guesthouse and set off for Chichi. 

Unfortunately the transport workers in Quiché had blocked the highways for a couple of hours and so we were held up for about 45 minutes, which cut my time short, but I was able to find Kan's parents and spend just a few minutes with them; they were busy with errands, so we stood in the lobby of a small shopping center and talked for a little while. For the first time since I'd learned of Kan's death I was able to cry for him, looking at the faces of his parents. He was the oldest of five. "Se nos adelantó" was how they expressed it. "He went on before us" or "He went ahead of us." The grief was clearly inscribed on their faces. They told me that they had learned how much he had been loved and how many lives he had touched through his photography -- since there weren't many professional photographs in Chichicastenango, he had been able to earn some money by going to weddings, parties, birthdays, and taking photographs for people. 

I only had a few hours before getting on the bus back to Antigua, but I was able to spend a little time with another of my friends from 2011, a woman named Sebastiana, who was leading a workshop on community organizing. And I had tea with Kan's sister Ixchel, who still seemed deeply shaken by what had happened. They had a close relationship - he was the oldest, and she was the second child. 

Although it's been some years since I've seen him, it's still hard to believe that he's gone. As I walked through the crowded market of Chichi, or as I walk through Antigua, I see a young man who for a moment reminds me of Kan.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Anniversary of a death unforeseen

A year ago today, I left the house of my dear friends in Santa Eulalia, the family of Lorenzo Francisco Mateo, to visit some other friends in the next municipality, San Mateo Ixtatán. Lico, the oldest son in the family, helped me maneuver my pick-up out of the rocky and uneven parking spot next to the house -- trying to avoid one of the many rocks, I had landed the front wheels in a sort of ditch, and needed help to get the car (in Guatemala, anything that is used for personal transport is a "carro") on the road. By the time I arrived at the home of my friend's family in one of the aldeas outside of the town center of San Mateo, Lico was dead, run over by one of the many trucks that careen recklessly along the narrow 2-lane highway that runs through Santa Eulalia, en route to San Mateo, Santa Cruz Barillas, and other points north. I disembarked from the van that had taken me from the center of town to the aldea, to find my friends anxiously checking their Facebook feeds with long faces.

So much has happened in this past year. Lico was committed to the community radio station of which his father, Lorenzo, has been the coordinator for several years. He loved nothing better than to be in front of the microphone, selecting music to play, fielding phone calls and Facebook messages from listeners with messages and requests, or helping to set up remote transmissions of events that the station would broadcast live. At the time of his death, the radio station had been shut down by the outgoing mayor of Santa Eulalia, and had been operating under the radar, but not able to really maintain a full program. The radio station had been a strong advocate for the community opposition to hydroelectric installations and other projects, and many of those associated with the radio station had been criminalized by the government, which had issued arrest warrants, charging them with incitement to riot, kidnapping and other trumped-up charges.

Last January, Santa Eulalia had just installed a new municipal government and the fate of the radio station was uncertain, although the radio station board and staff were hopeful that the new administration would allow the radio station to resume functioning fully, occupying its former locale in the municipal building.

Lico had also been very concerned with the fate of the political prisoners from Santa Eulalia and Barillas --  7 men who had been arrested on many of the same charges that had been lodged against radio station volunteers and other community advocates (there were originally 9 prisoners but two of them had been released in the fall of 2015). And last summer, they were finally released from jail and the charges dropped because there was no proof. Lico would have been overjoyed to see the caravan that made its way from Guatemala City up to Santa Eulalia, to have greeted Rigoberto and Domingo and the others, to have interviewed them on the air.

When I planned this trip I was very aware that I would be here on the anniversary of Lico's death, and I very much wanted to be with the family. On January 1st, we went to the cemetery to visit his grave. I had been out in the morning at the installation of the new community-level leadership, the "auxiliary mayors".  Then I came home and was in the house more or less by myself when the youngest son, Xhapin, dashed in. He told me that the rest of the family were going to the cemetery to visit Lico's grave, and so I dropped what I was doing and went to meet them. He told me that they were already at the cemetery, but said that they would come down and find me. Guatemalan cemeteries -- at least the ones I've visited in highland towns -- are not organized in neat rows or sections like those in the U.S. Graves are just wherever there is room, and there is no standard size for a plot -- or at least not that I can discern. There aren't marked or paved paths; you just have to pick your way between and around and sometimes over the graves to get to your destination. I remembered that Lico's grave was somewhere up in the back, near the fence that marks the boundary of the cemetery (the cemetery is on a hill -- most of Santa Eulalia is on hills), but I wasn't sure I'd be able to find it on my own.

So we set off, Xhapin on his bike and me on foot. However, by the time I reached the center of town and took the left fork, which is the road that passes the cemetery and heads out of town, I saw Xhapin and his brother Milo on the sidewalk outside Milo's store. They put the bicycle inside and then we walked together to where the rest of the family (well, those that were making the trek with us) were waiting. 

We weren't the only people making such a visit; there seemed to be several families visiting graves. The cemetery was still festooned with the adornments from the Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints' Day), and as we walked up to the very back, where Lico is buried alongside his grandparents, I saw a few candles burning at graves, evidence of recent visits. We made our way up the sloping footpaths and around and over graves, and finally came to where Lico was buried alongside his grandparents. Mila (Emilia), Lico's mother, directed the others. We put our bags on top of the graves, and I could smell the scent of fried chicken coming emanating from one of the bags. Candles were placed on the ground at the foot of both graves -- slim white and yellow tapers -- and then lit.  Then Emilia explained that it was traditional to share some food with the person who had died (I already knew this but it was fine to have it explained again). So, we opened up the packages of fried chicken and tortillas, and then everyone realized that there were no plates. However, they had brought styrofoam cups for the soda, but there were a lot more cups than people, so I suggested that we serve the chicken in cups, which seemed to work. A plate was put on the grave for Lico, and a cup of orange soda. When we were done (we didn't tarry all that long), Mila took the cup and spilled the soda somewhat purposefully over the grave, and removed the food plate (I had thought she might leave it there, but apparently not), and then we packed up and walked down and went back home.

Today, on the actual anniversary, the family was not going to have a large commemoration. They had done that on the 9-month anniversary, but Lorenzo told me that they had invited a lot of people and it was very costly, and they were not going to be able to repeat that because of limited resources. In addition, Lorenzo's aunt died this past week while visiting family in the U.S., and so the family's resources would have to go towards helping prepare the funeral for her. Lorenzo told me that there would be just a few people and that they would do a prayer sometime in the afternoon. I asked when, and he said around 4 (it turned out to be much later, sometime after six, but I've learned that times are usually approximate in Guatemala). I made sure I got back here, and found only Emilia with one of her granddaughters tied to her back, arranging flowers. I tried to be useful by cleaning up some of the stems and leaves that she had removed, but then repaired to the other room to do some work.

A lay religious leader from their church came -- they called him Padre but he is not an ordained priest -- and we gathered in a half circle around the altar, where Emilia had placed four large arrangements of flowers. The altar has always been in a corner of the large room where the youngest daughter Paty sleeps, that doubles as a living room when necessary, and where I sleep when I am here, on the sofa. But since Lico's death the altar has become his memorial. There is a large vinyl banner with Lico's picture on it, as well as some smaller photos on the altar itself. There is always at least one candle burning on the altar, and tonight Lorenzo had brought in a brazier filled with incense, the smoke from which filled all the corners of the room. 

The "service", if one can call it that, was very simple. It was mostly in Q'anjob'al so I didn't understand much. Lorenzo explained (in Spanish) my role in the story of Lico's death -- it's become part of the family folklore, that the last of many good deeds that Lico performed in his life was to get my car out of the ditch so I could go visit my friends. Then the Padre started some prayers, and then everyone kneeled and each person prayed aloud in his or her own way, simultaneously. This seems to be a characteristic of charismatic Catholicism -- that instead of a service that follows a specific and set pattern, with a priest leading and the congregation only responding when requested, everyone prays aloud in his or her own way, often with their voices rising at an emotional pitch, imploring and beseeching God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit (the prayers often mix some Spanish and Mayan languages - the various terms used to address "God" and "Jesus" and "the Holy Spirit" are usually spoken in Spanish and pretty much everything else in Q'anjob'al, at least here. 

After a while, this died down and then the Padre led everyone in the Lord's prayer, and Hail Mary, and then it was over. We got up off our knees, someone opened the doors to air out the room, and we repaired to the kitchen to eat.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Free at last: last visit to the Preventivo (part 2) and then really free!

There are a lot of conversations going on at once, and unlike previous visits, I don't really get much of chance to talk to either Rigoberto or Domingo. I stay as long as possible -- there is an obligatory "roll call" where the inmates are required to go back to their cells and be counted, after which they can return to see their visitors. At that point male visitors are required to leave and female visitors can stay. I always do -- it's often an opportunity to have more intimate conversation, and I also know that for the prisoners, the hours they have with visitors are precious relief from the monotony of prison life.

But this visit is different in that we know that Rigoberto and Domingo will soon be released. When I give Rigoberto the two books of poetry I purchased for him, he hands them to Juana, his wife, and says "I'll read them when I get out. I don't need to have books in here any longer." At one point he goes to get a bag of clothing and other possessions so that Juana can take it with her, so that there is less to pack when he finally leaves.

Eventually the visiting hours end and Rigoberto escorts me to the  exit. The parting is less bittersweet as we both know that we will be seeing each other soon on the outside -- but we don't know how soon.

It turns out to be sooner than I thought.  I get back to the guesthouse, and then run out to get a telephone, since it's hard to function in Guatemala without one. One of the only numbers I have is that of Juana Méndez, Rigoberto's wife. So I call her, and she tells me that they have gotten word that Rigoberto and Domingo are going to be released this very evening. I ask her if I can join her -- she says that she is going to the prison with the folks from Acoguate, and so we work out an arrangement for her and the "accompaniers" from Acoguate to pick me up. I start out walking, and then they call me and we arrange to meet at a particular street corner in the Zona 1. I get into the car and we start driving, and everyone is on their cell phones. Juana tells me she is very nervous. I ask her why. She says she doesn't know, but she is. "But we know he is being released," I tell her. "Yes," she says, "I know, but I am still nervous." 

We have only gone a few blocks when one of the Acoguate folks turns to the rest of us and says, "They are out already, they are in a microbus and heading to the city." The woman who is driving stops the car and we consult for a few moments about what to do. More phone calls. It turns out that they are already in the city, and heading to the home of Kimy and Nelton, two of the key people behind the alternative news service Prensa Comunitaria. So the driver turns around and drives the few blocks to Kimy and Nelton's home. Juana is full of nervous energy. We all hug as we wait to be buzzed in, and then we are inside and walk through the garage and into the ground floor of their apartment. 

The room is crowded with well-wishers -- mostly people who have been part of the support network or who work with Prensa Comunitaria. Everyone wants to get in a hug and a greeting. Francisco Juan, familiarly known as Don Chico Palás, one of the other community and ancestral leaders who had been jailed and who was tried together with Rigoberto and Domingo, is there, along with his wife and his daughter Cesia. Lots and lots of hugs all around. 

It's hard to describe what it feels like to see and be with these men outside of the jail. I did know Rigoberto beforehand, but I have really only gotten to know Domingo over the past year and a half through my visits. We always hoped that they would be freed, but at some points I know that I felt as though it could be a long, long time. Even having seen them in the afternoon didn't really prepare me for this.

We all want to stay and talk, and we also know that Domingo and Rigoberto must be exhausted, from the anxiety, from having been separated from their families for over a year. They need time to rest, time to be with their families. 

And yet, they are besieged by telephone calls -- from family in the United States (Domingo has several older children by his first marriage who live in the U.S., and Rigoberto has a brother in the states), from supporters, from people in Santa Eulalia. Everyone wants to share in the moment 

The travails are not over, we know. Rigoberto was cleared on most of the charges but was ordered to have "remedial measures" (i.e. alternative punishments). The others were pretty much cleared on everything, but the government seems to have had a special interest in criminalizing Rigoberto.

I'll leave you with a few pictures here: Rigoberto on one of numerous phone calls with friends and supporters.

Here one of the independent journalists, Norma "Momis" Sansir (in the center) with Rigoberto's wife Juana Méndez (on the left) and Domingo's wife Juana on the right (sorry, I don't know her last name)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Sonic assault

After years of working in Cuba and Guatemala I still cannot get used to the violent sonic assault from whoever wants to set up a soundsystem on the next corner and blast religion, music, commercial advertisement, whatever at noise levels high enough to cause serious aural damage (no exaggeration -- I've hung around with enough musicians to have a pretty good sense of this). To say nothing of wreaking havoc on one's concentration. Sometimes it's just a truck SLOWLY making its way through the aldea at 6 a.m. advertising the fact that they purchase scrap metal; after what seems like an eternity the truck moves on up the road 200 yards or so and eventually far enough away so that you can't really hear it. When I lived in Chinique, the outdoor Evangelical revival meetings went on for hours, from early evening until late at night and since I lived in the center of town, earplugs and putting a pillow over my head only did so much to muffle the sound. Right now I'm in some friends' home downtown (such as it is) Olintepeque and someone has set up a noisy sound system (seems like it's in the plaza in front of the church and the municipal building; I didn't want to get any closer as the sound is unbearable enough sitting inside the house, so I didn't fully investigate the exact location) playing a variety of music. The music is loud enough, but they have the sound level jacked up even higher for the live announcers, so loud that I cannot even force myself to follow what they are saying. I'm not super-sensitive to noise per se-- I can tolerate loud live music fine, as long as it's not over-amplified. Being in the middle of the drums at the Central Park rumba or right next to brass band at a second line parade -- that's fine. But once you start throwing in lots of amplification, and especially now as it's all recorded music, with the volume pumped up way beyond what the original recording artists surely intended.... yuck.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Interlude: Apologies for slow and late postings

I start out each trip to Guatemala with good intentions of keeping up this blog, on a daily or every-other-day basis. And then sometimes inertia or other commitments step in, and then there's a backlog, and then it seems like too much to catch up, and then what about what's happening right now, but then things would be out of order. Then travel, then the car breaks down (what else do cars do in Guatemala but break down?). This trip I also got pretty sick for several days. So, yes, I'm still working my way through the first day. And you know, if you've read the first posting in this new series, that Rigoberto, Domingo and the 5 other leaders from northern Huehuetenango were freed. A week after they were freed, they returned home in a caravan with dozens of supporters -- I accompanied the caravan and so I will provide some brief reportage about that too, and the days of celebration that ensued. Don't worry, I won't reproduce long speeches (I didn't take a lot of notes, and they were mostly variations on the same theme). And I will probably interject some other observations in separate postings (like about all the delightful aspects of driving in Guatemala). Okay, enough apologies and foreshadowing. 

Free at last: Last visit to the Preventivo (part 1)

As I prepared for this trip, I knew that the trial was finally taking place. It wasn't clear when there would be a decision and once I had purchased a ticket there wasn't really an opportunity to change it without incurring a heavy cost,and I had mapped out my last trips to New Bedford based on my departure date of July 23. In the week prior to my departure I was in touch with friends in Guatemala and had been following the trial from a distance -- at least the summaries folks were posting. No one seemed to know exactly how long the trial was going to take. The prosecution had prepared a list of 60 witnesses, but apparently they decided not to call all of them. One of my friends in Guatemala thought the trial might extend into this week, and so I thought that I might catch a few days of it. 

But things moved faster than I had thought and on Thursday of last week, July 22, there were announcements that the sentence would be read the following day. On Friday, as I prepared to leave for the airport, I kept seeing updates that pushed the time of the sentencing farther and farther back. I had hoped that if I wasn't able to be there, at least I would be able to find out the results. When I was on a layover in Mexico City, I finally was able to see that the judge had started reading out the sentences, and had declared the first person innocent, but then I had to get on the plane. By the time I landed in Guatemala City, I was offline and then had to get my bag and get settled into the guesthouse; when I was able to get connected to the wifi network here, the judge had declared that they were all innocent and to be released -- 

When I first got the news, I didn't know what that would mean in terms of my plans -- which I had left very wide open. Would they be staying in the capital, or going back to Huehuetenango immediately? For a moment, I thought that maybe they would be leaving immediately.  I got up early and went for a run, not sure what I would do next as my plans were dependent upon the now-ex-prisoners. I then found out that for some technical reasons Rigoberto and Domingo were not to be released immediately, but the other five from Barillas had been released in the wee hours of the morning. I wasn't sure if the 5 who had been released immediately would wait for the other two. I contacted one of the lawyers on Saturday morning to find out when he thought Rigoberto and Domingo would be released, and he told me that it might be Monday or Tuesday. I said that I would then try to go visit them at the Preventivo: the detention center for those awaiting trial. He said he wasn't sure whether they would be allowed visits but he urged me to try. The other times I've visited the Preventivo I got there at around 7 or even earlier to be there when the guards started letting people through, but it was already 9 when I made up my mind to go. Even if I weren't allowed in I knew I'd feel better for having tried. 

I got the guesthouse owner to call a cab for me (I still didn't have a phone -- that was going to be one of my first tasks for the day but that would have to wait).  Next -- what gifts could I bring, other than food and money? I have always gotten books for Rigoberto because I know he is extremely intellectually curious, and it's always seemed to important to remember that while their bodies are jailed, their minds are not. I didn't have time to run to a bookstore, but by fortunate coincidence, my breakfast table companion at the guesthouse was representing a small Mayan publishing company at the Guatemalan Book Fair (FILGUA). He had left a couple of samples for the guesthouse owner to sell, so I selected two volumes -- a bilingual (Spanish-Q'eqchi) volume of poetry, and a translation of an older Kaqchikel manuscript. 

The rest of the preparations I know by rote. I have to wear a skirt or a dress and flat shoes. The skirt cannot be too short (I once saw a young woman with an extremely short skirt that barely covered her crotch; she had a blanket that she wrapped around her waist when she passed the inspection, and undoubtedly took it off when she was inside). No spaghetti straps. No exposed midriffs. No plunging necklines. Sounds like an American high school, right? No boots. The penitentiary system is all about biopolitics and disciplining the bodies of both prisoners and visitors. What clothing you wear. Strict gender discipline: skirts and dresses for women, pants for men.  Which leads to constant tug-of-war between the state's need to exercise control and many female visitors' desire to at least visually stimulate their incarcerated partners. For the traditional Maya women and girls, who make up a significant portion of the visitors, the regulations on clothing are unnecessary. Cortes are almost always mid-calf or longer, and güipiles or blusas are usually modestly cut (although more "modern" variations have scalloped necklines that reveal a little more flesh, but no decolletage or cleavage).

I am not sure I realized that there is a regulation about wearing skirts or dresses until I unintentionally violated it the last time I visited -- the last time before this one, back in March. At one point, about a year ago, there were some typed sheets of paper posted high on the wall in one of the waiting areas with lists of dos and don'ts, but those lists have been gone for at least 9 months. In any case, I'd always worn skirts or dresses to the Preventivo not because I was aware there was a regulation (I was aware that skirts couldn't be too short or necklines too low, but somehow it passed me by that pants were prohibited for women), but because I very often wear skirts and dresses when I am in Guatemala and I usually want to "look nice" when I go to the Preventivo because I know it's a special occasion for the prisoners I visit. But on this occasion, as I got dressed in the chill pre-dawn hours on a Saturday in mid-March -- pre-dawn because I wanted to get there really early to get a good spot in line -- I pulled on a pair of pants since I knew I'd be waiting around for a long time. Luckily, before the guards finally opened the gates and started letting people in, another woman came up to me and said, "Are you planning to go inside?" Mentally, I replied "What, you think I've been standing around here for hours just because I have nothing better to do with my time?" But of course I kept my smart-ass New York retort to myself, and politely replied, "Yes, I'm here to visit someone." She clucked disapproving and pointed at my pants. "You know you can't go inside like that." I gulped. "No, really?" She looked at me pityingly (probably saying to herself, "Aiyayay, another idiotic gringa who doesn't know the difference between a tamale and a tortilla."). Somewhat desperately, I asked, "Is there anything I can do? I'm visiting from the United States (I can play the dumb gringa if it seems appropriate and useful) and I came all the way here to see my friends and I've been waiting for hours already and this is the only time I'll be able to see them before I leave for my country." All of which was basically true. She pointed down the road a little and told me that the woman who, for a small fee, provides a kind of "bag check" for the things people cannot bring inside the Preventivo (like cell phones, keys, and so forth), also rents skirts. I raced down to her little stand, and fortunately, she had a smart little skirt in my size, so I slipped the skirt on over my jeans, slipped the jeans out from under the skirt (skills you learn shopping for clothes in NYC), and raced back to my place in line.

Okay, disciplinary mechanism to police gender-appropriate attire successfully enforced. Lesson learned. Next time no need for the rule to be mentioned -- it has already been internalized. 

So, let's jump back to the present, and late July, the day after the historic sentence in which Judge Yazmin Barrios told Rigoberto that he should keep doing what he was doing. I am appropriately dressed, and I know I cannot bring keys or coins into the Preventivo. I've seen women wearing rings and crosses and earrings but I'd been told no jewelry so I've always taken mine off. I've arranged with the cab driver (whom I know well from several previous trips) to come back at a specified time to pick me up, so I put everything I need to leave behind in a small bag and hand it to him - I miss a 1-quetzal coin which I have to surrender to the guards; I don't bother to go back and pick it up). We stop to get food -- the prison provides some minimal nourishment and enterprising prisoners have set up a surprising variety of small businesses, so it is possible to purchase everything from ice cream to fresh fruit, fromo instant noodles to carne asada. But I always like to bring food from the outside, usually tamales or chuchitos (a denser, smaller version of the former, sometimes wrapped in corn husks rather the mashan leaves traditionally used for tamales). So we made a quick stop while I got tamales, some freshly made tortillas (I had to wait for those), and some refried beans, along with a liter of water, and then headed onward. 

The scene was quite different than on the other occasions since it was several hours later than I would have normally arrived. Much less hubbub around the entrance. The guard gave a cursory pat and glance to my bag, inspected the water bottle, flipped the pages of the books to make sure I wasn't hiding any cocaine or god-knows-what, and waved me on.  There was a very short line outside the locked door, but I could see that there was a pretty long line of people waiting inside.  After a relatively short wait, we were let through, wrists stamped, and moved on down to the next waiting area. 

Here's where the differences between the different sectors of the Preventivo become clear. This one inspection area processes visitors for Sector 11 -- those awaiting trial for hard-core criminal charges (drug trafficking, gang activity, rape, crimes involving weapons including murder) -- and Sector 13 (a variety of less-serious offenses; this is the sector where Rigoberto and Domingo were held). The other political prisoners from Huehuetenango who were held for a long time at the Preventivo, Don Tello and Don Chico Palás from Barillas, were held in Sector 12, which is apparently the "nicest" sector of the facility.  There were separate waiting lines for Sector 11 and Sector 13, although we all had to pass through the same preliminary inspection of packages, registration of documents, and bodily inspection. There were more women on the Sector 11 line with revealing clothing, make up, and more extremely young mothers or mothers-to-be. There were more traditionally attired Maya women on the Sector 13 line. These are just my observations from about 6 or 7 visits over a 12-month period. And the guards alternated letting some from the Sector 11 line pass, and then some from the Sector 13 line. But they always let more from the Sector 11 line go through -- and they did seem to be a louder, more restive bunch, more ready to shout out at the guards. "Poli, we're waiting here forever. Poli, open up already. Poli, our husbands are dying of hunger." 

In any case, as our line snaked around the waiting area, we exchanged knowing glances as children grew restless, arms got tired of carrying packages, heads wearied of balancing baskets. I made faces and played peek-a-boo with a gurgling baby, as much to amuse myself as to relieve her mother. Finally my turn came. Luckily the guards found no reason to have me unwrap each tamal (as happened the first time I visited). The guard just satisfied herself by pulling one out of the bag, squeezing it, feeling around the bag to ensure there was nothing else in it, hefting the bags of tortillas and black beans, barely glancing at the books. She did find a stray 1-quetzal coin. I apologized, she put it aside. End of story, on to register my identification document. I had the back luck of getting on line behind someone who apparently had some very complicated issues (there are 6 windows and it's impossible to tell which line will move faster -- just like a supermarket checkout). But just like in the supermarket, if you change lines, then the line you left will usually start moving faster. So I stayed. Crouch down to speak to the guard --the window through which you speak is at a height that forces even short people like me and the 50% of the population in Guatemala that is 5' or shorter to bend down. There is thick one-way glass so you cannot see inside the booth except the small opening through which you speak; you can dimly discern the profile of a person at a computer screen. He takes your document, asks who you are visiting, sometimes asks your relationship. Each prisoner is normally allowed only 4 visitors and I don't always have a chance to coordinate to make sure there isn't an excess of visitors for either or both. I usually play it safe by saying Domingo because Rigoberto is a more nationally recognized public figure. This time the guard seems to recognize my name ask he asks, "You've been here before?" "Yes," I reply. I get a numbered ticket. On to the physical pat-down, through a turnstile, another stamp on the wrist, down a concrete staircase to a set of tables where the packages that have just been inspected by the guards upstairs before I surrendered my passport and endured the pat-down are inspected once again. Sometimes the downstairs guards will reject something that was approved by the upstairs guards. It's anyone's guess. Today everything is fine and so I sail on -- through another turnstile and a locked gate that is opened to let me into what feels like a den of hungry animals as inmates who are expecting, or hoping for, visitors, or waiting around to see who else has gotten or not gotten visitors, or who have nothing else to do on visiting day, hover around the gates to scrutinize the new arrivals. There are sometimes comments and whistles; being older means that I receive fewer, which is fine. On the occasions that I have arrived with the first wave of visitors, usually Domingo and Rigoberto are waiting -- not for me in particular, but to see if there are any visitors. They do receive phone calls so they sometimes know if family, attorneys, human rights observers or journalists are coming, but even if no one has specifically communicated in advance with them, they wait because they know that not everyone will have the ability to let them know. Today, since I am with a later wave, I know that they won't be there, but I know where to find them.

Invariably, an inmate asks who I want to see, and then says he'll take me there, but it's clear that he doesn't know exactly where to find them. I tell him I know where they will be, in the designated "dining room". "You've been here before", he says. "Yes, several times." I'm not sure why he continues to walk with me since I've indicated I know where to find them, but it's fine. He walks into the dining room with me, slaps palms and bumps fists with some inmates tending a large freezer tub containing ice creams and ice pops near the entrance and asks if they know where Rigoberto and Domingo are. However, I spot them before the inmates have responded. I thank my escort and move over to embrace the men and their wives, who not surprisingly have come to visit, along with some acompañantes (accompaniers) from an international NGO called Aco-Guate.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Free at last, free at last -- background

It's been months since I entered anything in this blog but looking at the last entry, it is entirely fitting that this first entry after a long time shares my joy at having been able to share the first few hours of freedom with Rigoberto Juárez Mateo and Domingo Baltazar, who were finally freed tonight, after 16 months of being unjustly incarcerated on what were basically false charges.

For those of you whom I've befriended recently, a very brief background. Rigoberto and Domingo are from the Q'anjob'al municipality of Santa Eulalia in the northern part of Huehuetenango in Guatemala. Q'anjob'al is one of the 22 Maya ethnic/linguistic groups, and the municipality of Santa Eulalia is almost entirely Q'anjob'al. My friends tell me there are only a few families in the town who are not Q'anjob'al. They were arrested on March 23 of last year and have been in "preventive detention" ever since as their case very, very slowly wound its way through the Guatemalan courts. They were arrested for their leadership in a community struggle against hydroelectric projects that were being pushed down the community's throats. 

Santa Eulalia and the nearby municipalities of San Mateo Ixtatán and Santa Cruz Barillas have all participated in community consultations in which the residents have overwhelmingly rejected mining and hydroelectric projects on their territory. Nonetheless, the government has granted licenses to hydroelectric companies, and a Spanish company, Hidro Santa Cruz, started preliminary work in Barillas a few years ago. The communities started to organize against the incursions into their territory, particularly galling as the proposed location for the hydroelectric dam was a sacred waterfall.

On May 1, 2012, company guards opened fire and wounded two men who were active in the resistance movement, who were returning home from the town's patron saint feast. One of the men, Andrés Pérez, died. The townspeople rose up and flooded into the main plaza; the government declared martial law and send troops to occupy the area. They went door to door looking for the leaders of the movement, ransacking people's homes and terrorizing the population. Several people were arrested, and arrest warrants issued for others. 

In April, 2013, Daniel Pedro Mateo from Santa Eulalia, colloquially known as "Daniel Maya" for his defense of indigenous culture and territory, was kidnapped on his way to a meeting. Daniel was an outspoken critic of the hydroelectric projects and the willingness of the government and transnational companies to ignore the community-based consultation process. A few days later, his lifeless body with clear signs of torture, was found in a rural community. Shortly afterwards, members of the resistance movement in Barillas set up a blockade on the road leading to the proposed dam site --a road that was built by the hard labor of community residents, not by the local or national government. This "peaceful resistance" (resistencia pacífica) was called Poza Verde -- named after the location where it was established. It's about a kilometer from the center of town, easily traversed by foot. Men from the many small hamlets and rural communities took turns staffing the resistencia pacífica, and women and girls from the nearest hamlets, Recreo A and Recreo B, took turns preparing food. 

I won't detail all of the events that led to the arrest of Rigoberto and Domingo and the others -- there were seven other leaders from Barillas who were arrested at different times. At one moment there were nine leaders from the northern part of Huehuetenango in jail. Two of them, Saúl and Rogelio, were released earlier this year, and so seven remained until July 22. But in brief: in September 2013, Mynor López from Barillas, who had helped establish the resistencia pacífica, was arrested. There were a series of disturbances and road blockages in the area around Santa Eulalia, in Barillas, and in the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán, which is located in between Santa Eulalia and Barillas. Several times government troops were sent in. In Barillas, residents who were tired of the militarization of their town burned one of the police stations.

There were various "mesas de diálogo" (dialogues) between an organization that sprang up in the context of this resistance movement, or movement "in defense of territory and life", called the Plurinational Government, and the national and regional governments. The Gobierno Plurinacional includes representatives from at least five of the Maya ethnic groups that reside in northern Huehuetenango, along with those non-Maya community leaders who support the same basic principles (some people call them "ladinos solidarios" -- Ladinos in solidarity). The mesas de diálogo did not produce a lessening of tensions. 

Throughout all of this, there were arrest warrants (ordenes de captura) issued against not only the most public leaders of the movement but also against many, many individuals who supported and participated in the movement in defense of life and territory. The local branch of this in Santa Eulalia was often called "the social movement" (el movimiento social). Most of my close friends and acquaintances in Santa Eulalia and Barillas were affiliated with one of more of these entities, the social movement, the local government and the Plurinational Government, and they had arrest warrants against them. Often the charges were fairly serious, but also seemed to have little factual basis. A frequent tactic of the government has been to blame the recognized leaders for any disturbance that takes place, and one of the most frequently used charges - favored because it is so vague - is "plagio y secuestro" (detention and kidnapping). Staging a sit-in in front of a government office could be construed as "plagio y secuestro" -- the government officials cannot leave, presumably, during the sit-in. That's just an example -- this wasn't a situation that occurred in northern Huehuetenango. Some people were more concerned than others about the arrest warrants. Many people I knew in Santa Eulalia avoided traveling outside of the municipality, or especially to major cities like Huehuetenango, Xela or Guatemala City, for fear that they would be picked up on one of these old arrest warrants.

On January 19, 2015, there was a disturbance in one of the aldeas (rural hamlets) of San Mateo Ixtatán and the police arrested two men and brought them to the regional tribunal (Centro Administrativo de Justicia -- administrative justice center) which was located in Santa Eulalia. Representatives of the Gobierno Plurinacional and its local branch (known locally as "el gobierno local" - the local government) met with the judge late at night and into the early morning hours to try and secure the men's release. Rigoberto was one of the negotiators. In addition to his role in the gobierno local and the Gobierno Plurinacional, he is part of the "ancestral authorities" (autoridades ancestrales), which has more of a spiritual/cultural connotation. The spiritual leaders are often referred to as "los abuelos" (the elders) and the ritual center is called "La Casa de los Abuelos". Rigoberto was part of this entity (I hesitate to call it an "organization"). 

Many people had gathered outside the CAJ awaiting the results of the negotiations, including members of the some volunteer staff members from the community radio station Snuq Jolom Konob, which has been an important outlet in the community for fifteen years. Daniel Pedro was one of the founders of the radio station, although he was no longer extremely active in the station at the time of his death, and Rigoberto Juárez had also been involved in the station for many years. The arrest and negotiation was just the kind of event that a local community radio station would want to cover --in a remote rural area like Santa Eulalia, community radio often provides the only real local news coverage. While people were gathered outside, a car belonging to the then-Mayor of Santa Eulalia drove by and someone fired shots from inside the car. A young man, Pascual Basilio Pascual, was hit. The Mayor had made clear his support of the proposed hydroelectric projects -- despite the fact that over 90% of the people had voted "no" in the community consultation.  Supporters of the mayor formed a mob chased and attacked those viewed as supporters of the resistance movement (I'll use this as a convenient shorthand). Members of the mob kidnapped a woman named Dominga, stripped her of much of her clothing, and threatened to gang rape her. Two of the volunteer broadcasters at the radio station were among those chased and attacked by the mob.

A few days later the Mayor cut off power to the radio station -- the radio station had used space in the municipal building for years. And later he placed a lock on the door, effectively putting it off the air. The station's board and director managed to find a way to transmit programs online, without having a central location for the station. But they still struggled to find a way to start broadcasting again, trying to find a way to pressure the Mayor into permitting them to reopen.

 In early March, the young man who had been shot by bullets coming from the Mayor's car died in a hospital in Santa Cruz del Quiché, and preparations were made to give him a martry's funeral upon the return of the casket to Santa Eulalia. This was just around the time that the radio station board and sympathizers had decided to reopen the station. The funeral was on March 17, and hundreds of people turned out. On March 19, two days later, hundreds of people, including dozens of journalists (mostly from independent and alternative media outlets), again gathered in the town plaza to re-inaugurate the radio station. The Mayor took the stage and announced that only if the station elected a new board and found new broadcasters would he give permission, and armed supporters started to harass people in the crowd. Some journalists were attacked and had their cameras and equipment seized. Clearly, the station did not reopen that day -- it remained shuttered until 2016.

On March 24, Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar, both respected local leaders (Rigoberto was also quite well known on a regional level), traveled to Guatemala City to bring formal complaints about these various human rights violations in Santa Eulalia. They were intended to file complaints with the Public Ministry, the Human Rights Ombudsman's office and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights. As they were crossing the Sexta Avenida, a main pedestrian thoroughfare in the Centro Histórico, in the company of a human rights attorney, they were approached by police agents and told they were being arrested. No warrant was produced. 

Thus began the odyssey that ended -- or at least most of it -- last night, July 23 -- 16 months almost exactly to the day of their arbitrary (and now, according to Judge Jazmín Barrio, illegal) arrest.