Sometimes the news here is beyond horror. We get accustomed to daily newspaper and radio reports about assaults on buses, bodies being discovered by the volunteer firemen in one municipality or other, and other acts of violence. If it's not murders and assaults, then it's political corruption and impunity - and perhaps those are related in ways that I haven't fully analyzed.
But this weekend was especially brutal, even for a country that has a daily murder rate of 18 (one of the highest in Latin America). Last night, via Facebook (here we are again with the social media thing), I learned from a friend in Guatemala that there had been a mass killing in Petén -- 27 decapitated bodies found on a finca near La Libertad. By the time I checked the newspaper, the body count had risen to 29: 27 men and 2 women, all campesino/as who worked on the finca. According to the news, the killings were probably the work of a drug cartel, likely the Zetas. The scale and brutality (today's news noted that there appeared to have been torture before the killings) harken back to the mass killings of the internal armed conflict. And perhaps there are connections here: it is widely believed that former (and maybe not-so-former) military are deeply involved in the narco trafficking operations. At the very least, the cartels operate with lack of any meaningful interference or intervention from the police and military.
And then this morning, as I was helping a friend who is part of the radio project find some information about bilingual education in Guatemala, I came across a news headline that the nephew of human rights activist Amilcar Mendez had been murdered. Three things hit me: this was someone I knew (Amilcar, not the nephew); he had already suffered one murder in his family (his son, a photographer who had accompanied him in some of his recent human rights work, was murdered in 2007); and the murder occurred in Santa Cruz del Quiché -- where I am sitting as I write these lines. This was a targeted assassination and not a random killing: just in case anyone is worried about my personal safety. The killers attacked him at the entrance to his home. There were unconfirmed reports (unconfirmed by the police) that the neighbors captured 4 people.
I don't claim to know Amilcar well; someone had given me his phone number when I made my first trip to Guatemala in the summer of 2009 and I didn't really know much about him. He was eager to meet and offered to host me the night before I left Guatemala. After I found my way to the community where he lived, I spent the evening with him and his family, intermittently chatting with him about his work, about human rights, and other human rights figures in Guatemala. Teddy Kennedy had just died, and Amilcar was very affected by the news; he had been the recipient of the Robert Kennedy award and had met Ted Kennedy on a few occasions. During the course of the evening, he had mentioned that he was very preoccupied with the case of his son but it wasn't until we went into his study and he began to tell me stories about the photos that lined the walls, and explained that his son, who had taken many of the photographs, had been killed two years earlier. Words are really inadequate at moments like that: what do you say? "Sorry your political enemies took their rage out on your family?" I can only imagine the horror of losing a child (I know a few friends who have, but not during the time of our acquaintance), and it must be even more horrific when it comes as the result of a political assassination -- in part due to one's own political activity.
So, the culture of impunity is alive and well. I don't hold out much hope for the long arm of the law; after all, the people who were killed were not "important" individuals, just some poor campesinos who happened to be working on the wrong finca. The legal system functions imperfectly at best: last week the ex-president who was charged with influence peddling and corruption was let off (although one of the three judges dissented).