Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chance encounters

Just before I left for California on November 3,  I stopped by my favorite upscale café in Santa Cruz to pick up a latte for the road. -It's actually the only one, so it's a good thing I like it. Well, I like what they serve and I like being able to sit in a comfortable place with wi-fi and drink a latte. But I have mixed feelings, as it also seems to be the favored hangout of the Batres family -- one of the wealthiest families in the department of El Quiché and among the upper-crust nationally. The family owns a national chain of pharmacies (Farmcias Batres) and the current patriarch of the family, Arturo Batres, was recently elected to congress on the Partido Patriota (one of the far-right parties, the one to which president-elect Otto Pérez Molina belongs).  I knew something was up when I saw the men with sunglasses and the SUVs -- private bodyguards. At a table inside (this was a few days before the second round of the presidential election) were two men wearing orange vests (orange is the color of the Partido Patriota) -- the congressman elect (Arturo Batres) and Estuardo Galmez, who was a captain in the military, ran for congress on the PP ticket, but got disqualified because it turns out he is not a resident of Quiché but lives in Esquintla, in the southern part of Guatemala. I believe he was stationed in Quiché during the war (which means his hands are probably stained with blood, hard to imagine otherwise), as he made some ostensibly heartfelt claims about how well he knew the department in the one campaign appearance I saw. I shuddered a bit, thought about snapping a photo, decided against it (even though the congressman-elect is a public figure, I didn't want to tussle with his bodyguards), waited for my latte and then left.

Several days later, after my return from California, I stopped by again, on my way to the radio station, to get a latte for myself and a cappuccino for my colleague Jeanet. This time as I stepped out of my car, my attention was caught by something completely different. The shopping plaza in which the café is situated has several locales that are not rented and that are under construction. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a man wearing a t-shirt that I thought said something about Everardo. Everardo was the nom-de-guerre of Efrain Bámasco Velásquez, guerrilla commander, who married  U.S.-born attorney Jennifer Harbury. He was captured in 1992, tortured, and later killed in 1993. But for years after his capture, Jennifer was unable to get any information from the Guatemalan government about him.  They denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. She staged two hunger strikes and eventually learned that he had been detained and tortured for a year and then killed and that the CIA was intimately and directly involved with his torture and killing.
She has detailed her search, and the involvement of the U.S in torture in Guatemala and elsewhere, in Searching for Everardo and Truth, Torture and the American Way. I just recently heard a news story on Democracy Now in which she was featured, and so this was fresh in my mind.  I cautiously approached the man wearing the shirt, who seemed busy getting constructions materials ready inside a half-finished storefront -- as I got closer, I could see that the shirt was definitely about Everardo.

Even more gently, I asked the man if I could take a photograph of his shirt. Because the wording on the shirt was in English, I did not assume that he necessarily knew what the shirt said. Since there are many PACAs (stores that sell used clothing that is shipped in bulk from the U.S.), one sees a lot of people wearing t-shirts or jackets with wording in English, and it is fair to assume that many of the people wearing these clothing items just bought them because they liked the color or the design or it was what was available at the time. I cautiously mentioned that I knew about the case of Everardo. In Guatemala, even 15 years after the Peace Accords were signed, I feel as though I should be careful talking to unknown people about the war, about the guerrilla, about human rights issues, unless I can glean something about their sympathies. You never know who might have been in the civil patrols (PACs), which committed a lot of the atrocities (often because they were forced to by the army), or in the military itself.

He gladly stopped what he was doing and allowed me to photograph both sides of the shirt, and then started to tell me about the human rights organization with which he worked. He mentioned the name of Amilcar Méndez, a well-known human rights activist whose son was assassinated several years ago, and whose nephew was assassinated earlier this year in Santa Cruz del Quiché.  We chatted a while and I told him that I worked with an indigenous women's radio station, and that I had met Amilcar. We talked briefly about the situation of the many unsolved human rights cases; throughout he was very genial and pleasant and genuinely seemed interested in talking. I was sorry I couldn't stay longer but I was already late for a meeting, but he said that he was there all the time and available to talk.

So, sometimes it pays to stop and talk to a complete stranger, to do something that might seem a little imprudent or forward or risky... it's not always easy to tell when it will pay off, or when it will get one into trouble.

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