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.