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.