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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Carta del preventivo: palabras de Rigoberto Juárez Mateo

[Nota: igual que la carta anterior de Domingo Baltazar, esta carta fue dictado antes de la audiencia del día 18, que resultó en otra postergación del proceso legal.]

En primer lugar, quiero agradecer a todos los solidarios, a toda la gente que se solidarizan con nosotros, en nuestra calidad de presos políticos. Pero yo diria que, mas de presos politicos, somos secuestrados oficialmente por el estado de Guatemala. También felicito a todos los pueblos que conformamos la República de Guatemala por las manifestaciones y articulación hecha durante todo el año pasado, la que dio inicio el 26 de abril de 2015. Y que ocasionó el desmantelamiento de la red de corrupción desde el nivel mas alto del poder ejecutivo y el poder legislativo así como el poder judicial. Y por supuesto que necesita mejores esfuerzos para limpiar las estructuras del estado del mal que por siglos ha agredido a nuestros pueblos. 

Un otro aspecto es que también felicitamos a las autoridades comunitarias de las distintas comunidades y pueblos originarios por su lucha incansable en la defensa de la vida y los territorios ancestrales, que han sido amenazados de nuevo por los que tienen el poder político y económico en el mundo, que son los causantes en mejor grado de la crisis ambiental que sacude el planeta en la actualidad. Y que aún con las amenazas de autoridades del gobierno y las empresas, han defendido con vigor e incluso con su propio vida lo mas sublime que es la vida.

Para el año 2016, supone superar los obstáculos para trascender la vida. Para esto se requiere que las nuevas autoridades electas popularmente no sean serviles a los que históricamente han dañada a nuestros pueblos, es decir, los alcaldes municipales, en su jurisdicción autonómica, encausar la defensa de sus territorios. A los diputados electos que ya no castigan nuestros pueblos emitiendo leyes que favorecen los de siempre. Mas bien legislar en función de las necesidades de nuestros pueblos. A los miles de autoridades comunitarias, este pasado 1ro de enero asumieron sus cargos, seguir el camino trazado por nuestros ancestros, en función de harmonizar las relaciones entre la población de su comunidad, pero sobre todo, seguir en arbolando la lucha por la defensa de la vida y el territorio para el bienestar de nuestras futuras generaciones. 

Finalmente, instarlos a no claudicar en nuestras luchas ante las acciones represivas que tanto daño ya han hecho a nuestro pueblo históricamente, y que hoy estamos viviendo en carne propia en este condición de detenidos ilegalmente por el solo hecho de defender los bienes  naturales de nuestro territorio que son los que nos proveen la vida. Al instarlos a no decaer en esta lucha, lo hago ante las amenazas que en el 2016 es mas que se incrementan en contra a nuestros pueblos, descabezando las mejores autoridades.

A los distintos medios de comunicación alternativos que están acompañando a nuestros pueblos en su lucha, incrementar su capacidad de investigación, para ser mas objetivos en la información que se debe trasladar a la población, para no ser presa de la información mediática generada y manipulada por los medios tradicionales al servicio del monopolio. O sea, radios por internet, radios comunitarias, prensa comunitaria, y redes sociales entre otros. 

La geopolítica mundial esta en constante movimiento donde se juegan muchos intereses. Y las naciones y pueblos pequeños no estamos exentos a los efectos que se genera esa geopolítica. Crisis económica, crisis ambiental, crisis social, ante ello es fundamental la articulación de los distintos sectores de las sociedades y pueblos, para que estas catástrofes no nos golpean tan duro.

La solidaridad en esta articulación es clave. La solidaridad es doble via, no solo de los que vienen a nosotros, pero de nosotros a ellos también. Hay que anotar que la solidaridad no es solo de individuos pero tambien de gobiernos e instituciones multilaterales,hasta la ONU, hasta la OEA, entre otros.

Abrazo enorme a todos y a todas, con todo nuestro cariño y respeto. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Carta de la cárcel: mensaje de Domingo Baltazar

Sábado el 2 de enero fui por tercera vez a visitar a los compañeros Rigoberto Juárez Mateo y Domingo Baltazar, presos políticos de Santa Eulalia. Yo fui la única visitante para ellos ese día -- cuesta mucho trabajo y recursos para sus familias, amigos y vecinos a viajar desde Santa Eulalia, y muchos de los capitalinos se habían salido de la ciudad para celebrar el año nuevo en otros lugares. Entonces tuve la suerte de poder compartir un tiempo solo con ellos. Ambos me dictaron cartas, pero habían pasado otras cosas que distrajeron mi atención, como la muerte de nuestro compañero Lico, un taller que tuve que dirigir, todo involucrando muchos viajes largos. Luego presté mi cuaderno a una compañera y demoró varios días en recuperarlo. Entonces, estas cartas fueron escritos hace 2 semanas, antes de la audiencia del lunes 18, pero creo que las palabras y pensamientos todavía son muy relevantes.


En primer lugar, gracias a Dios, estamos empezando un año nuevo, y como nosotros somos presos políticos, entonces mas que todo somos preocupados, porque estamos en la cárcel sin ninguna causa. Entonces, mi mensaje que le doy al pueblo en general es que haya esperanza, que confiamos en Dios que la próxima audiencia, el 18 de enero, quedamos liberados. Confío en Dios que las próximas audiencias nos salga bien. Porque sabemos que el Ministero Público no tiene suficiente pruebas para seguir acusándonos. Entonces, es que todo que nuestra lucha en defensa del territorio que sea un gran ejemplo a todo el pueblo. Porque todos estos problemas no sólo existen en el territorio del norte de Huehuetenango, sino que es al nivel nacional. Entonces mas que todo saludos a toda la gente del norte de Huehuetenango, pueblo Q'anjob'al, pueblo Chuj, Akateko, y pueblo mestizo. Que sigan la lucha en defensa del territorio y estas luchas son para el bien de todos. Lastimosamente, vivimos en un país donde no hay justicia. Nos acusan solo por defender nuestro territorio de las empresas nacionales y transnacionales. Entonces se velan por sus propios intereses y no por el pueblo. Entonces, les doy gracias por la solidaridad que nos dan todas las organizaciones nacional e internacionales que velan por el derecho de la gente maya en Guatemala. Saludos a todos, feliz año

Monday, January 18, 2016

Notes on the road about today's trial

After an anxious hour waiting outside the elevators on the 14th floor of the Torre de Tribunales, the court building on the edge of Zona 9 in Guatemala City, when we were nearly certain that today's scheduled hearing would be canceled because once again the penitentiary system had failed to transport the defendants to court, the elevators opened and we saw the smiling faces of Rigoberto and Domingo -- faces smiling because the sight that greeted their eyes when the doors opened was about three dozen people, including representatives of human rights organizations, family members, alternative media people, regular journalists, and people from civil society organizations and churches in Santa Eulalia. And smiling because at least they were able to make it to court; there wouldn't be that excuse. But as soon as the proceedings started a series of actions from the MP and the plantiffs' attorneys. First accusing the journalists present of intimidation. That people with cameras and recorders were somehow threatening the prosecution and accusers. The judge dismissed that. Then the translator asked to be replaced, saying that he had a work relationship with Rigoberto and they should find a different translator. The lawyers for the defense tried to argue that the state was obligated to offer a translator but the defendants could waive their right to have one and that should not hold up the proceeding. The last straw was the absence of the former Mayor of Santa Eulalia, one of the plaintiffs. He has come to exactly one hearing in 10 months and the defense argued that his right to be present should not trump the rights of the defendants to a speedy trial so that they would not be deprived of liberty. The judge allowed Rigoberto and Domingo to speak, and they had already been uncuffed, and they addressed the court very forcefully and eloquently but the judge called for a postponement until February 26, and for the former Mayor to have 48 hours to explain his absence. 

This was pretty much the kind of delaying tactic we expected, but it was still frustrating and disappointing. 

To court again, we hope

One of the strategies that the Guatemalan government has used to keep the leaders of the movements for defense of life, water and territory locked up is that of endless delays and postponements. The first court hearing I attended during this trip, the day after I arrived, did not take place because the defendant was in Huehuetenango, the trial was taking place in Guatemala City, and the penitentiary system could not manage, so they said, to find a way of transporting the defendant to appear at his trial. Other scheduled hearings, in the many cases that are torturously making their way through the justice system here, have been canceled or postponed because the MP (Ministerio Público, the prosecutors) were not ready, or asked for an extension to collect more evidence or conduct investigations, or because the plaintiffs in the case could not make it, or the other side simply did not show up. Just last Friday, there was a hearing scheduled in the case of Don Chico Palás, one of the nine leaders from northern Huehuetenango who is facing criminal charges. His youngest daughter, Cesia Juárez, had traveled from Barillas, which is near the Mexican border, and about 3 hours north of Santa Eulalia -- in all, about a 12 hour trip to the capital -- to be present at his trial, and the hearing was postponed. 

The strategy has several functions: first, it ensures that the defendants remain behind bars and unable to fully exercise their leadership in their communities and region. Therefore the movement(s) are weakened since the key leaders are not present. Secondly, it serves to intimidate the rest of the movement. Who wants to stick out his or her neck if it means winding up in jail for months or for years? And thirdly, it is designed to tire out the families and supporters, exhausting them both physically and financially. How many times is a wife or a colleague able to take off two or three days to travel to the capital, and spend money on buses, food and lodging? This is especially problematic for those in northern Huehuetenango when the trials are scheduled in Guatemala City as it takes 9 to12 hours to travel to the capital (not including the waiting time between buses -- that would make it more like 10 to 14 hours). Since most of the leaders come from fairly modest backgrounds and their families depend upon subsistence agriculture. At least a few have young children -- the wife of Domingo Baltazar, the co-defendant of Rigoberto Juárez, from Santa Eulalia -- has a baby who is less than a year old, born after her father was arrested. Traveling all day or all night on several different buses is hard enough for anyone, but with a toddler and an infant it must be nearly unbearable.

So, this morning there is supposed to be a hearing in the case of Rigoberto and Domingo. This has been scheduled for quite some time -- and I will soon be heading over to the courthouse where supporters are gathering in front, before the 8:30 starting time.  But we don't actually know if the trial will take place, as the recent incidents of postponements and delays -- two in the last three weeks -- are not promising signs. On the other hand, two of the jailed leaders were recently released -- Saúl and Rogelio, whom I was able to visit in the jail in Huehuetenango last week, during a solidarity action in the central plaza of Huehuetenango. They had been in jail for over two years -- jailed, released, and then jailed again -- and are now free. But that is a different court and a different judge. Rigoberto and Domingo have a relatively new judge in their case-- there was a switch several months back. There are conflicting views about whether this judge is more or less objective. In Guatemalan courts there are no juries -- cases are decided by judges, either individual judges or panels of judges. 

The most serious charges against them-- kidnapping and confinement (plagio y secuestro) were dropped for lack of evidence. But they still remain in jail. The lawyers have asked for alternatives to confinement for the remaining charges-- a form of parole, although that's not the term used. They would be released and would have to report to officials every so often. So let's see what today has in store. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Solidaritywith political prisoners

There are  things that cannot be planned, and today´s  visit to see Don Ermitaño  çLopez, Saul Mendez y Rogelio Velasquez was one of them. Yesterday in my retturn journey from Barillas, where I had spent the previous night and morning, I had the chance to meet Cesia Juarez, an energetic young woman whose father, Don Chico Palas, is one of the nine leaders from northern Huehuetenango who has been unjustly and, many of us would say, illegally imprisoned for months  --and in the case of Saul, Rogelio and Mynor Lopez, years.   We had wanted to meet up and it turned out that she was traveling to Huehuetenango, and I wanted to get back to Santa Eulalia, which is along the way, so we decided to journey together. In the course of the 2 and a half hours we spent together on the bus, she told me that there was going to be a ¨"concentration"  (rally, gathering) in Huehuetenango in support of the political prisoners and demanding their freedom. This month, January, there are several hearings in some of the legal cases against these men, and so some of the indigenous rights organizations wanted to use this moment to put some pressure on the government--this is also the week that the new government is inaugurated. I hadn´t known about the event but decided to go, and so I got up at 3 and hopped on a bus that passed by my friends´home in Santa Eulalia at 3:45 a.m., heading for Huehuetenango. There were later buses but my friend Lorenzo suggested taking the early bus and arriving in time to have breakfast before the protest was supposed to start at 8. 

The bus deposited me a few blocks from the Parque Central of Huehuetenango at around 6:30  and after walking around for a few minutes ahd checking out the action --at that hour, vendors arranging their wares and people lining up in front of the office where people pay their taxes, car registration fees and all other kinds of state-mandated payments -- and repaired to a nearby restaurant to eat breakfast. I then wandered back to the square after a leisurely meal but couldn´t see much sign of activity, until Cesia texted me and told me where people were gathered. 

Nothing much was happening yet - it was about 8:30 when I met up with Cesia --  and we chatted with some of the organizers, and then went off to have coffee, waiting for the invocation for the event. An aqíq (Maya priest or guia espiritual, spiritual guide) made a small altar with incense and flowers, but nothing much was happening. We were sitting at the cafe waiting for our beverages when I saw some movement and ran back across the street. Someone asked me where Cesia was because they wanted representatives of the families of the prisoners and apparently she was the only one who was able to make it. I ran back to fetch her and we asked the cafe to hold off on our coffees and then rejoined the people on the square  for the invocation. I will report later on the proceedings -- there are a short press conference, announcing that people would be in the square for several days, with music, performances, collecting food and money for the prisoners and their families, and signatures to pressure the government, and then several representatives of different communities where there either have been political prisoners or resistance movements spoke, until close to midday.  Francisco, one of the people coordinating the activities, explained that there were also pens for sale --pens that had been decorated by Don Taño with messages against mining and hydroelectrics, in defense of water and freedom for the prisoners. I bought two (and later a dozen at the request of friends in the Guatemalan immigrant community).

Cesia suggested that we try to make a visit to the prison where three of the prisoners are being held, and explained that it was only a few blocks away. She also suggested that we bring cameras and see if we could take photos or even record an interview with the men. Since she had press credentials and I did not I gave her my camera bag and I just carried a pad and pen. I was surprised at the difference between the prison here and the preventivo in Guatemala City. Here it´s a small jail, right in the middle of town, and you just walk in t he front door into a couryard and ask to speak to an official. No line, no multiple inspections (there are inspections for official visiting hours). Cesia explained that we were from the press, that we were at the solidarity activity in the square and wanted to bring a message from the prisoners, and mentioned that previously the prison had permitted messages to be recorded. The official who spoke with Cesia said that if we hadn´t requested offiical permission we could not record video but that we could take photographs and Cesia could take notes on the interview. We waited a short while and then the guards brought the three prisoners out -- hands secured behind their backs with handcuffs -- and allowed us to speak with them. 

They all looked somewhat tired, which is understandable, but they grew more animated as they spoke. They allowed us to embrace them, although they could not embrace us back as their hands were bound. Cesia explained who I was and asked if any of them had met me before. Don Taño and I noted that we had met under different circumstances, in some of the meetings and activities in Barillas. We showed him that we had one of the pencils he had made, which we were using to take notes. The guards stood behind them, but did not make any effort to remove themselves from the range of my camera lens, or in any way interfere with my photography. Cesia first spoke, greeting them and explaining about the rally or occupation taking place in the square, saying that they were an inspiration and heroes, and emphasizing that their families needed them, that the community needed them and that she hoped that we would soon see them free.

I was surprised when she asked me if I wanted to say something, but I quickly explained that I had been following their cases and those of the other prisoners, that I had recently been to see Rigoberto and one of the things that he had said that impressed me was his statement that solidarity did not run only in one direction, from those outside the prison to those inside the prison, but also from them to us. That I knew that the struggle they were waging was not something that had started last month or last year but one that had deep historical roots, starting with the Spanish invasion, and that as a gringa I was very well aware of the part that my country had played in all of that, with the support of the coup and the support of the military regimes. I don't quite remember how I brought in Lorenzo and the repression of the radio station in Santa Eulalia  (I obviously was not taking notes on myself). I also said that there was support for their plight from outside the country, from the Guatemalan immigrant community, especially some of the Q'anjob'al communities in the U.S. Afterwards, each of them spoke, starting with Rogelio, and then Saul and then Don Taño. The guards allowed us to talk with them for probably 20 minutes or more in total -- I was not watching the clock but I know we went well beyond the 5 minutes we had originally requested. Cesia took notes and when she sends them to me I will translate them. In brief, they each sent thanks to everyone who was supporting their cases, and reiterated that defending water was not criminal, that they had done nothing wrong, and that they hoped to regain their freedom.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Brief notes from the new year

Somehow it's been over a week since I arrived here on December 28 and I haven't yet had a chance to sit down and write a blog entry. My departure was more hectic than usual as I couldn't find my passport. I started looking for it two days before my departure -- when I am not using it for identification or travel, I generally keep it in the same place, in the drawer of a small end table. I often take it with me when I travel by air domestically as a form of identification but the last two times I traveled within the U.S. I decided to use my driver's license instead. So the last time I am certain that I used it was on September 11 when I returned from my trip to Mexico: I know that I had to present it at the airport when I arrived in the U.S. but I am not aware of using it since then. In any case, by Sunday night I knew that I had to find a way to replace the passport on short notice, so I spent part of the night reading some travelers' blogs and the State Department website. I tried to make an appointment but the soonest the online system would give me was January 10, which wasn't going to do me any good, but one of the bloggers recommended just showing up before the passport office opened and waiting on line. I won't go into all the details now but let it be known that it is possible to get a passport in 2 hours in New York City during the Christmas holidays. In between submitting my application and returning for the passport I went back to Brooklyn, finished packing, made a sandwich to eat on the plane, and then drove myself back to Manhattan, found parking right in front of the passport office, retrieved my passport and then drove to Queens to pick up the friend who lives 5 minutes from LGA who was going to deal with my car while I am away.

The second leg of my flight, from Houston to Guatemala, was delayed 3 hours and so I had time to sample some quite good food in the airport and drink a glass of wine (I asked United and was told there was only food for sale on the flight, no hot meal served in economy). Free wifi (why can't all airports have that?) allowed me to contact the guesthouse and tell them I was going to be quite late; the owner, Luciano (actually Lucien, as he is Belgian, but everyone in Guatemala except a few of his Francophone friends calls him Luciano) told me to have the taxi driver call so as not to ring the doorbell and wake other guests.

I toppled into bed (I'd been up most of the night figuring out the passport situation)and then headed out in the morning for a run, and then decided to treat myself to the guesthouse's breakfast, prepared by Luciano's wife. Although it's included, I have never eaten it before, generally preferring to cook oatmeal, since a "desayuno chapín" (Guatemalan breakfast) is more food than I usually want in the morning -- eggs, some black beans, some slices of fried sweet plantains, and tortillas. Sometimes a slice of queso fresco (fresh cheese) or crema (literally, cream, but something much thicker and slightly tart). But I decided to indulge and then set off to take care of reactivating my phone and then going to the courthouse (los tribunales) where there was to be a hearing in the case of one of the leaders from Barillas in northern Huehuetenango, Don Ermitaño López, better known as "Don Taño." I do not know him well, but he is part of the group of 9 political prisoners from northern Huehuetango -- all leaders in the movement "in defense of territory and life". Which is to say, in opposition to mining and mega-projects. He is imprisoned in Huehuetenango, and I learned early in the morning that the prison administration had not been able to (had not wanted to?) arrange to transport him to Guatemala City for the hearing. However, I knew that the lawyers, families and "solidarios" (people in solidarity) would be there so I decided to continue with my plan.

On my way across the Parque Central heading towards the Sexta Avenida, the pedestrian thoroughfare that is the "main drag" of the Historic Center (centro histórico) of Guatemala City, I ran into an acquaintance, which was a nice start to my visit. Then on to Tigo, the phone company, and from there to the Torres de Tribunales, where I found the wife of Don Taño, Doña Ana, who is the wife of another prisoner Don Tello (they own a hotel where I have often stayed), several representatives of the United Nations, Acoguate (an international group of "accompaniers" for human rights defenders in Guatemala), and a few other people from the Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente (Council of Western Peoples) - one of the organizations that has promoted the consultas comunitarias and the movements against mining and megaprojects. 

When the judge arrived and called the hearing to session, it was clear that she was annoyed at the prison administration for not bringing Don Taño. She noted that this was the fourth postponement and that he remained deprived of liberty while the hearing kept on being postponed (most because of the government's failures) and said there should be closer coordination between the prison system and the judicial system. She asked for an inquiry into what had happened, and also (in response to a request from the defendant's attorneys) asked the Ministerio Público to look into whether it was technically feasible to hold the hearing via videoconference so that they wouldn't have to worry about transporting the prisoner. The hearing was postponed until January 22.

Don Taño's wife spoke after the hearing was over -- there were a few reporters and so she spoke and one of the lawyers spoke. Then people gathered outside and apparently there is some talk about planning protests around the next series of hearings. There is a hearing for Don Chico Palas, another of the leaders from Barillas, on January 15, and another hearing in the case of Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar, on January 18, so a busy month (and the inauguration of the new president is January 14, and there are already some protests planned around that).