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.