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  Number 248 | Marzo 2002
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Guatemala

Militarization in Ixcán: Thin Red Lines

The war is over forever. But the army remains in many areas of Guatemala, which are still cut through by the thin red lines of military logic.

Francisco Iznardo

The trauma of the war and the militarization are still palpable in many areas of indigenous and rural Guatemala. One such area is Ixcán, which was incorporated as a municipality in 1985 and covers over 1,500 square kilometers of the northwestern part of the department of Quiché. Although the armed conflict ended and the peace accords were signed several years ago, returning to a normal life is a very slow process, and great needs must still be met to ensure the mental health of individuals and communities in this region.

The army remains in the area, under the pretext that Ixcán lies on the border with Mexico. It maintains an indirect presence in community life through a wide network of informers and a string of "civic campaigns": road construction projects, children’s events, health campaigns, community fairs and the like. It has a stronger direct presence in the areas where returning refugees initially settled and in the old cooperatives of Ixcán Grande.

The military is interested in maintaining absolute control of the region, and is used to having the whole population and all of the local authorities under its thumb. This has made it very hard to build civil society or consolidate autonomous municipal authority. The army’s subtle but omnipotent presence hampers reconciliation and the emotional recovery of these communities.

Displacement and violence


The Ixcán region has been shaped by the displacement of populations and a forced diaspora that has taken place in several stages. Migrants from the highlands colonized the region starting in the 1960s, then during the armed conflict, especially in 1982, there was a massive exodus, with people desperately seeking refuge in other parts of the country as well as Mexico. The region was repopulated under government auspices with land reassignments during the 1980s. This was followed by the repatriation of refugees between 1987 and 1989 and the organized return of displaced communities from 1993 to 1995.

Ixcán was one of the scenes of the war. In fact, from the army’s perspective, it was geostrategically important in the counterinsurgency campaign. It also served as the foquista nucleus for the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), which spread out from there towards Quiché, Huehuetenango and Alta and Baja Verapaz in the 1970s. For all that, it provided a place for the civilian population uprooted by the war to settle, since its inaccessible reaches offered an internal refuge and space for resistance.

Ixcán is also characterized by its multiethnic character. As a result of the multiple displacements in its history, Ixcán contains a dozen different ethno-linguistic Mayan groups. Some 90% of the population is indigenous and the other 10% ladino, hailing from nearly all the other departments in the country. These groups share the same social and environmental niche in the municipality’s small towns, after a convulsive historical process that has lasted some three decades.

The forest is disappearing

Land was the center of attraction in the settling of Ixcán and remains the basis of the region’s economy. Nonetheless, only 16.7% of the land in Ixcán is suitable for agriculture. The other 83.3% is made up of wet tropical forests with a fragile ecological balance. Despite this, almost all of Ixcán’s population, except for a few merchants and professionals in the municipal seat, work full- or part-time in agriculture. They have done so for a long time, without knowledge of techniques that would allow for sustainable development. The forest is disappearing as a result of the fires, the increasing consumption of trees for fuel in various activities, and the rampant trade—both legal and illegal—in wood.

A family of eight using wood for fuel goes through four large trees a year. A clay oven consumes three or four large trees. It takes one or two large trees to dry 60 quintals of cardamom. In 2000, some 5,000 hectares of forest were reduced to ashes while barely 50 hectares were reforested. With the soil rapidly impoverished by the traditional slash and burn technique, the agricultural and ranching frontier advances every day, causing Ixcán to suffer increasingly from constant climate changes with long droughts and floods. The region is on the verge of ecological disaster.

Oil, wood, contraband
and drug trafficking

The Mayan peoples’ cultural and religious identity is deeply rooted in the land. But this same land has also become the focus of tensions because of the chaotic land titling situation affecting virtually all properties.

The success of many peasant farmers had begun to forge a middle class in Ixcán before the years of violence, but now productivity has decreased and the possibilities for marketing products are more complicated. Farmers have no easy access to credit. The "coyotes" or abusive intermediaries take advantage of the distrust among peasants that has kept them from organizing to market their products. The prices of corn, beans and rice have fallen brutally in recent years, as have coffee prices. And although the price of cardamom has remained reasonably high, the three-year drought has ruined most of the cardamom fields. Merchants profit more than the farmers, charging excessively high prices, which they justify by pointing to the poor road conditions.

Other latent or manifest factors that are influencing Ixcán’s economy are the potential for oil exploitation, the legal and illegal sale of wood, the contraband from Mexico and the presence of countless NGOs and some government agencies supporting development projects and compliance with the commitments made in the Peace Accords, even if only formally. Another latent factor is drug trafficking, which is becoming increasingly evident and dangerous in such a legally and socially vulnerable area.

The proximity of the Mexican border is a decisive factor that will make a much stronger mark on Ixcán’s economy in the future. For now, Mexico attracts economic migrants who go either seasonally or definitively, to stay there or continue on to the United States.

"Friendship committees":
Army agents

It is difficult to construct the rule of law in an area historically marked by the absolute military power exercised by both the army and the URNG’s guerrilla forces.

Today’s military authorities have no interest in helping develop either civilian power or the autonomy of the judicial branch. Given the weak presence and capacity of both civil society and state institutions, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) has been serving as the facilitator and point of reference among the different forces in Ixcán.

Governability in Ixcán is constrained by the militarization of the communities, which now takes place through the creation of proto-political groups linked to military power including the so-called "friendship committees." These are organized groups of people allied to the army who promote its "clean and generous" image and have taken on the task of creating divisions among the population so as to make any effort at independent organization impossible. There are one or two members of these committees in each civil institution and civic group, who report on the work being done in the communities.

No justice system

With a society in decay, extremely fragile government institutions, the continuing reign of military logic and the proximity of the Mexican border, Ixcán has become a corridor for drug trafficking. What interests and real powers lie behind the drug trafficking in this region? And what role must—or can—civil society and civilian power play in counteracting this dangerous business? Without a more efficient and accessible system of justice, it is hard to deal even with much simpler problems. Ixcán has no reliable judicial system. In fact, it doesn’t have a judicial system at all. There are justices of the peace here to deal with minor issues, but no higher courts to deal with larger problems, which prevents the full and rapid application of justice.

The justices of the peace send their cases on to the higher court in Cobán, the departmental seat of Alta Verapaz. But the plaintiffs typically do not follow through with the cases because of the distance and expense involved. This encourages people to take justice into their own hands and leaves the ground wide open to criminal gangs. With no effective court system, many people are quick to propose the army’s intervention any time a community or inter-community conflict arises, since the Police is too shorthanded to cover the municipality’s extensive territory. The weak judicial system thus buttresses militarization.

A new way of being Mayan?

Multiethnicity is the main cultural feature of Ixcán and is forging new relations and new cultural patterns among the region’s different ethnic groups. Some traditional cultural ways have been maintained while others have been lost. Mayan identity is always conserved, however, infused with a variety of important influences: from the refuges, the years of resistance and internal displacement during the war, the economic migrations to Mexico and the United States, as well as those imposed by the dominant western culture. Quite possibly, "a new way of being Mayan" is being formed.

Except in the Q’eqchi’ region, the loss of Mayan social customs, community authority, community organization of work and Mayan forms of spirituality is clear. This is not true of language and clothing, however, which are still maintained to varying degrees according to the areas and linguistic groups.

Furthermore, although indigenous peoples continue to identify themselves through their language and clothing, this is becoming increasingly less true among the young people. There are numerous reasons for this: the existing form of education, the uprooting and expectations created by migration and the many fissures in their parents’ cosmovision caused by the migrations.

Poor in health, better in education

Public health leaves much to be desired in Ixcán. In serious cases, people must go to Cobán or Barillas, a 4-5 hour trip when there’s no rain. Cuba has sent doctors to provide care at nine health posts in the municipality, while Guatemalan doctors are notably absent. There is a maternal-child health center, but it has no full-time doctor to provide care.

The individual and collective traumatic experiences caused by the war are still manifest in psychosomatic and psychosocial diseases requiring treatment. The Catholic Church’s Social Pastoral is trying to address mental health needs through a team of five promoters and one psychologist. No other institution is working on these problems.

Women’s lives tend to be limited to traditional tasks, while they are physically and psychologically assaulted by the ongoing political, social and domestic violence. Some organizations in the region have sought to improve women’s lives, but their activities have fallen off considerably, and they now have a very low profile because of a lack of direction and economic resources.

Substantial progress has been made in formal education, though much remains to be done, and the public response to education programs has been massive. Numerous non-formal education projects and workshops have also been carried out, in agriculture, legal issues, the peace accords, health and education for community development.

No longer isolated

Great improvements have been made in the region’s roads and highways. Although many of the roads are not top quality and there have been significant irregularities in the administration of funds for these projects, Ixcán is turning from an isolated region into a region crisscrossed by roads. Now most communities are accessible by vehicle. The pièce de résistance was the "Bell of Peace" bridge built over the Río Ixcán, which is 320 meters long and links Ixcán to the municipality of Barillas and on to Huehuetenango, thus completing the northern highway.

This new road network facilities the exchange of products, but it also facilitates trafficking in wood, drugs and contraband. The road projects are all presented in a way that emphasizes the social benefits of connecting the communities, but they also serve the interests of national and transnational economic groups aiming at oil exploration and other big businesses.

Evangelicals and militarization

Like the rest of Guatemala, Ixcán is religiously fragmented. The proliferation of Protestant sects, their moralistic fundamentalism and their confrontations with the Catholic Church characterize this region as well.

The charismatic phenomenon within the Catholic Church has grown, strongly influenced by charismatic Protestantism. This has split Catholics into two groups: those who work with the parish and those who have definitively broken ties to the Church. The latter have developed structures very similar to those of the fundamentalist sects and promote confusion, division and fanaticism.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church still enjoys great credibility despite this trend, not to mention all the ideological work the state carried out during the war. Even today, many Protestant ministers who work in Ixcán receive ideological orientations from the army, whose instructions are to disrupt the organizational work being carried out in the communities. It should not be forgotten that when the army coordinated the repopulating of Ixcán, it worked with a mostly evangelical population.

Recovering historical memory

Over the last two years, the Catholic Church’s Social Pastoral has followed up on the Recovery of the Historical Memory (REMHI) project by sharing with the population the results of the three reports prepared nationally and regionally: Guatemala, Never Again, the more accessible version Memory, Truth and Hope, and the regional report Land, War and Hope: the Memory of Ixcán.

A commission is currently working on pastoral materials to improve the way these three reports are being presented and discussed with the communities. The promoters of reconciliation meet regularly to analyze the situation and develop their capacity to work with the communities, while legal assistants have given talks on the reports and on Guatemala’s recent history.

Exhuming bodies
to conclude the mourning

Following up on the REMHI report has also been a part of the mental health project. The team made up of promoters and psychologist has been accompanying the communities, helping uncover wounds that were caused by the suffering of war and have not yet healed.

An important part of the follow up to the REMHI project has been the exhumation process that the Social Pastoral has undertaken with the support of the "Peace and Reconciliation" office in Quiché and a team of forensic specialists in the capital.

A new stage in the exhumation process began two years ago, after the massive exhumation in Cuarto Pueblo in 1995. The exhumations began at the request of many communities, families and individuals who wished to give their relatives a Christian burial and thus end the mourning process.

Bureaucratic obstacles
to healing wounds

No government has yet shown the political will to collaborate in this essential task. None have made it easy for the families to transfer their relatives’ remains to the cemetery in their community, hold services for them, pray for them and bury them again in a place where the families can respect and visit them.

The law demands too many requirements. After the clandestine gravesite has been identified, a document must be drafted and presented to the Public Ministry denouncing the case, using precise legal language based on a detailed understanding of the law. Then this document must be taken to Cobán, where the nearest office of the Public Ministry is located. Next comes a long wait until the office calls in the person who has made the denunciation, the person responsible for the case and the owner of the land where the remains were found. After that, several more weeks normally pass before the Public Ministry gives permission to carry out the on-site investigation and begin the exhumation. By this time, people have already had to make several trips to Cobán and many calls to ask about the case.

Once the exhumation has been done, the forensic team takes the remains to the capital to analyze them, then sends the remains and the results to the Public Ministry. Only after this does the Public Ministry grant permission to collect the remains and take them back to the community to hold services and bury them according to each community’s customs. This legal process lasts several months, and virtually no one in the communities has the resources to make so many trips or pay for the services of a forensic team. With such complicated legal requirements, it is impossible to carry out the exhumation process individually.

The judicial branch should have enough forensic teams to do this work, but it doesn’t. And the Public Ministry does not always facilitate things, revealing a disinterest in uncovering the atrocities of the past. A few months ago, an annoyed Public Ministry official berated the legal promoter from our parish: "Why are you so interested in moving old bones around?"

Thousands without
a Christian burial

Bringing the mourning to a close is not only a legal procedure, however. It also involves a personal, family and community process of reconciliation with oneself, with reality, with history, with the dead and with God. Respect for the dead is central to Mayan culture. When the mourning process is not allowed to conclude normally, wounds and pains remain that prevent people from building the present or the future in peace.

Even with the resources of the Catholic Church, it is impossible to exhume all the dead when there are so many legal obstacles, disinterest on the part of the authorities and an antiquated, unjust law that has not been adjusted to the country’s reality. Thousands of Ixcán’s dead will not be given a Christian burial, and the government and judicial system are to blame.

The war is over,
but military logic still prevails

The army’s presence in Ixcán is still a decisive factor, making it hard to build civilian power and a democratic society with freedom of expression and of movement. In an area where the army held absolute power, we cannot speak of reconciliation while the communities are still full of army informers who use any opportunity to provoke mistrust and instability.

A great task lies ahead for civil society, which was kept under military control for over 20 years because of the armed conflict between the army and the URNG. The many thin red lines of militarization that still cross this land are subtle but still very present. If civil society does not do its part, military attitudes will continue to predominate throughout the whole social fabric.
The threat of remilitarization in Ixcán does not mean a return to war. The war is over forever. But if civil society does not occupy the militarized spaces left by the war and change them into spaces for citizen participation and the struggle for civil rights, Ixcán will continue to be dominated by military logic.

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