With the War Long Over in Ixcán, The Peace of the Accords Is Still to Come
It has been over five years since the end of the war, but the Peace Accords have yet to be fulfilled. How is the process going in Ixcán, one of the regions most wounded by war
and most in need of reconciliation and development?
How well are the Peace Accords being fulfilled in Guatemala? Not well at all. In his inaugural address, President Alfonso Portillo promised that the accords would henceforward be "a matter of state" rather than a "party issue," but that has not been the case. Ixcán is one of the regions most affected by the war and most in need of the changes that the accords were to have brought about. Both Ixcán and Guatemala as a whole would be very different places if all the commitments signed on December 26, 1996 had been taken seriously.
Five years after the Peace Accords were signed, what has happened in Ixcán? The situation in this region of the country can serve as a measuring stick. Today, Ixcán is dominated and militarized by the all-powerful Military Zone 22, and its civil society is virtually nonexistent, or at the very least, suffers from what might be described as a form of structural anemia. This environment undermines civil society’s role and blocks socioeconomic development, subordinating it to the whims of central government authorities, who remain very close to parallel military powers.
Ixcán was designated a priority region for implementation of the accords, and its displaced and resettled population was to have received special attention. It is patently clear to the region’s inhabitants, however, that a lack of political will has meant a lack of significant progress in supplying even the basic services to which they have a right. The population’s efforts to organize productive and commercial associations have been hampered by a lack of any real support, which goes straight to the heart of the problem of sustainable development in this region. Efforts to open discussions within civil forums on human rights, democratization, administration of justice and other important issues have foundered because Ixcán society is generally demotivated and fragmented, tendencies that help perpetuate structural injustice. The six substantive Peace Accords have yet to be fulfilled, and Ixcán clearly reflects the lack of compliance.
Human rights: The Comprehensive Accord on Human Rights was signed in Mexico City on March 29, 1994, yet the people of Ixcán have virtually no recourse to the law to defend themselves from human rights violations. For several years now, people have sought to establish a Justice Administration Center in the municipality, with a court, Public Ministry and National Civil Police offices and a Justice of the Peace. It appears that these efforts may finally bear fruit thanks to pressure from human rights institutions, the municipal government and the Human Rights Ombudsperson, which have been accompanied by the United Nations Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA).
Still so much to do
Until that time comes, however, the communities and cooperatives are riddled with military informants, who foster instability and divisions. In addition, while the lumber and drug mafias act with total impunity, army helicopters regularly fly over the communities allegedly in search of drugs.
The area’s human rights organizations are very weak and lack a clear understanding of their role, revealing fragility similar to that of civil society in general. In many communities, people have sometimes taken justice into their own hands in the prevailing environment, with attempted lynchings reported in several towns. MINUGUA’s presence, the support of the municipal government, Human Rights Ombudsperson and Justice of the Peace, and the accompaniment of the Catholic Church’s Social Pastoral have all encouraged mediation and helped avoid more serious problems. The Municipal Urban and Rural Development Council’s Commission on Security, Justice and Human Rights has worked to raise people’s awareness, and various sectors have participated in establishing a number of Community Conflict Resolution Councils.
Resettlement: All kinds of needsThe Accord for the Resettlement of Populations Uprooted by the Armed Conflict was signed in Oslo on June 17, 1994, yet while Ixcán is one of the priority regions for application of this accord, resettlement and reconstruction projects are moving very sluggishly and tend to be superficial. Virtually all of Ixcán’s population has been displaced and basic services are either nonexistent or are being slowly and very laboriously developed. Workers on the two large-scale drinking water projects are being pushed like slaves, but even with that, the projects are barely moving due to financing delays and bad planning. Electric energy remains a promise for a distant future. The roads are deteriorating and are not being maintained. The most scandalous case is that of the Northern Transversal Highway, which was assigned to a private company that surely receives funds to maintain it but has done nothing for a full year. The same is true of other roads in the region. The Municipal Development Council’s Infrastructure Commission has expressed the municipal government’s concern over the poor state of the roads.
The projects underway in 10 communities where the Guatemalan Housing Fund promised to finance housing programs have suffered numerous delays. The companies responsible for construction claim they have not received the needed disbursements. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were budgeted to build a new hospital in Playa Grande, but construction has been suspended. At the beginning of the year, when the Municipal Development Council expressed concern over the situation, the government pleaded technical and administrative difficulties.
In the area of education, the Municipal Development Council has been working on developing a coordinated, standard curriculum for all levels, in keeping with the region’s socio-cultural reality. In April, a new group of primary bilingual education teachers received their certificates. This progress in education has been thanks to the efforts of the municipal government and some institutions working in the field; the central government showed little if any interest in this issue last year.
Given the lack of housing, health and education, one can only wonder if there is any real interest in resettling Ixcán’s displaced population. There are no economically and environmentally sustainable development projects to convert the population into economic subjects rather than victims. Where is the support for trade and production? Where are the economically sustainable credit projects for production and the formation of associations that would help put Ixcán’s peasant farmers and small businesspeople on a better footing? Although there are many such projects, they are not coordinated and some donor institutions, including USAID, are trying to implement the same programs through three or four different institutions, creating confusion and division in the communities and thus making it impossible for people to make any progress on their own.
Where are the programs to encourage integration among the communities? What work is being done to encourage reconciliation and unity among the many different and even mutually hostile segments of the population that coexist in Ixcán: war veterans from both sides, returned refugees, internally displaced people, people from the Communities in Resistance, patrol members, ladinos and the Q’eqchí, Q’anjob’al, Mam, Chuj, Poptí, K’iché, Poqomchí, Achí indigenous groups?
Projects are given to some of these groupings but not others. Some towns are privileged without considering the envy, divisions and confrontations this provokes. No work is being done on some important issues related to intra-community integration, organization and training, reconciliation among the populations affected by the armed conflict or differences between ethnic groups. Tensions both within the communities and between them are increasing.
The most positive development in this area is the training of assistant mayors so they can perform their duties more effectively and encourage peaceful, negotiated conflict resolution. Some civil society institutions are trying to promote community reconciliation committees, but who has been working on issues such as tolerance, coexistence in diversity, regional integration and the reconciliation of the displaced populations of Ixcán? The fact is that most of the projects have sparked confusion, fragmentation and division, as in the case of the cooperatives of returned refugees, which have been falling apart. The projects tend not to take into account the efforts already made to achieve integration in the various micro-regions and the organizational efforts that do exist have been undermined. The work being done is superficial and only leads to more dependency. The one positive note here is that people are beginning to realize this.
Historical clarification: The Accord to Establish a Commission for the Historical Clarification of Human Rights Violations was signed in Oslo on June 23, 1994, and it issued its report over three years ago, but the government has still done nothing to carry out its recommendations. In Ixcán, the task of fostering reconciliation and healing the "wounds of the heart" inflicted on the population by the conflict has been left to private institutions. The Recovery of Historical Memory (REHMI) project, part of the Social Pastoral in Ixcán, has made it possible to uncover at least part of the historical truth. But it has had minimal effect in the Ixcán communities.
The wounds are still open
REHMI’s Mental Health program has been going for two years, giving talks, training promoters and accompanying the exhumation-reburial process in several villages and cooperatives. Thanks to the support of the forensic team from Quiché and members of the country’s Anatomical Forensic and Training Center (CAFCA), exhumations of family members have been done in over 10 communities. Public Ministry officials in Cobán have been far from supportive of these efforts, however. There have been administrative problems, delays in the return of remains and numerous difficulties in getting the Public Ministry to officially record the deaths of the people exhumed, as it is required to do. Some of the legal promoters and people making charges have been intimidated.
In addition, the forensic specialists were threatened in the capital and the parish house in Nebaj was burned down shortly after the remains of over 100 people were exhumed in that municipality, in work coordinated by REMHI-Quiché and CAFCA’s forensic team.
The same people as always have been maneuvering to prevent the victims from burying their dead in peace, healing their wounds and end their mourning. Ixcán’s "hidden powers" are trying to frighten the communities away from anything related to recovering our history: they have tried to stop the mental health programs, the exhumations and the training workshops with destabilizing forces spread through the communities. They shudder to think about the legal charges that will follow revelations of the truth of what happened.
The only progress in complying with this accord has come as a result of the Social Pastoral of Ixcán’s efforts as well as workshops put together by human rights organizations, which have allowed us to remember our history. MINUGUA has accompanied this whole process very willingly and very professionally, and has sometimes helped us out of administrative tangles resulting from corruption in the Public Ministry and other government institutions.
Indigenous rights: The Accord on the Rights and Identity of Indigenous Peoples was signed in Mexico City on March 31, 1995, and indeed associations and organizations of indigenous peoples have flourished all over Guatemala in recent years, with positive repercussions in Ixcán. But the influence of cultural issues on development, study and research programs is virtually nil. The Social Pastoral did a study on multi-ethnicity and conflict a couple of years ago, but it has been all but forgotten. There is no significant presence in Ixcán of grassroots organizations, even predominantly Mayan ones. The way the various indigenous peoples in Ixcán have formed their own identity is not being studied, nor is this an issue in development, training, pastoral, human rights and other programmatic work. Most people living in Ixcán are Mayan and the organizations they have are made up of indigenous men and women, but the projects do not take this multi-ethnic reality seriously.
Just on paper
This reality may appear in the reports, but not in actual project implementation. If the Accord on Indigenous Rights and Identity has amounted to little more than good intentions and pretty words in the rest of the country despite fervent interest in indigenous issues and new Mayan organizations, what has it come to in Ixcán, where we lack even proper tools and programs to obtain them? Who is most responsible for this situation? The government may bear the bulk of the responsibility, but civil society and the Mayan people must more vigorously demand fulfillment of the accord.
The agrarian situation: The Accord on Socioeconomic and Agrarian Issues was signed in Mexico City on May 6, 1996, raising great expectations among Guatemalans. It was meant to establish the basis for a more just development and change the traditional socioeconomic structure based on the agro-export system, large plantations, monopolies and the oligarchy’s control over the law and the state. These proposed changes have met with strong resistance, however. The Fiscal Pact fell apart and the government negotiates tax laws more to obtain funds from abroad than to respond to people’s real needs and demands. Opposition to the government is not uniform, and businesses have been able to manipulate the situation in their favor, even taking advantage of the discontent among the grassroots organizations. Furthermore, a land registry and survey study to identify the real land ownership situation in the country has yet to be implemented.
Problems related to land ownership in Ixcán are extremely diverse and complex. The National Land Fund is working in the region, and the communal lands of several communities have been legalized. Property disputes continue to arise, however, made worse by administrative problems due to irregularities in property titles, the lack of an up-to-date land registry record and the unprofessional nature of the property registry and land reforms implemented by previous governments.
There is no end in sight to these property disputes, which stem from numerous causes. Rivers changed course because of Hurricane Mitch, affecting property lines. Property lines were inconsistently established lines for cooperatives as well as for lands subdivided for resettled refugees. Then there are the technical and legal problems; the arrogance of the former large landowners who respect their own power more than the law; the purchase of land that was already occupied; the invasion and takeover of municipal land in acts inspired by clear political manipulation; and on and on.
Most of the people in Ixcán moved here because of the promise of land. The land distribution process is underway, but legalization of the lands distributed is fundamental. Even after that is done, however, the conflicts provoke a great deal of violence among neighboring communities, which creates instability and fear in the communities. Contradictorily, while the war left people poorly equipped to respond to violence, there is a marked tendency to settle things by force rather than by dialogue and negotiation.
Ixcán needs basic service infrastructure—electricity, drinking water, housing, education, health care, roads—so that socioeconomic development can come about as a result of the people’s own efforts. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure these minimum services and it is essential to take advantage of the funds earmarked for the region’s people. A fiscal reform is also needed so that the state does not merely depend on funds from abroad but has its own funds as well. We have been affected by the failure of the Fiscal Pact, just as we have been affected by corruption, which prevents funds from reaching our region. The governor of Quiché is being sought for misuse of public funds; because of this man’s corruption, our municipality has not received a cent from the Departmental Development Council in two years.
To make matters worse, the funds assigned to social spending in the 2002 budget—for land and rural development programs, health, education, housing and roads in poor, isolated regions—were cut sharply, while the army’s budget was doubled. What does this mean for Guatemala? What will it mean in Ixcán? This policy violates the letter and spirit of the Peace Accords on both socioeconomic issues and the army’s role in a democratic society. It also undermines the civil rights of the population, especially the poor, the displaced and indigenous peoples and above all the many who are all three.
The role of the still The Accord on Strengthening Civilian Power and the Role of the Army in a Democratic Society was signed in Mexico City on September 19, 1996, yet the huge hike in the military budget shows just how far we are lagging in fulfillment of this accord. This increase completely contradicts the goal of strengthening civilian power and the democratic, participatory society we all want. The army’s great economic prospects are all too clear in Ixcán, given the weakness of the municipal government and other civilian authorities. The situation also weakens civil society. In addition, the army encourages militarization among the young: army personnel recently visited Q’eqchí communities to encourage young people to join the army, promising them the opportunity to study. The army continues to build roads, sometimes using machinery belonging to the Executive Secretariat of the Presidency, because of the central government’s incompetence and failure to abide by the guidelines on the army’s role in a democratic society.
The delay in implementing this accord is a reflection of the weakness of the civilian authorities and organizations in Ixcán, in turn largely due to the lack of funds and support. It is also due to the passivity and lack of motivation of the population itself, however. During the years before the Peace Accords were signed, the strength of the grassroots organizations and civilian institutions made possible a great deal of progress on fundamental rights in the region. Later, positive pressure was aimed at ensuring fulfillment of the accords. But Ixcán’s civil society is now weak and without initiatives. Perhaps it has let itself be influenced too strongly by outside projects and financing.
One sign of the weakness of civilian organizations is the confusion created by the takeover of municipal land that was to have been for a market and terminal, according to the municipal development plan. It is said that many of the people involved in the occupation already have land in other places and others are members of the army’s friendship committees or have other ties to the army. The Municipal Council has tried to meet with the squatters, but they allege that the municipality promised them land and has not delivered. It is clear that someone is behind them, but people have been confused by their use of methods that grassroots organizations traditionally use. The region’s organizations have been unable to respond to this municipal destabilization by groups that have made no efforts to coordinate with Ixcán’s civil society.
The most positive development in this area is the effort being made to establish a participatory Municipal Development Council in coordination with the different sectors in Ixcán: education, health, human and security rights, socioeconomic development, the environment, etc.
The Municipal Council and the municipal mayor’s Technical Planning Unit have provided civil society with an ample arena for participation, but they have yet to establish a joint program to strengthen the civilian sector that would consolidate Ixcán’s fragile democratic society. Efforts in the education sector to develop a single curriculum from early childhood education on, in both public and private schools, is one sign of hope.
A pending taskThe Peace Accords are only a starting point on which to build a democratic society. But we have not yet reached even that minimum point. The task belongs to all of Ixcán’s inhabitants, men and women, and the obstacles are no excuse not to participate in building a new Ixcán in a different Guatemala.