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  Number 360 | Julio 2011
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Guatemala

Chronicle of a love story

After 27 years of anguish, hope and struggle undertaken by many women out of love, the Guatemalan State asked forgiveness at a ceremony in the presidential palace for the disappearance of three young students while in police hands. If the ceremony demonstrated anything, it was the victims’ courage. Faced with an unbearable situation, they were still able to take the road of love, never bitterness.

Alejandro Fernández

On the morning of May 15, 1984, young Carlos Cuevas Molina was riding his motorbike through Guatemala City’s historic center when he was intercepted by two vehicles driving the wrong way up a one-way street. Witnesses saw him beaten and thrown behind the thick doors of a police van and some were able to note down the vehicles’ license plates. He was never heard from again. His wife, Maria del Rosario Godoy, didn’t doubt his destiny for a moment: “Either give me back Carlos or take me too.” She was murdered the following year on Maundy Thursday. With unprecedented cruelty, her captors went so far as to torture her little son, barely two years old, just to cause more suffering to one of the bravest women Guatemala has ever produced, today acclaimed as a Martyr of the Fraternity by the Latin American Catholic Church.

Carlos’ kidnapping was only the start of a tragic month. Six more members of the University Student Association, of which he was the executive secretary, faced a similar fate between June 15 and 21 of that year.

27 years of torture

In today’s Guatemala, tragic periods are not counted in months but in decades. Over 36 years of armed conflict, 200,000 men and women lost their lives and 45,000 more, among them 5,000 children, swelled the list of forced disappearances hidden by one of the most impenetrable cloaks of impunity created in Latin America, all just to protect the economic interests of the local oligarchy and its transnational allies.

On June 2, 2011, 27 years after that fateful morning, President Álvaro Colom presided over a public ceremony in the gardens of Guatemala’s National Palace to vindicate Carlos Cuevas and two other university students, Héctor Interiano and Gustavo Castañón, martyred that fateful week:. Responding to its commitment to a friendly agreement urged by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights , the government also publicly asked their families and all society for forgiveness in the name of the Guatemalan State.

Forgiveness, however, doesn’t come even close to compensating the atrocious pain caused by these young people’s disappearance. “The Guatemalan State tortured us for 27 years,” said Ana Lucía Cuevas, Carlos’ sister, who had to leave the country immediately, never to live again in her country. But the plea for forgiveness does open a door to hope that the memory and dreams of these young people, who had the most precious thing wrenched from them, might one day have their integrity vindicated by a fair trial against their executioners.

“The disappeared
are starting to appear”

It’s not the first time the Guatemalan government has asked for forgiveness for crimes committed during the armed conflict. It did so a few months ago with poet Otto René Castillo’s family and a year ago before more than a thousand subsistence farming families who were also offered economic compensation. President Berger and Vice President Stein did it too in similar cases during the previous administration. While so much forgiveness hasn’t borne fruit with regard to getting justice so far, it unquestionably replenishes the strength of those who have spent years hoping against all hope.

“The disappeared are beginning to appear,” said Ana Lucia Cuevas, in an affirmation that displays the unbreakable resolve of these families, shot through with love for their relatives and the land that witnessed their birth. Even though this request for forgiveness barely scratches the surface of the unfeeling armor protecting those who ordered and carried out those inhuman acts, the courage of a few people, mostly women, is opening up spaces so justice can emerge once more. The first was Monsignor Gerardi’s murder trial in 2001, which sentenced three soldiers to prison for the bishop’s extrajudicial assassination. A year later, the case of anthropologist Mirna Mack established another essential precedent by sentencing Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, one of those who ordered her murder, to 30 years in prison. The killers of trade unionist Fernando García were recently sentenced to 40 years in prison. These signs allow us to hope that law can still be applied in Guatemala.

As part of this titanic effort to break with impunity we need to include the friendly acts of conciliation encouraged by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and accepted by this government. They include four commitments: vindication of and a public apology for the disappeared person, economic compensation for the family, the creation of a commission to drive the penal process that will result in justice in the courts and a commitment by the State to reveal the whereabouts of the disappeared person’s remains and subsequently deliver them to the family.

Lights on a dark road

The 27-year dark night has been marked by rays of hope. In 1999, over 12 years ago, the brightest ray dazzled nationals and foreigners alike. That was the year the report of the Historic Clarification Commission was published, shaking the foundations of Guatemalan society. The report was the result of a commitment made by both sides in the conflict on signing the Peace Accords in 1996. While it left many questions unanswered and it was explicitly agreed that it would not reveal individual names, but only institutional responsibilities, the report was devastating for the State. It publicly stated what everyone knew but few dared denounce openly: that the State was directly responsible for 90% of the crimes committed during the interminable armed conflict between 1962 and 1996.

That same year, names began to emerge with Washington’s declassification of the so-called Military Journal, a Guatemalan Army Intelligence Headquarters file that came to light in 1999. It revealed the participation of top-level military officers in student kidnappings and disappearances.

Six years later, in 2005, a casual inspection of the building the National Police occupied uncovered an immense archive, forgotten among bats and cockroaches. It had doubtless been hidden to keep history from knowing the police detachment’s terrible responsibility over the 34 years of civil war. Obliged by the nature of the evidence, Guatemala’s justice system put the documents—millions of dossiers detailing police operations against civilians—in the hands of the Human Rights Ombudsperson. The relatives of those tortured and disappeared by the regime of terror have delved into them with their hearts in their mouths, among them the three families who on June 2 received a long-awaited apology from Colom.

“They were looking for life!”

Long and tortuous steps had to be climbed one by one to reach the morning of June 2. In the patio of what is called Peace Square at the very heart of the presidential palace, a President democratically elected but with his hands tied by powerful structures that for decades consolidated a State within a State, rose solemnly from his chair to beg forgiveness from the families.

At his side at the presidential table was Carlos Cuevas’ mother, Ruth Molina de Cuevas; Héctor Interiano’s wife, Elizabeth Florian; Gustavo Castañon’s father; Ruth del Valle, who directs the Presidential Commission coordinating the Executive Policy on Human Rights (COPREDEH); and Fernando García’s mother, Emilia García, one of the women who founded the Mutual Support Group (GAM) in 1984 and fought with dignity to overcome the terror employed to try to force them to give in. Many of these admirable women were present in the Presidential Palace on this June 2 to shout the truth bursting inside their chests for the past quarter of a century.

“They were looking for life!” shouted an old friend of the disappeared; her shout was taken up by hundreds of men and women invited to the event. Like a vaccine against the sterile cynicism of those who sought to belittle the clandestine struggle, it’s imperative to reaffirm that Carlos, Gustavo and Interiano weren’t working to spread chaos, as the army attempted again and again to make public opinion believe. They were seeking life and dignity for thousands of Guatemalan men and women who in those dark years had begun to suffer the genocidal scorched earth policy, well known today thanks to the prodigious work of Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla. Under that abominable policy of the governments of Generals Ríos Montt and Lucas García, more than 600 indigenous villages were burned to the ground, eliminating all signs of human habitation.

“Some lives last a long time”

Ruth Molina de Cuevas, Carlos’ mother, was the first to speak. With barely contained emotion, she limited herself to reading two poems written to her son more than two decades ago in those days when, from exile in Costa Rica, she worked bravely to be, as one of her verses puts it, “the echo of many peoples’ pain.” This woman of laudable strength, who over 30 years ago also lost her husband, Rafael Cuevas del Cid, former Rector of San Carlos University and human rights activist, in never-clarified circumstances, was already exiled in Costa Rica, where she still lives, when she got the news of her son’s kidnapping. Her commitment to those “who remained at home” has been unqualified and tenacious.

Carlos had five brothers and sisters whom the brutal impact of exile scattered across two continents. His sisters Ana Lucía, who lives in England, and Rosario, resident in Costa Rica, were present at the forgiveness ceremony. They both read statements that even meditated on for so long lacked neither life nor passion,. Every now and then, their words brought tears to the eyes of those present: “Some lives last an incredibly long time, like that of our brother; let’s celebrate the lives of those who gave them without asking anything in return.”

“Can one ask for forgiveness
in today’s Guatemala?”

Next came the turn of Elizabeth Florian, Interiano’s widow. Her speech was protracted but nobody felt it was one word too long. The most emotional moment came when Betty, as everyone calls her, wondered aloud what her disappeared husband would think about this act of forgiveness: “Can one ask for forgiveness when the things for which they fought haven’t changed, when there is still hunger, more unemployment than ever and violent death continues to reign in Guatemala?”

Her words sounded like a gravestone falling on the square but helped give the ceremony its deepest meaning: “Our demand is that this act of forgiveness be translated into the political will to change this country.” Betty said pointedly.

“They aren’t alone in death”

When Gustavo Castañon was arrested, a young woman was waiting for his phone call. Isabel Chaxom, his fiancée at that time, took the microphone on June 2 and her first remembrance was for the building that welcomed us tranquilly that morning. “We were taken down these same corridors we see now and tortured for demanding justice for the disappeared.”

That was during the government of General Mejía Víctores, who, like his predecessors, cruelly repressed all outbreaks of dignity caling for life. But dignity survived and Isabel gave it voice on that morning: “They are not alone in death. We have come here today to tell them we’re following the trail they blazed for us.”

If the ceremony reflected anything, it was the victims’ moral courage. Faced with an apparently unbearable situation in their lives, they were able to call forth the best in themselves and choose the path of love, never of bitterness. Witness to this was the eloquent letter read at the ceremony by Interiano’s son, Diego Alejandro, who lives outside Guatemala for economic reasons: “My mom had to hide even her pain, so I could have a normal childhood.”

“What would the martyrs think
of us who ask for forgiveness?”

When President Colom stood up to beg forgiveness formally, the emotions of all those present were electrified and an invisible current of dignity, long in the making, ran through the audience.

When Colom started to speak, half a dozen young people immediately stood up waving placards. They were demonstrating on behalf of the martyrs from the Valle de Polochic in the Alta Verapaz region, where three people were recently killed in a struggle over land ownership in which, as usual in Guatemala, the indigenous population faces a handful of people with powerful surnames.

The messages on the placards couldn’t be more direct: “What would the martyrs of those asking forgiveness today think about what happened in Polochic?” The public remained eloquently silent at the analogy. It wasn’t the moment to analyze the matter, or to placate the discontent of those demanding more consistency between the government’s speeches and its practice.

How to forgive when the poorest continue to die at the hands of the same squadrons? Democratic institutions are frail in Guatemala, but luckily women aren’t. There was nothing further to add to the way Miss Emilia closed the ceremony. Over 70 years old, she is still at the forefront of the GAM: “This apology provides us the impetus to demand that the investigations continue.”

Said and done. As I write on June 10, 2011, Héctor Rafael Bol de la Cruz, director of the National Police between 1983 and 1985, was arrested. With that detention of one of the presumed masterminds of the students’ disappearance, we can hope that the process initiated by their relatives to see justice done, which is the most important thing for them, moves forward decisively.

Women made out of love

Outside the presidential palace, far from cameras and safe from microphones, the relatives’ faces relaxed again. A simple lunch at the GAM, accompanied by the many faces desiring justice hung on this organization’s walls, ended the day. The guests left one by one, with mixed feelings, certainly, but with the satisfaction of having done their duty.

Hours later, in a nearby building under a humble zinc-roofed balcony, a group of women refused to let the day end. They didn’t want to go. It had been so hard for them to get this far... They were hurriedly attempting to share the story of their lives, some lived within the country and others in exile, an impossible synthesis of 27 years of anguish.

“I can’t believe it,” Betty was saying, now finally away from the ostentation of the presidential palace and back in the intimacy of her family. Those eyes that had shed rivers of desperation and anguish reddened now with tears of emotion. “But… how have we been able to wage this struggle for 27 years? What are we made of?”

From the other side of the table Rosario Cuevas tossed her the most likely reply, “Of love, Betty, we’re made of the love they had for us.”

Alejandro Fernández is a grassroots communicator.

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