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  Number 469 | Agosto 2020
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Questions about the death of Qawa’ Domingo Choc Ché

The Mayan spiritual leader Domingo Choc Ché was burned to death on June 6 by a mob in the village of Chimay, in Petén, Guatemala, accused of witchcraft by some of his own villagers. There are many more questions than answers about the dynamics that led to his lynching, and thus also about what should be done that beg vital social answers for Guatemala, and for our region as a whole.

Ana Secundina Méndez Romero

Once the pandemic reached Guatemala, most of the national media have focused on how our society is dealing with it. Some emphasize how inequalities and violence against women have worsened. Others point out that there isn’t even physical distancing between the houses in the poorest areas of the capital city. Still others focus on the poor quality of the country’s public health services. The pandemic has also made us aware that when life is under threat, solidarity and common sense don’t always prevail. This is the context in which the mob incineration of Qawa’ Domingo Choc Ché took place.

Who was Qawa’
Domingo Choc Ché?

I was deeply moved by the crime that took the life of Qawa’ Domingo Choc Ché. He was a spiritual guide, an aj lionel, which means “one who cures, looks and sees,” and an expert in natural medicine. His death merits reflection. This murder is more than a single vile act of violence; it causes us to question various community actors, and both governmental and church authorities. It also spurs us to learn more about who Qawa’ Domingo was, to try to come to a better understanding of how this could have happened.
Qawa’ Domingo was of Q’eqchi’ descent. (Qawa’ means elder in Q’eqchi’). He was 56 years old and lived in Chimay, a village in the municipality of San Luis, Petén. This village was established in the 1990s before the 1996 Peace Accords were signed. About 400 Q’eqchi’ families live in Chimay today. They are originally from Lanquin, Cahabon and Chahal, three municipalities in the department of Alta Verapaz, located about 50 minutes from Chimay. For reasons explained below, I don’t know the conditions in which these families lived during the 36 years of our country’s armed conflict, but it is not unreasonable to assume they were displaced and suffered greatly.

Qawa’ Domingo was a father: he had four children with his first wife and eight with his second, six of whom are minors. He had worked in a project of the Archbishop of Guatemala’s Human Rights Office since 1998, listening to the victims of violence resulting from that armed conflict and healing their emotional and physical pain. He was also a member of the Association of the Releb’aal Saq’e Spiritual Guides Councils.

He was known abroad because he was also part of a research team led by the universities of Zurich and London and the Del Valle University in Guatemala. Mónica Berger, Guatemalan anthropologist and director of Del Valle’s Medical Anthropological Unit, worked with him on trans-disciplinary research into the rescue of medicinal plants. She described him best. On Facebook, Berger wrote that “he was a quiet, calm person and his knowledge was incalculable.” Another of his closest friends also described him as easygoing, someone who “didn’t interfere with anyone and knew a great deal about plants.”

What happened in
Chimay on June 6?

While some Guatemalan alternative and government newspapers said Qawa’ Domingo was detained for several hours before his murder, a member of the San Luis Petén Community Council for Urban and Rural Development declared on Radio Infinita that he had been held for five days with no intervention by government authorities to secure his release.

It is only one of many issues on which clarity is hard to obtain. There was clear inertia by local, church and government authorities about what happened with Qawa’ Domingo.

His detention and harassment were apparently due to the belief of some community neighbors that he had been responsible for the death of a village member. The man had died of an unknown cause some days earlier in the Poptún hospital. No authoritative person or group made people see reason and stop their accusation. On that Saturday morning of June 6 when tempers flared and Qawa’ Domingo was murdered, the usually isolated and unattended village had no forum for dialogue. Qawa’ Domingo was alone and his cries for help were to no avail. The mob of unknown size drenched him with gasoline on the village soccer field and set him on fire, burning him alive. His body was left lying there. Not until the afternoon did authorities come to make some arrests. The villagers shouted accusations against Qawa’ Domingo, saying he was a witch and practiced witchcraft. Some accused him of being responsible for not one but several deaths in the community.

What health services are there in the village of Chimay? What is the role of the health officials concerning the population’s beliefs in witchcraft, in diseases caused by spells? So far there is no data on the public health systems’ quality of care in the region, nor is it clear whether or not the authorities share these beliefs.

Qawa’ Domingo’s violent death motivated numerous people and groups from various social sectors to make statements in the media and on the social networks. Common elements from the resulting discussion can be identified that try to explain the reasons for the murder: religious fanaticism, racism and lessons learned during the war.

Was it religious fanaticism?

According to the Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico, there are seven Christian groups in the village of Chimay, each with its respective practices. Five are Neo-Pentecostal, one is Evangelical and one is Catholic. The people detained for Qawa’ Domingo’s death belong to the Catholic Church.

Identifying Qawa’ Domingo as a witch shows little tolerance for practices outside of the Christian tradition. It also shows the absence of inter-religious dialogue beyond holding joint celebrations or participating in different ceremonies, and emphasizes the need to establish communication channels between the different religious authorities. This requires substantial changes: a reassessment of Christian dogmas, the norms for relationships and coexistence between people of different faiths and the religious teaching Christians give children and adolescents.

It remains to be seen whether the various churches in Chimay will continue to evangelize and preach to convert “non-believers” to their creeds without making any changes. If they don’t change, it is irrelevant to talk about ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue because they will always prioritize attracting more faithful to their temples than to community harmony.

Was it racism?

Racism is very closely related to religious extremism, which demonizes and criminalizes the Aj k’atol mayej (spiritual guides) for practicing their spirituality outside of the churches, being disassociated from any official church authority, connecting with the cosmos and, most probably, being the only ones who don’t proselytize in the community.

Guatemala’s intellectual and academic circles were especially strong in pinpointing racism to explain Qawa’ Domingo’s lynching. They link the event with the age-old violent practices against the Mayan peoples dating back to the Spanish Conquest, a violence that is still prevalent today.

Using violence against something that generates fear and isn’t controllable causes more insecurity. The intolerance that exists among members of the same indigenous community has been taught by the dominant ideology and permeates until it becomes a part of their survival mechanism. Archeologist and anthropologist Diego Vásquez Monterroso sees events like Qawa’ Domingo’s horrendous death not as a case of Q’eqchi’ against Q’eqchi’, but of that learned intolerance being turned on themselves, used against their own people.

The political scientist and sociologist Me’k Matom analyzed this event based on the ideas of Frantz Fanon, explaining how structural violence materializes in everyday life when it can’t be expressed against those who cause the pain.

Was it the aftermath of the war?

Agencies such as the Association of Spiritual Guides correlate Qawa’ Domingo’s murder to the Guatemalan Army’s persecution and elimination of the Aj k’atol mayej during the armed conflict. There is still no exhaustive study analyzing specifically what motivated the targeting of those people.

The reality my own village experienced in the 1970s and 1980s can illustrate something about that military practice.

I remember that the people of my village used to practice Mayan spirituality intensely. There were no Protestant churches and only a few Catholics who began to catechize and persuade some young women, my paternal aunts among them, to join the church choirs.

The military criminalized all religious practices equally. There was persecution, targeted kidnappings and killings of all community leaders, catechists, Mayan spiritual guides, cooperative leaders and teachers who had started to promote literacy, economic autonomy and community organization.

The numbers of Evangelical churches and charismatic groups increased from the time of this savagery while all other religious and spiritual practices were banned. Some people from my village changed religion as a survival measure.

There are common elements between the Protestant, Evangelical and Neo-Pentecostal churches, among them a disconnection from the dead. This led to the banning of going to cemeteries and religious sanction, and the mocking of certain practices. One such practice steeped in meaning and symbolism is the three-day ritual after a person is buried. Some older people still keep up this tradition and, before dying, ask that it be held for them. When it takes place, believers of those denominations go out to preach with loudspeakers shouting that there should be no relationship with the dead.

They not only disconnect from the dead, but also from past events, historical memory, so that if you come to my village asking about events that happened in the war, they will tell you that “nothing happened.” In this way, religious practice imposes silence. Is this same thing happening with the questions to do with Qawa’ Domingo?

Was it just a local reality?

Fanaticism, racism and the aftermath of the war are somehow intertwined as ideologies and beliefs that justify any violence, including that perpetrated against Qawa’ Domingo.

These three instruments of violence are fueled in contexts of uncertainty and at critical moments such as those triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, where the fear of losing one’s life is exacerbated by the fear of suffering a shortage of basic necessities, and ends up with the violence of the strongest being imposed as a survival mechanism. With all this in mind, asking about the lynching of Qawa’ Domingo as if it had been a local reality would be reckless.

How did the village of
Chimay view his work?

I want to add two other elements to this reflection: the perceptions in Chimay and abroad of Qawa’ Domingo’s work, service and commitment.

How was his work viewed within and outside of his village? Were they satisfied? Was there envy? While some members of the community say he was a committed person and mention the value of that commitment and knowledge of the healing power of plants, others say he was a witch and describe his work as acts of witchcraft, blaming him for deaths in the community. How can this discrepancy be understood? Was it because Qawa’ Domingo’s work and contribution questioned the village’s subsistence economy or certain leaders?

The lack of social cohesion and spaces for dialogue between community members can give us a snapshot of the village and the ever-present power struggles. Furthermore, they show a community rendered desolate in terms of feelings of solidarity, common sense or mutual assistance, subject to divisive beliefs and ideologies learned during the war, perhaps legitimate at the time but which must be transcended today.
There are many important questions that would shed light on Qawa’ Domingo’s lynching for which we have no answers: What are the community’s beliefs about foreigners? What did his involvement in the research he did with medicinal plants mean for the local economy? Did everyone agree with it? Was Qawa’ Domingo seen as a threat by certain religious authorities or by local economic forces? No one is answering. Neither is it known if Qawa’ Domingo’s work was done in a personal capacity or if there was some community council involvement. We know even less about whether the community was consulted or included in the research projects. How was his work with the universities perceived? Did his relationship with foreign agencies generate fear in his village? Did Qawa’ Domingo himself know the answer to any of these questions?

What did the universities say?

Outside the village of Chimay are the governmental and church authorities, drug-traffickers, influence-peddlers and the three universities that worked with Qawa’ Domingo.

No information It is available on whether Qawa’ Domingo’s work generated distrust among the authorities or jeopardized their projects and interests. Neither is it known whether the authorities realized or knew about existing rivalries involving Qawa’ Domingo that culminated in his mob murder.

The only available information is the perception of the universities about Qawa’ Domingo’s contributions. They considered him a Mayan scientist, an herbalist, an expert in medicinal plants who participated in research of academic interest about these topics. They also recognized him as a spiritual guide, an aj lionel who offered important contributions to Mayan botany. According to Mónica Berger, the universities sought to place knowledge about Mayan medicine and conventional medicine on the same level, and for there to be a dialogue between them.

If there was such great recognition, it’s worth asking what role the universities played to make Qawa’ Domingo’s work known in the village of Chimay. What do they mean when they say this knowledge is “for the new generations”? I think their role in conducting certain research should be analyzed, especially regarding the knowledge and wisdom of original peoples. In general, knowledge extracted in these investigations is almost never is returned to the place it came from.

Why is there so much interest and financial support for these kinds of projects? Why was the valuable contribution of this aj lionel not widely publicized in his village? Could his death have been prevented by publicizing this research?

Did nobody see the danger?

A mob murder such as the one that took the life of Qawa’ Domingo cannot be analyzed as an isolated, personal, family incident. It was a social event.

All human lives are embedded in complex contexts where they coexist with economic and religious powers, with leadership conflicts and, certainly in Guatemala’s case, with land conflicts. All this causes institutional, local and personal friction.

It’s likely that what happened to Qawa’ Domingo was the consummation of several incidents that accumulated until they culminated in his incineration.
Faced with this barbarity, one last question: Did none of Qawa’ Domingo’s own people, those closest to him, some authority, some nearby agency, see the danger that was closing in on him? Maybe, but a society such as that in Guatemala doesn’t have the cultural habit of reporting violence because the justice system doesn’t listen to such complaints. The death of Qawa’ Domingo Choc Ché reveals that there were no spaces for dialogue and communion in his village. Just as there are almost none in the whole of Guatemala.

Ana Secundina Méndez Romero is a sociologist.

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