February 6, 2007
In various ways, Antonio Caba’s life mirrors that of many Maya men in their 30s residing in rural Guatemala: He tends a cornfield that feeds his wife, his children and himself; Spanish is his second language; he lost immediate family to the genocide that raged through the country in the ’80s; and he was coerced–through threats on his life–to participate in army-organized militias called Self Defense Civil Patrols.
However, in 1989, Antonio risked death by defiantly abandoning the Patrols and devoting himself to seeking out justice for the genocidios, men who masterminded and executed the military campaign which resulted in the death or disappearance of more than 200,000 individuals, the vast bulk of whom were Maya.
Antonio serves as president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a coalition of survivors representing a host of different Maya ethnicities, determined to hold seven former military and political officials accountable for widespread violence that, under the guise of purging the nation of armed rebels, compelled a U.N.-led truth commission to declare that Guatemala endured nothing short of genocide.
Guatemala’s nearest rendition to the now-dead Augusto Pinochet is Efraín Ríos Montt, who only left the presidency of the National Congress in November 2003 and presently leads the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) as its secretary general, the political party which constitutes the largest faction in Congress. In the last elections, the FRG claimed 15 of the 20 mayoral posts in El Quiche, the department where Antonio lives and where, at the age of 14, he was required to enlist in the Civil Patrols.
The Civil Patrols–militias in which men from the same village obligatorily carried out army orders, often including forced participation in massacres–were ordered to dissolve with the signing of the Peace Accords, an agreement which largely ended the state-led terror in December 1996.
In August of 1996, when demobilization of the Civil Patrols began, 270,906 predominately Maya peasant men were still registered; by 1997, Civil Patrols were, at least ostensibly, defunct. In June 2002, however, just in time for the upcoming national elections in 2003, the Civil Patrols “reorganized” themselves.
Springing from protests urging the government to supply former patrollers “compensation for services lent to the nation,” President Alfonso Portillo, who won office by running on Ríos Montt’s FRG ticket, conceded and paid a third of the promised amount to a number of former patrollers just before the election. Some 800,000 men had registered with their former Patrol commanders to sign up to receive the payments.