Elias Lawless

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.

On July 24, 2003, on what has since been termed Black Thursday, an armed riot of masked FRG backers stormed the streets of Guatemala City to demand that Ríos Montt be allowed to run for president, thereby sidestepping a constitutional provision banning ex-dictators who came to power by overthrowing the government from candidacy. In response to the two days of terror, which resulted in the death of a journalist, the courts caved in and gave Ríos Montt the go ahead; he lost, taking only 18 percent of the votes.

As electioneering is presently well under way in Guatemala for the presidential contest in November, the FRG made their favored candidate known three months ago. At their national assembly, Aristides Crespo, head of the FRG bloc in Congress, announced, “The FRG has their natural candidate, Efrain Ríos Montt, and there is no other.” On Jan. 17, the FRG alerted Guatemala to a change of strategy: In front of Congress, Ríos Montt proclaimed, “I will reach the highest rank. It could not be any other way … I will be president of Congress from 2008-2012.”

WireTap magazine’s Elias Lawless met up with Antonio in Guatemala to ask about his experiences following the massacre in his village as well as his participation in, and risky abandonment of, the Civil Patrols, published here as Part One. Be sure to check out Part One for broader context on the Association for Justice and Reconciliation.

WireTap: Who is the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), and what are its objectives in fighting?

Antonio Caba:

Well, we who became the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, after all that, had no idea how to struggle or continue on. But we knew what we would become. There was no one on our side, but after a little while we came to know how to organize, how to fight.

Then came the exhumation in Ilom (Antonio’s village), then came CALDH (Center for Legal Action in Human Rights). I think it was 1998 or 1999. We met there and they asked me questions such as what the massacre was like, how the army arrived. I told them all about the situation that happened here in the community.

Later, we arrived at an agreement among various communities: Baja Verapaz, Alta Verapaz, Chimaltenango, Quiche, Huehuetenango, the Ixcan region. So it was from there that we came to know one another: other people from places where the same situation occurred. There we decided to found what became the AJR, that it was necessary to form a coalition that would be called the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, that we as survivors must demand justice for all the deaths we had seen. “We have to demand justice so that there may be justice,” we said.

Well, that was an interest of ours, that the high military commands be tried for their crimes of genocide against the Maya peoples. As far as those of us in the Ixil region, we are the Ixil Maya–people that were affected, were massacred, had our rights violated. For all those reasons the AJR was sprouted.

WT: What is Efrain Ríos Montt’s significance in this struggle?

AC:

Ríos Montt, as we have always mentioned, is a sickness for us. He is a disease that is very infectious for Guatemala because he has committed those grave errors, those tremendous crimes against the Maya peoples. And not only Ríos Montt but also his high military command as well as Lucas Garcia (Guatemalan dictator from 1978-1982) and his high military command–they are the ones who committed these offenses of genocide, so Ríos Montt is an illness here in Guatemala on account of being a genocidio, a murderer, a criminal.

And we have discussed with many companions that if it were us, the Maya, who were guilty of genocide what would they, the authorities, do? Rapidly they would place us in prison, if we were the guilty ones. But since Ríos Montt has money–he has funds and he also has his power and they help him–he intimidates the authorities, or it could be that he convinces them with money. For that reason we have seen that there exists much backwardness in the pursuit of justice here in Guatemala.

Because Ríos Montt, living as a criminal, he walks around freely! And he should be already imprisoned. He should not still be on the loose. He should not still be appearing on television, appearing in the media and saying this or that. Ríos Montt should already be in prison for the crimes he has committed, like those against the children in the Santa Delfina plantation, no? He was the government at that time, so he should have dispatched doctors for the children that died. So, what happened? It didn’t bother him that children died. It did not matter to him.

Ríos Montt delights in the impunity, and it is not only Ríos Montt who is the wound for Guatemala, but also the authorities that presently do not act to judge this genocidio. Therefore, Ríos Montt is the wound and also the authorities are the wound because they do not enforce the law.

WT: Can you discuss Ríos Montt’s plan, and accordingly the strategy of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), regarding compensation payments to former Self Defense Civil Patrollers (ex-PAC)?

AC:

Ríos Montt is always very crafty in his form, and he has always tried to conquer the people. Because if you remember the past, of what has been called Black Thursday, Ríos Montt displayed his style of being on Black Thursday when he forcibly inscribed [as presidential candidate]. He revealed his nature on this day because all of his supporters wore masks, wielded sticks and carried guns violently. But who planned it? Ríos Montt planned it! It was in this form that he also planned the massacres in the communities.

The Guatemalan authorities should act and not allow him to participate in elections. Not as a candidate for president, nor Congress, nor anything. Ríos Montt has demonstrated his style before Guatemala and before the entire world. Ríos Montt is a genocidio.

Ríos Montt has always found support in the Quiche department. Do you know why people vote for him? They know he is a genocidio and that if he does not win perhaps 1982 might return again. So, for fear, the people vote to not re-experience the past.

The ex-PAC payments were planned by Ríos Montt in order to not lose his power. First, a general began to convince people to attend protests under Portillo, but it was all already planned out. Portillo approved. We saw that it was not to lose his power, his party. Why do I say that? Because only his supporters received the payment. And those former patrollers affiliated with another party? They gave them nothing.

It is better to send more money to reparations for victims because there are people who lost their houses, lost their family members. Clearly former patrollers have a right because they were obligated to patrol. Well, since we know the military has grand quantities of money allocated from the government, this is what we should reduce and use to pay former patrollers. Because it was the military that forced them into patrols. And money received from other countries should not be given to ex-PACs but as reparations for victims.

Because what function, what benefit does the military bring? What the military brings us is poverty. The world knows that Guatemala is poor, but why? The military has brought the poverty. The weapons have brought the poverty. And who are the richest? The military, the generals. And the guerrilla? I have never heard of a guerrilla fighter who is also a millionaire.

WT: What should the international community do to support the struggle of the AJR and survivors in general?

AC:

What they should do, or what we have always requested, and what I have asked for as AJR’s president is that they pressure Guatemalan authorities to take these genocidios to a tribunal. And if they, these authorities, do not want to do it, do not attempt to do it, nor even wish to try these criminals, then what I would ask is that it would be good to extradite Ríos Montt so that he may be judged in another country.

That is one thing, but also if there is no justice in Guatemala, then it would be good that Guatemalan authorities be tried as well. Because to me it would be proper that they be judged first–before the genocidios–because they are guilty, the Guatemalan authorities, of why these genocidios have not been tried, why they are not imprisoned.

And why do I tell you that? Because the authorities, we entrust them. For that reason they are there, to try these genocidios, to judge those who commit crimes. And another thing, we pay taxes, and these authorities are who we fund, so they must comply with their obligations, no?

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CALL TO ACTION:

The genocide case filed by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation has stalled in national courts since its original filing in 2000. There appears to be no motivation by authorities to move the case forward. Impunity is the devastating norm in Guatemala. Stats indicate that only an estimated three percent of murders are ever investigated and prosecuted there. Below are ways to support the AJR’s struggle:

1. Send an email to Guatemalan authorities demanding that they move the case forward.
2. Apply to become a human rights accompanier with the AJR.
3. Join an email update list about the AJR and other social justice struggles within Guatemala.
4. Donate to support U.S. and Guatemala-based solidarity work with the AJR.

For general background on Guatemala, check out BBC News chronology of historic events in Guatemala.

Translation, photos and introduction by Elias Lawless, 22, an independent journalist from Texas working in and around Guatemala. Contact him with comments or ideas for collaboration or to support the AJR at elias (at) riseup(dot)net.