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The Maya Survivors vs. Los Genocidios: Part Two | The Nation

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The Maya Survivors vs. Los Genocidios: Part Two

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Elias Lawless

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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.

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