November 14, 2003

Next Guatemala President Must Decide on Official Story

By Mary Jo McConahay

SANTA MARIA DE JESUS, Guatemala — Former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt’s party distributed laminated metal roofing here, a misty town on the flanks of a volcano, in an effort to gain votes before nationwide elections Nov. 9. But the days when such bribes ensured national victory may be over. Rios Montt came in third.

Indians in this town about an hour from Guatemala City must now wait to cast their votes in a final presidential round on Dec. 28. At stake is not only the local crisis issue of potable water, but history itself. Whoever wins the runoff election between candidates Alvaro Colom and Oscar Berger will preside over a dramatic national struggle: What will be the official memory of the country’s recent, bloody past?

Two hundred thousand persons, mostly unarmed Maya Indians, died or disappeared in Guatemala’s 36 years of civil war, almost all at government hands. A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found incidents of genocide.

Women in traditional Maya woven dress with babies wrapped to their backs lined up along with men to vote on Nov. 9. Extremely poor and uneducated compared to the white and mixed minority who run the country, the Maya Indian population cast ballots in higher numbers and with more variety in their choices than in previous elections. Colom or Berger must win their vote to lead Guatemala, the most populous and resource-rich country in Central America.

“Written law is good, democracy is good,” said a voter in his 30s who declined to give his name. He then added quietly, “But there is still no justice.”

Colom, 52, an industrial engineer, touts his initiation by Maya priests into indigenous cosmology and calls his spirituality “Mayan.” He led a government development organization and backed a network of maquilas —assembly factories— in which many highland Indians find low-paid but steady jobs. Berger, 57, a rancher and former mayor of Guatemala City, signed a formal commitment in October with representatives of more than 20 Maya language groups, making promises to enforce anti-racism policy, promote bilingual education and revive a stalled indigenous rights accord that is part of the l996 peace treaty that ended the war.

In the capital and other cities, however, youngsters and young adults already appear ignorant of that war. Most teachers and parents simply do not speak of the l980s, when 440 villages were erased, students murdered and labor unionists kidnapped and disappeared. Military dictatorships eliminated those who called for reform or were suspected of supporting guerrillas.

State education policy does not require teaching the history of the period.

“The military and economically powerful sectors here have much influence in the education system,” says Gustavo Palma, a historian at the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences in Guatemala, a research institute. “What those sectors say is ‘turn the page.’”

Meanwhile, massacre survivors and their allies, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, whose family died in the violence, are attempting to use national courts and international tribunals to try officers and two former chiefs of state for ordering the programs of scorched earth and assassination. Rios Montt is among the accused. Out of security concerns, especially in rural areas, witnesses have delivered preliminary testimony in secret.

Others are intent on burying history. The current government party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) has recognized some 520,000 former civil patrollers who served as a rural militia, and sometimes took part in massacres, by promising money for past service, making initial payments of about $200 to 400,000 men. The next government is obliged to complete payments. Former patrollers and survivors live side by side.

Sometimes the tension erupts. When the FRG scheduled a campaign appearance of Gen. Rios Montt in a northern town called Rabinal while relatives carried remains of loved ones recently exhumed from an army base, some in the funeral procession became so incensed they did the unthinkable: hurled stones at the stage, routing the candidate.

Around Rabinal, which is overwhelmingly indigenous, suspicion resides that radical means are being tried to intimidate memory. At least three Maya priests, who perform rites and serve as a repository of tradition and history in the community, have been murdered in recent months; others report anonymous threats.

Three national policemen were arrested for the May 2 murder of Gerardo Cano Manuel, shot from behind as he knelt at a Maya shrine and kissed the ground in a rain ceremony. Recently, the suspects were released.

Cano’s son, Thomas Eduardo Cano Cano, 28, a barber and father of three, stood near the embers of a fire over his father’s grave and thanked people for coming to a commemoration held in the days before the first-round voting. He said he would not allow the deed to be forgotten in the community. “I will light the fire every year,” he said.

Mary Jo McConahay ( is an editor at PNS and a writer and filmmaker who lived in Guatemala for over a decade.

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