Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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Guatemala and Mexico
December 27, 1991 - January 13, 1992

As 1991 drew to a close, Mayan Indian refugees in Mexico were preparing to return to their homeland, Guatemala, whence they had fled the terror unleashed by death squads and the army in service to the ladino oligarchy. (Note: here and below I use the commonly accepted term "ladino" to refer to Guatemalans of mixed European and Indian ancestry. In 1991, the population of Guatemala was 56% ladino and 44% Mayan.)

Over Christmas and New Years 1991-1992, I was privileged to be a member of a Witness for Peace delegation that visited Malacatan — a refugee camp in southern Mexico — to learn of their experience and their plans. We then went on to Guatemala to learn something of the current human rights situation there.

A note on the content of this page:

From 1983 to 1999, Peace Brigades International enlisted volunteers from Europe and the U.S. to accompany Guatemalan human rights activists who were in clear danger of assassination by government-sanctioned death squads. In 2000 PBI received requests for a renewed presence in Guatelala, and re-opened an office there in 2003.

On a hunch, I checked the PBI website for information on the current situation in Guatemala, and came upon a page with the following appeal:

Peace Brigades International
September 30, 2003
PBI Emergency Response Network – English version.

Dear Friends,

We write you today to activate the External Support Network for the serious threats against human rights defenders working with CERJ, an organization with whom we have a long history of accompaniment and that we have accompanied recently on September 18 and 21 during reparations workshops that they facilitated for victims of Guatemala's internal conflict.

As you will read in more detail in the BACKGROUND section, Eusebio Macario, father of Angélica Macario, one of the defenders PBI is currently accompanying, was assassinated on September 27, according to CERJ possibly by ex-civil patrollers and individuals with links to the FRG (Guatemalan Republican Front), the political party currently in government. The Guatemala project sees this assassination as a direct threat against the CERJ leaders carrying out their reparations work with victims in rural communities and fears similar attacks.

Based on this information, I decided not to include any photos of the courageous refugees or activists we met with and interviewed. Even though some fifteen years have passed, I do not want to risk harm to any of them at the hands of a former death squad member or modern thug.

I cannot resist noting that as I write this in January, 2007, insurgent forces in Iraq are assassinating family members of Iraqis who cooperate with the U.S. occupational forces there. The present Bush administration considers such killing to be an outrage, of course, but it is a truism that George Bush Sr., as Director of the CIA, and later as President, was perfectly comfortable with death squad activity in Guatemala — as were the CEOs and representatives of the American corporations which did business there. Several of the American enablers of atrocious murder in Central America during the Reagan-Bush Sr. years — think Elliot Abrams here — are well-entrenched in the current administration.

For another take on the Bush administration's "in-your-face" contempt for the rights of foreign peoples, see this National Catholic Reporter article.

Commentary appears below each photo. (My apologies for being such a terrible photographer. These are really not very good pictures.)


The southwesterly Mexico/Guatemala border. I believe that the Malacatan refugee camp was barely west of the southwest bearing border just below its break from the east-west line at the top of the map. I seem to recall that we were not far from La Trinitaria, south of Comitán on Highway 190.

From Malacatan we will travel to Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala, on the southwest shore of Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan), shown in the center of the map. From there we will travel to Guatemala City, directly east of Lake Atitlan.


We are in guatemala, but where exactly I'm not sure. Clockwise from back left: Yours truly, Carol, Linda Dycus, Mike, Richelle, Wayne, Bob Hinshaw, Peter, Nicholee.

I already knew Linda, Bob, and Wayne from our time together with the Witness for Peace delegation to the 1990 Nicaraguan election. Linda and Bob are our group leaders, and Wayne is again our Witness for Peace mentor.


Wayne guides us through some role playing, toward being sensitive to cultural differences between us and the refugees we will meet. We also wanted to be prepared in case we were confronted by hostile or suspicious people.


Four of the six conditions that the refugees set for their treatment by the Guatemalan government when they returned. Even though there was strong international support for them, the Mayans were pretty gutsy in making these demands. It goes without saying that the ladino oligarchy considerd such demands to be inspired by an international communist conspiracy. I can't explain why I do not have conditions 5 and 6.


The ethnic breakdown of the refugees, named for the distinct Mayan languages or dialects they speak. I do not know if they are closely or distantly related. The refugees at Malacatan speak Mam, a very softly-spoken language characterized by guttural clicks produced by some mechanism unimaginable to this listener.


Nicholee's song expresses the faith-based nature of Witness for Peace.


Comitan. Here we learn more about the situation from Meredith, a WFP long-termer who, with her colleague Florence, will accompany us for the rest of our journey.


Our adventure begins. We will hike about a mile to the Malacatan camp. I seem to recall that our bus broke down, or ran out of gas, on the way to this spot.


A few of the huts of Malacatan show in the distance. Another photo I have shows an evangelical Christian camp a few hills away.


The camp community meeting house and school. Here is where the children were educated, and where health promotors from the camp itself educated the refugees on hygiene. Here, too, is where the community gathered to organize, strategize, and hone their skills toward surviving under now more uncertain human rights conditions in Guatemala.

What was certain, though, is that the last thing the government and the oligarchy wanted was for a large numnber of relatively well-educated, politically organized refugees returning to Guatemala to provide a model for those Mayan communities that had not been able to flee the oppression.


Carol and I will stay here with a family of 6. I am deeply sorry that I cannot in good conscience post the great photo I took of all of us together.


Inside the cabin. Mom was pregnant with her 7th child.

Carol and I were given two of the family benches to sleep on, and the sons slept somewhere else.

The bag of corn was of course not sent directly to Malacatan by the U.S. government. It was donated to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, which administers refugee camps around the globe.

Both the Mexican government and the Mexican landowners who rented farmland to the refugees were generally helpful and humane, but social and financial strains finally made it necessary for the refugees to continue their struggle in Guatemala itself. On the other hand, the Mexican army was not always friendly to the refugees, and sometimes looked the other way when the Guatemalan military occasionally crossed the border to harrass the camps.


Meredith. We are probably listening to an exposition from a health promotor or other camp leader.


Florence seemed always to be holding a child.


The camp store, with the ubiquitous US soft drink sign.


Washing clothes in the river. Somewhat less dangerous for the people downstream than the rivers of many of America's industrial regions.


I don't know here this is. Could be San Christóbal de las Casas or Comitán.


Peter in a pensive mood.


A coffee sheller.


We're still in Mexico. I'm on a bridge over a large river. The bags seem a bit lumpy for coffee, but that's what my note says the burros are carrying.

I'm not sure that this picture is in the right sequence. We're in Guatemala City now, and this is an office of Casa Refugio Alianza, a pan-Central American children's advocacy, protection, and development organization. We met with the young staffers inside.

For a history of Casa Alianza in Spanish (PDF format) click here.

Centro de Investigación, Estudio y Promoción de Derechos Humanos (CIEPRODH)      Center for Investigations, Research and Promotion of Human Rights     We met with the founder of CIEPRODH in his well-protected residence behind the gate.

A few of the Peace Brigades International volunteers who accompanied potential death squad targets. I think that the "John Wayne" paradigm of courage, the only one that has so far captured the imagination of the vast majority of Americans, comes off as a distinct second best in comparison to the courage shown by these folks. As I recall, most of this group were Europeans.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Here begins a series of posters that vividly reveal the incredible courage shown by ordinary men and women — virtually all poor — who daily risked their lives resisting death squad and government terror. The following pictures indicate that poor Guatemalan women were the leaders in this struggle.

I hope my translations are not too far off the mark.


The tree here represents the diverse Mayan cultures.

They snatch away our fruit.
They cut away our branches.
They burn our trunk.
But they cannot kill our roots.

The Rights of the Child

A graphic exposition of the very serious problems suffered by poor and lower-class Guatemalan children, and a virtual demand that their rights be taken seriously by the government and the wealthy.

To the left of item 4, a child demands to be called "Batman," and also says that he wants to be Swiss, so that he can eat chocolate all day. This is a reference to the pernicious effects of American and European advertising and culture on the attitudes and tastes of Latin American children.

To the right of item 4, a group of children line up to be vaccinated — against despotism.

The last 3 "Rights of the Child," roughly translated:

  •  8.   Under all circumstances, the child should count among the first to receive protection and help.

  •  9.   The child should be protected from all forms of abandonment, cruelty, and exploitation. He should not be the object of any kind of traffic. [here: slave traffic.]

    It should not be permitted that the child works before a minimum suitable age, and in no case should he be permitted to work in any occupation or employment that might prejudice his health, education, or impede his physical, mental, or moral development.

  • 10.   The child should be protected from practices that foster racial, religious, and any other kind of discrimination. He should be educated in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, peace among peoples, and should conscienciously devote his energies and capabilities to the service of his fellow man.

Filóchofo is (or was) a progressive Guatemalan cartoonist. These cartoons were displayed on Casa Alianza's bulletin board. They are from the progressive periodical Siglo Veinteuno. (21st Century)

Top cartoon:

They close Casa Alianza (institution that protects street children.)
¿Close it or silence it? Filóchofo exclaims.
Casa Alinaza denounces torture of street children reads the headline of the pamphlet he holds.

Bottom cartoon:

  • Casa Alianza accuses the police of repression of the street children.
  • The father of Jorge A. Mazariegos says that his son was assassinated ...

"... within the security plan we will hire a thousand more agents," says a government official. (Then President of Guatemala Jorge Serrano Elías, I assume.)
"God save us ..." exclaims Filóchofo.

"Civilian control over the police-a priority for both curbing and seriously investigating human rights abuses-remains a myth, disguising continuing army dominance. Although the elected government of President Jorge Serrano has paid lip service to the goal of civilian law enforcement, its actions have enhanced military authority."
(Human Rights Watch)

Guatemala City, union office entrance.

Inside the union office. This was one of several human rights offices we visited, in which were displayed the powerful graphics shown below. I believe that most of their messages will be fairly well understandable even without translation.

To be a Guatemalan woman

Women's activists have marked 25 November as a day against violence since 1981. This date came from the brutal assassination in 1960, of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, on orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961).

Other links:
Not A Minute More.
Killer's Paradise — film (2006).

Homage to Guatemalan martyrs.



Woman, you have an important place [role], participate.

COMFUITAG, the Women's Committee of Food and Allied Workers, was a target of death squad activity.


On July 31, 1991, in Zone 3 of Guatemala City the unidentified corpse of a street child approximately seven or eight years old was discovered. The body bore signs of torture. It's unclear whether this poster refers to the anniversary of this event, or another. Nevertheless, the OAS report linked here is a useful resource.

Digging deeper into the Google hit list for "July 31, 1991 Guatemala," I came upon this interesting little tidbit from the U.S. Assistant Deputy Director for C[ounter] I[ntelligence] Support. It is not specifically related to these posters, but is relevant nonetheless, considering that virtually all Latin American security forces owe their training to the U.S.







"Myrna Mack, a renowned Guatemalan anthropologist, was assassinated on September 11, 1990, in Guatemala City. She had been stalked for two weeks prior to her death by a military death squad, who targeted her in retaliation for her pioneering field work on the destruction of rural indigenous communities."

Myrna Mack reaches through a small breach in the wall of impunity.

As I recall it, the widows of death squad victims worked for years for official permission to unearth mass graves like this.

Morning, Santiago Atitlan, on the southwest shore of Lago de Atitlan. I had gotten up early and walked up a trail on the slope overlooking the city. We traveled by boat to Santiago Atitlan from Panajachel, a town somewhere on the far distant shore. 2/3 of the volcanic cone shown here has been deforested, either to grow food or for firewood.

Weighing coffee. These pickers had already filled their sacks by the time I came upon them. Note the children.

Washing clothes. I think that we were told by the mayor of Santiago Atitlan that a water treatment plant would be constructed somewhere to the west of the town. I don't know whether specific shorelines were designated for washing clothes.

Harvesting water plants. Maybe this is where that green yuck sold as a health-food supplement comes from.


One cannot avoid Coca-cola in Latin America.

The northwest shore of Lago de Atitlan. The Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle began construction of this resort-to-be, but could not complete it because he was first deposed by the Sanidinistas, and later assassinated in Paraguay.

This town not far from the hotel was known for its political conservatism. One of its products was sisal, and we observed the very long strands of twine being stretched and twisted along the edges of the streets. I seem to remember that we were advised to be somewhat careful in expressing our own, decidedly liberal and progressive ideas here.

Vitalino Cuca ran a health clinic in Santiago Atitlan. Note the same posters as shown above. Here Andy, another of our Witness for Peace mentors, takes note. I don't recall when Andy joined us; he might have been a long-term delegate to Santiago Atitlan.

These perfectly fitted stones are akin to those chisled by the Incas to create their roadways and agricultural terraces on the steep slopes of the Andes.

Maximón. Maximón is a hybrid god of Indian-Catholic-Conquistadore composition. Each year his effigy resides in a different house, the owner of which wins the right to host him through competitive bidding, as I recall. The host earns a healthy return on his investment through the gifts given to Maximón by his supplicants: liquor, tobacco, money. The cigar in his mouth is barely visible here. Alcohol has been an important feature of Mayan culture since ancient times, and Maximón readily accepts offerings of the spirit. As I recall being told, the Catholic church does not come down hard on those who bring gifts to Maximón.

Our leader, Bob Hinshaw, is an anthropologist, and arranged for us to see the current shrine. I wasn't supposed to take this picture.

El Verbo, one of the prominent evangelical churches in Central America. The evangelical churches have proven to be serious competitors to the hybrid Catholicism of the Mayan populations. Bob Hinshaw explained that one reason for this is that alcohol is generally frowned upon, if not prohibited outright, by the evangelicals. This appeals to Mayan women, whose problem with drunken husbands is not insignificant.

We met with a group of evangelical ministers in this building. I do not know if all of them were El Verbo pastors, but in any case, at least one El Verbo minister had years earlier earned a reputation for the kind of muscular Christianity that human rights activists have deplored for decades: Efraín Ríos Montt, dictator of Guatemala in 1982-83, and who presided over the violent, near-genocidal program against the Indian population that resulted in a massive flight of Guatemalans to Mexico and the U.S.    Montt was severely criticized by Amnesty International (Guatemala: Massive extraducial executions in rural areas under the Government of General Efraín Ríos Montt, July, 1982), and Human Rights Watch, but President Reagan sprang to his defense on December 4, 1982, hailing the general as "totally dedicated to democracy," and saying that the good general was getting "a bum rap." (Note: This is a large page. Search on "Robert Parry" to find the section referred to here.)

"Widows shops," set up by women whose husbands had been killed by the death squads or the army. I'm sure that theorists at the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute would find a typically capitalist silver lining in their experiences: at least these women were now entrepreneurs, a step up in the world that they probably would not have taken had their husbands not been killed. As an admirer of President Reagan — and an expert lay economist himself — once told me, it is often "not pretty" when a "primitive" economy is forced to make the transition to a "market" economy.

Photo by Mike Flood.      The mayor of Santiago Atitlan. The poster shown here commemorates the anniversary of the massacre of Santiago Atitlan, when the Guatemalan Army killed 11 villagers and wounded 40 more in the early morning hours of December 2, 1990. Thousands of the local Tzutuhil Mayans had gathered before the neighboring Army base to protest the killing of a villager by a drunken soldier the night before.

The international attention given the massacre led to the expulsion of the Army from Santiago, and its highly corrupt police functions were replaced by indigenous Mayan methods of regulating community life. A Peace Park was created, and the victims of the massacre buried there. There is a commemorative ceremony held at the Peace Park each anniversary of the massacre.

The mayor also sold T-shirts silk-screened with the poster graphic. Several of us bought one.

The memorial at the Peace Park. The inscription, by then-President Vinicio Cerézo Arévalo, is dated December 6, 1990. Cerézo apologizes for the massacre; promises it will never happen again; and, if I am correct, here gives the policing of Santiago over to its indigenous population. (I will try to provide a reasonably accurate translation of the inscription soon. If another visitor to this monument can supply a translation of this inscription, I will be pleased to add it to the page; with full credit, of course.)

The grave of a 10-year old boy killed by the soldiers.

The church of Catholic priest Stanley Rother, who was assigned to the diocese in 1968. On July 28, 1981, Fr. Rother was murdered by a death squad here.

The memorial to Fr. Rother inside the church. The crosses on the wall commemorate victims of the death squads.

Where Fr. Rother was murdered.

Upper right: Guatemala City dump. Lower right, the basurero community. Basureros live by scavenging for sellable items.

A plastic mountain for recycling or reuse.


An Indian family waits for a bus.

The good land in the valleys is owned by rich Guatemalans, and is used primarily for export crops. To grow food for their families, campesinos must farm the slopes, as shown here. I welcome information as to whether campesinos must rent their space on the slopes from wealthy Guatemalans, or whether they are allowed to own such land themselves.

Weavings for sale.

The cemetary at Chichicastenango.

Four boys perform an ancient Mayan dance for us in Chichicastenango.

A Mayan shrine on a Chichicastenago ridgetop. When we arrived, embers of an offering were still smoldering.

We're in Mexico here, enjoying the shoulder-to-shoulder Christmas activity on the streets. Children were everywhere. I don't recall what city we are in, or when.



I particularly regret the poor quality of this picture. Linda, Nicholee, and Mike.

The river over which the burros shown above had just crossed.

Heading home. Sunset over Mexico.

This page describes my last experience in Central America and Mexico. I hope that the above materials will inspire the visitor to search for more information on the history of U.S. economic- and proxy-imperialism in Guatemala. There are abundant resources on the World Wide Web, all easily found through the major search engines. Thanks for visiting.

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Page last updated February 19, 2007