Overcoming a Dark History of Conflict: A Guatemala Update

It’s hard to reconcile our meeting today with 59 community leaders with what I know about San Juan Cotzal. Contrasting the simple hospitality and respectful welcome of villagers with the terribly long and not so distant history of conflict in this remote town of Ixil Mayans goes to the heart of our legal empowerment project’s efforts here in Guatemala.


The Spanish subjugated this area of the Cuchumatanes mountains in 1530 after a bloody six-year campaign. Local indigenous populations were then decimated by the smallpox and pulmonary plague that the Spanish brought with them. Colonial administrators noted the difficulty of controlling this region given the dispersed populations. Following a new land titling system in 1871, the Mayans of Cotzal lost between one-third and one-half of their communal lands to Ladinos (mestizos) from other parts of Guatemala. And in 1976, Father Bill Woods, a priest from Texas who had bought land for Mayan peasants, was murdered when the Guatemalan Army detonated his plane flying over Cotzal.


San Juan Cotzal

San Juan Cotzal - photo courtesy of Poldavo (Alex)

The Guatemalan Truth Commission documents a paradigmatic case of the Guatemalan Army surrounding and annihilating the village of Chisis, Cotzal in February 1982. The army killed up to 200 men, women and children, raping the women before murdering them and then burning the houses and cadavers, as part of planned demonstration killings to impede civilian support for the insurgency. Then in March, General Efraín Ríos Montt seized control of the government and continued his predecessor’s genocidal scorched earth policy of attacks on Mayan communities. Despite U.S. State Department and CIA cables recognizing that Guatemalan security forces were not distinguishing between the insurgency and civilian populations, President Ronald Reagan told the press in December that same year that General Ríos Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy” and that his de facto government had been “getting a bum rap.”


That dark history of conflict continues to the present. Since the 1996 Peace Accords, local populations have taken justice into their own hands in thousands of cases of lynchings across Guatemala. In November 2009, the Mayor of Cotzal, who is still hiding from justice authorities, allegedly led the public torture and execution of a policeman in the town square.


Our workshop on human rights with community leaders is taking place on a patio just above that square. We are here to begin supporting a process of engaging justice authorities and local communities together on justice challenges. This will not be easy in a country where the judiciary and public prosecutors have little success and little credibility – or in places like Cotzal where the history of violence and injustice are simply overwhelming. Our little project will not transcend the understandable frustration and history of unresponsive state institutions that, far from fulfilling the rights of the local Ixil population, have worked to take away their land and, at times, exercised tremendous violence upon them. But it is a start. And we have seen other projects in Guatemala where a strategy of collaboration between civil society and justice agencies has led to resolving cases.


We are accompanied by two representatives of the State: the regional representative of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights and the Cotzal Justice of the Peace. Both are women. They are addressing a group of the kinds of local community leaders – auxiliary mayors, heads of local development councils and indigenous mayors – noted for usurping power beyond their constitutional authority and perpetrating violence on their communities. These community leaders are all men.


As our meeting proceeds, the community leaders, some who had to have been present during the lynching in 2009, ask tough questions about what the Constitution allows them to do and what has to be adjudicated by the formal authorities. The female representatives explain – one in fluent Ixil – the rights and responsibilities and constitutional roles of all present. Everyone is respectful and attentive. The community leaders insist on a more extended training process – our chance to enter into the details of conflict resolution in Cotzal.


I know we are just beginning to construct a relationship that will hopefully help build the social trust necessary to adjudicate conflict. The challenge is nothing short of historic, but giving people the tools to address violence and injustice here in Cotzal is the only way forward.


To follow the progress of our Legal Empowerment in Quiché Project, go to www.sandiego.edu/peacestudies/ipj/field/guatemala/LegalEmpowermentinQuicheProject.php

Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego and is currently in Quiché, Guatemala.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *