Heidi McKinnon

Heidi McKinnon (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí - ADIVIMA): Heidi holds a BA in anthropology and Spanish from the University of New Mexico and has worked with indigenous communities throughout Latin America since1997. Heidi worked at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in the late 1990s. Heidi researched human rights and sovereignty issues in every region of Latin America as she was developing content for the permanent exhibits at NMAI. Her research led her to ADIVIMA and the Chixoy Dam, which she recommended for inclusion at the Museum.

Blogging on Violence and Femicide

22 Oct

Thus far, I have said little about life in Rabinal in terms of security and violence. Personal safety is a complicated issue to address, as some might consider Rabinal peaceful. However, to be frank, it is no haven of tranquility. I live in a town that has been irrevocably marked by brutality and is unlikely to recover.

Acts of violence have allegedly increased in Rabinal in the past few months, to the point that the Guatemalan Army arrived in August to support the diminishing local police forces. Discussions amongst local citizens, the National Police (PNC), the Army, civic actors and non-governmental organizations preceded their arrival, but arrive they did.

Army Officer in Rabinal Plaza

With the Army’s installation in Rabinal, a fierce polemic emerges within the community. After the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, the Guatemalan Army was strictly forbidden to enter into former conflict zones such as Rabinal. Their presence thus constitutes a break with the Peace Accords on some level. However, in nearby communities where the Army is currently working, such as Salamá, rates of violence have decreased. Everyone is asking, should they stay or should they go?

Since August, the soldiers’ presence has been a source of whispered conversations and wild speculation about town and has made some of my friends ill at ease; forcing them to relive experiences they would prefer to remain forgotten. For others there is talk of conspiracy. Some say alleged acts of local violence may not have happened, insisting the spread of false information has paved the way for the Army’s appearance.

People I know in town and the nearby villages lived with palpable fear at the mere mention of the Army during the civil war, and certainly do not feel safer having them in town today, no matter what their present mission might be. Last weekend, I interviewed Maria, a weaver in the resettlement village of Pacux who worked on the Río Negro Memorial Textile. While we were discussing her childhood in Pacux, her mother broke in to recount a painful story in which Maria, a mere infant at the time, was thrown to the ground while she was raped and threatened with having her throat slit by guards outside the Army post for having taken Maria to the doctor in town without an escort or permission. At the time, Pacux was more akin to a concentration camp than a refugee camp, and no one was allowed to leave without authorization from the Army. As soldiers were trained to rape and intimidate, women were certainly not safe traveling even such a short distance alone during the day, much less at night.

That was 1984. Twenty-four years later, Rabinal is still struggling with senseless violence. While I feel safe at work (there are guards) and around town running my errands during the day, I seldom leave the house at night and have been told not to do so countless times by neighbors, co-workers and concerned friends. Shop keepers around town are closing their doors earlier because of increased incidences of coercion and extortion. Certainly some of the fear could be baseless, but not all of it. For other foreign nationals in Rabinal, their experiences might be quite different, but as a single female, my choice to remain for the most part ‘cloistered’ after dark has been the safest option for me. When I am traveling in rural villages, I have no such concerns regarding safety.

There are several youth gangs in town, called pandillas or maras in Guatemala, and over the past few weeks, three allegedly gang-related deaths have occurred. People seem to talk about them everywhere I go. While I was traveling three weeks ago, one young man was killed in a village near Rabinal, purportedly for refusing to become involved with a local gang. This past week, on October 14th, two young teachers were shot and one killed in a neighborhood called Piedras Azules, located less than a mile up the hill from my house. The young man, Wilfredo Rolando Xitumul Tolón, 22, was shot and died instantly. His companion, Nohemí González, 31, a local teacher, received several machete blows directly to her skull and died in the hospital three days later. Her funeral was Sunday.

Nohemi’s Funeral Leaving the Plaza in Rabinal

This may sound more like Rwanda in 1994 than Guatemala in 2008, but events such as these are not uncommon. Nearly six hundred women died violently in 2007 according to the national paper, Prensa Libre. More than four thousand women have been murdered since 2001 and only 4% of those cases have been prosecuted (Prensa Latina). As a direct result of the impunity regarding prosecutions of ‘femicide,’ Guatemala has been labeled one of the most violent places for women in the world, on par with countries like Afghanistan and the DRC.

Amnesty International wrote a thorough report on the subject of female homicide in 2005 called, “Guatemala: No Protection, No Justice: Killings of Women in Guatemala“. According to a 2007 report by the UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, following his mission to Guatemala, homicide rates for young women aged 16-30 increased 117% over the five years between 2001 and 2006.

The Winter 2008 edition of Harvard’s Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies journal, ReVista, offers sobering statistics on the subject of gender based violence. Victoria Sanford demonstrates in a graph for her article, “Feminicide in Guatemala” that the current rate of femicide in Guatemala at the time of publication in 2007 was just below that of 1982, the most violent year of the entire internal conflict in Guatemala.

Young women in Guatemala are dying at an alarming rate, and only a slim percentage of these homicides are being brought to trial or prosecuted in any manner. This past March, Sen. Jeff Binghaman (D-NM) introduced Senate Resolution 178 condemning the more than 2,000 unsolved murders of women in Guatemala since 2001. The resolution passed unanimously and urged the newly-elected Colom government to investigate the deaths and make femicide a legislative priority for the new administration.

Increased international visibility for this epidemic of violence in the last few years has made a difference. Women’s groups and a multi-party coalition of mostly female members of the Guatemalan legislature have recently achieved stunning historic gains in securing rights for women in Guatemala. Decree 22-2008, the first ever regarding violence against women, took effect on May 15, 2008. “La ley contra el Femicidio y otras Formas de Violencia contra la Mujer” addresses all forms of economic, psychological, physical and sexual violence. The decree affirms a woman’s right to contraception, addresses domestic violence, and sets prison sentences from 5-50 years for a prescribed list of crimes ranging from economic coercion to homicide.

As positive a step forward as this legislation is, it will have different consequences in rural and urban, literate and non-literate populations. I have my doubts about how many victims of domestic violence in the outlying departments in particular will be able to find their voice, come forward and denounce a boyfriend or husband before it is too late for them or their children. What I might define as an act of domestic violence is sadly normalized behavior to women in many villages today. In a country where the dominant cultural climate does not always acknowledge domestic violence and where women in rural regions have a hard time finding their voice in any setting, making one’s case before a cadre of predominantly male police will still be an uphill battle.

Heightened levels of violence, both in Rabinal and throughout the country, certainly stem from a multitude of sources, only a few of which include staggering unemployment and poverty, or lack of adequate healthcare and education. These societal realities notwithstanding, the internal conflict has left behind a legacy of institutionalized fear and normalized violence that cannot be dismissed. Looking for a local example of this phenomenon is easy enough.

Here in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, it is impossible to discuss the internal conflict and overlook the most significant historical event that precipitated much of the state-sponsored genocide in surrounding communities. On September 15, 1981, hundreds of Maya Achí men, women and children arrived in the central plaza of Rabinal to celebrate Guatemalan Independence Day. Before 1984, there was a marked division between the Mayan communities who lived outside of the urban centers and the ladinos who lived in towns like Rabinal, Cubulco or Salamá. The families that arrived in Rabinal that day were definitely arriving from Achí villages in every direction around the city.

During the morning of the 15th, once the majority of villagers had arrived in town, the Guatemalan Army surrounded the plaza and blockaded the roads entering and exiting Rabinal. The Achí families started their procession into the plaza directed by local authorities to reverse the direction they usually took, which was from the plaza out of town. The Army then proceeded to open fire on hundreds of people, killing them in cold blood. Some local ladino residents of Rabinal heard warnings about the impending violence and hid in their homes during the massacre.

Estimates suggest at the very least two hundred people died that day, but various eyewitness accounts suggest a number closer to one thousand. Many of the bodies were removed by truckload to mass graves in the nearby cities of Salamá, El Rancho and beyond. The following day, news reports in a small town in the nearby state of El Progreso noted forty-six bodies found on the side of the road. The dead were identified as residents of Rabinal (Oj K’asklik, p.203). Witnesses said at least one driver had to repaint his truck due to the blood stains. Bodies decayed in the streets for days, but residents, not wanting to get involved in any way with cleaning up or witnessing the event, remained indoors.

Although no one knows exactly how many people were killed that morning, it was certainly the single deadliest act of violence in Rabinal or the state of Baja Verapaz during the civil war. The deaths in the Rabinal plaza surpassed the Río Negro massacres or those in Panzós in 1979, which began the era of state-sponsored violence during the internal conflict in Guatemala.

However chilling this event may be, few people talk openly about it. Echoes of the fictional town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude are tough to ignore. In García Márquez’ novel, José Arcadio witnessed the massacre of thousands of workers from the banana plantations of Macondo. The bodies were carted off by train, and within days of the event no one in town remembered that anyone was missing or had died at all.

As one witness to the September 15th Rabinal massacre recounted, “Mira uno en ese momento, no quiere ver nada, ni enterarse de nada.” “Look, you don’t want to see anything or get involved in anything in a moment like that” (Oj K’asklik, p.202). This is one of the legacies of genocide: an almost willful amnesia.

Echoes of this epidemic are present in Rabinal again two weeks ago. In a Prensa Libre article regarding the case of Wilfredo and Nohemí, a friend of the deceased commented that “he never thought that a crime of this magnitude could occur in Rabinal.” Nohemí’s casket was carried directly though the Rabinal plaza followed by hundreds of people, similar to that day in 1982 when another group of hundreds were shot or macheted to death in that very same spot.

Unwanted memories of such an intense level of community violence remain buried in the minds and hearts of those who experienced it and survived. These events inform the manner in which people view the world, and how they interact with their families and communities for generations. What they experienced in turn touches and shapes the lives of the generations that follow and how they themselves act and react in almost any situation.

While Nohemí and Wilfredo’s friend works through the shock of their deaths, incredulous that this could happen in Rabinal, I wonder that there isn’t more violence. As I interview Río Negro survivors and compile basic personal data, a very preliminary pattern emerges from this small population. During the height of the internal conflict from 1981-1983, child mortality was extremely high and birth rates dropped, only to rise again after 1984. As an example, in one day in 1982, one hundred-seven children died during the Río Negro massacre at Pak’oxom. Practically every village surrounding Rabinal was affected by violence, therefore the pattern could certainly apply more broadly than simply the Río Negro, Rabinal and Pacux communities.

I cannot help but consider the increase in violence since 2001 to be a result of the first generation of traumatized wartime infants growing up. The first children born in hiding in the mountains or the first refugee camps near Rabinal in 1984 turned seventeen in 2001. These young adults undoubtedly have unprecedented internalized fear, grief, anger and despair. Some are clearly involved in local gang violence. I am constantly told not to stay in Pacux after dark for fear of them. Whether that is hearsay or not does not matter as much as the fact that there is a distinct fear associated with local male youth, those born in and around Pacux post 1984.

Whatever the truth to the my theory of violence during the internal conflict coming full circle, it means very little to the families of Wilfredo or Nohemí. Theories and statistics don’t bring back your children. And no one would dispute that Rabinal has a hard path toward recovery, no matter how many Army patrols are present.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Oct 22nd, 2008


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