Guatemalan Youth Rewrite History

From illegal street art to publicly shouting down military leaders, young activists in Guatemala are awakening the country's consciousness to its unspoken genocide.
La Violencia is a term employed by some Guatemalans to describe one of the Western hemisphere's bloodiest civil conflicts in the modern era -- a 36-year-long period stretching until 1996, when the state army launched a violent campaign against alleged guerrilla sympathisers, wiping entire villages off the map. More than 200,000 people -- most of them civilians -- were killed or have disappeared.

A United Nations-led commission calculates that 93 percent of the "human rights violations and acts of violence" during this time span were perpetrated by the Guatemalan government. They document at least 626 massacres committed by state forces against Mayan communities during this period which, coupled with findings that 83.3 percent of La Violencia`s victims were Maya, contributes to an increasing awareness within Guatemala and worldwide that the extraordinarily brutal, government-led campaign indeed constitutes genocide.

Despite the ongoing failure of Guatemalan courts to move forward with legal cases seeking to charge former state authorities for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide -- left in limbo since an initial filing in 2000 -- a sudden glimmer of hope along the judicial front has recently emerged.

On July 7, by declaring the right to "universal jurisdiction" in the interest of human rights, a Spanish judge issued international arrest orders for ex-dictators, military leaders and other government officials responsible for the genocide. Among those named is past president Efraìn Rios Mòntt (1982-1983), who not only ruled over perhaps the most gruesome chapter of La Violencia but even now remains a political heavyweight within Guatemala, having served as president of the National Congress as recently as 2004.

In addition to their plans to exterminate the Maya, who make up about half of the population of Guatemala, the intellectual authors of the genocide also attempted to eliminate political opponents -- many of whom resided in the nation's universities. The University of San Carlos, for example, transformed into a hotbed of subversive activity to challenge the state-led violence. In 1980 alone, at least 127 members of the San Carlos academic community -- mostly students, but faculty and administrators as well -- were either killed or have disappeared.

Today, members of H.I.J.O.S. -- Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Oblivion and Silence) -- represent a new front of radical Guatemalan youth intent on battling the executors, cheerleaders and benefactors of La Violencia (as well of those who continue to exercise similar state repression and order similar forced disappearances to squash social movements, while similarly enjoying impunity for their crimes).

HIJOS -- largely comprised of youth whose family members were killed or disappeared during La Violencia -- first surged to the public light a mere 30 months after the Guatemalan state, under mounting international pressure, inked a finalizing ceasefire agreement with an organization of surviving guerrillas. On June 30, 1999 -- the perennial holiday within Guatemala termed Army Day -- at a public celebration honoring generals from the genocide in the company of the nation's commander-in-chief, HIJOS shocked onlookers by disrupting the commemoration with screams demanding justice.

HIJOS' omnipresent anti-impunity street art, along with its organizing against Guatemala's ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and various other programs, has triggered the attention of state authorities and other powerful forces within Guatemala. On Jan. 8 of last year, HIJOS' office was raided; personal agendas, organizational archives, computers, a megaphone and paint were stolen, while other objects of value were left behind. Several months later on May 12 -- one day after three other Guatemalan social justice groups were raided -- HIJOS' office was targeted a second time. Again, numerous photographs and a laptop were taken, while more costly items were untouched.

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"We the youth reclaim memory, truth, justice -- HIJOS."

Almost a week before the second raid, on May 6, one of HIJOS’ members, Francisco Sánchez Méndez, was subjected to an attempted kidnapping when two gunmen attacked him and tried to force him into a car. He resisted and escaped. Then, last August, Francisco received an anonymous call to his cell phone saying, "You are going to die, son of a bitch."

WireTap Magazine caught up with two HIJOS organizers, Raùl and Paco, to discuss their group's struggle against impunity within Guatemala and the importance of affecting public consciousness in advancing social change.

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"250,000 heroes and martyrs; 250,000 voices clamoring for justice. We do not forget, we do not forgive, we are not reconciled -- judgment and punishment for those who committed genocide -- HIJOS"

WireTap: It seems that many groups in the capitol have more or less a similar vision for justice, but each has its own means of involvement. Many say that HIJOS displays a very distinct perspective, a manner of confronting the way people think. How do you view HIJOS' strategy with respect to interacting with the public? And exactly what sort of work does HIJOS do?

Raúl: Truthfully, various types, but above all HIJOS touches on the subject of collective memory. Based in the idea that it is necessary to recognize, or have access to, the truth as to what happened during the war, no? The crimes against humanity, the genocide, the massacres, the forced disappearances of our family members and, subsequently, how to access justice to overcome the structural situations of the war.

With respect to collective memory, we have worked through conversations, forums, video forums -- all that which affects the youth, to recover this history which most do not know much of. HIJOS has worked in other ways, for example especially through "muralism." Which is the same sentiment, no? To recuperate the collective memory, to revindicate the fight of …

Paco: … economic classes …

Raúl: and to manifest a rejection of perpetual impunity. And so the idea is to recover collective memory with respect to the crimes of war, to the violations of human rights. To somewhat retrieve also those processes of resistance that have been liberated throughout the history of Guatemala. And like Paco said to particularly bring to the memory a reality of struggle between classes which flows into genocide, a repression brutal from the state.

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And how can these processes of resistance be an example so that youth today can identify themselves, see themselves in this history and comprehend or encounter in some way an explanation to this question of "Why does the repression exist as it does?"

And in the case of HIJOS to search for -- which doesn't function so well [laughs] or sometimes maybe it does -- a space in which to take action, right? To perform these type of activities, no? From there we've done some tiny investigations: organizational efforts with other youth within the country. In Petèn, Chimaltenengo, Comalapa and in Rabinàl … to license the problems rooted in La Violencia and massacres as humanitarian ones.

Paco: I think that more than anything else HIJOS has contributed to the capacity for many youth -- or maybe few really because we aren't so many compared to the number of victims and survivors of the war -- to express themselves in relation to what happened.

We say that we express ourselves in the "not official" history because nearly 10 years have passed since the signing of the Peace Accords, but the real history is still unknown. Or they don't circulate the history at a general level. There are people still saying, "Oh, this happened in Guatemala?"

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"Why does it infuriate you if I paint with my screams on your so-called wall while the rich, with their military, have stained with blood our history? - HIJOS"

Therefore, one of HIJOS' principal struggles or objectives is to divulge this history, right? And to contribute so that youth who lived this history can express it and tell it, like Raùl said, through diverse forms.

HIJOS is a space that is not static, but rather which is always in movement, and forever as part of an internal discussion. And of a criticism not only of developments occurring before the Peace Accords, nor after the Peace Accords, but rather internal critique of practices, because in reality many of us do not know what we want. Perhaps the only thing we desire is to create justice for what happened, right?

And today we are still constructing what HIJOS really wants to be. We want it to be a space that restores the memory of the victims, the survivors, the heroes and the martyrs. And beyond reclamation, to continue their struggle, no? Because we believe that it serves no point to remember if you forsake the assumption of commitment, that you must not know the history if you do not engage yourself with the present in order to change it.
This article was written and translated from Spanish by Elias Lawless, who currently lives in Guatemala. All photographs by the author.