Letter from Guatemala, August 24, 2002

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Dear Friends and Family,

It has been a while since I have had the chance to write. A lot has been going on down here and with me personally and I haven’t had much opportunity to sit at a computer much less organize my thoughts. Most significant, however, I should tell you before continuing that 500,000 communion wafers turned out to NOT BE ENOUGH during Pope John Paul’s visit to Guatemala City recently. Can you believe it? Guatemalans everywhere found themselves embarrassed and disillusioned and without a communion wafer. As if being found guilty of genocide in the Spanish courts a couple months ago weren’t enough.

THE TRIAL (if you can call it that)
“If we don’t stop and change direction, we will end up where we are heading.” -Chinese proverb

After a series of cancelled dates, failed appeals and enough 3am departures out of Xamán to make a good girl turn bad, the trial has been transferred to a new, yet-to-be-created court in the Ixcán region. Since the municipal center of the Ixcán is actually closer to community, this would have been a good thing — if only the trial weren’t almost over and it weren’t logistically impossible for the lawyer (from the capital) to make it up there on last minute notice. The lawyer for the community, has of course appealed the transfer. However, the appeal cannot be received by the judge due to the fact that there are no court personnel as of yet in the Ixcán (details!) not to mention public defenders, a jail for suspects, or any of the other pleasantries of a functioning justice system. Estella recently sent a new appeal to the Supreme Court of Guatemala and we currently await the hearing. Estella says that if the transfer goes through, it will be another three years – at least – before the process begins again, and what amazing feats of incompetence the court will come up with at that point remains to be seen. Of course, many believe that what appears to be incompetence is actually a very efficient method of keeping justice from ever being won. Same thing, really.

In a climate specifically manipulated to instill fear and insecurity, it is often hard to discern what is real and what is your mind (or the mind of your neighbor) screwing with you. In June and July, there were three separate reports of armed, masked men seen either on the outskirts of Xamán or inside the community. In the midst of these alleged sightings and their accompanying mayhem, an unidentified man was chased away from my window late one night. I do not know if he was a peeping tom (or part of a more sinister plot!) but I can say that I did find his presence quite disturbing.

Meanwhile, more unequivocal threats and acts of intimidation directed towards human rights defenders in the capital have been on the rise. On the morning of July 5, Estella, the lawyer for the community, was attacked as she walked from her car to her office building. She fought back, escaping only after a significant struggle. I visited with her just yesterday and there was still a huge scar on her throat where her attacker’s nails dug in as he attempted to strangle the life out of her. Since that incident, she has been followed and intimidated on various occasions. In late July, the offices of the only two other international accompaniment organizations working in Guatemala City were broken into and their computers were stolen.

Spain recently decided that while they do consider what went on in Guatemala in the early 1980s to be an act of attempted Genocide, they feel that it is within the jurisdiction of the Guatemalan government to deal accordingly with this crime. Unfortunately, since the same man who was President during these atrocities is now the head of Congress, no one in Guatemala truly believes that that will be happening any time soon.

Meanwhile, back in the US of A, in July, 29 US citizens were sentenced to 3 to 6 months for participating in a peaceful protest in Fort Benning, Georgia, the site of the infamous School of the Americas (SOA). A training center for Central American military officers, the SOA was where many Guatemalan military personnel were trained in counter-insurgency (including torture) techniques in the early 1980s, during the attempted genocide (according to not only Spain but also the UN’s Truth Commission Report on Guatemala). While impunity reigns for these crimes against humanity, a group of peaceful demonstrators, many of them nuns, will now serve hard time in a federal prison for holding a demonstration in the Middle of Nowhere, Georgia. Sixty-four year old Sister Kathleen Desautels went on record to say “The indignities I will have to experience in prison pale in comparison to what the victims of the graduates of that school had to endure.” She and her fellow activists wore T-shirts proclaiming “You can jail the resistors but you cannot jail the resistance” to their hearing. They have no intention of shutting up now.

I got the flu a couple months ago, followed by a 2 kinds of parasites, amoebas in various stages of development, and even worms. Yes, that was worms. In my stomach. The medicine for this “parque zoologico,” as the doctor called it (he fathomed himself quite the funny man), was rough on my system and weakened all natural defenses, making me susceptible to a second round of animalitos, which also had to be blasted out with heavy drugs. A couple weeks later, I had my first scorpion bite and about a week after that, I acquired a strange foot infection (from bathing in dirty stream water with an cut on my ankle) which swelled up my foot to twice its normal size and hurt like hell, making it nearly impossible to get around.

I am feeling better now and I have no intention of not eating, walking or bathing. I will not give up my struggle. ADIOS

As I prepare to close another chapter in my sordid history with Guatemala, I am questioning my purpose here and honestly, I don’t know if you can sense it from my letter, but I am feeling a bit dejected. I have dedicated the past year of my life to helping a community of returned refugees in Guatemala feel more secure and so that they can pursue justice. As I look over my shoulder on my way out of the country, I see that they neither feel secure nor have they gotten any closer to any reparations for or acknowledgment of their losses. They are still dirt poor, without any clinic, running water or electricity, afraid of the army and afraid to pursue the extremely flawed channels that exist for them to pursue justice. They are without any real means of changing their reality. I am not sure that this case will endure the obstacles and fear that it has been so very riddled with. I am realizing how much determination there is in Guatemala to keep it’s history buried deep in the earth with the clandestine graves of the poor and indigenous masses that line the countryside and the ruins of their ancestors triumphs from days long gone by. I am angry that anyone who wants to work their way towards uncovering the truth will inevitably endure many more years of fear and suffering before they ever see the fruits of their efforts – that is if their efforts ever reach fruition. I am angry that such blatant impunity is tolerated not only within Guatemala but in the international community. I am angry that the army continues to win every day as more and more people walk away from the struggle. I am angry that businessmen and politicians up north are getting rich off of it. I am angry that people who work for justice end up getting so screwed. I try not to let myself sink too deep into this well of despondency, however, and continually remind myself that if we don’t continue working to uncover the truth, we allow the impunity, repression
and disparity to flourish. The only thing worse than living in a world so ugly and so unfair is living in a world without hope. My friend and personal guru Goyo tells me that “if you expect to see the results of your work, you are not asking big enough questions.” I have a lot to learn about patience.

One week ago, I reluctantly said goodbye to the community of Xamán, assuring them that the next accompanier is on her way (I didn’t make that up) and that I will be back soon for a visit. I have accepted a position with Rights Action, a Canadian organization working throughout Central America, and I will begin working with them in October as an investigative reporter, more or less. I will be covering various issues surrounding the peace process in Guatemala as well as Natural Resources and Land Sovereignty Issues throughout Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Chiapas. However, before I dive into that project, I am going to come home for a month or two to take a breather, catch up with y’all and attend the wedding of the lovely Miss Bonnie Boecker. So, I hope to see you soon. Until then, take care.


Jessica Pupovac is a committed human rights activist, a dancer and a Karaoke Queen. As a student she founded the University of Illinois chapter of the Students for a Free Tibet. She graduated from U of I in 1999 and left Champaign-Urbana in 2001 to become a human rights monitor/accompanier with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (www.nisgua.org). As an accompanier, she spent one year living in the community of Xamán – a rural, indigenous community of returned refugees and the site of the 1995 Xamán massacre.There, she provided a degree of security to the community by bearing witness, attempting to raise awareness of their struggle in the international community and traveling with community members to trial.

She currently resides in Guatemala City, where she works with a Canadian NGO, Rights Action.

Her letters have appeared in the Public i and the paper formerly known as the Octopus, as well as various solidarity newsletters throughout the US.

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