by Jamila Aisha Brown
Jamila Aisha Brown completed her term in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz as a human rights accompanier with NISGUA’s Guatemala Accompaniment Project (G.A.P.) in November 2005. “Justice Served? Commemoration and Reparations in Plan de Sánchez” was originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of the Report on Guatemala.
Last year, witnesses stood before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and denounced the 1982 massacre of their village of Plan de Sánchez, Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. After years of state delays and denial, in April 2004 the Óscar Berger Administration admitted responsibility for the violation of nine articles of the American Convention on Human Rights. [See Report on Guatemala V.25 N.3.] Following this admission, the Inter-American Court released a historic settlement mandating the government to provide monetary, infrastructural, and symbolic reparations to the massacre’s survivors and their community. The Court further ordered the Guatemalan government to prosecute those responsible for the violence.
However, despite a large-scale commemoration of the massacre in which the Vice President publicly announced state culpability, it remains to be seen if the government will fulfill its obligations. At present the state appears to have prioritized the completion of national reparations to former civil patrollers (ex-PACs) over the Court’s decision. Furthermore, the national cases charging former officials with genocide continue to experience slow and arduous progress. In the midst of threats to their personal safety by those opposed to the process of justice, the people of Plan de Sánchez continue to await their reparations.
On July 18, 2005, Vice President Eduardo Stein admitted to the people of Plan de Sánchez that the government was responsible for the 1982 massacre of their loved ones. His acknowledgment came 23 years after Guatemalan armed forces and civil patrols barraged a home with grenades and bullets, setting fire to 268 Achi Maya men, women, and children after hours of rape, torture, and assassination. “We are here today to ask forgiveness in the name of the Guatemalan state from all the victims of the conflict,” Stein declared to a crowd of nearly one thousand.
This was not the first massacre commemoration in Plan de Sánchez. For many years, survivors had gathered together, far away from the spotlight of the Vice President and the press, using their meager resources to mourn and remember. Meeting in the small hillside chapel that stands as a monument to the massacre site, they would adorn the altar with pictures, candles, and flowers to pay homage to those lost.
This year’s commemoration presented a remarkably different scene. Hordes of national and international reporters, human rights activists, government officials, and curious onlookers descended onto the soccer field of the rural mountain village to witness this historic event, overwhelming the small community of approximately 35 houses. The President’s Office of Human Rights (COPREDEH), now led by Frank La Rue, organized the event, providing programs listing the day’s speakers and sequence of events. No candles, flowers, or photographs of those assassinated surrounded the metal fence enclosing the stage on which the Vice President sat. The chapel stood in the background as a quiet remnant of the past as the activities commenced.
Nevertheless, one familiar element of past commemorations remained: the dramatization of the violence that had occurred, enacted by school children and members of the community. The reenactment opened the day’s events with a powerful message: “These are not theatrical plays. They are the stories of our families, so that [history] will never repeat itself and we will never forget them.” As the students portrayed what had unfolded that day, the Vice President openly wept in unison with the grieving. During his turn to speak, he once again became emotional as he confessed that the state’s army had “unleashed bloodshed and fire to wipe out an entire community.”
Unfortunately, his tear-soaked speech failed to answer the questions of those seeking reparations and justice. He made no mention of when the money would come to Plan de Sánchez. Nor did he state when prosecution against the alleged perpetrators would begin.
Moreover, after having claimed state responsibility, thereby fulfilling his obligation to the Court, Stein quickly exited. He did not stay to hear the words of Fernando López, outgoing director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), the team providing legal counsel to Plan de Sánchez survivors. López spoke of the achievements in the Plan de Sánchez case and the importance of advancement within the Guatemalan courts. [See related article, page 13.]
On November 19, 2004, the Inter-American Court delivered its sentence finding the government of Guatemala guilty of committing acts that amounted to genocide. The unprecedented ruling was the Court’s first to accuse a nation of ethnic cleansing.
This ruling was accompanied by the highest amount of reparations ever awarded by the Court: almost eight million dollars (US), approximately 55 million quetzales, to be allotted to Plan de Sánchez for community projects meant to promote socio-economic development. The decision acknowledged the destruction of homes, livestock, and crops as part of the scorched-earth strategy and the fact that the community was left with no resources afterwards with which to rebuild. As part of the hefty package the government has pledged to:
- Improve Rabinal’s municipal road network, drinking water supply, and sewage systems
- Provide qualified bilingual schoolteachers to local schools
- Establish a health clinic in Plan de Sánchez and a health center in Rabinal
- Provide survivors with free psychological care
- Construct houses within the village
- Pay US$25,000 for the upkeep of the memorial chapel to the massacre victims
These projects are to be completed over the course of five years, with the government sending a yearly report to the Inter-American Court on its advancements.
In accordance with their findings, the Court assigned the government to complete the following acts in order to demonstrate the State’s admission of its wrongdoings and its commitment to support indigenous culture:
- Organize a ceremony, to be covered by the media in Spanish and Achi Mayan, in which a high-ranking government official admits to State involvement in the massacre
- Publish sections of the Court’s judgment in its official gazette and in a major
- national newspaper in both languages
- Translate the American Convention on Human Rights and the Court’s Plan de Sánchez judgments into Achi
- Promote the study and awareness of Achi language and culture
Moreover, in an effort to recoup the personal losses and suffering of the victims, the Court ordered that Q175,000 (US$25,000) be awarded to each massacre survivor and next-of-kin of those murdered. The Court set a deadline of payment of January 2006, after which the Guatemalan State will have to pay interest. As of this writing, the government has not set a date for delivering the individual payments or carrying out the communal projects.
After ten years of fighting within the court system, it appeared that Plan de Sánchez finally received its justice. However, for people who have been failed by their government multiple times, the promise of reparations without immediate results was not convincing. “It was nice for him to come, but it still has not helped us,” voiced one community member in the Guatemalan daily, Prensa Libre. These words reflect the sentiments of most throughout Plan de Sánchez. Many, who believed the Vice President was coming not only to denounce the acts of the state but also to deliver the money, found themselves once again disappointed by the government. Others, who never believed the state would honor its promises, had their doubts reaffirmed.
Those within the community remain astutely aware of the power that Efraín Ríos Montt and other government officials who led the violence hold within the government today. It was only two years ago that Ríos Montt came to Rabinal to rally support in his race for the presidency. Though he was met with boos and rock-throwing in Rabinal, Ríos Montt enjoys a considerable following in some rural areas. He continues to be a player in the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party. His status as a high-profile leader disturbs those seeking justice. “Ríos Montt is free, eating well, and living well. He is rich and happy while we continue to suffer,” remarked one survivor. This state-condoned impunity for the perpetrators makes it difficult to believe the government’s commitment to awarding reparations in Plan de Sánchez.
Survivors note that the amount of money allotted will never repay the lives that were taken that day. “If they had killed my cow, I can tell you exactly how much it cost and I would ask for the value I paid for it,” explained María. “But I do not know how much to ask for the life of my husband. I cannot calculate the amount of money he would have earned over the years or how much his not being here has cost my family.”
The only resolution that would give survivors a semblance of peace is for those responsible to go to jail. “We hope that they fulfill the sentence and prosecute those responsible…they killed us, took advantage of us and left us without anything, then persecuted us for years,” bemoaned Juan.
Even if the money is delivered as promised, opinions of its effectiveness remain mixed. Some believe that the financial reparations will lift them from abject poverty, while others doubt that the payment will have a significant, long-term effect. As of now the decision of the Inter-American Court has not made any impact in the lives of those in the village, and they can only wonder about the changes and challenges reparations will bring.
Challenges Facing the Community
Located in the midst of heavily organized ex-PAC communities, Plan de Sánchez has endured much resistance in their struggle for justice. Many of the former civil patrollers participated in the 1982 massacre and fear prosecution should criminal cases advance. Further complicating matters, the government has agreed to give reparations to ex-PACs with the condition that they complete a reforestation project. Those who participate will receive nearly 6,000 quetzales (US$780) over the next three years, a mere fraction of the US$25,000 Plan de Sánchez’s victims will receive.
Consequently, tensions have worsened between the two groups. Following the commemoration, one ex-PAC from a neighboring village promised that “there will be deaths” once the money arrives. He claimed to have connections with gang leaders who would organize the robbery and possible murder of those in Plan de Sánchez.
Petty thefts of animals and home invasions are currently on the rise in Rabinal as the popularity of feared gang Mara 18 grows. In the midst of pre-existing social delinquency, the handover of large sums of money to individuals will augment security concerns.
The Impact on the National Genocide Cases
People from Plan de Sánchez have joined the Association of Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) to file charges in domestic courts against the intellectual authors of Guatemala’s genocide. These genocide cases were halted for nearly seven months without a public prosecutor until July 2005 when Hans Noriega was assigned to the post. He holds the authority to prosecute Ríos Montt and others accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. On September 9, 2005, Noriega attended the bi-annual conference of the AJR at which he pledged to push forward the cases.
Noriega’s nomination could be viewed as a direct response to the Vice President’s promise “to push the investigation into the events that occurred to allow for the clarification of what happened and permit us to identify, try, and punish the intellectual and material authors of these offenses.” However, a series of other factors may have influenced the government’s actions.
Several days before Noriega’s appointment, approximately 30,000 secret files of the National Police (PNC), containing information of people disappeared, tortured, and kidnapped during the violence, were uncovered. The discovery of these police files serves as a reminder to foreign funders that the Guatemalan government has yet to come to terms with the atrocities of the past.
Guatemala has recently signed economic agreements with the United States and Japan. Heavily dependent on international funding, Guatemala hopes to demonstrate, at least superficially, that it is tackling human rights issues in order to create a more favorable atmosphere for trade.
These elements, together with the public and historic decision by the Court, have pushed the government to pledge reparations and judicial action. Whether deeds will follow these words is a matter to be seen. War survivors across the country wait to see if the Court’s ruling will truly succeed in advancing a State commitment to justice and improving the lives of people in Plan de Sánchez.