Last spring, I spent a number of days visiting and meeting with the community of Lot 8. I wrote and performed a spoken word piece sharing some of the stories that the community had shared with me, especially concerning their eviction and the violent assaults on a number of women in the community. A number of the women I spoke with (and whose stories I also detailed in this op ed) have now announced a lawsuit against HudBay here in Canada, with the support of Rights Action and Toronto lawfirm Klippensteins. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a long process of obtaining some degree of justice and accountability for the horrible abuses this community has suffered.
(For a bit of background information on nickel mining in the area see this post)
PRESS RELEASE – Monday, March 28, 2011
MAYAN WOMEN VICTIMS OF GANG RAPES ANNOUNCE LAWSUIT AGAINST CANADIAN MINING COMPANY HUDBAY MINERALS
(For immediate release: March 28, 2011 Toronto, Canada and Guatemala City, Guatemala)
Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, and ten other indigenous Mayan Q’eqchi’ women, announced today a lawsuit brought against Canadian mining company HMI Nickel, and its corporate owner, HudBay Minerals, relating to rapes suffered by them near the town of El Estor, Guatemala.
On January 17, 2007, the eleven women were gang-raped by mining company security personnel, police and military during the forceful expulsion of Mayan Q’eqchi’ families from their farms and homes in the community of “Lote Ocho”. These armed evictions were sought by HMI Nickel in relation to its Fenix mining project, located on the north shores of Lake Izabal, which it operates, in part, through its Guatemalan subsidiary Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel (CGN). The communities believe these evictions were illegal.
The lawsuit, filed in HudBay and HMI Nickel’s home jurisdiction of Ontario, Canada, claims $11 million in general damages and $44 million in punitive damages.
HMI Nickel was previously known as Skye Resources. All shares of HMI Nickel were purchased by HudBay Minerals in 2008. HMI is currently a wholly-owned and controlled subsidiary of HudBay Minerals. HudBay Minerals did not own HMI Nickel at the time of the rapes.
“Nine men came into my house and raped me,” said Rosa Coc. “They were police, soldiers and private security of the company. They left me just completely battered and bruised.” Rosa and others have said that, at the time of the attacks, some of their assailants wore uniforms bearing the initials and logo of HMI Nickel’s Guatemalan subsidiary, CGN.
At the time of the rapes, HMI Nickel maintained close control of operations at the Fenix Project from its head offices in Canada. In public relations statements made in Canada, HMI Nickel promised that security forces at the Fenix mine would abide by specific international standards regarding the screening, conduct, training, and supervision of their security personnel. Ian Austin, the then-President and CEO of HMI Nickel, stated to Canadian investors that all activities related to the evictions would be carried out by personnel specially trained to avoid violence.
Despite HMI’s public promises, HMI Nickel and CGN took aggressive action against Mayan Q’qechi’ communities living on land related to the mining project by seeking the forced expulsion of these communities. The Plaintiffs are not aware of any evidence that indicates that HMI Nickel took reasonable steps to implement the promised international security standards or to protect the community against the violence that was the predictable result.
The gap between what was happening on the ground and what was being said by company executives is shocking. On the very day that men wearing uniforms bearing CGN logos were committing gang-rape during the eviction of a community as requested by his company, Ian Austin, the then-CEO of HMI Nickel, released a public letter in Canada that stated: “[t]he company did everything in its power to ensure that the evictions were carried out in the best possible manner while respecting human rights.”
No investigation or prosecution for these crimes has been initiated in Guatemala.
Rosa and the others are seeking justice in Canada in part because of the poor track record of Guatemala’s justice system. Human Rights Watch noted in January 2011 that “there was 99.75 percent impunity for violent crime as of 2009,” meaning that virtually all violent crime goes unpunished. The report goes on to say that “[v]iolence against women is a chronic problem in Guatemala, and most perpetrators are never brought to trial.”
“We remain traumatized by the attack,” said Rosa. “Not just myself but the entire community.”
The claim represents assertions that have not yet been proven in court. All defendants will have the opportunity to respond in these proceedings.
QUESTIONS & MORE INFORMATION: http://www.caalversushudbay.com
CONTACT: KLIPPENSTEINS Barristers & Solicitors 160 John Street, Suite 300 Toronto, ON, M5V0in5, Canada 416-598-0288 (Office)
Murray Klippenstein, 416-937-8634 (Cell), email@example.com
Cory Wanless, 647-886-1914 (Cell), firstname.lastname@example.org
(In Guatemala) Grahame Russell, Rights Action, who is visiting the community of Lote 8. 011  4955-3634 email@example.com
Note: Federal members of Parliament will be voting on Bill C-300 this Wednesday, October 27. The Op-Ed below describes a few of the unfortunate situations that make this bill necessary.
If you make one phone call to your MP this year, do it today and ask them to vote “yes” to Bill C-300. Find your MP and their contact info here.
For more information on the bill, see my earlier post on the subject.
It takes over 2 hours of trekking up the side of a lush, forested mountain to get to Lot 8, an indigenous community of 100 families in Eastern Guatemala.
This is not a part of the world where one should traipse about with a Canadian flag patch sewn onto one’s backpack. Being mistaken for an employee of a Canadian mining company here could result in one being attacked or kidnapped, a fate Steven Schnoor, a Canadian student, only narrowly escaped a few years ago.
Lot 8 is one of far too many communities around the world that has been scarred by Canadian companies acting violently and with complete impunity. They, and their Canadian allies, are determined to prevent it from happening again.
Few Canadians know that over 60% of mines worldwide are owned by companies headquartered in Canada. They produce gold, copper, silver, and, in Eastern Guatemala, nickel.
Back in the 1960s, Inco was the first Canadian company to establish nickel mines in Eastern Guatemala. Although mining in the region stopped in the 80s, in line with a drop in nickel prices, Canadian companies recommenced exploration activities ten years ago. HudBay is the most recent in a series of Canadian companies to own the mining concessions and mineral rights in the area.
When I spoke with the people who live on the land that has been delineated as Lot 8, they shared a very different perception of Canadian mining companies than that which our government would have us hear. They spoke not of opportunities for community development or of companies on the “leading edge in applying best practices of corporate social responsibility,” as Federal Cabinet Minister Peter Kent boasted, but of violent evictions and fearing for their lives.
On January 9, 2007, hundreds of heavily armed soldiers, police, and company security guards entered the isolated community. All of the community’s homes were burned to the ground; all personal property, livestock and crops were either destroyed or stolen.
“This was my grandparents’ land. I never thought I’d get evicted from here,” said Daniel, the elected President of Pro-Tierra, a committee that has been established to try to negotiate with the company. “They were shooting bullets, real bullets. Tear gas was everywhere. We had no idea what it was; we’d never experienced it before.”
With nowhere else to go, and no contact with the outside world, the community of Lot 8 set about rebuilding their huts and salvaging any remaining crops. Just eight days later, the armed soldiers, police and security guards returned, and once again destroyed all that the community had.
“We had heard about the other evictions of nearby communities that the company was doing, but we almost couldn’t believe another one was happening here,” said Elena Choc Quib, a mother of seven.
When I met with a few of the women from the community, separate from the larger group gathered, I learned that, during this second eviction, company security guards, the soldiers and police had also gang-raped and beaten at least six women. Three of those women, who were pregnant at the time, lost their babies.
Elena was one of these women. “I couldn’t get up after the eight men who attacked me had left. I was eight months pregnant at the time and I kept yelling at them ‘why are you doing this? I’m pregnant!’”
Irma Yolanda Choc Cac says she will always be haunted by the faces of the twelve men who raped and beat her. Some were police officers and soldiers, and others were employees of the Canadian mining company. “Despite my fear and the danger, I remain strong and I am telling this story because we are still waiting for justice to be done.”
Given the involvement of the army and the police in the violent crimes perpetrated on the community of Lot 8, it is of little surprise that no arrests or investigations have yet occurred in Guatemala. Canada, for its part, has no regulations in place concerning the actions of its companies overseas. This legal void stands in sharp contrast to the US and many European countries who have a variety of measures in place to assure that their companies are not fundamentally abusing the human rights of citizens in other countries.
HudBay is not the only Canadian mining company taking advantage of this state of impunity. Goldcorp, also operating in Guatemala, has recently had their gold mine suspended for a year so that independent investigations of environmental damage and human rights abuses can be carried out. Barrick Gold, the largest gold mining company in the world – also Canadian – has itself admitted that its own security forces have killed at least eight villagers around its Porgera Mine in Papua New Guinea. A number of investors, as well as Norway’s national pension plan, have divested in the company as a result of this and the environmental degradation caused by the mine.
Knowingly or not, Canadians are complicit in the actions of our mining companies overseas. Both the Canadian Pension Plan and the Caisse are major investors in the extractive industry, and specifically in HudBay. And the same applies to virtually every investment portfolio and bank. And the government invests our tax dollars in the extractive industry through government bodies like Export Development Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Encouragingly, more and more Canadians are taking notice. The issue was recently highlighted in an hour-long special on W5. And in just a few days, Bill C300 will come to a final vote in the House of Commons. The bill aims to increase the accountability of the Canadian extractive industry by regulating government investment in Canadian mining companies overseas. It will establish eligibility criteria and a complaints mechanism to ensure that government funds do not go to companies in gross violation of international human rights standards.
Mining company representatives are calling the bill “a threat to Canada’s status as a world leader in global financing,” and warning that it will “damage the image and reputation of Canadian mining companies with governments around the world.” In contrast, some nonprofits working to assure the human rights of those impacted by Canadian mining companies argue that it will actually “perpetuate effective immunity from legal recourse in Canada.” Such company reactions seem curiously overblown given that the Bill will only impact companies that are found to be violating international human rights and environmental standards. If their own Corporate Social Responsibility measures are truly as strong and robust as they insist, then surely they have nothing to worry about.
And in response to nonprofits’ claims that this bill doesn’t go far enough, I have to agree with Michael Savage, a Liberal MP, who said:
“We have to keep in mind that we have to present a bill that can actually pass the House. We want to make a difference; we do not just want to make a point. We cannot let perfect be the enemy of better. This bill will make things better.”
It is simply unacceptable that violence and impunity is becoming the status quo for Canadian companies’ operations overseas. As Canadian citizens, we share the burden of responsibility for what has happened to Elena, Irma, and countless individuals whose stories have not yet been told in Canada. It is time for us to begin the long process of making things better.
Kathryn Lennon, a good friend and fellow protester in Toronto this weekend, has joined me in writing this post.
We’re upset, disturbed, frightened, and outraged after protesting this weekend on the streets of Toronto.
And now, back at home, watching the news, we’re confused. What we saw on the streets of Toronto and what we’ve heard from friends, shows a very different picture of the weekend than that coming from television news reports.
Overwhelmingly, what we saw on the streets were thousands of people taking time away from work, their everyday lives, and their families (or bringing them along!) to speak up and build solidarity around their concerns.
There were thousands of signs, stories, concerns, slogans, chants. There was no “collective message” other than a discontent with the status quo, with the G8/20, with Canada (and, really, the world) as it currently exists. We walked between No One is Illegal and anti-tar sands protesters for a while. We joined in behind a banner that read “India Quit Kashmir”, and later floated in with Amnesty International, to chant “What do we want? Human rights! When do we want them? Now!”. We smiled in solidarity with the Tibetans for a Free Tibet group, and laughed at the antics of a troupe of clowns who playfully mimicked the swagger of a cop. We sang with the Radical Choir, Faith Nolan and the Freedom Singers, and CUPE. We danced to the Rhythms of Resistance samba band. We ate delicious free food provided by the Toronto Community Mobilization Network. We admired the creativity of protesters with a giant clothes hanger and painted coffins, speaking for women’s rights to determine what reproductive justice means to them.
Some of the protesters we met questioned the G20’s legitimacy and wanted it to cease existing. Some disagreed with Harper’s stance on maternal health, or fiscal policy, or any number of other issues. Some wanted to add issues to the agenda that had been skipped altogether. Some felt the resistance presented an opportunity to raise concerns pertinent to specific communities with a broader audience (some popular reasons for resisting the G20 are explained here).
The mainstream media has shown very little of this. Even though there was no lack of reporters at any of the protests (in fact, it sometimes felt like those with media tags outnumbered those with banners), the majority of the news coverage has featured little other than the constant loop of a car on fire and a few windows being smashed.
Meanwhile we have entirely different images looping in our minds.
(I thought about bringing my video camera, but was afraid it might get smashed, or taken away by police to be used as evidence to convict someone. Rachel brought a camera to Friday’s march, but left it behind on Saturday, for the same reason. So all we have are mental images.)
Images of one protester carrying an open backpack labeled “Free Food,” filled with muffins and sandwiches for fellow protesters to help themselves to.
Of someone accidentally dropping a glass bottle on the street. Of another protester immediately throwing a cloth over it, of everyone nearby bending over to pick up shards of glass. Of someone else offering a ziploc bag for the shards, so that no one would be injured.
Images of a perfect act of street theatre. One woman sitting at a small table, in the middle of the street, facing oncoming protesters, calmly and quietly eating an entire, decadent, chocolate cake. A passerby called out “Let them eat cake!”
Images of a police officer unable to resist smiling when protesters chanted: “You’re sexy, you’re cute. Take off your riot suit!”
Of police officers cycling in formation around and around Allan Gardens in almost inappropriately short shorts, on bikes outfitted with bottles of Gatorade. We laughed.
Images of horses wearing riot masks and shin pads. Of a side-street, Elm, that we took to leave the main march on Friday, where cops stood beside their Budget rental vans eating takeout. The street was clogged with police vans and several Coach Canada buses, one of which was filled with cops in full riot gear, sitting in the bus seats, helmets on, waiting for…something. Absolutely chilling.
Images of cops bullying protesters. Making them detach sticks from signs. Searching bags and confiscating people’s goggles and vinegar-soaked bandannas (which help you breathe when teargas has been sprayed), saying “these won’t be necessary.” A protester quipped “Then that won’t be necessary either,” pointing to officers’ teargas canisters.
Images of police in riot gear with rifles that we hoped were loaded with only rubber bullets. Of them hitting batons against their shields outside of the American Embassy, while approaching protesters with small children. I felt scared to see guns on the streets of Toronto, then angry that the presence of police should make me feel intimidated enough to move to the other side of a street on a designated march route.
Images of protesters, plucked at random and arrested from the edges of a peacefully marching crowd (in the registered march that protesters were doing their best to ensure was “family friendly”).
Since then we’ve been hearing stories from friends, fellow protesters, citizen journalists and independent media.
Hearing about a friend’s daughter being knocked over by a cop on a bike, who didn’t stop. And being helped up and asked if she was okay by a second cop.
Hearing of the media getting arrested, seeing protesters wielding cameras against police batons. “The world is watching,” protesters shouted. (National Post, The Real News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and many other reporters were all arrested)
We heard from friends about the police violence that occurred just minutes after we left Queen’s Park. We left the park — the official ending point for the march, the spot designated by the police as the official protest gathering space for the weekend — because not much was happening aside from a scattered crowd milling around, chatting and listening to music. This video shows what friends experienced, people peacefully gathered in Queen’s Park being attacked by police: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaYbq484abs
The CBC had reporters in the park as well, who observed police deliberately encircling protesters. They repeatedly note that this was the designated safe protest zone: http://www.cbc.ca/video/player.html?category=News&zone=canada&site=cbc.news.ca&clipid=1531207920
We heard of peaceful protesters rounded up and encircled while being told to disperse at Queen and Spadina, and forced to wait hours in the rain.
The next morning, peaceful protesters negotiated with police around going to gather in solidarity with the hundreds being held at the temporary jail set up in a film studio. There, they were attacked, rounded up, and shot at with rubber bullets. All while chanting “We are peaceful, how ’bout you?” and “Peaceful protest, peaceful protest.” All of this was caught on film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiLt40d_AbU
I am struck by not having heard of a single case of any individual being injured by the actions of a protester. Meanwhile, hundreds of individuals have been injured by police officers. My friend Laura McDonald writes:
“I would like to pre-emptively ask anyone who might be upset about the vandalism to stop and ask themselves why they feel that damage to corporate property is such a big deal in light of a) the horrible things those corporations do and b) all of the police brutality and rights violations that have occurred this week. The police have trapped people while telling them to leave or they’ll be arrested. They have charged at and beaten peaceful protesters. They have randomly snatched bystanders off the street. They have stolen people’s property in illegal searches so that people cannot protect themselves. They have held hundreds of completely innocent people for up to 28 hours (the longest I’ve heard) without charge, often with no food for hours, in unlivable conditions, without allowing them their legal rights to phone calls or lawyers. My friends and I have seen this. There are videos. This weekend has been a truly horrifying experience for our group. We have been devastated to witness these events. That is the story. Please focus on it. A few windows and planted police cars are NOTHING in comparison.”
And so we feel offended, frightened, insulted, and confused when we witness what happened, what is still happening, and hear people dismissing protesters as thugs and criminals, and justifying violent and disproportionate police actions. From our viewpoint, these police actions seem completely disjointed from the “threat” posed by anyone protesting. We wonder how those in charge of security will justify violently attacking peaceful protesters and bystanders, far away from the small proportion who were violent near the fence. We hope they will have to justify their actions, that this will be demanded of them. How many people in Toronto this weekend felt their personal safety and human rights were threatened by anyone other than the police (and a government who mandated their presence)?
How many people will hesitate before peacefully protesting, openly dissenting, or actively participating in this supposedly democratic society?
How concerned should we be about doing the everyday, ordinary, community-building work we do? Will our names end up on some list that means we’re targeted for arrest, for being at protests, for being critical of authority?
This weekend gave us a wake up call and a small glimpse of what it might mean to always live in a state of fear from authority. Because of the communities we’ve been fortunate enough to belong to, we’ve more or less always experienced police as protectors, not as threats.
Back in the peaceful small city of Kitchener-Waterloo, we now find ourselves flinching when we hear sirens or a bylaw officers drive by. We don’t know how long it’ll take for these feelings to fade.
For information about the resistance, daily breakdowns, what’s next, and everything else: http://g20.torontomobilize.org/
For one take on the outcome of the G20 summit: http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/g-20-nations-race-bottom-will-continue/3899
For a mother’s perspective on going to the protests with a baby: http://femmemomma.blogspot.com/2010/06/this-is-what-police-state-looks-like.html
For Judy Rebick’s take on Saturday’s chaos: http://transformingpower.ca/en/blog/toronto-burning-or-it
For one person’s perspectives on the protests over the past week: http://www.janjolee.net/
For John Hilary’s criticisms of the policing and the G20: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/27/g20-toronto-policing-charade
My friend Kathryn and I performed a spoken word piece on Saturday night at the G20 Summit Slam. The first three minutes are from an older piece about the swine flu and the hysteria that emerged around the epidemic. We were reminded of a lot of that hysteria and imbalanced media reporting while doing G20 resistance this weekend. The final few minutes of the piece are about the G20 and were written by us that day, while protesting.
We’d love to hear any feedback on this poem; we’ll be reworking the last few minutes into a new piece that we’ll be performing at the ROM in August.
I’m a few days behind on posting. My friend Janice Lee has been much better at posting daily updates from the streets of Toronto, and I would urge you to check out her blog.
Soon, I will post about the inspiring Toxic Tour of Toronto that took place on Wednesday, as well as my thoughts and some information on what has been happening in Toronto this weekend. But for the moment I thought I’d share my first encounter with police on Wednesday, because I believe it is fundamentally important for many accounts of people’s police encounters (whether violent or not) to be available online and being shared.
On Wednesday, while on the way to an environmental justice protest in Toronto, in the lead-up to the G20, I had my first taste of the paranoia and the enormous police presence that has taken over the city. My friend Asha and I were walking with a sign condemning Canadian mining companies, and a light stick we were intending to tape to the sign to hold it up.
We were a few blocks away from the bus station at Bay and Dundas, and still a ways from the beginning of the protest we were moving towards, when two police officers stepped out of an alley and approached us. I transcribed our conversation immediately after it took place; it is as close as possible to verbatim:
Female Officer: Can I talk to you?
Myself: I don’t think I want to talk. Attempts to keep walking.
Female Officer: We’re concerned about your stick.
Asha: It’s for the sign.
Female Officer: I’m not concerned with you, with peaceful protesters. We’re removing it for your safety and ours from other protesters. Both the officer and Asha are holding the stick at this point, though neither are pulling at it. We’re not concerned about your sign, you can use something else that can’t be construed as a weapon.
Asha: It’s not a weapon, we’re going to a tour.
A male police officer who had been standing back approaches.
Male Officer: I doubt that you’re going to a tour with that sign.
Asha: No, we are. It’s a toxic tour.
Female Officer: We appreciate that but we need to take this. We’ll just keep it for you, we can tell you where it is.
Myself: What can I use to hold up my sign that you won’t consider a weapon?
Female Officer: I don’t know, you’ll have to figure that out on your own.
Asha and I decide to give up the stick. She let’s it go.
Asha: There goes another civil liberty.
Note: A number of people have asked me to contact them when I post something new to this blog. To facilitate this, please click on the “Sign me up” button in the right column. Doing so will ensure that you receive an automatic email update whenever I post something new. Thank you.
The very night I got back to Kitchener after spending a month and a half in Guatemala, I was given the opportunity to perform at “G20 Poets: When Words Resist,” an event organized by my friend Janice Lee, and put on at the Kitchener Waterloo Community Centre for Social Justice (KWCCSJ).
I performed a rough piece I’d only just written about a community I’d recently visited, Lote 8 (Lot 8), and the upcoming G8/20 summits. I hope to rework (and polish, and memorize) the piece soon, as well as to post the testimonies I gathered while visiting Lote 8, but thought I’d post this recording for now.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
A few other videos from the event are posted at the new KW Spoken Word youtube site.
During the civil war that raged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, over 200,000 people were killed and over 45,000 were disappeared. The UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (commonly known as the “Comisión de la verdad” or “Truth Commission”) concluded in a 1999 report that that the state was responsible for 93% of the human rights violations committed during the war, including over 400 massacres committed by the Guatemalan army and paramilitary.
The majority of the violence was carried out by the police force in urban centers, and by the army and paramilitary forces in rural areas. In a single day of June or July in 1980, it is estimated that over 100 cadavers were “processed” by police forces around Guatemala City alone. In the early 1990s as the peace process was beginning (peace accords formally ending the conflict wouldn’t be signed until December 1996), the Truth Commission asked to gain access to the archives of the national police; the government repeatedly denied the existence of any such archive. This continued to be the government’s line during the entirety of the peace process.
In July 2005, a large explosion took place at a military munitions dump in a residential neighborhood in Guatemala City. Residents were concerned that other explosives were being stored nearby and asked investigators to inspect the area, including a decaying building used by the National Civil Police (the successor to the National Police, which were disbanded after the civil war).
A team from the government-backed Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) walked up to the building and asked the person at the door what it was being used for. Without hesitating, he stated that it was the National Police Archive. Inside, the team discovered an enormous stockpile of documents.
The PDH immediately took legal steps to gain access to the archive. In July 2005, the Civil Court of Guatemala issued a historic ruling enabling the PDH to investigate the documents. This marked the first time in Guatemalan history that human rights investigators had received judicial support from the courts.
Alberto Fuentes points out the signatories of the Archive’s founding statement, including the former president of Costa Rica, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the directors of various historical archives and international human rights organizations.
At the time of discovery, the archive contained over 80 million sheets of paper, making this the largest single cache of documents made available to a human rights investigation process in history. If stacked, these documents would stretch over 8 km.
These police records were stored in a building that had only been half built, and into which water was constantly leaking. Stacks of documents were crammed into every possible building alcove. The structure was also infested by rats, cockroaches, bats, and other animals.
The PDH immediately repaired the building’s roof, installed a security system, and conducted a number of fumigations to rid the building of the pests.
Alberto Fuentes has been one of the coordinators of the project since the archive was discovered.
“When we found the archive, it was still in use. Police were still using it to look up information. It had never been shut down.” Fuentes explained. “It is completely impossible that the higher levels of government didn’t know it existed. In the 1990s, when they were asked about it, they made a political decision to not reveal its existence.”
These documents are still in the bundles and boxes in which they were originally found.
The PDH quickly realized the enormity of the task that lay ahead of them in organizing the millions of documents contained in the archive, but also the potential of the project to reveal the workings of the “machina de terror” (machine of terror) that ruled the country during the civil war.
“This archive enables us to move closer to the truth and to contribute to the reconstruction of memory and history,” Fuentes said.
While the project is working on preserving and creating digital copies of all of the documents, their focus is on those from the years 1975-1985, when the worst violations of the civil war took place.
As of last February, over 10 million documents from that decade have been preserved and digitized.
The project has already made a number of disturbing discoveries about the policies the police established during those years, such as those concerning the handling of cadavers.
Even some of the most innocuous documents have provided valuable insights. One administrative record simply logged repairs conducted on vehicles owned by the police. Using this document, the project has been able to positively link a number of abductions in which witnesses recorded vehicle license plate numbers to the police force.
Large efforts are also being made to uncover the police forces’ internal structure.
“Understanding the chain of command is fundamental to the pursuit of justice in Guatemala,” Fuentes said. “While the agents that actively captured and assassinated citizens lie at the very bottom of the chain, the orders and true responsibility for what took place occurred at higher levels.”
Charts created and posted at the Archive to demonstrate the chain of command within the police force.
As of March 2009, all of the digitized documents have been made available to the public. Since then, the project has received 1278 requests for information; to 86% of the requests, they have been able to supply information. Of the requests that have been made, around 350 have come from individuals, most often by family members of a disappeared person seeking any information on what happened.
One of the machines used to digitize documents.
For decades, and especially since the discovery of the police archives, many have speculated that the military must possess similar archives. Six months into his presidency, the current President, Álvaro Colom, gave orders for these to be opened. Two years later, no steps have been taken to reveal or give access to these archives. This shows the enormous power the military in Guatemala continues to hold today, almost 15 years after the Peace Accord ending the civil war was signed.
Nevertheless, for me, the fact that the investigation of at least the police archive has been allowed to take place is eminently hopeful. Impunity is one of the most serious problems in Guatemala, and this project has the potential to gradually erode at this, while providing invaluable support to other organizations and individuals with similar goals. And, while it does not constitute justice, and will never be close to enough, it is heartening that the project can finally give some answers to those with loved ones who were killed or disappeared by the police.
A sign posted in one of the Archive’s rooms.
On April 18th those of us on the delegation, as well as some other activists currently in Guatemala, met Jennifer Harbury. A courageous lawyer and activist, she has worked for many years in the movement to bring about justice for the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who have been murdered by the state, including her husband Efraín Bamaco. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so brave and dedicated in the face of such enormous danger and opposition.
Above, a poster of Jennifer’s husband, one of many of those disappeared, constantly being put up (and taken down, and put up again) around Guatemala City. Top – “Your example guides our steps.” Bottom – “Fell in combat, detained and disappeared by the state of Guatemala”
“Most of the people I knew in 1990 are not around now,” Jennifer told us.
Hearing her speak was incredibly moving, but I’m not going to write what she shared here, as there are already many versions of her story out there, including the few books Jennifer herself has written.
One thing I was struck with, however, was the comparison she made between her struggle and that of Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas. Maria was a courageous Guatemalan who participated in founding the Mutual Support Group, or GAM, in 1984. It was formed in order to seek information on the whereabouts of those who were being disappeared and to seek redress by petition and publicity. It was one of the only groups engaged in civil disobedience at the time. On April 4, 1985, Maria, her twenty-one-year-old brother, and her two-year-old son were picked up, tortured, and murdered. Her two-year-old son had had his fingernails pulled out. They all showed signs of having been severely beaten and mutilated.
Jennifer sees Maria as her counterpart. She knows very well that if not for being white, (and possibly for being a lawyer) she would likely not still be here.
I was also struck with her – albeit cautious – sense of hopefulness. It appears that a small window is opening that may allow for charges to proceed against some of those responsible for the killings and violence of the civil war.
You can find background information on Jennifer’s struggles as well as a letter Jennifer recently wrote with an update on the legal battle she’s facing here.