Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Another Kind of Justice

SCU Faculty Trip to Guatemala Spurs Ethical Reflection

By James Reites, S.J., and Don Dodson

The itinerary for Santa Clara University's summer trip to Guatemala hardly read like a travel brochure:

  • June 18: Panel on the peace accords

  • June 23: Lunch with mayor of Santiago Atitlán; walk to massacre site and Peace Park

  • June 25: Meet with CONAVIGUA, the national organization of war widows

Although the eight SCU faculty and administrators who made the trip brought different research interests to the experience, they shared a common purpose: to learn about the situation in Guatemala as that country tries to end 35 years of civil war. An estimated 100,000 people were killed and another 40,000 disappeared, most the result of government counterinsurgency campaigns, according to journalist Paul Jeffrey, one of the group's guides. The government signed peace accords with the rebels in September.

Trip coordinator Michael Meyer, associate professor of philosophy and Center scholar, explained that the trip was financed by the Office of the Academic Vice President and the Center as an opportunity for faculty education and ethical reflection. The trip included daily opportunities for the travelers — who came from fields as diverse as computer engineering and law — to "debrief": "We talked about what we saw, how we felt about it, and how it might change our lives," Meyer said.

Before leaving Guatemala, the participants decided to meet after they returned to the United States to discuss what action they might take based on their experiences. A first step was writing a letter to the president of Guatemala expressing concern about death threats against a member of the Forensic Anthropology Team, one of the organizations the faculty visited.

Two trip participants — Professor of Religious Studies James Reites, S.J., and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Don Dodson — agreed to share some of their reflections and their photographs with Issues in Ethics.

Finca La Victoria
We stand in a circle, our attention focused on Julio César Archilla as he tells us the heartbreaking story of his community — the campesinos of Finca Los Cerros, a large coffee plantation in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala. As two of his young children look on, he explains how 88 families stood up to the finca owner's decision to throw them off the land where they had lived and worked for generations.

The trouble at Finca Los Cerros began in 1995, when the workers started organizing. Before they created the union, they had earned 12.50 quetzales ($2.10) a day; afterward, their pay was increased to 15.50 quetzales a day. The workers thought they had won a major concession when they were told they could take a vacation — a right they had never had before. But in April 1995 when 10 men returned from their vacations, they no longer had jobs.

When the people complained to the local magistrate, the situation escalated. The finca owner tried to evict the workers, cutting off electricity and sending his servants to pull up banana and papaya trees. Thirteen people starved to death, 11 of them children. At one point, the women of the community surrounded the owner's men and held them for two weeks.

The impasse was broken when the bishop of San Marcos, Alvaro Ramazzini (himself under death threats for supporting the campesinos), successfully negotiated a settlement that allowed the 88 families to move to new land — land that, for the first time in their lives, they would own.

That the parcel is not large enough to sustain them and that access to drinking water is extremely difficult do not diminish their pride. "We are very happy because we have succeeded with this struggle," the leader of the women tells us. "We are joyful because we have someplace to go — our place."

While we talk, we watch men and boys dismantle the simple sheds where they had lived at Finca Los Cerros and carry them, piece by piece, to their new land. There, they will make a clearing for a dirt floor and reconstruct their dwellings, albeit without roofs, because they are not allowed to take the corrugated tin that had covered their former homes.

Julio is full of plans for the new finca. He wants to raise money for a pump to get water from a nearby stream, and he even hopes some organization will donate enough for the families to purchase another piece of land for cash crops. He also speaks proudly of plans to build a school, a church, and a community center on the new land, pointing out the location of each.

"The campesinos are down underneath your shoe," says Julio, stamping his foot. "We care for ourselves because, if we don't, there are people out there who are bigger who will eat us up. We, as campesinos, have to group together to contradict that."

When Julio finishes his story, we ask him what his community will call their new finca. He modestly suggests we might name it. One name stands out because it captures the campesinos' struggle against all odds and enormous power and wealth: Finca La Victoria. Julio puts his hand to his heart and begins to cry. Each of us weeps, too, as Julio tells us how much our visit means, how others will see us at the new finca and respect it because of our attention.

"We try to be strong here, but sometimes we feel weak," he says. "You give us strength."

Project to Recover the Historic Memory
We wait, once again in a circle, for Rigoberto Perez, diocesan director of the Project to Recover the Historic Memory (REMHI). When he arrives, he looks tired and drawn, but his eyes blaze with energy as he explains this Church program to document the massacres, assassinations, and human rights abuses that have occurred during Guatemala's long civil war.

Unlike the official Truth Commission, which will assign only "institutional responsibility," REMHI documents individual experiences and responsibility. The project involves taping interviews with people who lived through the abuses. These are transcribed and will be published. Rigoberto expects to collect 2,000 personal histories, an attempt, as he puts it, to return the peopleÕs history to them.

"The history doesn't belong to us; it's theirs. So that's why it has to be in their hands," he says. "We see this as a sacred work. It's the life of the people, the blood of the people, the death of the people, and also the resurrection of the people."

REMHI also will erect monuments inscribed with the names of the murdered people and the destroyed villages and towns. Through the process, Rigoberto hopes "to be able to pull out this pain and suffering. It alleviates; we're not saying it cures — that's a longer process. People who have not been able to tell what happened to them for 15 or 20 years — to be able to tell it now takes a terrible load off their backs."

Rigoberto says he is not interested in legal remedies. "Justice is a joke in this country. There isn't enough jail space; there aren't enough lawyers to take the cases; there's not enough money. We want to single out people morally, and we believe doing that is a way of doing justice.... Both the army and the guerrillas killed people. It was like a mixed-up grinder no one could control."

At the end of the meeting, as always, we thank our speaker. And, as has happened so many times during our visit, our speaker thanks us for listening and tells us we have renewed his spirit and his hopes. Rigoberto seems less burdened at the end of our meeting. "For me," he says, "this was a catharsis."

Forensic Anthropology Team
The small room has clean, white walls and a row of tables. On the walls are pictures of mass graves and exhumed human remains. Stacked against the walls and under the tables are boxes filled with bones and artifacts that have been found at the grave sites.

We sit quietly and stare at a child's undershirt and shorts on one of the tables. Next to them are charred bones. The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team found these remains at a massacre site in the Péten, where 20 people were thrown in a well.

Fernando Moscoso Moller, a team member, shows us slides of exhumations, explaining how the team "collaborates through science with the cause of human rights."

Like Rigoberto, Fernando does not expect to see justice in the courts. "We've achieved another kind of justice," he says, "historic justice. The authors of massacres have been named, and the victims and their survivors have been justified."

Fernando expresses satisfaction that the exhumations performed by the team have received front-page coverage in Guatemalan newspapers. "The things we are talking about were not possible to talk about five years ago," he says.

Although he laughs off questions about his personal safety, we later learn the coordinator of the team was waylaid that very day by four men who threatened him, his father, and his two daughters if he did not change jobs; it was the second time in a week he had been menaced at gunpoint.

Guatemalan Army
This place is scary — a fortified army base in Santa Cruz del Quiche. We meet with two high-ranking army officers: Col. Fuentes Montez, third in command at this base and a member of the dreaded Kaibiles, an elite counterinsurgency force; and Col. José Manuel Rivas, second in command at a military base in the capital and a participant in the peace negotiations, who has flown out to speak to us. Both wear battle uniforms.

Col. Montez sits, heavy-lidded and expressionless, while Col. Rivas does the talking. For two hours, he stands stiffly behind the podium, lecturing us. "It is difficult to communicate this way," he says, "but we have the will and desire to satisfy your questions as well as we can. The truth we share is our truth. We don't own the truth, but this is our truth as we see it."

It all seems canned, but during the question-and-answer session, the clearly human truth comes out. When asked how he regards the peace accords, Col. Rivas says he is hopeful and he does not fear his old enemies, the former insurgents. "The people who point out our failures are the civil sectors who are still stuck in an outdated ideology," he insists. The civil sectors he refers to are the human rights groups, many of which are seeking those responsible for atrocities. From the stories we hear from campesinos, the army might well worry.

Col. Rivas concedes atrocities did happen. "Human remains are evidence. We can't say this is not true if, indeed, it happened. In any conflict, there are excesses. We know that people on both sides take advantage of conflict."

When we ask if there is any effort by the military to find and punish those responsible, he says, "If military personnel did participate in those acts, they did not represent the policy of the army as an institution. It was an excess or an action of terror in order to gain adherents, but it does not have the approval or respect of the army as an institution." Though he concedes that those responsible for illegal acts should be punished, he leaves us with the impression nothing has been done or will be done by the military, at least nothing anyone will ever know about.

The second time Col. Rivas' human face emerges is when he tells us he has been a soldier for 25 years. His son is also in the army. "All my life in the military, we have been at war," he says. "I have spent my career fighting other Guatemalans. This is not right, and I do not want this for my son."

Tecún Umán
From the Guatemalan side of the swiftly moving Suchiate River, we watch raft after raft, loaded with poor families and their belongings, set out across the water. About 1,000 illegal immigrants — from Central America, South America, Bosnia, Russia, and elsewhere — try to cross the river every day from Tecún Umán to Mexico and, ultimately, to the United States.

Many are trying to escape grinding poverty; some flee war and persecution. Mostly, they will be robbed, cheated, and turned back. According to the Rev. Ademar Barilli, whose order is building a shelter for immigrants passing through Tecún Umán, only 4 to 6 percent of the people succeed in continuing north. Forty to 50 migrants are deported from Mexico to Guatemala every day. Many of these try over and over again, as long as they can scrape together the $1,000 to $3,000 required by the coyotes, the unreliable guides who are supposed to help them reach the United States.

Tecún Umán itself seems like a cesspool. Barilli calls it "a city without laws," with 84 bars, 80 brothels, and 25 killings a month. What a contrast to Julio's community and the Finca La Victoria. Here, people huddle together, on the run. There, people stick together to stay on the land. Yet both are struggling for a better life for their children — against the odds.

We watch as the rafts make their way downstream with boy sailors at the tillers. When they have unloaded their passengers, they make their way back to our side where they step into the cholera infected water, lifting the rafts onto their backs to carry them upstream and begin all over again.

James Reites, S.J., is acting director of the graduate program in pastoral ministries. He authored "Ignatius of Loyola and The Conversos," a chapter in Columbus, Confrontation, Christianity: The European-American Encounter Revisited (Forbes Mill Press, 1994). Don Dodson coordinates University planning. He is also an associate professor in the Communication Department where he teaches a course on public discourse and poverty.