Aside from going on afternoon runs, I’m also in the routine of listening to Up First,NPR’s daily news podcast. There’s a recurring advertisement on this podcast for 23andMe, a company to which you can send a saliva sample and explore what your DNA reveals using the comapny’s genetic data bank. Such ads announce, Discover how often you might move your arms and legs while sleeping. Explore reports like this with 23andMe’s health plus ancestry service kit. On a less trivial level, 23andMe’s website shares stories of customers who reunited with their birth families, discovered long lost relatives, or learned surprising details about their ancestry.
I’m continually struck by the juxtaposition of these two ads. In the States, 23andMe advertises the fun of exploring your DNA, the joy of building new family connections, and the excitement of learning about your ancestry. In Guatemala, FAFG advertisements highlight the struggle to fill the gaping holes left in Guatemala’s social fabric by a recent history of genocide.
I’m reminded on every afternoon run in Guate that even decades after the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords in 1996, survivors of the Internal Armed Conflict are still asking these basic questions: where are my parents buried, how did my siblings die, will I be able to give my children a proper funeral? FAFG’s sign reminds me how heavily the past continues to weigh on the present in Guatemala. And how that past is often traumatic, difficult to delve into, and impossible to disconnect from the current political context.
Furthermore, the current political context in Guatemala is incredibly troubling. Over the past several months, the Guatemalan Congress has been discussing a bill to amend the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation, which named genocide, torture, and forced disappearance as unpardonable crimes. However, the proposed changes to the law would grant amnesty to those who have been convicted of these crimes, as well as other grave crimes such as sexual violence. Those convicted would be released from jail within 24 hours. (Read here to see who would go free.) The proposed legislation would also terminate all cases currently underway involving such crimes, and would keep any cases from being heard in the future.
Due to mounting national and international pressure––including a court order by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights––the third and final reading of the ‘amnesty bill’ has not been scheduled. However, the bill has not been permanently shelved either. Furthermore, Congress has since changed tactics, focusing on other initiatives that would ultimately achieve a similar goal. (This article provides a fantastic overview of where the ‘amnesty bill’ currently stands, Congress’ shift in strategy, and the general uncertainty of Guatemala’s future due to upcoming presidential elections in June.)
One of the cases that would be put to a stop with the passing of the ‘amnesty bill’ is the Maya Achí Sexual Violence case. In this case, 36 women from rural villages around the town of Rabinal are speaking out against the men who raped them in the early 80s. At the time, these men were members of civil defense patrols (PACs) that operated under military command during the Internal Armed Conflict. Notably, up until they were arrested in May of last year, these men continued to live in the same areas as the women now testifying against them. And if acquitted or granted amnesty, they would return to these same communities.
I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with the Maya Achí Sexual Violence case, since we accompany several of the women involved in the case as well as their legal team. This accompaniment entails attending court hearings in Guatemala City, meeting with lawyers in the town of Rabinal, and traveling to the surrounding villages to visit the women in their homes.
In late February, I found myself bumping along a rocky road in a camioneta (a colorfully painted old U.S. school bus, a common form of transportation here in Guate) on my way to the mountainous village of Chichupac. I had previously met many of the women from Chichupac at a press conference in Guatemala City, as I mentioned in my last F&F. However, as we hiked up and down the steep hills of Chichupac to reach their houses, I was struck by the women’s courage to take part in legal proceedings so far away––especially considering the dangers they face close to home (the families of the men arrested continue to live nearby). And given that legal proceedings in Guatemala City seem worlds away from the rural reality of the everyday lives of these women, their determination in the face of a looming ‘amnesty bill’ is even more inspiring. Not to mention that this case breaks deeply rooted social taboos surrounding the discussion of sexual violence.
This short clip provides a small window into the world of these Maya Achí women: