Guns or Beans: Observations from Guatemala

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

“If you are with us, we'll feed you; if not, we'll kill you."

This is what former Guatemalan President Rios Montt reportedly said to an audience of indigenous Guatemalans in 1982.  The president kept his promise. During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, 200,000 people (mostly Indigenous) were murdered by government forces. Thousands more disappeared. Since the 1996 peace accords, Guatemalans have been struggling to reconstruct their society.

In February of this year, the two of us travelled to Guatemala on behalf of the CMHR. The Canadian Embassy had invited us to meet with members of an exciting new Guatemalan initiative – the Memorial Para la Concordia/Guatemala (Concord Memorial). This project, still in its infancy, promotes human rights and reconciliation with a goal of building a memorial and human rights museum in Guatemala City.  The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is well on its way toward opening in 2014, with a mandate to promote human rights education, dialogue and reflection.  There seemed to be a natural connection between our two institutions and we were eager to encourage this new project and also learn from them. 

The Concord Memorial project consists of a number of Guatemalan human rights organizations that have rallied together to bring positive change to their country.  Our first visit in Guatemala City was to the Foundation of Forensic Anthropologists of Guatemala. We met the director, Fredy Peccerelli, at the side of a mass grave, where young volunteers worked in a pit full of human skulls and bones, carefully extracting remains of these “disappeared” people.

The mass grave
The pit, full of human skulls and bones

It was a powerful introduction to the problems facing Guatemala, and to the determination of its people to deal with their history and find a way forward. 

Our next stop was at the National Police Archives, a building surrounded by a graveyard of derelict and abandoned cars, where millions of police records were accidentally discovered in 2005.

abandoned cars
The National Police Archives, surrounded by a graveyard of abandoned cars

After years of neglect, these important documents were found stacked to the ceiling among mould, bat droppings and rats.   From a forensic archival perspective, it was the find of the century. The archive contained 80 million police records, detailing the violations committed against Guatemalans by the state police.  Here, we met with director Gustavo Meoño, who told us the back story to these archives.  It was dubbed “el basurero” (the garbage can), a place where female police officers were sent as punishment for refusing sexual advances from their superiors. These women, wanting to keep their dignity despite the terrible conditions, sorted the documents by date or theme.

Director Gustavo Meoño at the National Police Archives

When they were discovered in 2005, Gustavo and his team took on the titanic task of restoring, preserving and cataloguing these documents, using the basic organization system created by the female police officers. These records are now being used to prosecute perpetrators.

Like Gustavo and Fredy, all of the leaders of the Concord Memorial project are committed to promoting human rights and reconciliation.  We couldn’t help noticing that many of them have been personally touched by the violations. Julio Solórzano Foppa, another member of the Memorial, is the son of Alaide Foppa, a famous Guatemalan poet and Juan José Arévalo, former president of Guatemala. Julio has been searching for information about his mother and two brothers since they disappeared in the early 1980’s. 

At the conclusion of our time in Guatemala, we met with the members of the Memorial and agreed to pursue a partnership between the Museum and this new organization to advance human rights through education, dialogue, and reflection in our respective countries.  On June 19 in Winnipeg, the Museum will sign a memorandum of understanding to formalize its partnership with these human rights defenders. 


By Alex Keim, CMHR Art and Object Manager, and Clint Curle, CMHR Head of Stakeholder Relations


The Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the University of Winnipeg’s Global College presented a panel discussion with Julio Solórzano Foppa – son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president and leading human-rights defender – and Pascal Paradis, founder of Lawyers without Borders Canada.

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