Arriving to Beautiful Antigua and A Revealing Trip to the City

I visited Antigua, Guatemala once during High School. I participated in a volleyball tournament and at some point the team was taken in a van to Antigua, where we were granted a closely-timed hour to shop at the local artisanal market before being whisked away back to the gym.

Discovering Antigua over the past few days, this time under very different circumstances,  has been a joy. As you walk down the cobblestone roads you are surrounded by beautiful colonial houses painted the brightest shades of papaya, blue, terracotta and sunshine yellow. If you peek in through a cracked wooden door, you may catch a glimpse of a lush garden, adorned with flowering vines and brightly colored furniture. Deep windowsills are decorated with potted flowers and ornate iron casings, and you cannot walk more than a few blocks without coming face to face with the spectacular ruins of a colonial church. The place is bursting with color. It is on the houses, on the woven cloths that cover the fresh tortillas sold by women on the streets and on the green, forested volcanoes that surround the town (More pictures to come!).

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua’s charm attracts much tourism. The town has become a haven for Spanish language schools, a home base for tourists travelling the country, the headquarter sites of plentiful NGOs and home to many European retirees. Given the surplus of foreigners, much of  Antigua caters to the tourism industry. Streets are crowded with restaurants and cafés, ranging from your local sodita, where you can buy a typical Guatemalan meal for a couple of dollars to the high-end restaurants advertizing fine international cuisine.

Although living in one of the most beautiful spots in Guatemala has its perks, it almost feels like living in a dream that is largely isolated from the realities shared by the rest of Guatemala. Today, along with the PLA coordinator in Guatemala and my wonderful mentor for the next few months, Saskia Shuitemaker, I attended a meeting in Guatemala city on the topic of  restorative justice.

The trip from Antigua to Guatemala is an adventure on its own. The bus is packed beyond capacity (three people per seat: two seated and one half suspended) and then takes off at a dizzying speed on a windy, zigzagging road down to the city. Every sharp turn is a bold attempt to stay on your spot without sliding into your neighbors. This is rarely accomplished, and the next thirty minutes become a challenging exercise in balance and core strength. No matter how tightly you hold on to the metal bar in front of you, you end up sliding into your neighbors at every turn, then politely shifting back to your spot, just in time to brace yourself for the next curve.

In any case, we made it to the city for our meeting right on time!

Also attending the meeting were representatives from several NGOs doing peace-related work in Guatemala. The main speaker mostly presented theoretical concepts and diagrams about steps towards restorative justice and the different levels of intervention when running these practices. Although the presentation was interesting and relevant to our work, what was really striking was listening to the stories shared by the NGO representatives: stories about victims of abuse, about violent threats to their work and organizations, and worrying dialogue about a national political situation, that in the words of one representative, has regressed 10 years in terms of freedoms and democracy

What remains in Guatemala is a challenging political situation that is still dominated by a culture of impunity, high-level political corruption, and alarming concerns that the nation may be sliding back towards militarism.

Among the news getting attention these days is the government-sponsored closure of the “Archives for Peace,”  the ongoing investigation of military archives for the civil war period, a time during which 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. This commission was established in 2008 to investigate human rights abuses; however, it was shut down in late June when at least 17 technicians working on the project were fired by the state due to “restructuring” and “cutting of unnecessary personnel.”

Among the work carried out by the commission are publications that include the dates of massacres, tortures, disappearances and chains of command,  and over two million digitalized documents exposing the names of military and civilians  implicated in military campaigns. Experts working on this project have testified during  judicial hearings dealing with claims of genocide, and have contributed to the ongoing trial against ex-president Efrain Rios Montt.

According to a representative who attended the meeting, the organization is trying to rescue the work of the commission and distribute it to citizens by putting these reports on CDs that are then distributed as widely as possible, but funding for doing this is scare.

It is of tremendous concern to see this taking place. To me, it represents a tremendous blow to the national efforts to create an accurate historical memory and promote justice and national reconciliation. In a country where politically-motivated violent crimes are still common, the closing of the archives just represents another step in the wrong direction— towards further impunity, corruption and deterioration of civilian rights.