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Devastated by Mudslides, Guatemalan Villagers Refuse Military Aid Remembering 1990 Army Massacre

StoryOctober 11, 2005
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The death toll in Central America following Hurricane Stan is still climbing after torrential rains caused deadly floods and mudslides. We go to Guatamala City to speak with Paul Menchu, brother of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu Tum. [includes rush transcript]

More than 650 are confirmed dead in Guatemala and 1,400 more listed as missing. At least 100 others have died in Mexico and neighboring Central American countries. In the central highlands of Guatemala, whole villages were wiped out by mudslides, burying thousands alive and displacing tens of thousands of people.

Guatemalan President Oscar Berger’s government has been widely criticized for responding too slowly to the tragedy. Hardly any federal aid has arrived in Panabaj or the surrounding area, where the death toll could be as much as 1,500. On Monday rescuers gave up after five days of searching the village for bodies under the mud. Officials will likely declare the area a mass grave. Rescuers have had to use boats and helicopters to bring in food and medicine because thousands of miles of roads and dozens of bridges have been burid under mudslides.

In Panabaj, villagers were reportedly refusing to allow the Guatemalan army in because of haunting memories of a 1990 massacre by the military. At the time, 2,000 to 3,000 villagers were protesting a military raid when the army raked the the crowd, of mostly indigenous descent, with machine-gun fire. At least 11 civilians were gunned down. Much of the region remains fearful of the military after 36 years of fighting that ended in 1996. During that time more than 100,000 Guatemalans died, the majority at the hands of the Guatamalan military.

  • Paul Menchu, Director of the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation, brother of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu Tum.
  • Beatrice Manz, Anthropologist and professor at the University of California Berkeley.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: From Guatemala, we’re joined by Paul Menchu. He is the brother of Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Paul heads the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation. We are also joined on the phone from Berkeley, California, by Beatrice Manz, anthropologist and professor at UC Berkeley. Her newest book is called Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope. She, Guatemalan. First, let us turn to Paul Menchu. On the ground, what do you know has happened? (And he will be translated.)

PAUL MENCHU: [translated] Good morning. Starting with the passing of Hurricane Stan, which affected Central America and Mexico, the worst damages have been in Guatemala. Among the population, there are problems of lack of supplies, great death, and a loss of hope, because this storm hit the ground in a very populated region. This happened on the south coast and in the mountains of Guatemala, where most of the indigenous population lives. The main problem has been on the south coast where we have flooding and also mudslides and avalanches in the mountains, which have buried entire villages.

Another problem that we’re facing is that we have lost a lot of our farms, and this is going to mean in the short term that we’re going to have hunger problems in Guatemala. There is also the situation of health, because in some places where the dead have not been able to be removed, we’re afraid of epidemics and health problems that will happen because of the lack of water. So this is a big problem for many villages who will need to be entirely reconstructed and are also having lack of food problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Menchu is on the line with us from Guatemala, the brother of Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala. She spoke and — has spoken out against the Guatemalan military for many years, against the massacres in the highlands. On the phone with us also is a Guatemalan anthropologist, professor at University of California Berkeley, Beatrice Manz. We’re getting reports that people, Professor Manz, are refusing to allow the military in at Panabaj because of memories of the 1990 Santiago Atitlan massacre. Can you describe what happened then and why they’d feel this way today?

BEATRICE MANZ: Well, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the people in those villages and in villages throughout Guatemala would have this kind of reaction to the presence of the military. I mean, the people are facing a natural disaster right now, but for decades they faced a human-made tragedy; and the military’s responsibility in, you know, hundreds of massacres, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and a genocide in that country creates, obviously, a mistrust and a very, very poor image, to say the least. I mean, the soldiers have a very bad reputation. People remember the fear, the terror that they lived through. These are the survivors, and I’m not that surprised, tragically, that people do not want to see the soldiers come in and provide aid in this instance.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you, Paul Menchu, getting these reports of these terribly afflicted victims not wanting the army in because they’re afraid?

PAUL MENCHU: [translated] In the area of Santiago Atitlan there have been two communities that were lost to avalanches, and in these areas there’s a very organized indigenous population. And there is where the massacre happened in the last decade. And so these communities have resisted the soldiers coming in because there is a very strong memory of the terror that they brought to the communities in the past. So the things that have happened in the past in Guatemala and this memory of the terror has come back to the surface now.

AMY GOODMAN: [translated] We have to wrap up. But I do want to ask if people want to support, in the ways that they have Hurricane — victims of Hurricane Katrina, where can they go? Who do they turn to if they want to support the victims in Guatemala?

PAUL MENCHU: One way is through already-organized organizations, such as the Red Cross. Another way is through NGOs that are working in the area, and in fact the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation is working in this area.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. We will certainly make the links. I want to thank Gretchen Begley for translating. Thank you, Paul Menchu for being with us, from the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation, and Beatrice Manz, author of Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope.

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