By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 15, 2004
The air was warm and fresh and the sky was blue as I opened my “Let’s Go” Central America guidebook and flipped to destination Panajachel, Guatemala, only to read that even volcano hikers must beware of being attacked by bandits. As our group of international journalists, on a trip sponsored by the International Catholic Union of the Press, climbed a mountain road later that morning we heard a gunshot. As I glanced at a truck speeding down the mountain in reverse I saw broken glass, blood on the driver’s face and an expression of terror.
This and other adventures awaited me as I participated in a young Catholic journalists’ trip sponsored by UCIP, based in Geneva, Switzerland, from Sept. 28-Oct. 19, 2003. Fifteen journalists from countries including Germany, France, Slovakia, Argentina, Ecuador, Nepal, Mexico, Ghana and Kenya participated.
We journeyed through Mexico and two Central American countries. After gathering in Mexico City, we passed through the southern Mexican states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Chiapas. Upon crossing the border to Tecún Umán, Guatemala, pulled in bright yellow carts by men on bikes, we sat for about seven hours on a sidewalk while trip leaders sorted through visa issues, before being allowed to travel on to the town of Panajachel and then to Guatemala City. Continuing south,
we crossed the El Salvador border to arrive in the capital of San Salvador where we spent the last five days.
I had been on other mission trips to Mexico and Central America, but this trip included an education like no other.
The purpose of this program was to live in solidarity with and learn from journalists from both rich and poor countries and to learn about the struggle for democratization and social justice there and the important role in this struggle of journalists in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. We learned about the work of social activists and journalists in exposing government corruption and the oppression of the poorest indigenous communities in southern Mexico. We also heard firsthand from people working in Guatemala and El Salvador, countries that have experienced the brutal massacre of civilians in civil wars, and about the prosecution of those who committed war crimes as a means to experience healing, reconciliation and recovery.
Speakers addressed issues related to free trade, economic development and human rights. Despite all the benefits of globalization, in Mexico experts spoke of the disappointments of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had its 10-year anniversary Jan. 1. We listened to arguments regarding the negative effects on local economies and on farmers and smaller business owners who have been driven out of business. One speaker reported that more jobs have been lost than created. International corporations open maquiladoras in Mexico with unfair labor policies, lax environmental standards and no support of local economies.
Our group learned of and traveled down a stretch of a highway under construction between Puebla and Panama known as the Puebla Panama Plan, controversial because it will damage the environment and remove people from their land. Speakers advocated for regulated trade over free trade and an alternative model for the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement, which is being explored by North, Central and South American nations for passage in 2005. Atlanta and Miami are among several cities being considered as the hub.
Poverty In Mexico
After cramming our luggage into a compact car, we were driven through the winding, clogged streets of Mexico City to our sleeping quarters in a retreat center on the city outskirts, where I was struck by the peculiar saturation of the city streets with VW Beetles, in colors such as lime green.
At this first location, we heard various speakers describe the country’s struggle to improve the economy, in which workers earn an average of one-sixth of workers in the United States, and to become more democratic after the end of a 70-year one-party rule with the election in 2000 of President Vicente Fox. Mexico City ombudsman Emilio Álvarez spoke of city problems of the secret police detaining people: more than 100 arbitrary detentions in the city in the past two years, the problem of torture and the incompetence of crime investigators. In Ciudad Juarez over 300 women have been killed in the past decade. Culturally, the majority of the mestizo population has a sense of shame and denial of their indigenous heritage. Although Mexico has the tenth most developed economy in the world, 55 percent of its citizens still live in poverty, the speaker said, which is the biggest challenge that Mexico faces. That challenge drives many north, he said, and now 40 to 50 percent of the people from the state of Zacatecas live in the United States.
But civil society there has also experienced an awakening of a new sense of activism for their rights. Some 6,000 nongovernmental organizations have formed in the last decade. One sign of this awakening was a protest march by thousands of electricity workers opposed to the privatization of one of the country’s last state-run industries, following a national trend towards privatization since the 1980s. One sign read, “It’s a service, not a business.”
Our group visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531 as an Aztec princess, leading to Mexico’s conversion to Christianity. At the basilica, I rode back and forth about four times on the conveyor belt that shuffles people in front of the image of Our Lady that appeared on the tilma of St. Juan Diego, staring up at the image—simply because I’d heard so much about the scientific tests proving how the picture miraculously appeared there—and her radiance of peace and love as she cupped her hands in prayer.
The Blessed Mother’s image embodies her supporting role and the mystery of faith and of the Mexican indigenous culture.
We made our way up grassy Tepeyac Hill, with the roses and statues of the Virgin, where Mary had commanded St. Juan to have a basilica built in her honor. Her image stays with me. In retrospect this visit was, amidst the city’s congestion, smog and concrete blandness, a spiritual rest on the trip.
We also found Mary’s presence the next evening in a downtown plaza, where a group of youth huddled under a blanket, with a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe propped up by them. They were some of Mexico City’s 5,600 street children, who survive through prostitution, selling gum and cleaning windshields. One skinny teenager named Yoshio said he’s been on the streets 12 years. He lives there with his 10-year-old brother, and they search for food at night. “It’s ugly to live here. People rob here,” he said. “We all take care of each other.”
Departing Mexico City before daybreak, we passed through the city of Puebla, with Spanish colonial buildings with talavera tiles, a zócalo with a grassy park area and iron benches and an artists’ corridor with alleys with oil paintings displayed outside. There I ate chicken drenched with mole, a typical food of the region with a complex mix of ingredients including chocolate and chiles. Our trip continued on to the state of Oaxaca. One stop was at the town of San Pablo Huixtepec, where over half the residents reportedly have immigrated to America, and where Father Wilfrido Mayrén Peláez, a friendly priest with a thick mustache who heads the diocesan social justice committee, loaded us into the backs of two trucks and transported us to a private home for an outdoor fiesta. Preparing ourselves to be in solidarity with the poor, we Americans were housed instead in a parish couple’s lovely guesthouse with no less than marble floors and a skylight. As we went to have late night cheese tortillas, our friendly host, Armando Aquino Moreno, warmly welcomed us and said “mi casa es su casa.” Conversation drifted to the electricity workers’ protest of privatization of electricity, where Armando explained that people fear that with privatization of electricity, prices will go up, but they are now kept low through government subsidies. Oil may also be privatized which many oppose, as Mexicans are protective of their resources.
At Sunday Mass in the standing room only church, the priest gave a social justice homily on the rights of women. Afterwards, I chatted with one young man who spoke of how he was a farmer and to survive had moved to the United States to save money, which he used upon his return to buy farm equipment to grow his corn, beans and tomatoes and support his family. He said even his sister, an accountant, may migrate for work. I considered how some of the poor Mexican people in the pews of Georgia seeking “better opportunity” have come from similier situations.
On the backside of the church we attended a human rights press conference where we heard speakers from human rights organizations talk about the state government’s denial of the rights of communities where the opposition party is in power in Oaxaca. Other subjects included depletion of forests and natural resources through commercialization. The southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero, while they are richest in natural resources, are Mexico’s poorest.
On a break, stretching my writing fingers, a local journalist approached me. “Do you speak Spanish?” she asked. “Un poquito,” I responded, hoping that would shush her away (it was my college major). Undiscouraged, she continued, “Have you ever had your human rights violated as a journalist in America?” My answer was no. “Tell me about human rights violations in America?” I could only think of a few concerns I have about the violation of immigrants’ rights and the suspicion of inhumane coercion of suspects during interrogations as part of the war on terrorism.
Departing Oaxaca, we next—embracing democracy—staged a group protest against our trip leader’s proposed pre-dawn departure, asking to leave in daylight hours to Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas. One of the French journalists, in touch with nature as a writer for National Geographic-France, did some investigative work at an Internet café to learn that Hurricane Larry was scheduled to hit our path.
That night I dined with Laurent from France and Suvash from Nepal. Talk evolved into Suvash articulating how the United States labels any movement not in its interest as terrorism, like both the attack on the World Trade Center and the Maoist insurgency in his country. “The unprovoked murder of civilians from around the world was not terrorism?” I asked.
Laurent said that Suvash had a common Third World opinion that the war in Iraq was a war for oil and that the events of 9/11 were the first time Americans faced firsthand the threat of terror that Europeans live with daily.
In Chiapas, we experienced tranquility on a boat ride through the “ecotourism” canyon of Cañon del Sumidero, and walked through the park with native animals like spider monkeys and jaguars. As the biólogo pointed out waterfalls and flocks of pelicanos circling above the surrounding cliffs, we were saddened to see a large lily pad of trash floating, on which vultures picked and men leaning over a little boat picked up by hand. This trash is being dumped into rivers that empty there, and the park was working to provide environmental education.
One evening we joined students at the Universidad del Valle de Mexico to hear an editor with one of the state’s leading dailies talk about his inability to criticize the government because of his need to keep his job and feed his family. He reported earning about $150 for two weeks of work. As we spoke to them briefly, Africanus, a journalist from Ghana, took the microphone and spoke passionately about the important role that journalists played in guiding that country’s transition to democracy and the need for them to courageously foster change.
After an overnight drive along winding mountain roads we arrived at daybreak at the city of Cuidad Hidalgo on the Guatemala border, where our drivers wished us safe travels and advised us to request police escorts between cities in Guatemala.
The Tragic History Of Guatemala
My first impression of Guatemala was not positive.
Our group of international journalists zipped along a two-lane country road after dark to the village of Panajachel through a raging downpour. Eventually we reached a motel where Americans were advised to stay in the vans while obtaining the rooms to keep the price down in negotiating.
The next morning we were journeying anew to Panajachel when we heard the gunshot and people walking up the roadside yelled, “Asalto!” As we pulled off the road at an overlook stop and called the police, the local translator, strangely unaffected, explained that no one travels much at night anymore because of the danger, so bandits now strike in broad daylight. She assured us that all would be well. “This is normal life here? Where is the aeropuerto?” I thought, being informed it was some four hours away. Our journey continued after we obtained a police escort to go back up the road, although some of our insecurity remained as he rode his motorcycle behind our loaded van.
Later in the afternoon of the gunshot incident on the mountain road, we checked into Hotel Posada in Panajachel, with an exhilarating view of the glassy waters of Lake Atitlán, encircled by hills and volcanoes. Unnerved by the morning shooting, I and the other Americans, seeking normalcy, hit the village market. I found comfort in seeing lakefront bars and backpackers with European accents browse and bargain. As the rain started pouring and darkness arrived, we found shelter in the shop of a short, elderly lady wearing traditional Mayan dress gently bargaining with browsers as she tried to sell her oil paintings, one of which showed a peasant Indian woman carrying a basket on her head. I made a run for another store filled with wooden carvings, where I came across my prize purchase of a grass-green wooden giraffe painted with black stripes, yellow dots and long red ears. I named him Jorgé La Jirafa, and, with his look of vigilance, appointed him our patron of safe travels. As the sky opened up the next morning, we saw a campaign truck drive through the main street with a man proclaiming a candidate’s name. Later at Mayan ruins, more people appeared waving banners for a presidential candidate.
I felt safer as we headed to Guatemala City, until I read in my guide book that we were staying in zone 1, the city’s most dangerous, and where Peace Corps volunteers are forbidden to sleep. After my trip, I read in The Washington Post that the murder rate has doubled there since 2001 to about 60 a week and that as little of 3 percent of all crimes are investigated by the broken justice system. In the increasingly lawless country, there are an estimated 2 million unregistered guns from the 36-year civil war between an oppressive military government and guerillas seeking land reform and democracy that ended with peace accords in 1996. We visited the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, a human rights organization that aids victims of the civil war and investigates disappearances. Pictures of some of the 28 group members who have disappeared hung from the walls and those of the martyred organization founders. Director Mario Polanco spoke of the 150,000 cases of people murdered by the government since 1954 and of the 45,000 disappearances in the past 20 years.
“This is a common history in all of Latin America,” he said. He said society has become more democratic since the war, but that it experienced a setback in 1999 when the party closely linked with the military won the presidency, where organized crime, including drug trafficking and cultivation, and government militarization increased. And presidential candidate General Rios Montt, who as president from 1982-83 was linked with the massacre of thousands of peasants and is being charged with genocide, had violated the constitution by running again. And just before the November election, Amnesty International had reported 21 election-related killings, 46 threats against journalists and over 100 related incidents of threats and intimidation. Nevertheless, “each day there is more participation in politics” in a country where an estimated 75 percent live in poverty.
Nery Rodenas of the Archdiocese of Guatemala City Office of Human Rights spoke of their work to publish an investigation of war crimes entitled “Guatemala Nunca Más,” based upon 6,000 interviews with survivors and attributing 85 percent of human rights abuses to the Guatemalan Army. Two days after it was published in 1998 the project director Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was beaten to death for his role in it. The office continues to work for prosecution of war crimes and supports war victims and provides human rights education.
Journalists are bought off, threatened, beaten and killed for revealing any truth that threatens the government, and the CERIGUA news agency reporting on Guatemalan human rights, detailing aggressions in 2003 against journalists, reported a July incident where the Guatemalan Republican Front, the party supporting Montt, started a riot and tried to burn journalists; one was killed and seven injured; a CERIGUA reporter was beaten. As we walked around the downtown, our local translator pointed out hundreds of bricks with names of civil war victims in a wall around the front of the cathedral. She recalled how growing up there she never went out at night, and how relatives who worked as a high school principal and a journalist were mysteriously killed. She also recalled witnessing the release in exchange for ransom of a prominent businesswoman in 2000, where police who caught the kidnappers learned they were military members. They were never prosecuted.
Recalling how white roses are placed each day in a statue of hands gently clasped reading upward in the courtyard of the Guatemala City national palace, I have since read of the remarkably peaceful election, with a 58 percent voter turnout in the first round and 1,000 national and international observers, of the election of Oscar Berger to the presidency, who has pledged to follow recommendations of the peace accords, create jobs, fight corruption and the rising crime rate and revive negotiations for a Guatemala-U.S. free trade agreement. But I catch another headline of sad news of an assault on Jan. 7 where five men armed with automatic weapons opened fire on a busload of Mormon tourists from Utah outside Guatemala City, killing one. I thank God anew for each day of life.
The Final Leg: El Salvador
I was relieved to arrive at the homestretch of El Salvador, even when it was identified as the second most dangerous country in the hemisphere. My emotional load seemed lighter yet physically I carried many purchases.
El Salvador, like Guatemala, seems to have a lingering cloud of sadness as it struggles to recover following the decade of terror of its civil war and tries to become more democratic. One main street is dotted with fancy Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds restaurants that have huge jungle gyms, while one modern city church has a guard with a machine gun standing outside during a Saturday vigil Mass. In the 1980s some 75,000 people were killed, and 100,000 fled the country in the civil war between the military and the guerilla insurgency. I was inspired by the courage of museum director Carlos Henriquez Consalvi, a man with a humble demeanor who now lectures and runs The Museum of the Word and Image. During the war he ran an underground radio in the mountains to “inform and agitate” and denounce human rights abuses in the country. During its 11 years of broadcast, 14 people were killed. He feels that because of the war they are now able to have more freedom and democratic elections but also that he has come to see that truth is not as black and white as he then thought.
We walked downtown to the Cathedral of San Salvador, where we visited the tomb underneath of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, with a colorful picture of him on the wall. We saw how his spirit of justice lives in the people like with a radio station at the José Siméon Cañas University of Central America that has a Gospel-based, social justice agenda and reports on topics like the root causes of the problem of gang violence. He was assassinated during the war for his tireless advocacy for the oppressed, when he could have easily followed the will of the elite and the government who respected him. And he was more reserved and comfortable in scholarly pursuits until he discovered his voice of hope by immersing himself in the lives of the poor. He chose, even as his priests and parishioners were being murdered for speaking against the government, to speak his heart rather than die a quiet death by remaining complacent in the face of injustice. One guide spoke of how her father was among the thousands who overflowed from the church for his funeral, during which military members killed dozens.
A Journalist’s Reflection
Resettled in my cluttered office, my eyes drift from a computer screen to the photo of myself and two other journalists looking happy and refreshed at a scenic overlook of San Salvador.
I’m wearing my beaded American flag bracelet bought in the market of the well-preserved cobblestone Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, where even the Internet cafes and McDonalds are in centuries-old stone buildings down the street from the cathedral in which St. Pedro Betancur is laid to rest. The nearby markets are filled with everything from wraparound skirts to shirts with embroidered flowers and wool vests. I bought an oil painting of the little Guatemalan village of Panajachel with its volcano for $10, Mayan facemasks and carving of the sun god whose headdress is adored with a quetzal, the country’s official bird. Thankfully, ATMs have found their way to Central America, too.
But as I reflect on the reason for my joy in the photo I realized then that I was only three days away from coming to the end of a three-week adventure en route from Mexico City to San Salvador via motor coach with 14 other mostly Catholic journalists from around the world, escaping gunfire and civil unrest.
While at times on the trip international relations grew tense, I now see the value of my adventure and am glad to have new friends and global connections as well as new insights on Latin America democracy.
My friend Ann sent me an article on how the Pollo Campero fast food restaurant, a tasty Guatemalan fried chicken restaurant chain at which we dined, opened its second northern Virginia location. It reported the curious phenomenon, which I witnessed on my plane ride home, where Latinos who love it so much bag it up to bring on visits to family in the States.
My friend Sylvie sent me a National Geographic with her cover story on global trends on chocolate production—with a Post-it marking a shot of her taking a cocoa bath in the Hershey, Pa., spa, and reading, “Life’s tough for NG’s reporters.”
Hearing their perspectives helped me to keep a more global perspective in critically considering American foreign policies and responsibilities in the world and how American policies can oppress or can empower people and fragile, nascent democracies of our impoverished neighbors.
As I reflect on the courage of the Guatemalan Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo director, the diocesan human rights office, the journalists committed to truth who risk their lives, and the perseverance of those banner-waving Guatemalans who have the courage to vote, I have a new appreciation of democracy and freedom of the press and my good fortune and civic responsibilities in being born in this country. Recalling how one speaker, Mexican Melba Pria, who had long dark hair and a persona of strength and elegance as she directed social organizations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called herself a “civil servant,” I consider that a refreshingly old-fashioned term. I’m reminded to resist complacency and, as a Christian and journalist, to be active in the democratic process—if only by being more informed for presidential elections.
I contemplate the fact that a National Geographic article recently reported that three billion people, nearly half the world’s population, struggle to live on less than $2 a day.
I believe I was shown these realities for a reason, as Latin American issues become more relevant than ever as Hispanics pour into Georgia. As the negotiations continue for the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement through 2005, what issues must be considered to control illegal immigration, to help the impoverished majority of Latin American nations as well as the small cocoa producers on the muggy shores of Ecuador?
As I face life’s little Hurricane Larrys and avoid roadblocks and bandits to cross the mountains of Panajachel in mundane life, may I enjoy the vistas, experience the sadness, savor the tomatoes, keep studying my Spanish and remember that life is an adventure and God is my guide. As my friend from Puebla wrote me on my first trip to Mexico: “Only God knows what he wants for us in the future. New friends, new emotions will come, and live them intensely, always asking wisdom from our God and Creator.”
And as I end my earthly sojourn, no time soon I pray, may I have a sense as in that scenic overlook photo of joy in knowing that I’m going home—no packing required—to a place more halcyon than Mexico’s Cañon Sumidero.
Georgia Bulletin staff writer Priscilla Greear was honored in 2003 with a scholarship to attend a summer university program sponsored by the International Catholic Union of the Press (UCIP). The theme of the program was “Democracy, Human Rights, Freedom of Expression Amidst Globalization.”Following is an account of her travels and experiences as she traveled through three Latin American countries with a group of Catholic journalists.