What is the value of memory? When a community suffers a terrible collective trauma, is it best (or even possible) to simply try to forget the the trauma, or does healing come through working for justice and remembrance? This week, as part of the School of Americas Watch (SOAW) delegation to Guatemala, I was able to learn about one community’s struggle to reconstruct their village and gain state recognition of the pain and loss they suffered as a result of a massacre by the military in 1981.
Cocop is a village of sixty indigenous Mayan families located in the Ixil area of the Quiché Department of Guatemala. The Ixil region was one of the areas most ravaged by Guatemala’s civil war – between 70-90% of Ixil villages were destroyed, and thousands of civilians killed. Last year, the Ixil community received international attention during the trial of former president General Rios Montt, who was convicted of committing genocide against them. The verdict was overturned one week later due to a legal technicality.
Cocop did not escape the horrific violence that affected thousands in the Ixil area. On April 16, 1981, the military entered the village and murdered 68 residents, burned their homes, and destroyed their crops. Among those killed were 38 children. Terrified for their lives, the surviving members of Cocop hurriedly buried their loved ones’ remains in mass graves, then fled to the mountains. The survivors were eventually only able to return when the commander of the local military base gave them “permission” to do so. However, they found that they had lost much of their land, and were kept under close control by the military.
The official military version of events was reported in Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre shortly afterwards. Per the article, the military had engaged in a battle with armed guerrillas in Cocop. A CIA telegram sent on April 17 reported receiving a report of a large number of people killed in Cocop who, per sources, were “subversives” who “attacked” the military.
Now, more than 30 years later, Cocop residents continue to fight for dignity and justice for their community. Guatemalan NGO Centro de Analisis Forense Y Ciencias Aplicadas (CAFCA) has worked closely with community leaders on projects of exhumation, burial of the recovered remains in accord with local cultural practices, preservation of historical memory, and fighting for reparations that are their right under Guatemalan law. As was stated by one CAFCA member, “exhumation is an act of justice”. When community members can identify and honor their deceased family members, speak aloud about the crimes committed against them, and pursue reparations from the government, they can begin to heal and reconstruct their community.
Don Jacinto de Paz, a community leader, along with several other Cocop community members, showed us the site where mass graves were located. With the help of CAFCA, the community was able to exhume some of their family members’ remains and then bury them in a new cemetery. The community has also worked very hard to gain the reparations owed to them as indicated in Guatemalan law, but have seen little progress in their struggle. One community member, a widow, became emotional as she spoke about the state’s failure to recognize the village’s suffering as a result of the massacre, the results of which are still felt today.
Several delegation members shared their deep shame that the U.S. government had financially and politically supported the Guatemalan government and military through much of the civil war, especially during the years of the repression in the Ixil area. Mention was also made of the role of the School of Americas in training Rios Montt, among other perpetrators of gross human rights violations during the civil war.
We left Cocop with plans to provide support for them in their struggle for justice. I’m left with many thoughts about the concept of “transitional justice”. I work with survivors of torture, and have learned through that experience about the power of memory and truth-telling in healing and reconciliation. The people of Cocop have taught me yet more about the importance of honoring the past in order to prepare for the future.