Guatemala is not a country we hear of very often. With a brutal civil war ending in 1996, the terrible situations concerning human rights its citizens face are commonplace, yet sadly ignored by the international media. Last week Sam Pearse, human rights activist and active member of the Guatemalan Solidarity Movement spoke at Southampton University to a number of Amnesty members and other students about the injustices still faced by Guatemalan people today.
From 1960 – 1996 Guatemala was ripped apart in a brutal civil war between the military – backed by the US until 1978 – and by leftist rebels, mostly from the indigenous Mayan population. Over thirty- six years an effective genocide was brought against the Mayan people. Now, over a decade later, the effects of this war are still obvious. Poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality are common, leaving many vulnerable and powerless to take action against those who still have not been brought to justice.
Sam and his colleagues work with those seeking justice for past events, many whom have been fighting for over a decade.
Simplified, the problems in Guatemala are two-fold: firstly that of injustice from within, in the form of large criminal gangs, an astounding 97% rate of impunity, and the commonplace occurrences of people taking the law into their own hands. Secondly, they face exploitation from multinational corporations keen to use their natural resources and cheap work force.
A Guatemalan investigation ruled that the army was responsible for 93% of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances over the course of the war. However, some were only prosecuted after a long delay and there still remain many unanswered questions. With members of the criminal world in possession of damning evidence against many in power, holding influence over them. Given Guatemala forms part of the ‘drug corridor’ from South America to the United States, there is a major problem with organised crime, which affects both its politics and its citizen’s daily lives.
With these unanswered questions remain the family members of those who were murdered, or simply ‘disappeared’. The process to bring others to justice is slow and, in many cases, seems hopeless. With a murky, corrupt and ineffective legal system, it is unlikely many truths will see the light of day. With no reliable form of justice, society has deteriorated as many choose to take the law into their own hands. There have been several reported cases of lynching as a form of criminal deterrent to future law breakers.
The second set of Guatemala’s problems is not from the people within their own country, but from developed countries like ours. Global corporations exploiting their labour force in underdeveloped countries seems like a cliché, but in Guatemala it’s a tragic reality. In a documentary filmed and produced by one of Sam’s colleagues, we learnt about the actions of the subsidiary of a Canadian company, Goldcorp, which manufactures gold in the area of San Miguel. Invested in by thousands of unknowing Westerns in the developed world, Goldcorp has been accused of a number of violations in San Miguel. Diverting vital water supplies from the village to the factory, polluting the remaining water and damaging over a hundred homes through their use of explosives, they regard the Guatemalan people who work for them as little more than a disposable work force, with no regard to their lives or their health. Documented by a doctor in the region, we saw how use of chemicals such as cyanide have sparked numerous skin complains, some liver disorders, and a rise in still
Before I heard Sam speak I knew very little about Guatemala, and almost nothing about the state of its nation. Perhaps now is the right time for the world to pay attention to the human right violations there, both in bringing the past ones to justice and preventing the current ones from continuing.
All are welcome to attend future Amnesty International events. Find us on Facebook at susuamnestyi, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or come along on Wednesdays from 1-2 in the Society and Committees room above The Stag’s for our weekly meeting. If you want a part in making this world a better place, than what better place to start?