Radio presenter John Creedon recently embarked on a tour across Guatemala with Trócaire, ahead of their Lent campaign for 2019.
This year, Trócaire are turning their attention to those left landless in developing countries, such as Guatemala.
John’s one-week trip around the Central American country involved encounters with relatives of those abducted in the night and never seen again and learning about their fight for justice for their loved ones, an intense visit to a local prison, and meeting those who have had to uproot their lives and go on the run.
John found similarities in the story of the Mayans and the Irish, which was a deciding factor to join Trócaire on the trip.
“In some ways, their story reminded me of our own from time to time.
“Like the caravans going from Honduras to El Salvador, Nicaragua and then to Guatemala for the border.
“It’s a lot like the Irish when they fled from Ireland after The Famine and war.
“Modern day ‘coyotes’ are abusing them and taking their money to get them over borders and in Ireland, we had the coffin ships where people just had to get out.”
The Guatemalans are having their land taken from them in order for international companies to come in and take advantage of the rich soil and prime locations for mining.
Yet when the people stand up to these companies and the military, they face prosecution or worse.
“There’s a mining company out there, literally carving holes out of the mountain and they’re dumping the slag into the lake. When local fishermen protested at the gates of the mine, three of them were shot and a young woman ended up in a wheelchair as a result of the protest.”
The official language of Guatemala is Spanish, yet the poor have very little Spanish, mostly using one of the 36 surviving native Mayan languages.
This means the people are left exposed and easily taken advantage of.
“Given that they don’t speak Spanish and for the most part that they’re uneducated to the ways of the world and law, they’re very, very vulnerable,” said John.
He went to visit Abelino Chub Caal, a union organiser and farmers and peasants community organiser, who refused to take a job with a food company that wanted to set up on his land.
“He [Abelino] was offered a job by a food company, including a truck and a foreign holiday and he refused. Within months he was charged with trespassing on the company’s land and has been awaiting trial for almost three years now. They expect that he won’t win his case but in the meantime, he’s out of circulation and not in a position to organise. He was a lovely guy.”
When John went to visit Abelino at the prison, earlier that day there was a murder in one section where gang members are held.
“On the day we arrived there had been a murder. It’s the third most dangerous country after Haiti and Nicaragua. There was a young guy murdered in the gang’s block.”
When asked if he knew how or why, he explained that the details were vague.
“Fighting, I’d say, and they were all pushed into the yard.
“All the soldiers and the guards have very heavy weaponry, everywhere.
“It’s that contrast between soft, innocent, gentle people and then this really heavy jackboot of multinational companies, the military, the police and the narcos.”
While John saw a lot of injustices during his visit, there was cause for hope, particularly when he met with families whose relatives were taken from their homes to work in barracks during the 80s, where the men suffered physical and mental abuse.
Each story was just as heartbreaking but one community from the town of Sepur Zarco took a stance and fought back.
With the help of Trócaire, the community made the 240-kilometre pilgrimage to Guatemala City when the UN Commission invited them to testify in 2016.
John shared their story with The Echo.
“The UN Commission came and invited them to give testimonies about the abuse.
“They spoke about themselves perhaps taking a case and they were told by other people in the village, and in some cases their husbands, that it’d be foolhardy, that they hadn’t a hope, because of the legal system and they don’t speak Spanish. They were told it would only bring shame on the village.
“But with the support of Trócaire’s people on the ground and other peasants groups, they gave not just the women psychological counselling, but also the community in general.
“Assuring them that this is not a social shame for them, and shouldn’t be a social shame for them, and that they too had social rights. They also received free legal aid.”
John continued: “Trócaire paid for some of the hotel rooms in Guatemala City, where all the women came to the trial six years on. They won their case and two generals were sent down.”
The day John met these women, by luck, it happened to be the three-year anniversary since the verdict was given to those two generals.
He explained how the women that testified didn’t receive personal compensation, instead, they made sure that it was the whole community who were looked after.
This resulted in a clinic being built, money put towards education and seeing the women heralded as heroes within the community.
When John spoke with those women who testified, he was curious about what they thought of the individuals who are yet to be prosecuted.
“They kept their heads covered for the entire trial and not for dramatic purposes but because families of the military still live in their community, so they were scared of being identified.
“When they won their case, there was a symbolic ‘taking off’ of the headscarves and two generals got jailed.
“I asked them that at that point, had they had an issue with individual soldiers and individual ‘bastardos’.
“The translation I got back was, ‘we’re not looking for vengeance, we’re searching for justice.’
“Yet, when an amnesty was suggested, it took a harrowing story from a 57-year-old man in Coban to help John see that the fight isn’t over just yet.
“I met four of the families of the disappeared and it’d break your heart.
“I’m talking about a 57-year-old man, sitting opposite to me, crying and telling me that when he was 20, his father was taken.
“The abductors by-passed him, thinking he was a small child because he was so thin at the time.
“They took some of his mates who were 17 and 18 and they told him they were being gang-prepped and that they’d be back in three months.
“They then shot them down the road and buried them there.
“There are over 500 people buried in the barracks and there are only 36 people exhumed so far.
“So what they’re saying is, ‘it’s too early for an amnesty’. How can we possibly leave those people behind?’
“He got his father back and I asked was that some comfort? He said it was but it was only bones and dust.
“He said then that he thinks it’ll take him three more years to get over it.
‘Yet here he is, 36 years later, and I think he might be carrying a degree of false shame for having been spared when his father and friends were taken.”
The help the Irish have provided via donations, whether it was 50 cents or €20, has made a difference.
While we don’t see the full extent of the impact the donations have, one thing John knew for sure is that the people of Guatemala are extremely grateful.
One man gave a message to John that was simple, yet powerful: “Will you please tell the Irish people that we said thank you”
What I Saw Was Genuine — Guatemala’S Future Is Bright
EVERYONE has some level of scepticism towards organised charities and John is no exception to this.
After his visit to Guatemala and seeing first hand the work Trócaire are doing on the ground, he sees a bright future for the people of Guatemala.
“I actually can see change coming more than ever.“I think I have to say, I’m not naive when it comes to charitable organisations and I’d have a healthy dollop of cynicism but what I saw on the ground was very genuine.You can check the stats in terms of governance, Trócaire is bang on.”
Giving an example of the work Trócaire do, John said: “The migrant house heard there was a caravan coming.
“They’d heard there was going to be several thousand people. There were 17,000 people rolled into Guatemala City that night.
“They immediately got on to Trócaire in Guatemala City, who asked them what did they want?
They said a lot of them were asking for transport to the border but Trócaire said they can’t do that, that’s tantamount to trafficking, but what else did they need?
“There were two Trócaire officers in the UN who were able to, within hours, get thousands of temporary beds, medi-packs, crates of water, toothbrushes, all those kind of things.”
John knows that the work Trócaire do is vital.
But at the same time he isn’t blind to the issues that the people of Ireland face.
“Reading the reports over Christmas about youngsters from Guatemala dying at the American border, I didn’t really have to be asked again.
“I’d have to say, I’m not a stranger to poverty.
“I’ve seen it before. There is injustice and there is pain in nearly every second home in Ireland.
“So I’m not waving a collection box under anybody’s nose and I wouldn’t want this to be seen as my own interest.
“I would be a liar if I didn’t say I wasn’t curious.
“I was and I am but what really got me was the parallel with our own story.
“Our own story was the famine ships and the caravans, it just is the same story.”
* The Trócaire campaign runs until Easter Sunday, April 21. Trócaire boxes are available from local parishes, by visiting www.trocaire.org, by phoning 1850 408 408 or from the local Trócaire Centre at 9 Cook Street in Cork. *