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68. The slaughter in Santiago

On a recent visit to Santiago Atitlán, I strapped my baby boy to my back and we walked along the main road leading out of town in the direction of Panabaj.  Along the way, I pulled a few cherries from the coffee trees that rolled down to the road from the foothills of the Atitlan Volcano on the left the road and further down to the lakeshore below on the right.  There, in the middle of the coffee fields, was Peace Park.  It may be short on architectural charm, but it is a powerful testament to the courage of the people of this coffee growing community, and to the 14 men, women and children who lost their lives there in December 1990.

Plaques identifying the victims mark the very spots where they were gunned down by the Guatemalan Army.  They had gathered there with other members of the community in front of a military base and demanded to speak with the commander after the Army dragged in a member of their community.  They were in the 10th year of occupation by the Army, which had set up a base of counter-insurgency operations there to hunt down members of Guatemala’s diverse revolutionary movements.  The patience of people in Santiago for indiscriminate violence, torture, disappearance and more routine abuses had worn thin.  The Army gunned them down, anyway.

Locals say, however, that this act of defiance — and the grisly sacrifice that followed — marked the beginning of the end of the occupation.  From that day on, as the story goes, old barefoot women, wearing the traditional purple textiles of Santiago and their white hair braided down their backs, lined the road between the base and the town, spitting and cursing in Tzutujil at the soldiers as they rolled by in their trucks.  It was better to die in defiance than to live as something less than human.  Months later, the military withdrew for good.

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