Setting the Stage for Tragedy The Killings in Todos Santos Cuchumatán by keara


									Robert Sitler Dept. of Modern Languages & Literatures Stetson University DeLand, FL 32720 Death in a Mayan Market
During a weekly open-air market in April of 2000, two innocent men were publicly beaten to death by a crowd of residents in the Mayan town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala.1 There have been dozens of similar so-called “lynchings” in Guatemala recently, but the tragedy in Todos Santos received an exceptional amount of media attention because one of the victims was a tourist from Japan, a nation that has provided critical funding for national development projects. Reactions to the killings included thinly veiled allusions to the Guatemalan elite’s slowly fading image of Native America as a barbaric, almost subhuman, society.2 More thoughtful observers blamed the events on the collective trauma produced by the extraordinarily brutal military aggression against the Mayan population during the bloodiest years of the civil war between 1978 and 1983. Some suggested that the murders were a communal response to disrespectful foreign tourists and their demeaning practice of taking photographs of people without permission as if they were mere objects of curiosity. But no single rationale for these killings seemed convincing. The people of Todos Santos have long been accustomed to the presence of tourists and, in spite of their dreadful experiences with the Guatemalan army, the town has enjoyed a reputation for being one of the most hospitable in the country. The two deaths that Saturday morning seemed so utterly incongruent with the spirit of this community and the vitality of its marketplace that they demanded a more comprehensive explanation. Comments from visitors to Todos Santos often echo those of the American ethnographer Maud Oakes who stayed there in the mid-1940s and was struck by the collective personality of the residents, noting in particular their dignity, pride and friendliness.3 Local mothers nurture their infants with a devotion that has virtually atrophied in our own society. Nearly every person is a skilled artisan, either brocading astonishingly complex patterns into cloth on back strap looms or crocheting exquisitely

2 fine, rainbow-hued carrying bags. Besides laboriously producing most of their own food and creating nearly all of their own beautiful clothing by hand, the people of Todos Santos have developed a richness of character that has endured and matured in this remote highland valley for more than a hundred generations. According to oral tradition, four guardian mountain spirits protect the community from the chilly heights above. These massive mountain deities overlook a diverse landscape that includes alpine meadows, cloud forests and banana groves. The vast majority of the some 25,000 people in the municipality speak a language known as Mam. The word “mam” is associated throughout the Mayan world with the revered “grandfathers,” the elders and ancestral spirit beings that guard their ancient cultural heritage. Some researchers consider the Mam to be one of the most senior of the more than two dozen distinct Mayan ethnic groups, noting that the language was the first to branch off from a proto-Maya source early in the history of Mayan linguistic development.4 Mam roots run deep in the Cuchumatan, an uplifted region that forms the highest mountain range in Central America and that, until recently, kept Todos Santos in relative isolation. Having visited regularly with Maya from over a dozen ethnic groups over the past 25 years, I have recently focused my interests on the study of the Mam language in this community. As a student of Maya-related literature, I have felt it essential to develop an experiential relationship to the Mayan world. Many Todosanteros (a Spanish word used to describe the local residents) have welcomed me into their lives. These strong personal relationships have informed this article. Descriptions of the April 29 incident that were given to me by witnesses have been fairly consistent. A bus with 23 Japanese tourists had come to town, as others had previously, in order for the visitors to enjoy the colorful and bustling Saturday market. After recovering from the rugged bus trip in a local guesthouse, some in the group decided to stroll down towards the middle of town to savor its unique atmosphere. One young Japanese woman and an older companion went seeking to purchase a pair of the brightly colored striped trousers that are worn by men in Todos Santos. While admiring the astonishing variety of fresh produce grown by local farmers and other goods, the couple paused near a 22-year-old mother who was buying some clothing. She had her infant slung

3 over her back, tucked safely into a shawl in the fashion typical of Mayan mothers, while holding her toddler’s hand. When the baby began to cry, the Japanese man sympathetically reached out to calm the child with his hand. The young mother suddenly shouted in alarm to those around her, thinking that her baby was about to be harmed or kidnapped. As the couple wandered away, a small group of anxious people followed from behind while wild rumors rapidly spread about what had just happened. Some said that babies had been taken aboard the tour bus by the Japanese. On a market side street, one angry man leapt at the couple and others quickly joined the fray. When a young companion of the tourists named Saison Tetsuo Yamahiro attempted to intervene, some in the crowd began to beat him with whatever was at hand, eventually leaving him as a bloody corpse on a street corner. Some reports say that a sickly grandmother dealt the final blow using her hardwood weaving batten. Edgar Castellanos, the Guatemalan driver who had driven the group to Todos Santos, arrived on the scene in hopes of protecting several other Japanese who at this point were attempting to barricade themselves from the crowd inside their bus. When he saw how hopeless the situation had become, he briefly ducked in the tiny police station on the town square. Apparently feeling unsafe there, he decided to run elsewhere for protection, attempting in vain to enter a corner store. Some in the mob ran after the driver, assuming he was somehow involved, and he quickly succumbed to their stones and clubs. He then suffered the further indignity of having his body doused in gasoline and set on fire. Meanwhile, members of the recently deployed National Civil Police managed to escort some of the tourists into protective custody within the municipal building by telling the crowd that they were “arresting” the Japanese. Eventually, the recently elected mayor of Todos Santos, a former schoolteacher named Julián Mendoza, arrived on the scene with a bullhorn and demanded that anyone in the crowd whose child had been harmed step forward. When it became obvious that all the local children were fine, he sent everyone home with the terrible realization that a fatal mistake had taken place and that the lives of two completely innocent human beings had been cut short. How could such a dreadful error have taken place? The most immediate cause was a widely circulated rumor, mentioned by every one of the dozens of residents I spoke with, concerning plans for a satanic gathering that had many in fear for the safety of their

4 children. According to this rumor, a meeting of demonic cult members that would include the kidnapping and sacrifice of local youngsters was scheduled for the final days of April. This outrageous story may have been spawned by the particularly gruesome rape and murder of a female student in the departmental5 capital of Huehuetenango exactly one year previously. Her death was said to have been part of a satanic rite carried out by young gang members. The collective fear surrounding the anniversary of this horrific death grew as stories spread saying that other schoolgirls had been threatened along with several school principals and teachers. Concern over potential cult killings became so widespread that Governor Julio López took to the radio in order to assure the citizens of Huehuetenango that there was absolutely no basis for fear of satanic activities. He even ordered that special precautions be taken to monitor local gang activities. Later, public service announcements on the radio and in the newspaper repeated the call to ignore the rumors. Unfortunately, in a region where the population has been severely traumatized by political violence and where Spanish is not the main language, the poorly understood official announcements probably served to lend credibility to the rumors. After all, if there weren’t some truth to these stories, why would people be talking about them on the radio? News of devil worship must have been especially believable for those immersed in the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric of some Christian fundamentalist groups. Evangelical churches have grown rapidly in Todos Santos as elsewhere in the Mayan world, challenging both the historical Catholic religious dominance and what remains of the ancient native spiritual practices. Protestants now probably make up nearly one half of the people in Todos Santos. As the apprehension grew, many parents started keeping their children home from classes. School officials may have inadvertently added to the growing tension by going forward with a previously scheduled suspension of classes for teacher meetings on the Thursday and Friday immediately preceding the time when the cult meeting was supposedly going to begin. Principals dutifully informed their teachers about the reasons for canceling classes and the teachers, in turn, told their young pupils. Soon the school closings became entwined with the wild rumors and before long, frightened children in Todos Santos were coming home in tears telling their parents confused stories about the

5 three days when the satanic kidnappings were to occur. As the weekend of the rumored gathering arrived, intense fear gripped the lives of many throughout Huehuetenango. In some areas of the region, men even put barriers up in the roads to keep out the cultists. One might question the sanity of people who took such seemingly outlandish rumors seriously. However, the idea of a group of outsiders coming to town to kidnap and kill local residents is perceived as a real possibility in Todos Santos since such activities have already happened on more than one occasion there. Like many Mayan communities in Guatemala, Todos Santos suffered horribly in the early 1980’s during the worst of a savage war between government forces and Leftist insurgents. Aspirations for a more just society had been snuffed out in Guatemala many years earlier by an American-sponsored military coup in 1954 that unseated the reformist civilian government of President Jacobo Arbenz. Thus began a long series of repressive, U.S.-backed military dictatorships that eventually produced a response in the form of an armed guerrilla rebellion. By the late 70s, this revolt had spread to the largely indigenous northwest highlands and by 1982 a small guerrilla contingent was operating from the more remote areas in the Todos Santos valley and selectively assassinating its enemies. One day, the guerrillas entered the town center and held a public meeting in an attempt to gain support for their cause. Upon leaving, they took down the national flag and raised a red banner with the image of the Argentine revolutionary “Che” Guevara, threatening to shoot anyone who dared take it down. Shortly thereafter, the Guatemalan army swept through Todos Santos with the intention of eliminating the supposed “Red” threat there, leaving a wake of tortured and raped victims among the ruins of dozens of burned homes. Although the exact number of those killed by the army in Todos Santos may never be known, the few residents willing to talk about the deaths put the figure at around two hundred. For more than a decade afterwards, adult males were forced to participate in the infamous Civil Patrols organized by General Efraín Ríos Montt shortly after taking the Guatemalan presidency in his 1982 military coup.6 Members of the Civil Patrol were not only supposed to guard against the guerrilla threat, but they were responsible for reporting any leftist sympathizers among their Mayan neighbors to the military. In order to serve in this militia, men had to leave behind essential work in their cornfields and elsewhere or else

6 run the deadly risk of being considered a Leftist. Making matters worse, the army regularly came to town and forcibly rounded up young men to be taken off for deployment into its anti-Communist “scorched earth” military campaign after being indoctrinated into seeing traditional Mayan ways as obstacles to “progress.” The collective trauma experienced by Todos Santos during this period is still deeply felt. As suggested previously, the possibility of outsiders coming to town to harm local inhabitants is far more than a remote risk. Virtually every adult has already seen it happen repeatedly with his or her own eyes. While brutalizing the community, the military had, through its own example, also taught the population that the way to get rid of undesirables was through violence. The well-founded fears created by the Guatemalan army’s abuse of local residents built upon a centuries-long history in Todos Santos of disastrous interactions with the outside world. In the 1400s, the K’iche’ Maya conquered this vital highland trade route and the local Mam were forced to pay tribute to the their new lords. Later, when the Spanish invasion force defeated the Mam army near Huehuetenango in 1525, Todos Santos was given as an award to a conquistador named Marcos Ruiz and his descendants. Besides forcing the local Indians to pay tribute, give up much of their land, and submit to abusive Catholic clergymen, the new arrivals brought with them a host of deadly diseases that decimated the Mayan population. Smallpox, typhus, and other sicknesses killed more than 80% of the people in the first century of the Spanish incursion into the region. The epidemics were so severe that population levels did not return to pre-contact levels for more than four centuries. The horrors visited on Todos Santos in 1982 by the Guatemalan army only served to reinforce a well-established historical pattern of death and suffering at the hands of intruders. In such a context, satanic kidnapping and the murder of children might not have seemed at all far-fetched. After all, both living residents and their revered ancestors had already experienced far worse. Concern for the well being of children is extraordinarily strong in Todos Santos as it is throughout the Mayan world. A historically high infant mortality rate has led Mayan women to be particularly cautious in taking care of their infants. More significantly, midwife supervised births assure a bonding between mother and child that is more powerful than most modern Westerners can even imagine after decades of our hospital

7 birthing practices. The strong psychological bonds established between the Mayan mother and child are complemented by an extended nursing period in which the infant spends virtually its entire first year immediately next to the mother’s body. There are no cribs, strollers, or day care centers. Mothers nurture their babies with a patient dedication rarely seen in industrialized societies. Unfortunately, these powerful bonds probably were a key factor on the day of the lynching and led to one woman’s misguided overreaction to the outstretched arm of a friendly Japanese tourist. All witnesses that I spoke with said that the frightened cries of the mother that triggered the market killings were a response to a perceived threat to her baby. The impossibility of verbal communication between this man and the protective Mam-speaking mother prevented what could have been a life-saving explanation. The lynchings in Todos Santos can also be linked to concerns among many Maya that there are people from other places interested in taking their children. Some even believe that Mayan babies have been stolen for the sale of their vital organs. As early as 1907 there were rumors about foreign missionaries making Mayan babies into soap. While such beliefs strike us as absurd, there is in fact a thriving business in acquiring Mayan babies, not for slaughter, but for the adoption market. Both Mayan and non-Mayan families in Guatemala, finding themselves quite literally on the brink of survival, have occasionally felt desperate enough to give up one of their children, knowing that it will have a better chance of staying alive elsewhere. Adoption agencies arrange for about 1000 adoptions to the United States per year and generally charge between $10,000 - 15,000 to couples seeking one of these babies. This transfer of Mayan children into the custody of foreigners in the context of a violently charged and suspicious atmosphere has already led to mob attacks. Most notorious was the 1994 assault in which Mayan villagers beat an Alaskan woman into a coma when they mistakenly believed she had stolen a child. Such concerns over kidnapping by foreigners may have been fueled by conservative politicians hoping to reduce the presence of international observers of the peace process who were perceived as meddling opponents of the military. While there has never been evidence of tourists kidnapping children, the myth has yet to be totally put to rest in the Guatemalan countryside. The situation has been aggravated by rapidly escalating crime and numerous

8 well-publicized kidnappings that have created an increased feeling of insecurity, even in relatively remote areas such as Todos Santos. A recent crime wave has left many Guatemalans feeling that the judicial system is hopelessly inadequate and many have felt obliged to act in their own defense. On dozens of occasions, angry mobs, apparently feeling unprotected by the legal process, have killed individuals accused of rape, murder, robbery and other serious crimes. Many Guatemalans had hoped that the establishment of the National Civil Police in 1998 would help to calm public concerns, but this does not yet appear to have happened. The near lynching of an off-duty policeman in Todos Santos on August 1, just 3 months after the market killings, is a good example. Apparently, the 21-year-old constable accidentally ran over and fatally wounded a 3-year-old boy. Shortly afterwards, a crowd gathered outside of the municipal building demanding that the accused man be handed over to them. Clearly, many in Todos Santos did not believe that the police would bring one of its own to justice. Thankfully, Mayor Mendoza was able to intervene and prevent the man’s death. But this recent incident lays bare the underlying currents of fear and resentment that are still flowing through this verdant valley. In Todos Santos, the presence of armed, uniformed policemen who do not speak Mam may even have aggravated anxieties as the officers are all too reminiscent of army soldiers. There was one earlier incident in Todos Santos in 1999 that adds still another dimension to the case. In the months preceding the municipal elections that year, concern over social disintegration and petty crime in Todos Santos figured prominently in public awareness. Some believed these disturbing trends were the result of increasing materialistic Western influences. This perceived threat to traditional Mayan values has grown with the return of thousands going abroad for employment opportunities and has been exacerbated with the arrival of commercial music, foreign videos and television programming from across the border in Mexico. A few adolescent males were beginning to acquire a reputation as troublemakers, wearing their hair long and donning t-shirts with images such as that of American “shock-rocker” Marilyn Manson under their traditional hand-woven shirts. These were the “privileged” and rebellious sons of some of the first men in Todos Santos who were wealthy enough not to be full-time farmers. The former mayor took

9 advantage of this situation in order to stifle the campaigns of these potential political opponents. At a public meeting he charged that these adolescents, the sons of prospective mayoral candidates, had formed a dangerous gang and were robbing people, and he openly urged citizens to take matters into their own hands. Some apparently took the mayor quite literally. When one longhaired youth arrived at the meeting and challenged the mayor concerning the allegations, some in the crowd grabbed him by the hair, began to beat him, and they were apparently prepared to kill him. One person even went to fetch gasoline to burn his body. Fortunately, the young man broke free and found shelter in the local weaving cooperative until an armed contingent arrived and led him to safety, avoiding what would have been the first lynching in Todos Santos. Although the April market killings cannot be directly linked to this earlier incident, it may be that unscrupulous political behavior in the recent elections established tacit official approval for vigilante justice. Cultural patterns in Todos Santos may have also been a crucial factor in the market killings. For example, the first published comments made by the new mayor on the murders referred to the tinted windows and black curtains of the tour bus as well as to the dark clothing worn by the Japanese tourists. While many, including some in Todos Santos, scoffed at this observation, I think it would be an error to completely disregard Mayor Mendoza’s perspective. The symbolic importance of colors in Todos Santos is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Nearly every person in the region wears brightly hued homemade clothing with red as its dominant color. The men all wear the same bright red pants. Their shirts include red stripes and brilliant red brocade collars. Women wear expertly woven blouses with predominantly red hues and they wrap their children in shawls with red stripes. Both men and women wear hats that include a red leather band and community elders often wrap a red scarf around their heads to stay warm. Red signifies strength, heat (important in these chilly mountains), the rising sun, and the vitality of blood. Walking through the Saturday market, one feels immersed in a sea of reddish fabric. In the context of intense fears concerning satanic activities and a population with a heightened appreciation of color, the symbolic value of a black and gray bus with tinted windows should not be ignored. The presence of this bus and its darkly dressed passengers in the

10 middle of the market was undoubtedly a source of anxiety. I was also told that one of the Japanese was wearing a surgical mask, surely a frightening sight for those who had never seen one. Making matters worse, eyewitnesses also mentioned that one of the Japanese that approached the child was wearing an unusual Andean hat that came down over the ears to cover much of her face. While in a less tense setting such garb may only have produced curiosity in the Mayan mother, on a morning in which many were expecting evil kidnappers, the Japanese woman’s partially concealment was probably at least a contributing factor in producing her fearful cry. A collective sensitivity to color is only one component in a well-developed awareness of shared experience among the residents of Todos Santos. Almost every person can trace a family relationship, however distant, to everyone else in the community and virtually all have a similar farming lifestyle. Collective awareness is cultivated and reinforced in Mayan culture through the use of common clothing, gossip, communal work projects and public worship. These activities build upon the invisible mother-child bonds established at birth, which are the underlying basis for an interpersonal consciousness that is almost unimaginable in the modern Western context. While this strong tradition of collective identity and shared awareness has proven to be a successful survival strategy, in the case of the market killings, it may have been a factor in allowing a small incident to erupt rapidly into mob violence. In a different cultural setting, the misunderstanding between the Japanese and the young mother might have never amounted to more than an ugly scuffle. In a psychological atmosphere in which people have a relatively high sense of empathy with one another, the circumstances quickly led to a collective lethal response. Within days of the market killings police charged nineteen people, including four women, with the murders. Nine individuals were taken into custody within the first few days but others evaded capture by leaving town when they heard about the pending arrests through the local press. Two additional men were arrested later. Unfortunately, many in Todos Santos say that some of those detained were arrested by mistake due to confusion over commonly held names. A trial ended in the summer of 2001 with the acquittal of all of those accused of murder. I was told that two individuals remained in custody for some time after on charges stemming from the incident relating to resisting the Civil Police. Currently

11 there is no one in prison but some families have been left with insurmountable debts from their legal expenses. One week after the market killings, another crowd of tearful Todosanteros collected the blood-stained dirt from where the two victims had fallen, placed the earth in a box, and walked to the local cemetery in a solemn procession where the container joined the remains of their own dearly departed. They took up a collection of over $100 for the family of the bus driver and left memorials on the two spots where the men had died. On a recent visit to Todos Santos, I went to the corner where the Japanese tourist had died. Sprouting from the pavement was a hand painted white cross, surrounded by fresh flowers that local mourners had left in his memory. I felt awestruck by the complexity of circumstances that had turned one man’s innocent gesture of kindness into a public bloodbath. The murdered visitors to Todos Santos could never have imagined the intricate web of history, culture, and local politics that lie stretched across this beautiful valley awaiting their arrival. Although a few of the threads in this web are visible, numerous others remain hidden in the hearts of those now toiling in their cornfields and kneeling in front of their looms. Perhaps only the local guardian spirits, looking down silently from their towering mountain homes above Todos Santos have sufficient perspective to see and fully comprehend the deaths at the hands of their children that Saturday morning.


For background information on this community, sources include the two volumes written in the mid-1940s by Maud Oakes, Beyond the Windy Place (New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1951) and The Two Crosses of Todos Santos (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1951). There also is now an outstanding translation into Spanish of this second work entitled Las dos cruces de Todos Santos, trans. Fernando Peñalosa (Rancho Palos Verdes, CA: Yax Te’, 2001). For an excellent overview of regional history, see W. George Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatán Highlands, 1500-1821 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1992). 2 Numerous editorials and articles concerning the incident can be found in both the Prensa Libre and Siglo XXI newspapers published in Guatemala City between the dates of April 30 and May 8, 2000. 3 Maud Oakes, The Two Crosses of Todos Santos (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1951) 32. 4 Evon Z. Vogt, “The Maya: Introduction,” Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 7 (Austin: U of Texas P, 1969) 24-26. 5 A department in Guatemala is the equivalent of a state in the United States. 6 Ironically, Ríos Montt is a fairly popular figure in Todos Santos in contrast to his image elsewhere as a genocidal murderer. This is because the general, by odd coincidence, took control of the Guatemalan government on the very same night that Todosanteros had been locked into the Catholic church in the middle of town by the military and individuals were being singled out for torture and execution. When the coup took place, these soldiers were called

back immediately to the barracks in the departmental capital of Huehuetenango to await orders, thus “saving” those people that had been trapped in the church. (Unfortunately, several had already been killed).

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