Report on the spring, 1985, visit to the Guatemalan Refugee camps in southern Mexico by Peter Schweitzer and Edward Sierra for Plenty.
Our last week in Mexico we spent every night in a different city. We stayed a week in Mexico City, a smog laden, sprawling, teeming metropolis of 17 million with possibly as many cars, half of them VW bugs. An incredible town, but I wouldn’t recommend it for rest or relaxation. We met with groups, many of them consisting of ex-patriot Guatemalans, who are working to support Guatemalan refugees in Mexico as well as in Guatemala. We also met with the Directors of ACNUR, the UN refugee organization in Mexico, and COMAR, the Mexican government’s refugee org.
As a result of these meetings Plenty has been invited to submit proposals for projects we might perform on behalf of the refugees, a first for an American group. The government of Mexico has been reluctant to allow any foreign assistance at all, but they are beginning to realize, I think, that the UN gravy train is gradually going to be diverted to Africa starting in 1986 and they had better consider some alternatives. Still, it was a coup for us to be the first, especially since the general atmosphere between the U.S. and Mexico has been so tense lately.
After Mexico City we flew down to the southern most State of Chiapas where most of the refugees have been until recently when the Mexican government started moving them out and further inside their borders. Here in San Cristobal de las Casas we met with more groups including Save the Children of Mexico, a great bunch of who are connected to Save the Children here. San Cristobal is one of those incredibly picturesque Mexican towns surrounded by mountains, with flat stone streets, and ancient-looking churches, peopled with Indians in traditional dress and Mexicans driving burros. Except, in the past couple of years a tourist invasion has created a population explosion both of people and cars. Now this postcard village is crawling with vacationing European young people and Indians making a spectacle of themselves desperately offering sacks of dolls and belts to the unresponsive gringos. Sad. Also, in San Cristobal, the resident young boys have developed this penchant for exploding hand-made cherry bombs every day and around the clock, I mean, we stayed there three nights and the only night we got any sleep was the night it rained (thank God).
After escaping San Cristobal (we caught a ride with a friend in a Datsun pick-up) we were looking forward to a twelve hour journey through the Chiapas mountains into the Lacandon country of ancient Mayan ruins and crystal pure mountain lakes. However, it wasn’t meant to be. Two hours out of San Cristobal the water pump (“bumpa de agua”) blew. We pulled over to the side of the road ten miles from the next town down a winding dirt and gravel road. It was noon and hot. Edward caught a ride on one of those Mexican public buses into the town to look for a pump – admittedly a long shot. Four hours later he returned in a cab from the town, empty handed. The cab driver offered to drive us back to San Cristobal where he thought we could surely find a pump. But we were now one and a half hours till closing time – 6 P.M. and two hours out. Well, suffice it to say, we pulled into S.C. at a quarter to six (many a sleepy burro ate our dust), and we headed for the biggest parts shop in town. It was a big warehouse with row upon row of shelves piled high with greasy used auto parts of every size and description — but, alas, not one bumpa de agua for a 1977 Datsun pick-up. The Mexican version is completely different. We left our poor friend in S.C. to order his part and follow later and headed back out by cab. We had appointments in Campeche up in the Yucatan on Wednesday and Thursday and it was already Tuesday evening. We spent that night in the town just beyond where the car broke down – Ocosingo, a rough and ready Mexican cowboy town (but at least they weren’t into firecrackers). The cab ride by the way had cost us 10,000 pesos, about $45 American, cheap at the price.
The next day we caught the bus for Palenque, site of spectacular Mayan ruins. We landed there three hours later after an adventurous ride through the Chiapas mountains, lush hills spotted with Indian houses and small milpas where they grow their corn and beans. We pulled into Palenque, unloaded our gear and stepped onto the bus for Campeche. As we pulled out of town we saw a big sign pointing down another road — RUINS. That’s as close as we got.
That night we arrived in Campeche around 11 o’clock, checked into a hotel and asked the whereabouts of a restaurant. We were directed to one 2 and 1/2 blocks away that would be open all night. We walked over and peered in. It was bathed in bright blue fluorescent light and a TV in the corner was blaring. We decided to stroll around a bit and look for something nicer. Across from the main square we spotted a little place that looked cozy so we stepped inside. Only one table was occupied — by the Director of COMAR and his staff! Seeing us the Director got up and came over, shook hands and invited us to go out to the Campeche refugee camps with him the next day, Thursday. They would be going with the Director of ACNUR and our friends from Save the Children. Bingo. Though a day late, all of our appointments could be kept, including an authorized visit to the camps.
Campeche is a beautiful, Gulf-side town that reminds you of a smaller Barcelona. The smell of the sea is strong carried by warm breezes off the Gulf of Mexico. The streets are spotless, with high curbs, lined with white stucco and stone buildings, three stories at the highest, topped by red tile roofs.
To get to the camps you drive for an hour south along the coast, then turn inland for another 30 minutes, back into the scrub pine and limestone. Eventually, you come to a guard house with a lone Mexican marine and flag. We have been preceded by a caravan of UN and COMAR wagons and we are waved in. We are traveling in the Save the Children camper pick-up. Around the bend we spot the first of three “neighborhoods” in this camp. 9,000 Guatemalan refugees are now living in refugee camps in Campeche. Another 5 or 6 thousand are landed in camps in Quintana Roo, the State next door, also in the Yucatan peninsula. The Mexicans plan to move about three times that number more from the jungle camps in Chiapas, but first they must prepare the facilities, and the refugees are resisting the move at every step. They are afraid to be so far from their homes, even though closer to Guatemala they are constantly threatened by the Guatemalan military which has been known to enter the camps across the border, killing refugees indiscriminately, a tactic of intimidation and control. This is one reason Mexico wants to move them further in, and away from the border. They fear an incident with Guatemala that may get out of hand. Guatemala insists that the Chiapas camps are used as safe havens by the guerrillas, but we know that to be a farfetched exaggeration.
The first neighborhood, we later learn, houses about 600 refugees. The houses, made of saplings and roofed with black corrugated steel, are set in rows, very close together, on a limestone knoll. It is hot, dusty and stark. Many children run after the trucks. Obviously, there is little to do here.
We make our way onto the second and largest of the neighborhoods in this camp. About twice as big as the first it is set on flat land. A large area in the middle of the settlement contains some small shelters where some refugees have a few fruits and warm sodas for sale. We will frequent these modest stalls often in the course of our visit.
After we park the vehicles we climb out to an excited reception. Most of the first wave is children, the grown-ups move up to us more cautiously, and the few older folks hang back to observe. But, obviously we are not the first gringo visitors. We are told Paul Harvey had been here a few weeks before. He came back and raved about conditions in the camps on his radio show. We were not so impressed.
The “officials” went over to a raised pavilion in the center of the neighborhood where they would hold the “official meeting” with fifty or so of the refugee men. We would stay behind to talk to the people.
We found ourselves standing in the middle of the road surrounded by about twenty curious refugees of all ages. We exchanged greetings and remarked on the heat. We told them we were from the U.S. and wanted to take their story back to America where there was much ignorance about their situation. In front of us stood a man in his fifties, about five feet two inches tall wearing a baseball cap and a tee shirt. He had a stubble of a beard and most of his teeth were missing. He began to talk openly about the horrors that had driven them from their homes in Guatemala. He spoke of the army burning their villages and slaughtering their people. He motioned toward the children in the circle and the dozens more playing near us in the clearing — “the children, they were killing our children without mercy!” The others nodded and murmured in agreement. I was amazed at his boldness, but he was obviously committed to relating the story for all outsiders who would listen, regardless of the consequences. And he had a willing ear in the rapt gringos before him, as well as the full support of his people. Then he began to talk of Reagan —how Reagan was supporting the army in the slaughter of their people. How everything became so much worse after Reagan came to power in the U.S. I concurred, yes, Reagan didn’t understand, yes, he was dangerous and ignorant, yes, it was important for the American people to understand even if Reagan didn’t, and, yes, we would try to help by telling their story to journalists in America.
I was amazed by their obvious level of political sophistication. One thing that is happening to the refugees in Mexico is that they are becoming much more politically sophisticated. They are talking to international journalists as well as the few political activists among them. I asked what tribes people belonged to and got nods of assent to mention of Quiche, Mam, Kaqchikel, K’anjobal and others. The tribes are mingling in these camps as never before, and they are becoming organized for survival. Too, they are now hearing radio broadcasts from Mexico, Guatemala, the U.S., and even Cuba. Regardless of future events, these once innocent and isolated indigenous people will never be the same again.
They told me they are getting some help from Mexico for which they are grateful, but sometimes food is scarce and there is no water, and there is little to do. There is a clinic, but the medicine doesn’t seem to be strong enough because the sick people are not getting better. The women need mish (thread) for weaving and molinas (hand mills) to grind the corn and shoes for their children. The men need work. They have been clearing fields for planting, but they see the rocky land is dry and they don’t know if it will grow their corn and beans. A carpentry workshop has been promised but after eight months it is still just a promise. Similarly, a weaving project is still but a promise. The women long for mish, and when at the end of our visit the guys from Save the Children pass out a few rolls of the precious stuff, a crowd quickly forms.
It’s apparent that COMAR is trying, and you have to give them credit, especially compared to the U.S., but they are such bureaucrats, full of expertise and paternalism, in spite of their best efforts. Professionalism is substituted for compassion, and consequent mistakes are evident. For instance, when they constructed these first camps in Campeche they simply bulldozed whole sections where houses were to be built, leaving no trees or vegetation to shade the baked limestone plots and hold moisture in the ground. The steel lamina roofing is black and more absorbent to heat. The day we were there the temperature reached 100 degrees and it’s still spring.
Control is such a priority that the camps have come uncomfortably close to resembling the infamous “strategic hamlets” of Guatemala, though, blessedly, absent of the insidious “civil patrols” (in which all males are forced to serve to prove their loyalty — further disrupting Mayan life).
We immediately seized on an idea for a project that seemed a natural to us but which COMAR would never permit, not yet anyway: run a school bus load of folks to the Gulf beaches (1/2 hour away) each afternoon from each camp. Long stretches of beautiful beach outside of Campeche are practically deserted. The refugees themselves have requested a boat, which they could use to fish to supply some of their own food. Request denied. The women need to be able to weave, besides just giving them something valuable to do, they need it for the meditation – to help heal the incredible traumatic disruptions they have experienced over the past few years.
At any rate, we’ve got our foot in the door, and, I think, gradually can begin to have some influence on the way the camps are run. We’ll work closely with Save the Children, a legitimate Mexican organization well respected by COMAR.
We spoke with many other refugees that day, families invited us into their homes, children tugged at our sleeves and told us of ailing relatives with eyes that had seen too much tragedy. What has happened to these gracious, humble Mayan people, no one, not even their oppressors, deserves. Many asked the same question — “How are things in Guatemala? What news have you heard? Is there any peace yet?” Unfortunately, we had little good news to relate. Our contacts in Mexico City had told us what we’d already suspected — the repression in Guatemala is becoming so thorough, so institutionalized, the military feels it can safely install a civilian government. Our best sources estimate that it will take the full terms of several civilian administrations for any progress in human rights to occur, if then.
As an American I couldn’t shake the feeling as I spoke with the refugees and they peered at me so intently, that they hold us at least partly responsible, now that they are beginning to piece together the international ramifications of their plight, now that they realize that the U.S. has been supporting with helicopters and bullets the madmen that have been destroying them with unspeakable atrocities, and they are right. Ronald Reagan may not know any better, but we do.