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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Shots in the Night - Life in Todos Santos
 
My home in the village of Todos Santos
caption

The cold mountain rain softly plays marimba music on the tin roof of your adobe hut, a familiar song to your probing ears. A distant shot in the night goes unmuffled by the incessant rain and brings your lukewarm sleep to a boil. It is too far off to be a danger, but you roll over and check the door anyway and your heart beating like a machine gun. Even the dogs are quiet tonight, it makes you uneasy. Another sound reaches your ears through the patter of rain and your heart jumps again. The dog's growl confirms your suspicion and you bolt upright still hoping you don't hear footsteps outside your door. Who could it be at this time of night?

The dog's growl explodes into barking as the door bursts in and you jump as if to run. It is too late, as the flashlight in your face and the muzzle of a gun pressed against your head clearly explain. You cannot feel the fist or whatever is that has smashed into your face, because fear has numbed you. You open your mouth as if to ask why, or perhaps to cry out your innocence. It is a perfect opportunity for a gag to silence you. The rain is cold on your face as you are dragged from your home and shoved into the back of a car. It is frigid but at least you can feel something and you know you are alive. Alive for the moment, but your hope disappears into the blackness of the masks whose eyes sneer at you, and you disappear quietly into the mountain fog.

For the people of Todos Santos and the surrounding villages this nightmare was reality in the 1980's. Men, women, and children were routinely taken from their homes and never seen again. During this decade over two thousand people were killed in the civil war fought in this remote corner of Guatemala. Some casualties were Guerrillas killed for lashing out against the government, others were government supporters struck down in retaliation. However, many of the disappeared were innocent victims of a war that got out of hand, and although a peace treaty officially ended it in 1996, it will never be over for the many widows and orphans who survived. Life is always hard up high in the mountains, but enjoying even the simple life here was impossible during wartime. In order to stop supplies from going to the resistance, the government closed the only road leading to Todos Santos for nearly five years from 1982, making it hard for people to get basic necessities most of the town burnt to the ground, including the school. Even the schools were closed over a year because the teachers, suspected of being guerillas, were forced to flee, many hiding in neighboring cities. When the government allowed the teachers to return, they found the school, like most of the town, burnt to the ground.

The atrocities ripping Todos Santos apart for more than ten years were committed by both sides. They divided the community, pitting neighbors and families against each other, everyone living under a cloud of terror and mistrust. One incident that the people here still whisper about occurred when government troops known as the ejercito stormed into town and arrested three men and two women suspected of "cooperating" with the guerillas. They were marched into the mountains, the three men were dressed in guerilla uniforms and shot, but the women were allowed to return to town. The guerillas, suspecting the women were now spies for the ejercito, arrested and mutilated them, chopping off their limbs and heads. Their bodies were thrown into the street and a decry was issued stating that anyone removing their bodies from the street would meet the same fate.

This war was terrible for everyone involved, and yet it ironically had some positive effects for people here. Many of the men forced to flee to Mexico and the US found work and skilled-labor training which would not have been possible in their rustic mountain villages. Their jobs paid better than working the corn fields and money was sent back to their families, increasing the standard of living and providing things that had never before existed like a library and running water. With their acquired skills and worldly knowledge, they were able to teach neighbors many new things like being able to pump water to farms far from the streams, making life easier and families wealthier. Along with this knowledge, their awareness of the need to educate themselves has increased and now many more children go to school and stay there longer.

Shawn

 
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