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Una Decada de Refugio en Mexico: Los Refugiados Guatemaltecos y Los Derechos Humanos.

Graciela Freyermouth Enciso and Rosalva Aida Hernandez Castillo (Tlalpan, D.F.: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social, 1992) 409pp.

On 2 January 1994, a third large group of Guatemalan refugees -- 201 families -- returned to a private farm in northwestern Guatemala, near the Mexican border, to begin new lives after 12 years of exile; they christened their new home Nueva Esperanza. Almost 1,000 Jakal, Chuj and Mam Indians of Mayan lineage traveled to Chacula to start a new life on a former private latifundio which they purchased with national and international loans through the Guatemalan National Foundation for Peace (FONAPAZ). Both these groups are among the more than 40,000 Mayas who have lived in refugee camps along the southern border of Mexico since 1982. In January 1993 these refugees began returning to Guatemala. At the time, some 2,480 resettled in their homeland, followed by a second group of about 2,000 at the end of the year. They are returning with new ideas, experiences, children and, to some extent, identities. Una Decada de Refugio En Mexico: Los Refugiados Guatemaltecos y Los Derechos Humanos, first published in 1991 by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social, offers an excellent introduction to the issues surrounding the forced mass exodus of Guatemalans into Mexico. The book discusses the roles played by the Mexican government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the refugees themselves in their struggle for dignity and human rights. While this compilation of essays addresses only the period up to the start of the negotiations that led to repatriation, it is an excellent introduction to the experience of the refugees in exile.

The collection examines the myriad issues affecting the lives of the Guatemalan refugees through the lens of human rights. Practitioners directly involved with the exiles' experience wrote the articles and provide primary source material that would take outsiders months of difficult field work to obtain. Each of the book's four sections explores a different aspect of refugee rights: the right to return, the right to refuge, the right to culture and the right to education and health.


In 1982, the Guatemalan military intensified its campaign against indigenous Mayan peasants, who comprise approximately 70 percent of the country's population. The military justified this war against peaceful civilians as a counterinsurgency tactic, necessary to combat the guerillas of the United Revolutionary Front of Guatemala (URNG) -- incorrectly assuming that they were supported by the local population. In the words of a Guatemalan colonel, "Revolutionaries are to the people like fish are to water. Take away the water, and the fish die."

During the eight-year campaign, the Guatemalan army razed more than 500 Mayan villages, uprooted entire communities, divided families and confiscated lands that communities and individuals had held for centuries. An estimated 70,000 Mayan civilians were "disappeared" and murdered. Another 150,000 escaped into Mexico and became refugees, dispersed among the local population or concentrated in camps in southern Mexico and the Yucatan. Many of those who remained in Guatemala were herded into strategic hamlets, termed "model villages," where they came under the military's control. Whatever remained of the integrated and autonomous pre-Columbian Mayan world was now fractured, with almost all indigenous Guatemalans physically and psychologically separated.

Guatemala has one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere, primarily because of its treatment of Native Americans. The world scarcely noticed the massacres, torture and inhumane treatment visited on the descendants of the ancient Maya, the creators of the highest pre-Conquest civilization in the Americas. The ancestors of those killed or forced to flee built Tikal, Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza. They were great astronomers, artists and writers of books; they calculated with zero, and designed the most accurate calendar known prior to the twentieth century.

Una Decada de Refugio chronicles the experience of these Mayan descendents in exile. The section on the right of return, the compilation's shortest, traces the causes of this exile and the negotiation of an agreement permitting them to return to their homeland. This seven-point agreement, finalized on 8 October 1992 between the Guatemalan government and the refugee-organized Permanent Commissions (CCPPs), guaranteed: voluntary, secure and organized return, with international accompaniment; the right to organize; freedom of movement within Guatemala; the right to personal and community security; access to land; and the creation of an agency to verify that the terms of the accord are honored.

Despite the hope repatriation has inspired among the Mayans, they view their return with some trepidation. It is unclear whether human rights abuses have truly ended, and the institutions that forced the Mayas to abandon their homeland are still in place. Their odyssey reflects the increasing importance of human rights issues in politics, as refugees themselves begin to address abuses under the framework of international law. Graciela Freyermuth Enciso and Rosalva Aida Hernandez Castillo offer the reader an introduction to the legal and political issues surrounding the presence of the Guatemalans in Mexico.


Until July 1990, Mexican law did not recognize refugee status, and the granting of political asylum -- intended specifically to protect individuals from persecution for their political beliefs -- was insufficient to deal with the thousands of Guatemalans fleeing their country in the early 1980s. In addition, Mexico has never ratified the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The section on the right to refuge describes the major agencies involved in handling the influx of refugees. Jorge Santiestevan, the UNCHR regional representative for Mexico, Belize and Cuba, succinctly discusses UNHCR's official role. Of special relevance to the formulation of international refugee policy is the challenge the United Nations has faced in constructing a working relationship with the Mexican Commission on Assistance to Refugees (COMAR) and convincing Mexico that the U.N. mandate to protect refugees stresses collaboration with host governments. Mexico, a highly independent country, has always been wary of international intervention; while refugees began to cross the border into Mexico in 1981, it was not until 1983 that Mexico invited the United Nations to assist COMAR. However, it is widely believed in refugee circles that pressure from the United Nations led Mexico to establish COMAR in the first place. Santiestevan, not wanting to alienate the government, mentions only in passing that UNHCR is ultimately on the side of the refugees and their representative organizations.

Esteban Garaiz and Oscar Gonzalez summarize COMAR's relocation of more than 20,000 refugees to the states of Quintana Roo and Campeche, after the Guatemalan military crossed the Mexican border to attack Mayan refugee camps in 1984. About 23,000 refugees stayed in camps along the Chiapan-Guatemalan border. Another 100,000 refugees are estimated to be scattered throughout the border region, with the largest concentration in the area of Motozintla. While UNHCR has stated that it will protect all refugees, officially recognized or not, many Guatemalans have avoided camps due to fear of deportation by Mexican authorities. Recently a new organization, the Association of Non-Recognized Refugees (ARDIGUA), emerged to negotiate for these exiles, whose greatest support has come from the Catholic Church. While some progress is being made, UNHCR officially cannot assist any person not listed as seeking refugee status; ARDIGUA will not provide such lists, fearing that Mexico will try to deport those on the list. Luis Salvado of the Costa Rican Human Rights Commission explores the communal survival strategies of these unofficial refugees.

Antonio Mosquera Aguilar's concise history of asylum law in Mexico is informative and helpful in tying these various issues together. He emphasizes that Mexico was not prepared for and did not desire mass population movement into its national territory. Mosquera, a professor of social science at the University of Chiapas, details Mexico's pride in its record of granting political asylum to intellectuals, and its difficulty in doing the same for the impoverished.

Alfonso Baur Paiz, legal advisor to the refugees, summarizes their rights under Mexican, Guatemalan and international law. He focuses on 1984 Declaration of Cartagena, the 1989 International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) and finally, the seven-point repatriation agreement. A distinguishing feature of the Guatemalan exile experience is that the refugees organized themselves under the auspices of the Permanent Commissions (CCPPs). Representing each refugee camp in a congressional structure, the CCPPs have participated as the refugees' representatives in negotiations with UNHCR, Mexico and Guatemala. This is the first time refugees have taken such an active political role in shaping their future, both in exile and upon return.

Finally, Juan Manuel Sandoval Palacios, James Smith, Allan Bums and others describe the experiences of Guatemalan and other Central American refugees en route to and in the United States, bringing into context the regional implications of the crises and the inconsistencies of refugee policy in the Americas.

Before the mass exile in 1980, it was common for Guatemalans to cross the border seasonally to work in the coffee fields of southern Mexico. Now, roughly 119 population groups live along the Chiapas-Guatemalan border, where 22,800 refugees shared space with 48,303 Mexicans in the border municipalities. While the refugees do their best not to burden the Mexican people, it is uncertain to what extent their presence has exacerbated the already abysmal situation of Mexicans in Chiapas. Historically, southern Mexico faces the same structural poverty that exists in Central America.


Guatemalan specialist Richard Adams has noted that the Indians' sense of identity is strong in Guatemala, and has been enhanced by the fierceness of their suffering.(1) It remains strong within the community of exiles. Even younger Mayas who had grown up speaking mainly Spanish and were influenced by Mexican culture perceived themselves as Indian. While this was partly because they lived in camps with limited access to Mexico, it also had to do with the fact that Chiapas' peasant class is itself Mayan. The most striking event in the refugee camps is the evolution of a pan-Mayan identity. Thrown together into camps, the Mayans divided culturally and linguistically (there are at least 23 different groups and languages) have begun to intermarry and communicate.

The Mayans have been astute in handling the international community and using the concepts of human rights. As one representative stated, the refugees were unaware of the ideals of international human rights until they arrived in Mexico. There is no question that a new awareness of human rights ideals has influenced the manner in which the CCPPs proceed. Yet, the Mayas always believed that they possessed certain basic rights that were denied them. How can one not believe that the massacre of one's village is unjust and against God? Those in exile now understand that before they simply had no political power to defend themselves, and that the standards and language of international human rights are tools for their survival as a people. Jose Luis Escalona and Norma Nava emphasize this in their essay about the right to be. The refugees fled a policy of genocide that denied their right to exist as a "pueblo maya." Their ability to re-emerge and re-identify with their culture after such violence is a therapeutic reconstruction and rebirth of their race.

One refugee, Juan Sosa, discusses the fear that development imposed on the Mayan people by the United Nations, the Mexican government or another outside agency will irreparably damage the Mayan identity. Another, Walda Barrios, speaks of the common experience of flight into exile and hardship in refugee camps, and the fears that now form part of her psyche. The common thread that seems to emerge from the various interviews with and testimonies of refugees is their desire to have the right to be, to exist as they are or as they wish to define themselves. The refugees' resistance to leaving the more than 120 small refugee camps that housed them for 6 larger camps in other areas of Mexico, testifies to their desire to retain their specific ethnic identities. While they have sought to stay in part because they wish to remain near Guatemala, they also do not want to cooperate with "assimilationist" policies that they believe will harm the unity and culture of the different groups. What is fascinating is that the various groups have formed a representative council of all of the camps to fight for the autonomy of their individual communities, again illustrating the re-emergence of a pan-Mayan identity that translates into political solidarity.


A number of informative contributions by educators working within the refugee camps analyze the attempt to establish educational and health initiatives for children and adults using traditional development tactics of community organization. The refugees came with a strong Mayan tradition, but few could read: Their home country's educational system discriminated against them precisely because they were Mayan. Many were malnourished, and the trauma of the massacres had rendered some psychologically fragile. Programs to address these problems were established using aid donated by Mexico, the international community and the World Health Organization. The available aid was limited, however, by the need to fund programs addressing similar problems among the Mexican population of Chiapas.

The success of health and education efforts varied from one refugee camp to another. Some communities prospered, while conditions in others failed to improve. Mexican schools took in some refugee children, but generally, the refugees taught themselves; camps with their own schoolmasters benefited the most. The articles discuss the limited effect of health programs and document the rates of incidence of various health problems. For the most part, these are typical of Central America, and preventive education is required to combat them effectively.


Recent events in Chiapas -- the emergence of the Zapatista guerrilla movement and alleged drug trafficking in the area -- has led to speculation that the refugees will return to Guatemala more quickly. While most refugees are outside the area of conflict and are probably in no danger of being harmed by the Zapatistas, fears of retaliation against them by the local Mexican authorities and the general increase in tensions may convince refugees to return despite a lack of organized resettlement sites.

The struggle to assert the basic rights outlined in the book continues now as UNHCR monitors the resettlement of the Guatemalan refugees, and it may affect refugees' cultural, economic and political rights worldwide. Returning Guatemalan refugees, with a new understanding of their own cultural rights and the concept of international human rights, have already begun to demand these rights under Guatemalan law. These attitudes have evoked a hostile reaction from some Guatemalan Indians who did not go into exile. Even as the returnees attempt to work within the Guatemalan constitutional framework, other indigenous peoples are fleeing the country as bombing in their villages continues. It is clear that UNHCR may not be able to monitor the integration of the returning refugees, or protect them with escorts in the manner that the returnees desire. The highlands of Guatemala are remote and still considered dangerous. The returning refugees, an insular minority, may not find protection under Guatemalan laws which de facto still discriminate against them and reject their cultural rights. It is unclear how much aid international law will be able to offer them in the political struggles they now face, especially the struggle to win the access to land promised in the repatriation agreement.

The volume's title refers to the New Maya Route: a journey into exile and, eventually, back home. A journey of change and hope. Only time will tell whether the new Guatemalan government of Ramiro De Leon Carpio will be able to help the retornados participate in a process of national conciliation, and whether recent negotiations with the URNG will quell the tide of military massacres. (1.) Robert M. Carmack, ed., Harvest of Violence (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988) p. 282.
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Author:Garrido, Yancy
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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