RETALHULEU, Guatemala -- An infant girl lying on a paper-thin blanket in the dirty ditch next to the highway does nothing to hide the mosquito bites that cover her tiny legs. When she awakes from a feverish nap, an elder picks her up and turns away from me -- hoping, unsuccessfully, to keep the yellowish color of her eyes a secret.
But the presence of about one hundred Guatemalan campesino farmers squatting next to the Nueva Linda finca plantation, on the main highway that links Champerico on the Pacific Coast with the country's interior, is hardly a secret. Now that the Christmas holidays have passed without any action from the government to satisfy their demands, the campesinos are planning to occupy the plantation again.
No matter how much Guatemalan president Oscar Berger, a member of the land-owning oligarchy who took office a year ago, hopes the Nueva Linda pests would go away, they remain an open sore -- a painful reminder that eight years after the United Nations-backed peace accords were signed, officially ending this country's bloody, 36-year civil war, all is not well for Guatemala's majority, the poor and downtrodden Mayan farmers.
"Berger sleeps and lives well, and meanwhile we are in poverty, living in a ditch," says Marianno Caleb Aguilar, a large man with a gruff voice who acts as a de facto spokesperson for the Nueva Linda campesinos.
Campesinos here began occupying the Nueva Linda plantation for the first time in October of 2003 to protest the disappearance of their friend and organizing leader, Héctor Reyes Pérez, who has not been heard from since he vanished one month previous, though kidnapped might be a better word.
In a story that sounds eerily similar to the horrendous tales from the days of the civil war, Reyes was summoned by his boss, a Spaniard named Carlos Vidal Fernandez who owns the Nueva Linda finca, and picked up by the land-owning criollo's bodyguard, Victor Chinchilla Morales, on the morning of September 5 of that year, under the pretense that they were to deliver burlap sacks of corn to another finca owned by Fernandez. Reyes' disappearance came just days after he informed Fernandez that he was leaving Nueva Linda after 10 years of devout service, and asked for his pay.
Héctor Reyes Pérez left behind seven children, most of whom are living in the ditch along the highway to protest his disappearance. His wife, Floridalma Reyes, has apparently fled to the United States and gained asylum out of fear that the Spaniard will hunt her too.
"Our father was a great man," says Reyes' daughter Maria who sits in a hammock under a tarp made out of plastic garbage bags to pass the time." Reyes was taken soon before her 15th birthday, an important age that brings with it a grand party, similar to one's confirmation, here in Guatemala. She still prays to God he will return to see her again -- or at least his remains. Maria knew Reyes better than her siblings, as she always brought him meals while he worked on the finca.
The Nueva Linda standoff reached a boiling point on August 31 of last year when more than a thousand policemen and bodyguards of Fernandez broke through the plantation's fence while peaceful negotiations with the campesinos were still under way. The government-backed onslaught featured water and gas cannons, two helicopters overhead and AK-47s in the hands of the uniformed men, who formed a circle around the squatters.
What followed was a massacre that claimed the lives of 11 campesinos (including a pregnant woman and at least three children) and four policemen, effectively forcing the farmers off the plantation. How the 15 people were killed remains a subject of controversy. Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Veilmann claims the campesinos were armed and dangerous "delinquents," and the majority of the press and public here have accepted that explanation without question.
But the Nueva Linda campesinos say they had nothing more than all-but-harmless smoke bombs with which to fight. No autopsy reports were released to the public concerning the four policemen who were killed, and the squatters maintain that the uniformed men died in a cross-fire, at the hands of their own. Guatemalan officials claim they saw Mayans wielding automatic assault weapons on August 31, but they could have been mixing up the squatters with Fernandez' security guards, who are also locals of indigenous descent.
"A human life is worth more than just 20,000 Quetzales (US$2,500) but shouldn't be measured by a price. They can't just kill us like dogs." says Alfonso Rodriguez, referring to the amount of restitution paid to the families of each campesino who was killed in the massacre. "In the United States, when you kill a dog you have to pay a fine, but here they just kill us like dogs -- we campesinos."
The massacre didn't keep Reyes' supporters off Nueva Linda for good, however. The campesinos returned in October to resume their political struggle. They were evicted again on November 21 when Fernandez' security guards fired warning shots into the air and tried, unsuccessfully, to capture Reyes' son Paco. The next day Guatemalan news sources reported, erroneously, that the campesinos had left Nueva Linda willingly and peacefully, and President Berger called the Nueva Linda problem "resolved."
But on the highway outside Retalhuleu, where the farmers sacrifice the health of their families and what few amenities they can bring with them from their home villages, the only thing resolved is that their struggle for restitution, recognition, and justice will continue. The farmers demand compensation for the makeshift homes that were destroyed and for the corn and beans that they cultivated during their time on the Nueva Linda plantation. They want to see Héctor Reyes Pérez's body, and they want to see the Spanish landowner charged in a Guatemalan court.
"We are asking for justice, not just because they are killing our campesinos, but because the government needs to improve our health, our quality of life, food, access to land and education," says Aguilar. "Little money is being spent on campesinos even though the rich have always profited from us.
"We may be poor campesinos, but that doesn't mean we don't understand that a kidnapping should take priority over a land occupation. We know very well what we are doing. If they don't want us to take the finca again then they need to resolve the kidnapping and the murders from the massacre."
The word desaparecido holds an ominous spot in Guatemala's modern vocabulary. During the civil war, as many as 200,000 unfortunate souls the rightist-government suspected of being guerillas, revolutionaries, or leftist-sympathizers were murdered or simply "disappeared," sometimes turning up dead in roadside ditches or riverbeds, but just as often remaining a painful mystery to their families.
The same is now true in the case of Héctor Reyes Pérez.
The occupation of Nueva Linda began within a month of his disappearance, after Floridalma Reyes sent letters out to local campesinos in a plea for help. More than a thousand Mayan farmers responded and squatted on Fernandez' land to protest the lack of justice and government intervention surrounding her husband's fate.
But the occupation was hardly revolutionary in the context of local history. In building makeshift houses and cultivating corn and beans to feed themselves, the Nueva Linda campesinos were exercising a practice that citizen groups have often employed throughout Guatemala's traumatic history.
Land seizures, highway blockades, and even airport occupations are commonplace in this tragic country, as Mayan farmers on the left and former civilian auto-defense patrols on the right demand justice or financial compensation for their respective plights.
Earlier this month hundreds of farmers built barricades and set them on fire in the middle of the Pan American highway to block the passage of an enormous cylindrical shaft that international mining companies plan to use to draw minerals out of the San Marcos region in western Guatemala. The mining has caused numerous health problems among the local population, including children losing their hair.
Meanwhile, the former civilian auto-defense patrols, called the PAC, who were all but forced to do the dirty work of massacring Mayan villages during the civil war and promised financial compensation from the government, have reorganized again. Their favorite tactics are massive, strategic highway blockades that back up traffic for hours or even days.
Historically, in perhaps the lowest moment during the 36-year civil war, the Guatemalan military stormed and burned the Spanish embassy on January 31, 1980, killing two Spanish diplomatic employees and 35 Mayan campesinos who were squatting there to protest the army's scorched earth practices to quell the guerilla uprising in the western highlands.
The saga at Nueva Linda is just another chapter in the ongoing battle for justice, respect and land rights for Mayan Indians in Guatemala.
"Some passersby on the highway tell us to go home. Others honk their horns and encourage us to continue our struggle," says Alfonso Rodriguez, who watches for any sign of the police or of the Spaniard's bodyguards. "Our goals are the same -- to gain respect for human life and to gain rights and respect for the lives of campesinos.
"We're determined to remain here until the last day God gives us life. If we need to fight until the death, we will do so, like those who fell on August 31."