Sunday, September 13, 2009



I used to feel chills when I drove by the Casa Crema, the massive “Cream-Colored House" once home to the Defense Minister and his powerful offices. The Casa Crema was a house of horrors during the 1970s and 1980s. It was a time when students, intellectuals, labor leaders and anyone else presumed sympathetic to the armed left, were murdered by government death squads. Or kidnapped and tortured first, before disappearing forever. Some suffered in the Casa Crema.

A few days ago, searching for the offices of the Academy of Maya Languages, I found myself walking in the direction of the Casa Crema. It is not cream-colored at all, but battleship gray, covering a city block, walls crenellated, with the tiny rectangular windows from which men with guns can shoot, if necessary.

How ironic, I thought, for the Maya Academy offices to be near a place that once served a military that killed tens of thousands of unarmed Maya Indians.

In fact, the Academy of Maya Languages, and a Maya television station, now occupy the Casa Crema itself.

“I bet you thought you were going to be kidnapped, joked a young Maya woman inside, commenting on the building her offices have occupied for 5 years.

The Academy of Maya Languages, established to preserve the country’s 22 indigenous tongues, is part of the Ministry of Culture and Education; a former president gave the Maya the Casa Crema to use. The Defense Ministry has long since moved elsewhere.

The young woman sold me some books. She looked in her late 20s, a child during the heat of the war, which ended in 1996 . She wore the heavy woven blouse, woven belt, and long blue skirt of the Kanjobal Maya. And the black, pointed-toe high heels of a fashionable woman in the capital.

“Can a Maya remain Maya, living in a big city, speaking Spanish, far from her mountain home?” I asked.”

“I can,” said the young woman . “Because I know who I am inside.”

In the office of the director, a Pokomam Maya, it was clear that part of the Casa Crema, at least, once had been something like a home. A fireplace framed in dark wood. Stained glass windows with images of medieval ladies and hunting hounds. On the director’s desk burned incense, its scent filling the room.

All the way back to Antigua, I wondered if there were enough incense in the world to purify the Casa Crema. I wondered why the Academy accepted being housed there. The government hardly backs Maya insistence on a “multilingual, multicultural” nation; I wondered whether it pulled a cynical trick by making the Academy -- dependent for funds on the state -- an offer it couldn’t refuse.

Or whether it didn’t matter at all, to anyone who knew who she was inside.


In Guatemala again for the first time in 8 months, I sense the grip organized crime has on streets and minds. It seems the violence of the 30-year civil war didn’t disappear with the 1996 peace accords, but metamorphosed into a far more ambiguous, fearsome mayhem.
The sides in this war are unlikely to meet at a table.
The week began with what one daily headlined, “A Diabolical Tidal Wave:“ In coordinated attacks, in various public corners of the capital, hitmen murdered the director of one prison, sub-director of another, and on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, two prison guards transferring a prisoner from one site to another. Passers-by were killed too, or wounded in the sprays of gunfire, some from AK47s.
A few days later, outside the home of the country’s Chief Prosecutor of Organized Crime Rony Lopez, a police agent protecting Lopez’ family challenged two men, who answered with 9mm bullets. The agent died on the spot, and the killers escaped.
U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland and Carlos Castresana, head of the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity, appeared with a drawn-looking Lopez to show support. But the prosecutors and prison-keepers of Guatemala must know the crime lords have them in their sights.
The crime web catches ordinary Guatemalans too, notably through extortion. Bus company owners are expected to pay monthly to keep their drivers from being murdered; over 80 were killed last year, and the killing continues. Passengers are at risk. Drivers’ murders can take place by automatic weapons fire from a car running alongside the bus, or even a grenade.
Many extortion rings are run from prisons by cel phone. A good friend explained how it worked at their house: a call comes once and tells you where to leave money. If you don’t, another call comes, advising “we know” where children go to school. My friend’s large family now lives without a telephone at home out of terror of another call.
Reactions to the atmosphere of precarious living range from the poignant to draconian. At a conference given by photographer Jean-Marie Simon this week in the capital, the packed room intently watched troubling wartime slides from her classic book, Guatemala, Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny. Afterward, queries about the cycle of violence showed frustration, as if some questioners were asking themselves, “What can we do?”
Former President Alvaro Arzu, now the mayor of this city, the biggest in Central America, believes he has an answer. Democracy is not it.
“Behind a mask of tolerance and freedom of opinion,” Arzu said in a speech Sept. 10, are values in today’s society -- such as democracy -- considered unquestionable, just as ideas about religion were in the Middle Ages. He suggested a “civic military” model of education to regenerate the country’s institutions.