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Xeni Jardin Reports from Guatemala

Worldchanging ally Xeni Jardin recently returned from a research trip to Guatemala, where she did some amazing reporting on the work being done there in human rights and sustainable development. We enjoyed the pieces she filed, and asked her if she'd be willing to summarize her findings here. She graciously offered this post, and will be available to answer reader questions in the comments below for the next week or so. Welcome, Xeni! - Alex

Resident of Antigua, Guatemala

I recently traveled to Guatemala to pursue a series of tech-related stories for the NPR News program "Day to Day." I'm a weekly tech contributor to that show, and the idea to explore technology stories in Guatemala came about in part because of suggestions from BoingBoing readers.

Xeni and Gustavo Cosme of the FAFG One story involved a US-based tech company called Benetech. They produce software for recording and storing data about human rights abuses. Founder Patrick Ball has a long history of pretty amazing work in technology and human rights -- he's often credited with having provided the forensic evidence that sent Slobodan Milosevic on a one-way ticket to the Hague. Benetech is now working with a group in Guatemala called the Project for the Recuperation of the Historic Archives of the National Police. PRAHPN is trying to sort through some 80 million documents produced and later hidden by a branch of the Guatemalan security forces so closely linked to civil war atrocities, they were disbanded and replaced with a new force after the conflict ended. (NPR STORY LINK)

One of the other stories I followed involved the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG). For the past 12 years, they've been exhuming mass graves that hold death squad victims. I visited their lab in Guatemala City to learn how they use DNA forensics and other tech tools to identify human remains, and return them to their communities for reburial. (NPR STORY LINK).

When I visited the lab, I learned that the FAFG happened to be starting a massive exhumation of a village where half the inhabitants were buried alive by a Hurricane Stan mudslide in 2005. I traveled out to that site and reported on the role technology plays in that effort (NPR STORY LINK).

During the trip, I maintained a "reporter's notebook" blog to document loose ends, and share bits and pieces of what I was exploring with anyone who might find it of interest. This turned out to be really valuable in the reporting process, because so many people pointed me to things I wouldn't have otherwise discovered. Some offered local assistance along the way in Guatemala, others suggested things to explore.

One reader suggested I travel to Quetzaltenango (Xela) to check out a technology aid project called Xela Teco. It's an incubated business, funded by a US group called AIDG. The big idea is "open source aid," using locally-available, cheap resources to build eco-friendly infrastructure devices. One thing that separates them from all the other "gringos without borders" groups: Xela Teco teaches local people how to build and maintain the devices on their own. (NPR STORY LINK)

Here's the "Guatemala: Unearthing the Future" home page: Link. The audio for each of the 5 segments in this series is archived there, along with other media, like video, photos, and narrated slideshows. Here's the NPR "Xeni Tech" podcast feed, which also includes the Guatemala series episodes as MP3s.

Here are related BoingBoing posts, which include more photo "extras" and direct MP3 links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

IMAGES: 2007, Xeni Jardin, under this cc license. Top: a macaw on the grounds of a luxury hotel in Antigua, Guatemala. Center: I'm standing with Gustavo Cosme of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), inside a room where they store boxes of human remains of death squad victims, prior to reburial. Bottom: a centuries-old monk's skull, at the site of a 15th century monastery in Antigua.

Guatemala: 16th c. monk's skull

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I'll kick things off.

First, thanks Xeni, for agreeing to a conversation here.

When I was reporting abroad, I often found great partial ideas for stories -- intriguing bits of information that I didn't have the time or resources to pursue. Did you come across anything while you were there that you wish you'd had more opportunity to follow-up on?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Feb 07

Absolutely. Two of the stories I hope to return to cover are the ongoing wave of violent murders of women -- "femicides" -- and the issues surrounding American adoptions of indigenous children. One K'iche Mayan man I spoke to called it "el robo de los ninos," the theft of the children. In my understanding, both of those stories are so directly tied to the civil war, and economic and environmental issues..

Posted by: Xeni Jardin on 9 Feb 07

Xeni, More power to you as you produce your exemplary reporting and documentation of decades of tragic injustices meted out to peoples of these ancient civilizations. It is heartening to learn of the various initiatices mentioned here. Specifically in reference to the PRAHPN work, is there any complementary effort to record the "living oral histories" of people who physically experienced the circumstances especially during the peak of turmoil during Reagan years?

While the world was generally aware that gruesome atrocities were being committed, I beleive it is important for humanity as a whole and for the effected peoples themselves to record and acknowledge the "truth" of the events. It is startling how one section of the population can be turned against another to result in such persistant and pervasive brutality. If it can happen in Guatemala, it can happen in New York or France or India. The techniques for creating such conditions are tried and tested in central Americas, East Timor, Lebanon, Combodia, South Africa etc. If it is not for Noam Chomsky, we could never be sure that such state terror is possible.

I hope you secure all the resources for your femicide documentary and wish you much success. That stroy extends to the Mexicican-US border and to the sex worker trade from eastern Europe.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 10 Feb 07

Hey Xeni,

I'd be particularly interested in a story on the adoption of indigenous children in Guatemala. Whenever I return from a trip to Guate, I'm always struck by the number of families on the plane with their newly adopted children. I also wonder how a particular country becomes a hotspot for adoption and the impact/thoughts/misgivings of the community.


Posted by: Cat Laine on 10 Feb 07

Thanks for reading (and listening), guys. @Subbarao: The most comprehensive such report is the Historical Clarification Commission:

I know there have been many attempts on a more modest scale to capture in audio, video, or text the first-person testimonies of indigenous victims, but this is the place to start for a sense of the sheer mass of the atrocities committed.

@Cat, I agree. I've been to Guatemala a number of times since the late 1980s, and this time more than ever before the adoption issue felt ever-present. The reasons behind the phenomenon are complex.

To me it's a particularly interesting story because there are people with noble motives on both sides. I know Americans who have adopted Mayan infants, and I don't think those people are monsters -- they love their babies and are committed to providing them with what they believe to be a good life in America. I also know Mayan people in Guatemala who are poor, disenfranchised, and believe with understandable cause that a generation of their people is effectively being stolen from them.

And also@Cat, the other thing I'm struck with on that flight back from Guatemala City: _EVERYONE_ CARRIES CARTONS OF POLLO CAMPERO (a fried chicken fast food chain). I really want to do a story titled What is the Frickin Deal With Pollo Campero. It's, like, the national food of Guatemala.

Posted by: Xeni Jardin on 11 Feb 07

Great work Xeni! I hope your next stories are as successful as these.

I am wondering how the Panabaj story unfolded. I freelance for HDNet, a highdef, satellite network. We featured the village of Panabaj right after the devastating landslides from Stan in 05. Back then, the locals said they decided to make the area a mass grave and leave the victims buried. I have been looking at doing a follow-up on the area. I think I am most interested in the local recovery, emotionally as well as physically and the FAFG with their ongoing efforts in forensic anthropology.
I guess what I'd like to know is how accessible is the FAFG? Are they afraid of the media? Are the death threats serious? Are the locals willing to talk about the past, especially the ongoing genocide exhumations?

I'm also very interested in your future stories, so thanks for sharing your time with us.


Posted by: Todd on 11 Feb 07

@Todd -- hello, and big ups to all of you guys at HDNet.


Well, the government decided this back in 2005. And the factor to consider here is that the only way the survivors (Panabaj is a Tzutujil Maya village) were going to get help back then was if they allowed the Guatemalan Army to come in, set up shop, and exhume. The residents of this pueblo fought hard to kick out that same Army after a massacre during the civil war, and they weren't about to let them back in.

So when the FAFG became an option for them, the situation changed. The FAFG is a non-governmental, independent nonprofit, mostly funded by Europe-based governments and funds from what I can determine.


Those are pretty broad questions, but -- the FAFG directors were very candid and generous in providing access to me, so no, my impression was not that they were afraid of the media in any generalized sense.

Members of that group have been the subject of ongoing harassment and death threats for years, and they do face serious, credible security considerations even now that their work has gained more popular support in Guatemala.

As for contact with survivors in Panabaj -- that's a difficult question. Here, as with any situation where a population has suffered massive, shared trauma, you know as well as I that a reporter can't just pop in as a non-indigenous foreigner with a mic and a camcorder and say "on one, two, three annnnnd -- tell your story to the camera, and don't forget to emote." What I learn each time I go out to follow something like this is that capturing the local reality is something best accomplished with a combination of patience, focused attention, humility, and a respect for the incredible survival challenges these people face. Challenges you and I can never fully understand, because we're not the ones suffering them.

Posted by: Xeni Jardin on 11 Feb 07

Thanks for the quick response and sharing access to your incredible experiences.

I have family in the area and will treat the stories I encounter as such.

I will, as always, tread lightly and leave no trace.

Thanks again,

Posted by: Todd on 11 Feb 07

Hey Xeni,

It's all very interesting about Guatemala. I spent a good 4 months woring and living in that country from late April to August 2005. I can say that it was a lifechanging experience and I'd love to go back with my mom to show her how amazing this country is. Despite all the difficulties and everything I can only remember the brave people that I met and the good friends that were left behind. I also noticed the adoption issue there (mentioned by Cat). I confess I was intrigued but I had no idea how "bad" it was till I was in the airport and plane. As a latin american (I am from Brazil) I believe and hope that our future is going to be just fine somehow. We, Latin Americans, are brave and we never give up!

Thanx for sharing your experiences.

Posted by: Marcia Mendes on 12 Feb 07

@Marcia, thanks for reading/listening! And this is a particularly interesting year to be in Guatemala, or to be following closely what takes place there. In September, the Guatemalan people will elect a new president, and there will likely be changes throughout the government... Some interesting contrasts. Former military leader and accused mass murderer Rios Montt has his eye on a seat in congress, while Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu -- who is leading a genocide court case against Montt in Spain -- may be considering a run for the presidency, herself.

Posted by: Xeni Jardin on 12 Feb 07

Xeni, Thank you for helping me discover Rigoberta Menchu. Within 30 minutes of research after reading your post, I ordered the DVD "When The Mountains Tremble" and her autobiography " I, Rigoberta Menchu" and look forward to some worthwhile education on global human affairs.

Thanks once again and it is a classic example of in action, doing its thingy. I love it.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 16 Feb 07



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