Angels in Guatemala: Confronting a Legacy of Official Terror

  Source: NACLA

On February 25, 2009, some 18,000 Guatemalans, mostly survivors or relatives of victims of the state-sponsored terror of the 1970s and 1980s, gathered in Guatemala City’s Plaza of the Constitution, to commemorate the "Day of Dignity for the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict." There, they heard President Alvaro Colom publicly accept the UN report that documented the terror.

The report of the UN Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), presented a decade earlier, engaged detailed testimony to analyze the historical causes for the terror that killed 200,000 people and disappeared 50,000 more. It defined the violence as a genocide perpetrated against the country’s Maya majority, and it attributed 95% of the massacres and violations of human rights to Guatemala’s military. At the time of its official presentation on February 25, 1999, then-President Alvaru Arzu publicly rejected the CEH report – a rejection that constituted a refusal to accept the truth.

In his speech accepting the CEH report a decade later and honoring the victims of the armed conflict, Alvaro Colom said that as "President of the Republic, as Chief of State, and as Commander General of the Armed Forces, I ask for pardon." The appeal marked a dramatic break from the past – a clear articulation of the government’s responsibility for massive human rights violations, genocide, and ethnocide. This appeal was part of a broader program promoted by Colom to recover Guatemala’s historical memory and to begin to offer symbolic and actual compensation to the victims of the violence.

The Colom administration has opened the National Police Archives, announced plans to open the National Military Archives, and promoted memorial events, conferences, and publications honoring victims of the violence. It has also overseen a controversial program to compensate the victims with funds and housing.

Colom’s acceptance of the CEH report and his official apology on behalf of the Guatemalan government and armed forces were framed by the image of an angel with wings formed of the shoulder blades of victims of the violence. The angel, created by Guatemalan photographer Daniel Hernández Salazar, appeared ominously behind President Colom and Vice President Rafael Espada. The angel’s elbows are raised to shoulder height and his hands frame a wide-open mouth to project the echo of a silent scream – a denunciation of the past and a demand for an end to the impunity in the present. The angel may speak louder and carry further than any verbal articulation or condemnation of the violation of human rights. Perhaps for this reason it has become an iconographic image for the struggle for human rights in Guatemala and internationally.

The angel that oversaw Colom’s public apology on behalf of the Guatemalan government is one of a series of four on each of the volumes of the Interdiocesan Recovery of Historical Memory, or REMHI report, presented by Guatemala’s Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1997. The report, based on the testimony of some five thousand victims and relatives of victims of the violence, represented an essential first step in the creation of an historical memory that gave voice to the silenced victims of the violence and became the foundation for the UN’s CEH report. Two days after Bishop Gerardi presented Guatemala: Nunca Más, he was bludgeoned to death in the garage of his parish house.

The REMHI report complimented exhumations initiated in the era of the 1996 peace accords. The bones disinterred in massive, clandestine burial sites offered preliminary testimony to the nature of the violence in Guatemala. Although faded and deteriorated, victims’ clothing retained the distinctive woven colors and patterns of clothing worn by Maya campesinos. Broken toys and babies’ bones provided devastating, silent testimony that the targets of the military were not just armed guerrillas, but unarmed civilians – men, women, and children. The testimonies presented by victims to REMHI gave voice to the silent testimony of the dead exhumed from mass graves.

Daniel Hernández’s angels were born of the confluence of these interwoven efforts to develop an historical memory of the violence in Guatemala. He began photographing images that hinted at the lives destroyed by focusing on individuals and recording the details that revealed the beauty of their lives – the remains of a colorful huipil, a dangling earring entangled in the cloth of a scarf framing the skull of a female victim. One of the forensic anthropologists engaged in the exhumations observed to Hernández that the shoulder blades of the bodies almost appeared like the translucent, fragile wings of a butterfly.

The wings that appeared to the forensic anthropologist to be those of a butterfly struck Hernández as those of an angel. But the photographer’s angels would represent more than art. They would also critique the reality of Guatemala, where silence contributed to the violence and impunity. "I don’t want to see, I don’t want to hear, I don’t want to speak of what I don’t like." While for Hernández, seeing and hearing seemed involuntary, silence was a choice. The three images of the angel that he created thus became, "I don’t see, I don’t hear, I am silent." People chose silence.

A short time after Hernández organized an exhibit that included the angels, the directors of REMHI asked if he had photographs they might use for the covers of the four volumes of Guatemala: Nunca Más. He invited them to see the angels. They accepted the three images, and Hernández suggested a fourth for the final volume. The fourth angel, whose pose suggests a silent scream hinting at Gerardi’s appeal "so that all shall know," was born. The images visually define the REMHI report. Two days after its presentation, when Monseñor Gerardi was killed, they also became the visual representation of public mourning as thousands of people marched through the streets in silence carrying the banner of the angels as their voice.

The angels were thus transformed from graphic representations of Guatemala’s historical memory contained in the REMHI report, to central icons of historical memory. Their power transcended the report and became a symbolic, silent denunciation of violence and impunity and an appeal for a future in which people speak the truth so that justice is served. The images of the angels appear in unexpected places in Guatemala and in the world – the Escuela Politécnica in Guatemala City famous as a site for military training and torture, the fence outside of the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia where many of the military officials responsible for the worst violations of human rights received their training. Like the victims whose murders they denounce, the images of the angels disappear – often overnight leaving only a shadow, a trace on a wall, a skeletal framework.

There are rumors that Colom’s administration intends to promote a public memorial and possibly even a historical museum as part of its program of memory and compensation, in conformance with the recommendations of the long-rejected CEH report. The public presence of the angels in Guatemala City and other regions of the country might help to remind people of the violence of the past, of its links to the violence of the present, and of the need to speak, to denounce, "so that all shall know."

Indeed, the current situation of violence in Guatemala in which an average of 17 people are murdered daily and some 60,000 have been killed since the signing of the peace accords, makes a mockery of the claim that "never again will we repeat this tragic, perverse, blood history." As Rosalina Tuyuc, founder of the National Association of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA) observed, "tragically the patrones of the violence of the past and the present are the same."

Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens is a NACLA Research Associate.