Waiting for Hector: An Implacable Fight for Justice in Nueva Linda, Guatemala

Why would anybody camp by the side of a busy road? Why would anybody camp by the side of a busy road sheltered only by rough structures made from palm tree fronds in the punishing tropical heat and torrential downpours? And why would anyone do it for four long years?



Photo: Timo Russo

Why would anybody camp by the side of a busy road? Why would anybody camp by the side of a busy road sheltered only by rough structures made from palm tree fronds in the punishing tropical heat and torrential downpours? And why would anyone do it for four long years?

Bety Reyes, an indigenous campesina, has been camping outside the Nueva Linda Finca on the road to Retalhuleu, Guatemala, and she remains there today. True enough, she isn’t alone – she has her husband and children with her, as well as some of her extended family, and is accompanied by 173 other campesina families. And if you were to ask her why she has been camping at the side of the busy roadside for over 4 years in horrendous conditions, she will tell you, simply, that she is waiting for justice. Her father Hector Reyes was disappeared here on the Nueva Linda Finca on the 5th of September 2003; Hector’s family and their supporters are staying put until the authors of the crime are brought to trial. "A rich landlord disappeared a poor peasant," says Bety, "we know who did it, and now we want to bring them to justice."

One More Disappeared 

The story of the Nueva Linda resistance encampment is one of unrelenting sorrow and unrepentant resilience. Hector Reyes worked as an administrator on the Nueva Linda Finca, one of the many huge plantation farms on the southern coast of Guatemala owned by a handful of wealthy landowners – this particular one owned by a Spaniard by the name of Carlos Vidal. Typically the conditions of work were semi-feudal, and farm hands received maybe $5 a day, working under harsh conditions in the scorching tropical heat. As soon as Hector Reyes stood up to defend the rights of his fellow workers, he was a marked man. They came for him in the dead of night, bundled him away and he was never seen again.  

Disappearances are nothing uncommon in Guatemala. During the 36-year long Civil War, tens of thousands of labor and campesino organizers were disappeared without a trace, their corpses buried, tossed into the ocean, or sometimes dropped into volcanos from military helicopters.   

Everybody on the Nueva Finca farm knew that the owner Carlos Vidal sent one of his henchmen, Víctor de Jesús Chinchilla, to get rid of Hector. Disappearing campesinos is of little more import for the land-owners of the fincas of southern Guatemala than culling pestilent beasts. What Senor Carlos Vidal had not accounted for was the determination of Hector’s family and his campesino organization – Maya Sin Tierra – to pursue the cause of justice. 

In a brazen act of rebellion, 1200 campesinos occupied the Nueva Linda Finca on December 13 2003, surrounding Vidal’s mansion and demanding the "re-appearance" of Hector Reyes, or his remains. Senor Vidal’s favored means of transport in and out of his property was by helicopter, and landing became somewhat hazardous amongst a vast tent city of indigenous peasants squatting the entire area. That non-violent occupation demanding justice came to a dreadful and abrupt end ten months later on August 31, 2004 – Bloody Tuesday. 

Death in Nueva Linda

It was a massacre foretold. Then President Oscar Berger predictably rolled over to pressure from the Farm Owners Association. "The state must protect private property," he announced ominously. "The state police must be sent in to evict the squatters in Nueva Linda." 

So, one sunny morning armored vehicles accompanied by 1200 army, police and hired guns came up the road, spread out across the lush, verdant fields and opened fire on the squatters’ encampment. 9 campesinos were killed – five executed at point blank range, and 45 were injured. The unarmed protesters resisted – against the odds but fighting for their lives – and in the ensuing melee, 3 police were killed. Thirty-odd campesinos were brutally arrested and the camp lay vanquished, burnt to the ground. President Berger praised the security forces and blamed the indigenous for the massacre.  

Massacres are nothing uncommon in Guatemala. Of the 200,000 deaths during the interminably long civil war, over 90% of the killing has been attributed to the Armed Forces, principally by means of massacre. Perhaps the most infamous of them all was the assault on the Spanish Embassy on Jan 31, 1980 – which had been occupied by protesters – in which over 40 people were murdered by the army. Since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, the unrelenting violence has persisted in the form of social war. As street gangs battle it out with each other and the security forces, social movements continue to be the target of human rights abuses. The Mirna Mack Foundation puts the death toll in the country at 25,700 – from just the last 5 years of generalized violence.  

So the Nueva Linda massacre was soon forgotten in the media and the public consciousness as Guatemalans got on with living their lives in the shadow of huge daily insecurity, economic precariousness and the mass exodus of its youth to the arduous road toward the United States. What are 13 deaths in a remote field on the coast compared to the daily slaughter on the city streets? On the same day I visited the Nueva Linda Encampment, February 27 2008, I counted 13 reported violent street deaths in the daily newspaper. 

But the campesinos of Nueva Linda continued their campaign of resistance. Soon after the massacre, Hector Reyes family fearlessly took up residence on the side of the road outside the Nueva Linda Finca. This few yards of land – a no-mans’ land between the landowner’s finca and the federal highway, could be squatted because it wasn’t private property. There they boldly set up camp and were joined by survivors of the massacre and others from the national indigenous farmers coordination (CONIC) – eventually numbering 173 families. Conditions were appalling, but they pitched their makeshift tents of plastic sheets and palm tree fronds, dug a well for water, and like a little roadside refugee camp, they managed. The shameless finca owner set up an armed security post across the road to intimidate the encampment, but Hector Reyes’ family and their supporters were immovable. "Not one step backwards" they said, "until justice is done,” now demanding justice for the victims of the massacre as well as the disappeared. 

Government and Lies

Faced with such unrelenting determination, the state turned to more conniving and Machiavellian tactics to get rid of the problem.  

"Hector Reyes migrated to the USA," stated the State Governor of Retalhuleu. Not only was he alive and well, the governor claimed, but they knew exactly where he was and were willing to pay the airfare for Hector’s wife, Floridema, to fly up there to find him! Floridema had been a persistent and troubling presence on the protest for the state and landowners. So, remarkably, off went Floridema on a desperate and futile goose chase across the state of Florida in search of a man who the people who sent her knew was buried not a mile from where she had been camping by the side of the road. Floridema remains in the US still, cleaning a hotel in Florida and sending back money to her family so that they can continue their roadside struggle.

The state hadn’t counted on the resilience of Floridema’s daughter, Bety, who continued to hold the family flag of resistance and leading the road-side vigil with new vehemence. She gave birth to a child during the long protest, naming him Hector in honor of her missing father. 

Some two years passed by the side of the road, and the authorities steadfastly ignored the protest. So the protesters decided to relocate to the central plaza of Guatemala City, right in front of the palace of justice, putting the case back on the national agenda. But in a country where the left has been decimated, what hope is there for the social movement like the Nueva Linda protesters? The government continued to ignore their encampment in the central plaza and the mass media paid them scant attention. As they packed up their paltry possessions to return to the roadside at Nueva Linda after the month-long stint in the Capital, it might have seemed like they had touched rock bottom – a time of despair and hopelessness. But no, the protesters could still count on their resources and their own agency to carry them through. "If we don’t struggle," a campesina told the cameras in a rain-swept central plaza, "what is left for us?" 

Among the Implacable 

There are those who struggle for a day and they are good.

There are those who struggle for a year and they are better.

 There are those who struggle many years, and they are better still.

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the implacable ones.
– Bertolt Brecht

The chicken bus speeds at top speed past kilometer 207 on the Retalhuleu-Champerico road, its tail-wind flapping the plastic sheet coverings of the roadside encampment in its wake. "We’re getting out!" I shout at the driver, and the old bus skids to a dramatic halt. All the passengers look curiously at the two gringos descending the bus in the middle of nowhere.  

We jump onto the dusty roadside and clamber along the uneven ditch. An elderly man with but a couple of teeth is raking the dirt in front of a makeshift plastic bag hut – the first in a long line – and he smiles broadly.

"You have arrived," he says.

"Yes," we say, "we have arrived."

He points us up further along the track, towards camp central.  

As we make our way along the ditch, I take in the surroundings. The Nueva Linda farm is a rich, fertile plain, flat and green as far as the eye can see. The aroma of the tropical vegetation is overpowering to the senses, but here by the side of the road, only the gaseous fumes of the constant traffic trundling by overwhelms us. 

Welcome!" shouts Bety Reyes as we approach the heart of the encampment. She cradles an 18-month old child in her lap – young Hector, I presume – and she smiles effusively.  We are quickly introduced to about a half dozen people and the mood is startlingly delightful. What’s up with these people? Shouldn’t they be miserable, stuck forlornly on the road side for years, like some unremitting purgatory? But no, there is something else going on here.  

The tractor trailers, buses and trucks and cars whiz by an arm’s length away. We, the visitors, are almost shaken to the core by their passing, but the occupants of the camp seem oblivious. Their mirth is contagious and even the kids seem enthused to meet us. Among the dust and debris of the ditch, their joy amazes us, as if the protest camp were a party, or perhaps some deeply intoxicating rebel elixir. It’s all good karma though, and, I surmise, it feels right to be humbled before others’ high spirits. Mahatma Ghandi would have loved this place. 

We are debriefed by the group’s human rights representative, Mariano Lellel of the Civil Association Pro-Justice Nueva Linda Group. As one of the most articulate and outspoken advocates for the protest, Mariano – a cheerful indigenous activist in his late 40’s – is clearly a marked man. Death treats forced him to go underground recently, and he hid out in indigenous villages for 2 months. "I am like a hunted animal," he says, smiling wryly. But now he walks freely. 

"What protection do you have?" 

"National and international solidarity," he says. 

Scant protection, I’m thinking. But Mariano is confident that the authorities and powers that be don’t want to further tarnish their image in this sensitive case with another disappeared.  

He is, however, far more eager to talk about the protest in general than his own personal safety. After four years, they are still confident of the future. While they are not expecting much from the new (slightly) left/leaning president, Álvaro Colom, it is a positive sign that he has accepted an invitation to meet them in person in Guatemala City.  "[Former president] Berger tricked and mocked us," says Mariano, "let the new President prove himself by his actions." 

“What gives the group hope?” I ask. 

"We have brought a petition to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission", he says, "and that body has ruled favorably in the past with social movements." 

“And what are your hopes beyond the immediate political goals?” 

Mariano looks away ponderously, and for a moment he is actually thinking beyond strategy and tactics – into the realm of dreaming. "We wish that we can get a little piece of land so that we can stay together. Maybe we can get a loan from a national or international institution to help us achieve this. In this very area, where we are from…" 

So at least one product of this epic struggle has been a group of people who want to live, work, and struggle, side-by-side, sharing the same space and land for the rest of their lives – together. 

I find this thought quite satisfying. Having traveled a long way to know their struggle, I am very happy to have met these people. 

For Justice’s Sake 

It is time for us to leave the encampment. In yet another stroke of bad fortune, an accidental fire a few weeks previous burnt most of the camp to the ground. Characteristically, residents bounced back undaunted and have rebuilt everything with gusto. A young girl comes forward to exhibit the pretty horrific 2nd degree burns on her arm and back, but even she is smiling and upbeat. How this struggle leaves its mark. 

"For us, the poor, there is no justice," says Bety, as we bid farewell. 

“What plans for the future?” I ask. 

"I’m not moving anywhere soon," she says smiling and then gets back on her cellphone to discuss the case with some human rights lawyers in the city.  

But finally, one last somewhat philosophical quandary that had been troubling my mind: “Why? Why sit on a roadside for 4 years? Why give your life to a cause? Is it to win, or is it because it is the right thing to do?”

Mariano, the hunted man, the marked man, replies with a characteristic wide smile – "It’s for both of these," he says, "and it’s for justice." 

For more information, visit the Pro-Justice Nueva Linda Group,

or contact them here: info@justicianuevalinda.org  

Ramor Ryan is the author of Clandestines – The Pirate journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006). He lives in Chiapas, Mexico.