In 1984, Raul’s wife was kidnapped and murdered by Guatemalan paramilitary forces due to her involvement in a local community organization. Raul’s mother and brother had also been killed and he feared the safety of his young children. So, after facing threats and harassment in one province of Guatemala after another, Raul finally decided to relocate his family to Mexico.
Raul was one of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who fled to Mexico, Central America, and the United States amid the violence of the country’s internal armed conflict. Starting in 1981, approximately 100,000 Guatemalans took refuge in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, traveling in individual families or large groups from communities that suffered scorched earth campaigns.
Life in Mexico
Just miles from the border, the refugees lived in constant fear of the Guatemalan army’s occasional military incursions. Moreover, southern Mexico’s growing refugee population began to exhaust the resources of the country’s poorest state, prompting the Mexican government to relocate the refugees to official camps in the country’s interior. Nearly half of Guatemalan refugees were sent to permanent camps where they received basic social services and land from the government.
Thousands of individuals, however, eschewed the camps in favor of blending into the local Mexican population. Prior to the conflict, many Guatemalans living close the Mexican border had been temporary workers on Mexican fincas (large farms). Upon fleeing Guatemala, these refugees were able to secure permanent work on the same lands.
Yet this decision came with its own set of difficulties. Lacking legal documentation, many Guatemalans could not find skilled labor, enroll their children in Mexican schools, or access social services. Constantly in hiding from migration officials seeking to hand them over to the Guatemalan army, individual refugees often turned to the church for assistance. This is where the magnitude of the refugee population first became apparent.
The refugees soon began to realize their common struggle and the need to organize and work together. With the help of local and international agencies, such as the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR)_ which provided trainings in organizing and human rights education_ refugees formed organizations that would eventually negotiate their return to Guatemala. According to Dominga Montejo, co-founder of the women refugees association Madre Tierra, “Each person fled separately to Mexico, but once we were there we realized the need to unify.”
Return to Guatemala
Most Guatemalan refugees never intended to remain in Mexico permanently. In the early 1990’s the desire to return spurred them to initiate negotiations with the Guatemalan government guaranteeing safe conditions for return and reintegration. An agreement was reached in 1992, ensuring the refugees’ right to land, freedom from military control, and international accompaniment upon their return.
The right to land was a particularly important issue as most refugees were indigenous campesinos (famers) whose livelihood and culture were deeply tied to their land. “It was hard in Mexico,” laments Montejo, “We couldn’t cultivate our milpa (maize plots), own our own land or build our own houses.” Under the UN-supervised resettlement effort, the Guatemalan government offered refugees low-interest loans to buy farmland. Refugees could rarely return to their original lands as the army had relocated others onto the abandoned fincas, insisting that the original owners were subversives who would never return. Refugees seeking to buy government land faced a lengthy and complicated negotiating process. The governme! nt often inflated the land’s value in order to deter purchase, thus prolonging the resettlement process.
This attempt to prevent refugees from purchasing land blatantly evidenced the government’s desire to hinder their return. The refugees had been educated in human rights and were highly organized, and the government feared them as potential domestic organizers of repressed groups. By demanding land, the refugees indirectly challenged the country’s economic system, in which a tiny elite still holds the vast majority of wealth.
In addition, the army understood that the refugees were determined to resist military control, and began accusing refugees of collaborating with the guerillas, thereby justifying attacks on refugee communities. In the 1990’s the army committed a series of incursions into refugee communities, the most tragic of which was a massacre against the village of Xaman, where 11 people were killed and 30 injured. After the Xaman massacre many refugees were afraid to return to Guatemala.
The army’s propaganda campaign against refugees divided Guatemalan society. Citizens who had never left the country tended to condemn the refugees as guerilla sympathizers, and some communities vocally opposed their return. The years of separation and varying experiences had created a rift between the two groups that has yet to heal. Additionally, the problem of ongoing land negotiations has diminished many refugees’ hopes.
Nevertheless, refugee communities are ripe with social justice organizations that are continuing hte fight for a just repatriation. Today, many of Guatemala’s ! 45,000 returned refugees have used their experience in negotiating their return to demand participation in Guatemalan society. After establishing what was left of his family in Mexico, Raul founded a refugee organization in the 1980’s that negotiated land titles with the government. He has since seen many refugees repay their loans and claim ownership to land in Guatemala. Many others, however, are still struggling.