Friday, 19 April 2013

Visiting the trial of Rios Montt - former dictator on trial for genocide in Guatemala

Testimony from Catalina-Sanchez-Solis. Indigenous women gives evidence against Rios Montt, Guatemala's former  president on trial for genocide.
 I was as in Guatemala's National Court with Trocaire on Friday the 19th of April observing the trial of the former dictator Rios Montt for genocide. Trocaire along with some of their legal partners CALDH and AJR had helped to bring the former dictator to trial. This is a very historical case as it is the first time a former head of state has faced genocide charges before their national court (as opposed to an international criminal court).

Rios Montt - former army general and president of Guatemala and currently on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The room was very tense as there was a very real chance that the trial was going to collapse on Friday due to events the previous day. Because of this there were a lot of big hitters in the room to support the case like UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Guatemala, national ambassadors (the Uruguayan ambassador was 2 seats to my left!), a Guatemalan Nobel prize winner sitting directly behind me, Francisco Dall'anese the head of the International Committee against Impunity in Guatemala (

Indigenous women in court to give evidence in the genocide trial
The previous day Judge Patricia Flores in a lower court had tried to annul the Tribunal.

The place erupted into applause once Judge Yazmín Barrios confirmed that trial would continue as they did not recognise the resolution of the lower court.
Barrios then declared that the trial would be temporarily suspended so that the Constitutional Court could resolve the legal issue at stake.
As proceedings concluded more than half of the packed to capacity court auditorium were on their feet chanting and clapping "Justicia, Justicia, Justicia..." like it was a football match. 

Court room erupts into chants of "Justicia, Justicia, Justicia..." at the end of the days proceedings

One of the banners outside the courthouse quoting:  "Yes there was a genocide and sexual violence"

Another banner outside the court house depicting some of the violence of the genocide

There was a large congregation outside the courthouse where there were a few speeches.
Then without further ado a few hundred people marched out into the chaotic traffic of Guatemala City and through the downtown to the constitutional court where there was then more excitement about not letting press in, censorship and more chanting and protesting. After about an hour the Constitutional Court eventually let the press in.

After we marched through the streets of Guatemala to the Constitutional Court there was a protest outside to let the media in.

It was an incredibly interesting and moving day and not something I will ever forget. Real lump in the throat kinda stuff to be witnessing history so raw and close up as this. If you are interested to find out more about the Rios Montt trial for crime of genocide please see which is in both English & Spanish.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Xela, Lago Atitlan and on to Antigua

Receiving my postcard/ certificate at the end of my week at the Spanish school with my lovely teacher Jacqui
After the two days of Trocaire visits Rowan and myself were going separate ways for a little while. Rowan was off to try and catch some scuba diving in Belize and I was staying in Xela for the week to do an intensive Spanish course for which Xela is famous in these parts. I had arranged to do a home stay for the week which was all too remenicent of being back in Irish College as a teenager complete with Ban an ti! Similar to Irish College you would not want to be relying on the meals provided to fully satisfy you and me a hungry growing “buachail dana”.
Ban an ti
Church by night at main square in Xela.

Looking back down into the valley with Xela in the background

Bike having a rest after the climb out of the valley
After more than a week off, between the Trocaire visits and the Spanish course, I was happy to be back on the bike.  I didn’t have too far to go as it was off to Lago Atitlan which is another popular tourist destination a challenging day’s cycle from Xela. Aldous Huxley described Lago Atitlan as the most beautiful lake in the world..! Unfortunately it was misty when I cycled the extremely steep windy road down to the lake town of San Pedro.

The round widing sharply ahead of me down to Lago Atitlan
Rubbish dumped over the cliff

It's not all dumped though, some plastic containers being recycled
While I was in San Pedro I met Irish man Paul from Bray who runs an Irish restaurant as opposed to the more common Irish pubs one usually comes across. It’s fair to say that “The Clover” serves the best Irish breakfast in Central America, and possibly the only one!

It was a very pleasant surprise to get a full Irish in San Pedro, I had to have a bite before I took the photo.
Then it was across the still misty lake to Panajachel on a small passenger boat.

Church on the main square in Panajachel
The market at Panajachel
The cycle out of Panajachel was another beautiful, grueling Guatemalan day on the bike. The roads up out of the lake were steep and windy. It took me five hours to cycle the first thirty kilometers. It was one of those days on the bike that I will remember for a long time due to the difficult climb, the incredible natural beauty and some of the interesting things I passed that day.

Old man carrying a tree on his back!

What looked like very make shift mines. It looked like very tough work for the men who were scrambling in and out of these passages.

Beautiful natural landscape

Some significant potholes on the road 
Landslide blocking one lane of the road
The river had washed the road away but thankfully I got to cross before the rain season started properly
I met Guillermo from Colombia who was cycling north. He had spent a good few months cycling through Central America and gave me a few suggestions for getting from Panama to Colombia.
I was tired when I finally wheeled into the cobble stoned town of Antigua, Guatemala, the former capital of the country.  Antigua is a beautiful well preserved old colonial town and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua ceased being the capital after it was devastated by an earthquake in 1773. The town receives an abundance of tourists due to its charming beauty.  Having already witnessed a good deal of poverty in Guatemala some of the days cycling on the open road and during the Trocaire visits it was strange to be in a place so full of wealthy tourists frequenting cafes, bars and expensive restaurants that you wouldn’t see as much in other towns. Time for an overpriced latte.

Many of the churchs are still shells never having been fully restored after the earthquake that devastated the city 

Cobblestone streets and the main Arch in Antigua
After Antigua I was heading into Guatemala City for the day to visit the Trocaire offices and attend the trial of Rios Montt, the former President, army general and dictator from the 1980's on trial in Guatemala's National Court for the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Visit to the community of La Florida in Western Guatemala with Trocaire

Marvin, Elena and myself and the entrance sign to La Florida estate
Ever since I talked to Trocaire in their offices in Maynooth last year I have been interested in visiting some of the communities that they support here in Central America. 

On Thursday 4th April myself and Rowan got to see first hand some of the work that Trocaire does when we visited the rural community of La Florida Finca (estate /plantation) in the district of Columba in western Guatemala. This was one of the worst effected regions of the war and violence that occurred in the 80's and 90's with thousands of disappearances, kidnappings and mass graves which are still being investigated today.

We were picked up early in Xela by Elena and Marvin who work for Trocaire in Guatemala. After an hours drive we disembarked at an office to be briefed on the backgroud to La Florida estate.

Explaining the division of the land at La Florida

After years of struggle which started out with about 50 impoverished families occupying one of hundreds of abandoned Fincas, they finally were allowed to buy the land and the entire community have been working ever since to improve their situation and provide for their families. The families at la Florida are very focused on working together as a community as opposed to individuals and most of the estate is communally owned.

La Florida estate division of land
After our briefing we then drove for another half hour mainly on very rough unpaved and very steep dirt roads through beautiful jungle to finally arrive at the isolated community of La Florida.
Beautiful jungle scenery on the drive down to the estate
..and very bumpy roads
La Florida community produce lots of their own food but one of the main focuses is on coffee production. As well as growing the coffee beans until recently they had been processing the coffee all of which is organically certified.
La Florida organic coffee
As with lots of other parts of Guatemala the recent earthquake in November has wreaked havoc on the La Florida community. As you might guess I am no expert on coffee production but after a detailed explanation of the process and a detailed tour of their small and dilapidated sheds suffice to say that water is an integral part of the production process, not just one of the stages but pretty much every stage they explained to me is completely reliant on water.
Pipes to repair the damaged water supply
After the earthquake, their water supply was destroyed.

Needless to say they are desperately trying to raise funds to repair their water supply and infrastructure in order to be able to irrigate their land, produce electricity and effect the various coffee production processes. Time is against them as they need to have everything repaired in the next few months in order to meet coffee contracts they have signed up to.

The community at la Florida were an inspiring group of people who literally started with nothing. They are an outstanding example of people who will not take no for an answer and will push against all the odds to improve their situation. It was a privilege to meet them.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Arrival in Guatemala

Happy to be almost into a new country
After close to four months in Mexico it was time to experience another country on my trip south. We were up early and passed through the border pretty hassle free without wasting much time. It was about 8.30 in the morning and we were cycling in Guatemala. We were excited and it felt great to be cycling in Central America.
Heading south through Central America
Painting of Guatamala on a wall on the way into Huehuetenango

We had been warned by two Guatemalan motorbikers a few weeks previous that this area of Guatamala near the border isn’t the greatest and that we should cycle as far as Huehuetenango to stay on our first night. 

Unfortunately these beautiful mountains were the scenes of horrendous violence and crimes during Guatemala's recent past.
We passed through some incredible mountainous landscape that day on our way to Hue Hue as it is locally known. We also got a very vocal welcome from most kids we passed who hysterically shout “Gringo, gringo” as you pass them. This is normally good natured but not always.

The first fellow cyclist we met in Guatemala

We didn’t have anywhere organised to stay in HueHue so we decided to head for the local “Bomberos” (fire station) to see how the hospitality of Guatemalan fireservices compared with that of Mexican, where we had been very generously accommodated numerous times. We weren’t disappointed… that night Rowan and I spent the night in probably the most unusual place we had laid our heads on the trip so far.  We slept in an ambulance! One of the firemen explained that they didn’t have any spare beds in the main building but he walked us out to the back yard and told us that we could stay in the ambulance if we wanted. Both struggling to keep straight faces we agreed that this should be fine. Before we unpacked we confirmed that the ambulance wasn’t being used as it would be difficult to get a good night’s sleep if the ambulance was being driven around for the night with sirens blaring. We were assured that it was being repaired and not currently in service. Cue two the two lads behaving like five year olds released in a toy shop for the night!

It's an emergency..

Cycling out of the large town of Hue Hue in rush hour traffic the next morning I managed to inhale more exhaust fumes than any human should ever inhale in their lives. The main culprit of these noxious fumes is the “chicken bus” which appear to essentially be US school buses that are way past their best days, sold down here and pimped up. They are as equally colorful as they are polluting, competing not just for passengers but in the slogans painted on the side of the bus usually proclaiming their devotion to God, Jesus, Mary of Jehovah.

The buses are more often painted different colours than the usual yellow, more like the bus in the back ground on the right.
It was only day two on the road in Guatemala but we were already experiencing what we had been advised about and that is the mountainous terrain of lots of Guatemala. It makes for beautiful scenery but challenging cycling!

That evening we arrived in Quetzaltenango (which almost everybody refers by it’s indigenous name of Xela) where we made our way to Brian Fletcher’s place. We met Brian through couch surfing and he had kindly agreed to accommodate us for our first two nights in Xela. Last year Brian had hiked the entire 2,200 mile distance of the Appalacian trail in the US from Georgia to Main over five months so despite being a different sport this man also knew what it is like to arrive into a place absolutely ravenous after a tough days exertions. Brian and his girlfriend Myriam cooked us a delicious dinner with large portions that really hit the spot, mmm.  Thanks Brian! After a few days on the bike and a huge satisfying dinner no matter how well intentioned, it is pretty much time for bed at that stage. Rowan and I also had an early start the following day for our first of two days out visiting Trocaire communities in western Guatemala. 

Two women walking along a side street as we arrive into Xela. Many of the women seem to carry things on their heads.