Guatemala hopes the road leads to peace

Guatemala's government is hoping the steep, rutted road to Cocop is a path to lasting peace.

Abandoned for years, the repaired dirt roadway has restored access to an isolated valley that the army stormed in 1981, killing 79 people.

It may not seem like much, but the road represents a new level of war reparations: Government aid that tries to rebuild war-torn communities as a whole, rather than handing victims cash payments that often sow resentment among their former enemies.

Despite peace accords in 1996 that ended 36 years of civil war, distrust of both neighbors and government officials still runs deep in Guatemala, and many communities are still divided between former leftist guerrillas and paramilitaries recruited by a U.S.-backed Guatemalan army. The war left 200,000 dead, mostly poor Mayan peasants.

The Guatemalan army implemented a scorched earth policy to root out communist guerrilla supporters and make examples out of suspected sympathizers.

Cocop, a collection of 50 huts scattered throughout a narrow valley, was among the hardest hit. It was chosen as the first and only town to participate in the new program.

Before the new program, war victims got cash payments, but they couldn't get help for even the simplest projects.

"No one would help us repair the road, not the mayor, nor the governor, nor the congressmen," recalled Sebastian Ramirez, a 46-year-old Mayan farmer who survived the massacre. "Whenever we needed a car to come to our village, drivers would say, 'We don't go to Cocop. The road is too bad,"'

That changed this fall when the government-run National Program for Reparations War Victims provided the fuel to power the local government's road grader.

"Now people are happy because on Sundays we can go to Nebaj to sell our goods, like cabbages and onions. ... Before, we had to carry everything on our backs," Ramirez said.

The program also paid for above-ground, concrete tombs for war victims exhumed from a mass grave in 2004. Previously, victims pulled from mass graves by forensic anthropologists were buried in dirt tombs at ceremonies sponsored by human rights groups.

"I would remember the dead and think, 'They are buried one on top of another. That can't be right,"' Ramirez said.

Next year, the program wants to help Cocop peasants grow fruit and vegetables that are more profitable than traditional crops of corn and beans. And plans are under way to build a common building for occasional dances and traditional ceremonies.

Cocop's success has persuaded 27 other communities to ask for similar programs, and the government earmarked $1 million for the next two years to pay for buildings and provide psychological care to those affected by painful memories of the war, like Ramirez's mother, a 79-year-old woman who still runs and hides whenever strangers approach.

The new aid does not halt cash payments to survivors of human rights violations committed by the government. They receive one-time payments of between $3,200 and $5,800 from the war reparations program. And former paramilitary members who were forced by the army to fight leftist guerrillas receive about $700 each.

But cash reparations have fueled tensions between those who suffered human rights abuses and their perpetrators, says Hector Soto, a forensic anthropologist from the independent Center for Forensic Analysis and Applied Science.

"In those villages where only cash was given, even more problems arose," Soto says. ‘‘There were jealousy problems because people were not happy that others got cash."

Cesar Davila, director of the new effort to coordinate reparations, says the goal is to rebuild trust in the government.

"For many Guatemalans, the government doesn't even exist," he said. "We have to assume responsibility for what we did."