By: James Brock Baxter
Have you ever been afraid of your own government? Have you ever laid in bed at night, staring at the ceiling wondering if the next day you would be sent to jail for speaking the truth about actions that your government has taken? Here in Waukesha, Wisconsin it is hard to imagine such a perspective; In Guatemala, it is business as usual.
In Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango a small community radio station by the name of Snuq’ JolomKonob’ is ran by Lorenzo Mateo Francisco, a member the community news agency PrensaComunitaria (Community Press Group). This small local radio station plays a simple but integral part in the community as a conduit for local area news and information, and because almost everyone has a radio, it is accessible by all members of the community. Mr. Francisco was in Waukesha on Monday as part of a speaking tour he is undertaking to spread awareness to the current repressed status of his community radio station SJK.
What I should have said before is that it used to serve as a source of local news to the community, until it was shut down in March, 2015. In Lorenzo’s own words (via his English translator), “The freedom of the press is under attack” in Guatemala, and Lorenzo himself and his radio station are being deliberately targeted by corrupt government officials that wish to silence these community journalists from revealing the truth about their illegal actions.
While stories of corruption in Guatemala’s federal government are well known, and have for the most part been addressed with the upcoming federal level elections, it is at the local government level that our story of corruption and murder begins. Sometime in January of this year community journalists affiliated with the SJK radio station reported a story about the mayor of Santa Eulalia. In this story, the mayor is accused of shooting two well-known community leaders who were members of his political opposition. One of these community leaders died, and the other still suffers from a bullet lodged in his body. SJK reported on these events as they unfolded, while government controlled media outlets were silent on the matter. It is after running this particular community news story that SJK was targeted by the mayor and other corrupt local officials, according to Mr. Francisco.
Soon after these events took place, at least two community journalists were taken as political prisoners. Mr. Francisco described witness accounts that had been given to him of these journalists being taken by forces loyal to the mayor, “they were kidnapped and tortured… their camera and other equipment was destroyed.” Mr. Francisco also said he believed that the government was currently holding over 800 political prisoners.Mr. Francisco also said that one member of the radio station was taken hostage by forces aligned with the corrupt elements of the local government, tortured and then killed for work done for the radio station.
As well as the corrupt local government forces kidnapping community journalists, the mayor was also able to legally censor, and then close down SJK. The mayor’s forces even went as far as to shut down electricity to the SJK building, forcing the members of the community radio station to run power cords from adjacent buildings in order to keep broadcasting. In the end the mayor’s forces succeeded in pushing out the SJK community radio team, but not without attracting the attention of the United Nations. SJK brought their case for local government corruption and freedom of the press to UN investigators, who tried to delve deeper into the matter by asking the mayor to sit down and negotiate a solution to the problem facing his community. The mayor declined all offers to participate in any kind of negotiations.
Despite all the grievous actions taken by the morally corrupt members of the government in Santa Eulalia, SJK is still live and broadcasting to its audiences in Guatemala and the United States. Thanks to the internet and the budding new journalistic tool of social media, the truths that the SJK radio broadcasting team discover, are still being thrust into the public eye of the world, so that they will never be silenced.
While the political prisoners are still locked away, and two community members are dead, progress has still been made. Because of pressure that the UN was able to leverage, the corrupt mayor has vacated his office. The new mayor has promised that when he takes office in January of 2016, he will immediately reopen SJK, and allow the local radio team to begin transmitting live over the airwaves of their neighborhoods once again.
After Mr. Francisco had finished speaking, he took a question from a member of the crowd asking him if he had hope that the new mayor would fare better than the last one, “Si,” he responded, then paused for a moment to give a small defeatist smile “I think so”.
With political corruption rampant in Guatemala, from the federal to the local level, it is easy to understand why Mr. Francisco may have some doubts about a new political figure with big promises. He also voiced concern about the “clown” that has been democratically elected to the presidential post in the Guatemalan government, Jimmy Morales, a former political comedian and satirist with little to no political experience. Mr. Francisco said that Mr. Morales hadn’t even really won the popular vote, but instead a majority of the other candidates for the office were exposed in corruption scandals and were forced to drop out of the race. Mr. Francisco again voiced his concerns about Morales, saying that many of his comedy routines were focused on racist or stereotypical depictions of the indigenous people of Guatemala, who Mr. Francisco directly represents.
The people of Guatemala are tired of lies. The corruption exposed in their governmental structure in recent years has been both horrifying, as well as eye opening. Moving forward the citizens of Guatemala have made it clear to their future leaders that corruption of any kind will not be tolerated, and the collective voice of their communities will not be silenced.