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Guatemala: the echo of pain



El Eco del Dolor – The Echo of the Pain of Many

Manchester-based Armadillo Productions has launched a resource-based website,, to support their new feature-length documentary film, El Eco del Dolor – The Echo of the Pain of Many. The film (reviewed for LAB below by Louise Morris) is now available on the site, in its entirety or in short chapters, for free viewing and use.
According to Armadillo founders Ana Lucía Cuevas and Fred Coker, ‘It was at a recent screening of the film in Bilbao, part of a week-long series of exhibitions and talks on Guatemala (see our first blog) that the new website, and its accompanying blog were launched. ‘The response to the blog has been gratifying. The last piece we did, around the life, work and recent recognition given to Guatemalan human rights defender Aura Elena Farfan, reached over 30,000 people. ‘With the discovery in Guatemala of the Historical Archives of the National Police in 2005, we decided to return home and to document, in the form of a video, our investigation into the circumstances of the capture and assassinations of members of the Cuevas family.
Ana Lucia Cuevas
Ana Lucía Cuevas
‘This was with the view that what we produced could become for the family, and for those of other Guatemalans, a resource to raise awareness around the circumstances of the 200,000 murders and 45,000 disappearances, mainly of civilians, during our struggle for democracy and social change. ‘However, during the research, production, and editing of the film, we spent ages searching for the many valuable sources of information that were relevant and available, both online and offline. And so a second purpose of the website was to create a ‘portal’ through which people coming to have a look at The Echo, could have quick and easy access to the wealth of resources, organisations, and to photographers and human rights’ defenders whose work who might contribute to their current or future campaigning or productions around the issues we have been seeking to address.’

El Eco del Dolor – a review for LAB by Louise Morris

Nineteen years after the Peace Accords officially ended the Guatemalan civil war, bodies are still being brought out of the ground. Attempts are made to reunite families and ease the perpetual mourning of the relatives of the disappeared. El Eco del Dolor centres on a search for answers – Ana Lucía Cuevas, prompted by the recent discovery of the National Police archives, decides to return again to Guatemala to find out what exactly happened to her brother, his wife and child, all abducted during the war. This personal journey, originally intended as a broader documentary about the disappeared, evocatively and disturbingly unpicks the layers of bureaucracy and American political influence that allowed one of the largest genocides in recent years to occur. Ana Lucía Cuevas’ travels incorporate visits to the National Security Archive in New York and to academic Noam Chomsky to draw light on the wider context for the atrocity. After the pro-democracy uprising in 1944 which toppled dictator Jorge Ubico and a later military coup ended his political influence, a series of progressive social reforms were implemented under the Presidency of Juan José Arévalo. However, it was not until Jacobo Árbenz – the leader of the 1944 coup, was elected President in 1951 that the United States took serious notice. Árbenz’s ambitious land reforms benefitted huge segments of the largely indigenous population, when the uncultivated portions of large land-holdings were expropriated in return for compensation, and redistributed to poverty-stricken agricultural labourers. This hurt the interests of the United Fruit Company, as did the labour reforms, and with many high up US officials having personal links with United Fruit they demanded intervention. $3 million was pledged by the US government to wipe out “Communism” in Guatemala and the threat of it spreading and eroding American interests throughout Central America. The 1954 CIA backed coup began a devastating period of US influence and control of Guatemala as they backed a series of military dictatorships. Guatemala’s national police and army were rebuilt on the American model and training and support were provided in gathering intelligence. This escalated during the war when arms were sent to Guatemala, extensive training and aid were provided and US ambassadors turned a blind eye to the reports of massacres and torture. Many of the documents Ana Lucía examined hunting for information about her family, were from American archives. Candlelight vigil for the disappeared. Photo: James Rodríguez. However, it is the personal narrative rather than the rigorous analysis of the systematic repression which really forces the viewer to recognise the human lives and familial repercussions embodied by the statistics of 45,000 disappeared and 200,000 dead during the war. Interviews with survivors from both the activist circles and the Mayan villages are brought to life by flickering archive footage, photographs and subtle re-enactments, which sickeningly convey the brutal torture most disappeared people endured. The film constantly returns to the scene of an exhumation, a frequent occurrence for the busy Guatemalan forensic team as new mass graves are discovered, giving the irrefutable proof that this was a carefully calculated genocide, not simply a civil war against ‘Communist insurgents’. The remains of women and children amongst the bodies testify to this. Silent and patient, relatives watch the process, hoping to catch sight of a familiar checked shirt under the bones. Ana Lucía describes the persistence of the onlookers as “for us the exhumation is a public proclamation of what has happened, finding them will help us to close the circle of bereavement, and to learn more about the circumstances of their deaths.”
Photographer Jean Marie Simon discovered images of Rosario, one of the demonstration organisers
Photographer Jean Marie Simon discovered images of Rosario, one of the demonstration organisers
The Cuevas family were highly politicised. Ana Lucía’s father Rafael was a prominent human rights defender and academic who was the target of intimidation and surveillance by Guatemalan officials; Ana Lucía’s childhood home was repeatedly broken into. During Ana Lucía’s late teens she joined one of the five main opposition groups, as did her entire close family. Increasing persecution led to some of her family fleeing the country in 1984, leaving behind three of her siblings, including Carlos. Just two months later, Carlos was violently abducted and the family staged a public campaign demanding his release. Rosario, Carlos’ wife, relentlessly searched the hospitals, morgues and detention centres where she met Nineth Monetenegro the founder of the Mutual Support Group  of the Families of the Disappeared (GAM) and became active within the group. Rosario and her two year old son were abducted in 1985, when eventually they were discovered both their bodies bore signs of torture. Although there have been successful prosecutions of army perpetrators, which the film documents, these are juxtaposed against the apparent immunity of some of the principal orchestrators of the war: Efraín Ríos Montt and Otto Perez Molina. Both of whom were re-elected as President in the years after the war. Claudia Paz y Paz, the inspirational former Attorney General of Guatemala who first brought Ríos Montt to trial, now lives in exile after her term was cut short. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)  has just published findings of further endemic corruption, linking political parties to organised crime. With this background of impunity, persecution and the continued power of former military generals, it is not surprising that there remains a fear of speaking out. However, with the evidence against Guatemalan perpetrators mounting steadily and increased international efforts to tackle corruption, there is hope for more high level prosecutions. As Ana Lucía attests, “it is natural to try to forget”, as a common symptom of surviving trauma. El Eco del Dolor stands a remarkable work of testimony, memorial and investigative film making, disseminated both amongst Guatemalan communities through Armadillo Productions’ outreach work and internationally, to make sure that we never forget.

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