Reviving the Mayan way of justice

Sun Journal

Tradition: Guatemala's Indians, wracked by centuries of exploitation and a long civil war, return to an old practice for settling disputes

January 25, 1999|By Fiona Ortiz | Fiona Ortiz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN ANDRES SEMETABAJ, Guatemala -- Brothers Francisco and Manuel Morales Ajqui, Mayan Indians who farm broccoli and corn in the Guatemalan highlands, have been squabbling for years over the rich fields their father left them.

The family feud revolves around a right of way. Whenever Manuel gets mad at Francisco, he blocks the narrow path that leads uphill through his fields, making it impossible for Francisco to get to his crops.

It is a minor dispute but a festering one, and for years the Morales family had no one to help them resolve it. Like most Guatemalans, they do not speak Spanish. The closest court is in a distant city where the judge does not speak the Moraleses' Indian tongue, Kakchiquel. The language barrier bred distrust that no interpreter could overcome.

Guatemala's Mayas are among the poorest people in the Americas. Centuries of repressive governments exploited them under laws most Mayas considered alien. Tens of thousands of Mayas died in this country's brutal civil war.

The 36-year war also eroded traditional Indian justice systems. In many towns like San Andres Semetabaj, a village of 9,000 near the tourist destination of Lake Atitlan, an Indian mayor used to mediate disputes. But during the war, the powerful army weakened the authority of local mayors. When the war ended in 1996, the military shrank, leaving a power vacuum in many towns.

Now, under guarantees for Indian rights written into the 1996 peace accords, Mayan Indians like the Moraleses are rebuilding their traditional forms of justice. San Andres has set up a community court of three lay judges who hear cases in Kakchiquel and who make rulings based on Indian traditions.

On a recent Monday morning, the three judges donned their cowboy hats, climbed into the back of a rusty pickup truck, and rode out to the Morales place. Armed with a measuring tape, the judges hiked through a patchwork of fields as the brothers used machetes to cut stakes to mark a new right of way.

"We have this problem all the time. It's our most common type of case," said judge Efrain Juracan, a local leader who was named to the court, although his experience is in vegetable quality control. The peasant tradition of dividing land among sons, he said, often creates spats over access.

"With the document we are going to prepare, we are leaving it clear for future generations. No one will have the right to block the path," Juracan said.

The Morales brothers remained gruff with each other as the judges measured the land, but they were pleased with the opportunity to air complaints in their language. And they were willing to respect the resulting piece of paper, even though they can neither read nor sign their names.

"Without their help, we couldn't resolve anything," Francisco said through a Kakchiquel interpreter. "They speak our language. They understand us better. We don't understand Castile." Castilian, an antiquated term for Spanish, conveys non-Mayan ways, evokes colonial-era resentments, and symbolizes the deep divide between Mayas and Guatemalans of European descent.

In post-war Guatemala, the government is trying to overcome ancient resentments, officially recognizing Mayan languages and expanding bilingual education programs. Five community courts like the one in San Andres were established last year under a pilot program to allow Mayas to administer justice according to their own traditions.

"Guatemala's Indian peoples have applied traditional justice for more than a millennium. They have their own methods to resolve conflicts, and recently they have fought to be able to apply justice according to their customs," said Angel Figueroa, a judge who launched the program when he was serving as president of the Guatemalan Supreme Court.

The new community judges are mostly unschooled, but their word is law. The community courts operate without lawyers, which would be too expensive for the peasants, who line up in earth-stained trousers and recycled-tire sandals to consult with the judges.

Juracan's busy court relies on Indian customs to rule on everything from abusive husbands to a woman who lent fertilizer to her neighbor and was never paid back.

"One of the principles we use in indigenous law is maintaining family and community unity," said Leonardo Cabrera, member of a national committee that advocates allowing Indians to practice traditional law.

Creativity, as well as tradition, comes into play in delicate cases. San Andres judges ordered a wife to take her cheating husband back, and ordered her husband to sign a paper recognizing that this was his very last chance.

"If they had no kids, we would not have discouraged her from kicking him out," said judge Nicolas Chumil. "But since they have kids, they should stay together. People understand this court is different because we work on reconciliation and listen to everyone."

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