Guatemala Tries Ex-President For Genocide, Sets Example For The World

Rios Montt is accused of killing more than 1,700 Mayan from the Ixil Community, like here in San Juan Cotzal
Rios Montt is accused of killing more than 1,700 Mayan from the Ixil Community, like here in San Juan Cotzal


SANTIAGO - The soldiers killed and beheaded an old woman, recounted one of the witnesses in the trial of Efrain Rios Montt, retired army general and ex-President of Guatemala. Then the soldiers used her had as a soccer ball in an impromptu game.

That might have been the most shocking testimony in the genocide trial against Montt, but it was certainly not the only disturbing story. Montt is accused of being responsible for the torture, rape and systematic killing of more than 1,700 indigenous Mayas whom he accused of supporting the armed insurgency against the government.

Montt came to power by a military coup in 1982 and was deposed by another military coup in 1983. Once he was overthrown, the dictator became a member of parliament – something that happens in Guatemala and in other, much richer Latin American countries like Chile – and in the 1990s, ran for president twice. Now he is facing a trial that is 30 years late.

But, it's better late than never. The trial against Montt has attracted international attention because it is the first time in history that a former dictator has been on trial for genocide in his own country. Whatever the court rules, it will serve as an international precedent, and if Montt is convicted it will be a warning to dictators around the world.

A 2006 demonstration against Rios Montt in Guatemala - Photo: Firetreo

In Guatemala, Montt is only one of a long list of de-facto presidents who took power from each other or overthrew democratically elected leaders in the nearly 40 years of civil war there, which left more than 200,000 dead between 1960 and 1996.

There are many more who could be brought to justice, including the current president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina. In the trial against Montt that began this week, one of the witnesses implicated the current president in the killings of indigenous people that took place when Montt was in power. The witness said that Molina coordinated the burning and pillaging of a small village.

All of this is not just bad news. Even the fact that Montt is being tried in his home country, prosecuted by a Justice Department that takes its work seriously and before a court that has every indication of being independent shows how much the country has advanced in political and institutional infrastructure in the past several years.

No news is good news

Guatemala and the other politically turbulent countries of Central America – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – captivated world attention in the 1980s and 1990s, when the violence between governments, paramilitaries and guerrillas left dead bodies left, right, and center. But the civil wars ended in the 1990s, democracy has been established and since then the only news from the region is about hurricanes and earthquakes.

No news is good news. Between 1995 and 2012, the GDP per capita in Guatemala rose from $3,300 to $4,300 per year. The life expectancy at birth rose from 62 years to 71 years. The average schooling of the population rose from 3.1 years to 4.1 years. El Salvador – a much more educated country with less income disparity – has seen similar improvements. Even the two poorest countries in the central America, Honduras and Nicaragua, have seen major increases in the per capita GDP and reductions in the number of people living in extreme poverty, defined as the number of people living on less than $40 per month.

The problems are far from over, of course. Extreme poverty has not gone down in Guatemala, where 13% of the population has been living on less than $40 per month since the 1990s. And the decades of civil war have taken their toll throughout Central America. Honduras has the highest per-capita homicide rate in the world, with 91 homicides per 100,000 residents. The silver medal in murder rates goes to El Salvador, while Venezuela takes third. Guatemala comes in with the sixth-highest murder rate in the world, after the Ivory Coast and Jamaica. Even richer countries in Central America like Belize, Panama and Costa Rica pull their weight with high murder rates, enough to make Central America the most violent region in the world.

In spite of everything, today there are democracies in the region, institutions of civil society and all of the Central American countries have been growing economically for the past decade. And now Guatemala is giving the world a lesson in justice. Who would have ever thought?

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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