Disturbing the Peace of the Graveyard

In Colombia there is an expression: la paz del cementerio — the peace of the graveyard.  This is the kind of peace that powerful forces enjoy when everyone who resists them is dead and buried.

Colombia’s government and its military and paramilitary forces have spent decades working diligently for this kind of peace.  They’re so intent on winning it that they’ve even dispensed with the graveyard: according to Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez, more than half a million people have been forcibly disappeared in Colombia in the past 33 years.  The government’s own “Justice and Peace Unit” has reports of 210,000 forced disappearances, based on complaints lodged by family members between 2006 and mid-2009.  That suggests the 500,000 figure may be low; Yanett Bautista of the Nydia Erika Bautista Human Rights Foundation — named for one of the disappeared — estimates that family members have filed complaints in only 10% of the disappearance cases.  Of the cases investigated so far, fewer than 2,500 bodies have been located, mostly in mass graves.

Israel, meanwhile, has spent six decades building its own brand of graveyard peace in Palestine.  December 27 marks one year since Israel began a massive attack on the residents of Gaza, killing more than 1,400 people, including nearly 400 children, and transforming the tiny strip of land from a de facto prison into a cemetery.  Israel continues to strangle Gaza through a blockade and greets nonviolent protesters with tear gas and bullets.

In Honduras, the right-wing elite and military high command, which have close ties to the extremist Catholic group Opus Dei, seem similarly committed to a graveyard peace.  Last June 28 they toppled an elected president who in their eyes had bowed too far to pressure from progressive grassroots sectors.  Already strong, the country’s diverse social movements — including indigenous, African-descended, unionists, and lesbian and gay activists — responded to the coup by uniting and launching a coordinated nonviolent struggle from the streets.

Since the coup, 18 gay and transgender Hondurans have been among those murdered in a campaign of repression against the resistance movement, according to data compiled by the lesbian activist and research group Cattrachas.  Killings of transgender women in Honduras were already rampant: in four years from 2005 through 2008, Human Rights Watch reports that 17 transgender women were killed.  Now in just six months the coup government has doubled the number of victims.

On December 13, just two days after I met Cattrachas activist Indyra Mendoza at a New York City event organized by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, Indyra’s friend and fellow activist Walter Tróchez was shot to death in Tegucigalpa.  A human rights defender for the gay community and for people living with HIV/AIDS, and an active member of the National Resistance Front Against the Coup, Tróchez had been threatened repeatedly, and on December 4, four armed men in civilian clothes had attempted to kidnap him.  “Walter used to go with me to recognize the bodies of our transgender friends when they were killed,” said Indyra.  “Now I had to go on my own to identify his body.”

This is the peace of the graveyard.  It is also known as genocide.

And if it makes you uncomfortable to read this while you would prefer to think about your last-minute Christmas shopping, that’s fine, as long as your discomfort leads you to action.  Because genocide is not exactly in the holiday spirit, and it’s happening right now — in your name, and with your tax dollars.

You can start by picking up the phone and calling your representative and senators and telling them you believe that people have a right to protest peacefully without getting attacked or murdered, and you would like the US government to stop supporting regimes in Colombia, Israel, and Honduras that are violating that right.  Following the links in this article will lead you to more sources that can help you stay informed and get involved.

Jane Guskin is co-author with David Wilson of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, published in July 2007 by Monthly Review Press.  Guskin and Wilson are also co-editors, since 1990, of Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of Latin American news.  In addition, Guskin edited Immigration News Briefs, a bulletin covering immigration-related news, from 1998 through 2008.  In 1997 Guskin and Wilson helped found the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants, an all-volunteer group mobilizing against workplace raids.  From April 2002 to April 2004, they worked to free their colleague and friend, Farouk Abdel-Muhti, from immigration detention.  Guskin is co-director of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, a grassroots foundation supporting nonviolent action for social justice, where she has worked since 1993.  She lives in New York City.

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