My brother Carlos disappeared in 1984. He was 24 and I was 21; we were both students in Guatemala City. There was very heavy repression going on – assassinations in the city and massacres in the countryside. We were part of the clandestine opposition but we were also part of the student union – Carlos was its leader. There had been another military coup the year before and the situation was extremely difficult. I went to Costa Rica with my mother and younger sister, but Carlos decided to stay.
Carlos had bought a motorbike, because it was the fastest way to escape if he was being followed. But one day, three cars came after him and he and a friend were shot at and taken. When he didn’t come home, his wife, María del Rosario, started to search for him in the morgue, the hospitals, the police stations. But there was no sign.
She kept meeting other women who were also looking for people and they founded a support group. They were threatened and followed and, in the Holy Week of 1985, María was taken and tortured, along with my baby nephew, Augusto, and her brother. They had only gone out to buy nappies but they all died. She was a well-educated woman with great charisma. I think they targeted her because she was strong.
Carlos was my soulmate. I found it almost impossible to go on living. Augusto was my godson and I was haunted by the fact that he was tortured. I felt I was in exile; the rest of the world knew very little about what was happening in Guatemala. Even María del Rosario’s killing was planned for a week when there was no press, because it was Holy Week. And afterwards, no one wanted any connection with my family because of the consequences. I went to study in Bulgaria as I had a scholarship, but afterwards I started the search again.
I’ve lived in the UK since 1993, but in 1996 there were peace accords in Guatemala, so I went back, very quietly. I got in touch with the group that my sister-in-law had formed, and we asked the government to investigate my brother’s case. In 1999, a chilling document was found: records of 183 people who had been taken. My brother was there, with all his details. There was a code – the number 300 – next to the name if the person had been executed. My brother had that code: he was executed three months after he was kidnapped. Until then, I’d thought he might still be alive.
Last year, the civilian president, Álvaro Colom, made a very public apology to my family and two others. But in January this year, a new president took power: Otto Pérez Molina. He was part of the military during the repression.
It’s surreal: human rights are already going into reverse. Access to archives is being closed off. The forensic investigation foundation found a mass grave in February this year and have discovered 300 bodies so far; men, women, children with clear signs of execution – and the military are saying it’s a community cemetery.
People are frightened to speak about what happened because those who carried out atrocities are still there – and it hurts too much. About 45,000 people were made to disappear and only a handful of families are still searching. Now, there’s a whole new generation that knows nothing about this.
I’ve made a film, The Echo of Pain of the Many, about what happened to my family. When we started showing it in Guatemalan schools and universities, young people would come and say thank you. One woman said she had felt she had been living in the second part of a film without knowing what had happened in the first part. Even those whose own parents disappeared had no idea.
The title reflects what I hope to achieve – I want to be the echo of what happened to thousands of Guatemalans, not just my own family. And I want younger generations to know what we went through; they are walking in a land that has witnessed horrific things and is still a violent place.