Mr Cobo, what does the change of presidency in the USA mean for you?
A new hope. Trump initially outsourced the asylum procedure to Mexico. Since then, thousands of refugees, like me, have been stuck on the Mexican side of the border waiting for their asylum procedure in the USA. And that has been for a year or two. Because in the corona crisis, the procedures were simply suspended. US President-elect Biden has promised to bring the asylum process back to the US.
Why did you have to leave your country, Guatemala?
I am a member of the indigenous Maya Ixil. They were survivors of the genocide in the early 1980s. From an early age, my parents and grandparents taught me to respect Mother Earth. Our region is rich in natural resources and water. International companies today acquire concessions in order to exploit them. Guatemala welcomes them regardless of the dramatic consequences. A Canadian mining company bought the concession through our community and tried to split it. She wanted to buy me too; I was a translator and part of the indigenous authorities. When I refused, the threats began.
The Guatemalan state argues that the megaprojects will bring development to the country …
But there is no electricity in the villages right next to the hydropower plants. The residents cook on wood fires. And when the mining companies go, the communities are poorer than before. Because the ground is then dried up; what was previously grown no longer grows. This is the reality of the indigenous population in Guatemala and worldwide. We are ridiculed as backward and our rights are disregarded. The development that the West promises will bring its downfall with the climate catastrophe.
What does it mean to you to be a member of the Maya Ixil?
A life of persecution. My family fled to the mountains to avoid the massacres, but when we returned our churches were gone. We were settled in so-called “model villages” in “development poles” (“Polos de Desarrollo”), basically camps controlled by paramilitaries. Strangers often came into the house and insulted my father as a guerrilla. We children were forbidden to speak our own language at school, they were beaten out of us. The sentences were so severe that many dropped out of school. I persevered, later I studied.
You co-founded an Ixil University and became part of the authorities in your community when you were just under 30 …
The most important task of my generation is to help the survivors of the genocide come to terms with the past. Over 100 of them appeared as witnesses in the groundbreaking trial (see box) against dictator Efraín Rios Montt. Trials against high military officials are still to follow. But right now we also have to save our country from destruction.
How did you experience the fighting in your community?
For years, drunks attacked me in the dark and I received threatening phone calls. But I persevered. I had already experienced that as a child, when they wouldn’t leave my father alone. I got guard dogs and lived outside the house for a while. When we held a political discussion between district candidates for election in Nebaj in May 2019, it came to a head. Actually, a decree had been issued that those involved in the genocide were not allowed to compete. But the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in which all the rich and powerful of Guatemala are gathered, achieved its withdrawal. We confronted the candidate of the party of the daughter of Rios Montt with the question of how he, as Ixil, felt about all of this. When I went home after the debate, I was ambushed.
It was a young man I had long suspected to be working with the paramilitaries. He knew everything about me, my daily routine, who my family was. He yelled at me that this was my last chance to withdraw or they would kill me. Fortunately, passers-by came by so I could escape. It wasn’t until much later that the circle came full circle when the murder of Juana Raymundo, a close friend and activist in the CODECA peasant movement, was solved. The organization’s president and coordinator himself were behind the crime, and I realized that there were people who were very close to us and who passed on information.
Did you decide to leave your family, community, and country after the incident?
I left home on June 8, 2019, with a close friend, Francisco Chávez, an important witness in the Rios Montt trial. We traveled to the USA with smugglers, as do all the migrants and refugees from Central America.
What did you experience on this trip?
Such an escape is not a journey, it is an exorbitant cost and cruel things happen. One sits on top of one another in the dark in some companion. We were verbally abused and robbed by the police. On the border with the United States, the smugglers locked us in a warehouse with no food or water. One day a little girl arrived with a new group. Her mother died in the desert. The girl played with the other children during the day and cried at night. I wrote down everything that I experienced and secretly took photos and small videos for a documentary filmmaker friend.
You have been in Mexico for over a year. How do you deal with your situation?
I am frustrated. My family is so far away. And the social struggles continue; the genocide trials as well. Important indigenous environmental activists such as Bernardo Caal and María Choc were arrested in Guatemala, and the Frenchman Benoît Maria was murdered in August. He accompanied the Ixil congregations for over 20 years, went in and out of my house for ten years. With him we founded the indigenous university and set up local farmers’ markets. He was concerned about his safety, always changing time and place on appointments. And yet they killed him. That they don’t even have respect for foreigners scares me. These are conditions like in the civil war, when they murdered Jesuit priests who were accompanying the congregations.
Do you sometimes think of going back?
It’s a constant thought. My family is in Guatemala. I try to persevere and take advantage of the opportunities that arise here. I create networks to support the movement, try to provide moral support. With the help of an American anthropologist, we found out that the former mayor of Nebaj forged historical land titles and expropriated common land. I also motivate people from the USA to go to Guatemala as international observers. Because we fight for the well-being of all of humanity. At some point, the injustice must end.
You now live in an industrial metropolitan area. How has your everyday life changed?
It is completely different here than in Guatemala. In addition to my political engagement, I also grew corn and beans for my family there. And we keep chickens in the yard. Here in town you go on shift and come back at night. The foremen tell you what to do and what not to do, even if you are tired or sick. It’s hard, but I have to survive. If we feel very lonely here in Juárez, we go to the indigenous community, to the Colonia Tarahumara of the Raramuri, who moved here from the Sierra. During the week I work in a factory that makes packaging material for the big assembly companies on the border. Everything goes to the USA. I send most of the money to my family. To make our house safer because it’s easy to get in there. I hope that one day I can buy land for my children because my family lost everything in the civil war.
How are you experiencing the pandemic here?
You will never starve to death in an indigenous community. Everything is closed here in this big city. The city cannot survive without the food from the countryside. When you are in places like this, you learn a lot. You see how people struggle to survive, you understand what exploitation through work means.
Ciudad Juarez is the second most dangerous city in Mexico. Do you feel safe here as a political refugee?
Definitely not. When I applied for asylum, it got through the media and also reached Guatemala. “Ixiles are applying for asylum in the USA”, the ex-military got angry about it. These people have a lot of power and influence. My colleague Francisco is also a witness in the genocide proceedings and these are very controversial court cases. In fact, I only recently received serious threats on my phone. The callers even knew our address in Ciudad Juárez. We moved out immediately.