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Chisec, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Guatemala is where the majority of the ancient Mayans lived, rose to power and finally fell for still unknown reasons. In Guatemala, over half the population is indigenous Maya, descendants of the ancient Maya, and speak one of over 24 distinct languages. A Q’eq’chi  speaker can’t understand a Tzut’ujil speaker, a Quiche speaker can’t understand a Mam speaker.  About 12 million people live in Guatemala, and 6 million speak only Mayan, not Spanish. To this day, Guatemala is a divided country, one where opportunities are abound to the wealthy, but the majority live in extreme poverty.

Chisec, Alta Verapaz is located 76 kilometers north of the city of Cobán, the state capitol, and 289 km north of Guatemala City. Its landscape is dotted with limestone towers and caves containing painted Mayan pottery that was broken during ceremonies that took place over a thousand years ago. The municipality of Chisec is a 2000 square kilometer rural patch of jungle and mountains in the state of Alta Verapaz. 200,000 people live in Chisec, 98% of which are Maya Q´eqchi and speak and understand limited Spanish. 180,000 of these live in hamlets of 20-100 families. The county seat of Chisec is a 6,000 person town with basic services that include electricity, water, commerce and a paved road connection to larger cities.

Q’eqchi is one of the only growing indigenous languages of the 21 spoken in Guatemala. Work in the area must be conducted with a translator.

In Chisec, like all other indigenous places in Guatemala, the women wear traditional dress which consists of intricately hand-weaved colorful skirts and blouses, and in some cases, headdresses. Every town has its own design. Men carry hundreds of pounds of corn and firewood on their heads, and most are farmers of corn, cardamom and beans. They carry a machete and wear rubber boots. Women in villages hike to water sources to wash clothes in the river then carry water on their head back to their house for drinking and bathing.  In traditional Q’eqchi villages of Chisec, women usually do not go to school and do not historically speak as much Spanish as the men.

The Maya Q’eqchi’ in Alta Verapaz suffer some of the worst poverty and health conditions in the country. Many of these problems are rooted in the recently-ended 36-year civil war which affected the area particularly hard. Nearly 90% of the very poor are indigenous, subsistence farmers living on mountainous terrain. 

In 1996, the civil war ended in Guatemala, one with extensive U.S., Russian and Cuban involvement and funding. In the end, many didn't really know who was on which side, and paranoia led to massacre of thousands of innocent villagers almost every day. One example happened in a village in Chisec in 1982. The Army’s soldiers showed up to Seguach’il, a village of about 30 families. All the men were gone, and the soldiers asked the women and children where the men were. The women responded that they had gone to the fields to work. Under suspicion that the men were really in the jungles training with the guerillas, the soldiers rounded up all the women and children in the little wooden church in the village, raped the women, and burned the church to the ground with them in it. This was one of the over 50 documented massacres in Chisec alone. Locals claim there were many more. A memorial still stands in the center of the village of Seguach'il commemorating the victims.

The town of Chisec itself was burned to the ground at least twice during the years 1981-82. Those that could, fled to surrounding cities to wait out the chaos, some chose to live the surrounding jungles and caves.

There were 3 or 4 different sides at the end of the war. The guerillas, originally motivated by pursuit of land rights for farming, eventually evolved into a group dedicated to killing anyone who owned anything. If you owned a car, you could be killed by the guerillas for being rich. The military was dedicated to exterminating the guerillas, which was often confused with anyone who was indigenous, even though there were many indigenous soldiers in the Army.

Confusion was rampant on all sides, and in the end, many didn't remember what they were fighting for. The Patrulleros were formed as local mini-militias whose job was to restore order in their own towns. The government realized things were spinning out of control, and issued guns to the locals to defend their towns. 

Today, fifty-four percent of Guatemala’s 13 million citizens and seventy-six percent of those in the state of Alta Verapaz live below the poverty line and cannot afford medicines sold through the private sector. Based on the World Health Organization only 11 percent of Guatemala’s population has access to healthcare. 

A full 65% of the country—approximately 8.5 million people—still do not have access to the medicines they need. The indigenous population, which has traditionally had the worst  socioeconomic indicators, tends to live in remote rural areas and lacks access to public services.

Pharmacies in the town of Chisec usually carry medicines that cover most of the illnesses that afflict Guatemalans, stocking over 135 drugs able to cure 95% of ailments including at least 25 medicines that target maternal and neonatal diseases. Locals are often not able to purchase the whole prescription, and they buy 1 or 2 pills to feel better. This is damaging on a worldwide level and can eventually contribute to antibiotic resistance and new diseases.

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