Petenác Community
Redevelopment Project:
Huehuetenango, Guatemala

Community and Project History
by CASA director Pete Shear, January 2007

On March 8 2004, I met for the first time with the Comité
de Desarollo Comunitario de Petenác (CEDECO). We
met on a windswept, barren field in a high valley
overlooking the Cuchamatanes mountain range in the
northern departamento of Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
The small Chuj Maya community of Petenác used to
spread across the south-facing slope of the valley, only
20 kilometers from the border with Chiapas, Mexico.

This close proximity to Mexico is what Comité member
Baltizár Cebéb says saved the lives of most CEDECO
members more than twenty years ago. On July 14, 1982,
the Guatemalan Army burned the village of Petenác to
the ground, destroying more than thirty houses and
killing 86 men, women, and children. “There was no time
to think,” Baltizár says. “The survivors, we fled to Mexico
with nothing.”

The army had been sweeping through northern
Huehuetenango throughout 1982 as part of dictator
General Efraín Ríos Montt´s “scorched earth campaign.”
This now famous, USA-funded military strategy was
designed to deliver a final, killing blow to URNG guerilla
units by destroying their popular and logistical bases in
highland villages. Because the army had no sure way of
knowing where guerilla sympathizers lived, the only
reliable way to get rid of them was to destroy and kill as
many villages and people as possible in areas
suspected of sheltering or aiding the URNG. Hundreds
of villages were destroyed. Thousands of innocent
people were killed.

Today, the general story of the Guatemalan genocide of
the 1970s and 80s, and the 200,000 lives it took, is well
known and well-documented. It is the long-lasting
psychological, economic, and cultural trauma that is not
discussed so often. Today, the only physical sign that
Petenác ever existed are the old earthen house
foundations, grown over with grass like an ancient ruin
waiting to be excavated. The brave survivors of the
massacre and their families are the village´s living

Like so many past CASA projects, I hooked up with the
community through a series of random connections.
Last year, Annie Bird at Rights Action in Guatemala City
introduced me to Santiago Pablo, the coordinator of
Human Rights for ETESC —El Equipo Técnico de
Educación y Salúd Comunitaria— based in Santa Ana
Huista, Huehuetenango. Both organizations do excellent
and varied human rights and social justice work in
Guatemala. Rights Action has a website explaining their
work throughout Latin America—

ETESC was born in 1984 as a direct-aid supplier to the
more than 100,00 Guatemalan war refugees living in
camps along the Chiapas border. Santiago Pablo
started working in the camps as a health promoter.
ETESC expanded its programs of health clinics, free
dental care, and reproductive health education to a bi-
national level working in Guatemala and Mexico
throughout the 80s with funding from Partners in Health,
a Boston-based group. ETESC withdrew from its direct-
aid work in Mexico in 1994 after the Zapatista uprising.
They, along with many Guatemalan human rights
workers, were accused of subversion and collaboration
with the Zapatistas by the Mexican army/national police
forces, making their work dangerous, and sometime life-

1996 saw the signing of the Peace Accords that
effectively ended overt warfare in Guatemala, and
refugees began returning by the thousands. Among
them were the survivors of Petenác. ETESC immediately
started talks with Petenác survivors to organize
exhumations of family and community members, whose
remains had been buried in mass graves.

The Peace Accords stipulated that a big part of the
“reconciliation” process was to dig up murdered citizens
so that their families could have closure and the
opportunity to put them to rest according to the custom
and religion of the community. A secondary reason for
exhumations is that they provide the forensic evidence
needed to form lawsuits against human rights violators.

Today, a large stone monument, whose construction
was funded by Rights Action, overlooks the valley where
Petenác once stood. It serves as a constant reminder of
the evil that took place there, but also of hope for the
future. Diego Domingo Pegro, one of the oldest
survivors and a respected elder, told me that, “the
monument makes us remember to not give up. We will
rebuild the community here. We will do it for the children
and for the dead.”

Right now, there are 32 nuclear families who originate
from Petenác, living in the deep barrancas, or gulches,
that lead down to the river that drains the valley. Some
people have constructed shacks close to the river made
of adobe and scraps of metal. Some live with relatives
whose nearby communities escaped the “scorched
earth” policy of the army. They still hike up the steep
valley to plant corn on their old land, but because of the
lack of housing where Petenác once stood, they must
live down in the valley which is close to the river and
protected from the frigid winds of the high altiplano.

During our first meeting in 2004, I listened to the dreams
and frustrations of the group. They want to rebuild their
community where it had stood for generations. Luckily,
they still have government-recognized communal title to
the land, unlike so many war-refugee groups who
returned from political asylum to see their land stolen by
ranchers or occupied by squatters.

We talked about a five-year infrastructure plan that
would start with a water system (two captation tanks and
PVC irrigation and distribution for agriculture and
potable water) and a community center building. These
steps will provide the basic central infrastructure that a
reconstructed town will need. Eventually we would like to
rebuild homes for the 32 families of Petenác.

There is a saying in Guatemala: “Entre del dicho y el
hecho, hay un gran trecho.” There´s a big difference
between what is said, and what is done. After 500 years
of violent subjugation, most indigenous people I know
are pretty slow to believe in government promises, and
even slower to immediately put much faith in gringo do-
gooder types like myself. Although, back in March of
2004, I promised to find the money for the water project
and return, I could tell that the group was skeptical. Don’
t get me wrong. I couldn´t have asked for a more
welcoming, open, friendly first meeting. Still, I sensed
that here was a community that has been through so
much trauma, they can no longer afford to make
themselves vulnerable by trusting in promises.

Project Accomplishments and Assessment
Updated January, 2006

In April and May of 2004, thanks to CASA supporters’
generous donations and $500 from Rights Action, we
raised $2500, or 18,750 quetzales, for the construction
of two water captation tanks based on a budget
developed by ETESC and the community ($US1 equals
roughly Q7.5). The first captation tank was completed in
January 2005 but, unfortunately, this phase of the
project went over budget because of an increase in
materials costs.

When I returned to Petenác in March 2005, I was thrilled
to see the first completed, well-constructed tank, but
disappointed to see there had been no progress on the
second tank or the tubed-water system. At my first
meeting with the community, I was informed that we were
over budget and owed both ETESC Q8000 for materials
overruns, and an abañil (mason) an additional Q3,450
for unpayed labor. I ended up leaving the money owed
to the abañil (Q3450) as well as Q1000 more to
purchase llaves de paso (faucets) for the tank.         
In April 2005, I wired ETESC Q15,000: the Q8000 owed
to ETESC and Q7000 to be used towards the purchase
of a bomba (diesel pump)and tuberia (PVC pipe) to
bring water from the tank 300 meters up the hill to the
point where the second tank –this one for collection and
distribution-- will be constructed.

In October, 2006 i returned to Guatemala to assess the
project. To the South, the Cuchamatane Mountains were
invisible behind a thick wall of fog and it was pouring rain
when I got off the bus in San Mateo Ixtatan on October
7. Mateo Pablo Lucas and Mateo Tádeo José –the
President and Vice President of the
Comité de Víctimas
Provinciál de Petenac
—were there to greet me with
smiles and handshakes. We walked the few blocks up
the steep hill to the home of Mateo Pablo Andrés and
his family where we dried off, drank coffee, and
discussed the goals of my visit. These were:

1.        To assess the water system project, accurately
determine the costs of the project up to this point, and
implement a plan for the completion of the water system.

2.        To design and implement an organizational
strategy for the Comité to better manage the ongoing
reconstruction plan and its financing and improve
communications with CASA Interamericana, and other
NGO entities that may be able to further help with the
reconstruction process.

3.        To communicate with other NGO and government
entities that may be able help with the project.

4.        To discuss and create an accurate budget for the
construction of the Centro Comunitario that will be
organized by CARP (Comité para el Apoyo y
Reconstrución de Petenac --a group from Montreal that
is collaborating with the project and has commited funds
for the community center!) in the first part of 2007.

The next morning we packed into a camión heading up
the mountain. The girls giggled at my presence and the
boys yelled “Canche!” After a couple hours of slogging
up the rain-soaked road we got off at the path to
Petenac and walked through fields of tall, vibrant green
corn --passing by the monument to the massacre
victims-- to the little rancho that community members
have built on the site of their former village.

We were greeted by about thirty men, women, and kids,
and with coffee, fried eggs, and tortillas. After eating we
started our meeting. Present were the following
members of the Junta Directiva del Comité:

Mateo Pablo Lucas- President
Mateo Tádeo José- VP
Pascual Pablo Pérez- Secretario
Matéo Pérez Juan- Tesorero

We discussed the following points:

1.  Financial History of Project

a.        March 2004- CASA gave the Comité Q20,000 for
the first phase of the water system. This consisted of two
captation tanks.

b.        March 2005- After learning that Pascual (the
abañil for the tanks) had still not been paid Q3450, and
that ETESC had invested Q8000 for cost overruns,
CASA gave the Comité: Q3450 to pay Pascual, Q225 for
the purchase of 5 sacks of cement, and Q400 for
tuberia. This adds up to Q4075.

c.        April 2005- CASA wired Q15,000 to ETESC via
the NGO Rights Action. Of this, Q8000 went to pay
ETESC the money owed to them and the other Q7000
was to be used to buy a diesel pump and irrigation hose
for the water system.

Thus, up to October, 2006 CASA had given Q39,075 or
about $US 5141 toward the water system project.

2.  Project Status
The water system will be composed of the already-
completed concrete storage tank, a smaller capitation
tank (partially completed), a diesel pump pulling the
water uphill through irrigation hose to a third tank, and
the  redistribution of the water for irrigation and domestic
use through a network of several thousand meters of
PVC and hose piping systems.

3. Organizational Strategy and Communications

To facilitate better and more regular communication and
accurate financial management in the future, the Comité
agreed to implement the following strategy:

a.        To open a bank account in the name of the
Comité at the Banrural branch in San Mateo Ixtatan.
This will allow the Comité to be able to directly access
and manage donated funds.

b.        Train Pascual (who is the best reader and writer)
in the use of the Internet and email, and open an email
account at the computer center in San Mateo.

c.        Establish a Fund for transport and

4.  Plan for the completion of Water System

Knowing that a bomba and Rotoplas tank has been
purchased by ETESC we decided to go to San Mateo to
purchase 4000 meters of irrigation hose, materials to
build a rancho to protect the bomba and tank, and other
requisite materials to get the system organized to the
point that water can be collected in the upper tank and
used by community members.

The Comité decided not to continue with the water
distribution part of the project until some houses are
actually built. This seemed logical to me: there is no
point in investing the money and work to distribute the
water until there are homes to distribute it to.


It had been a long, but very positive and productive
meeting, and it was starting to get dark. We started out
on the long walk down to Huaízna and saw a beautiful
sunset as the clouds began to clear. After beans and
tortillas everyone went right to sleep.

At 4:30 the next morning Mateo, Pascual, and I headed
back up the hill to wait for the bus to San Mateo where
we purchased materials for the completion of the next
stage in the water system (described above), the rancho
for the tank and bomba, and the completion of the
capitation tank lid.

This makes a total of Q11,269.50 given this year and a
total of Q50,344.50 ($6,624) of CASA funds given for
the entire project history.

Ongoing Project Funding Needs
The completion of the water system and community
center should be the easy part of the long-term project
in Petenác. The eventual reconstruction of the whole
village will be drastically more expensive and more
difficult to plan from both logistical and social

Down the line, how will the reconstruction of Petenác be

There are theoretical government funds in place —such
as those available through Guatemala’s National
Reparations Program— that are earmarked for just such
purposes. Unfortunately, the period of 2000-2004 saw
the most corrupt government in the country´s history
under Alfonso Portillo (and that´s saying a lot). Mr.
Portillo is currently hiding-out in Mexico to avoid federal
prosecution that would, likely, put him in jail for
laundering hundreds of millions of dollars of public
funds, and depositing them in private accounts in
Panama and the Cayman Islands.

The current president, Oscar Berger, a millionaire coffee
and business tycoon, started his term in January 2004
making a good show of “cleaning house” — firing
corrupt officials and prosecuting Portillo associates on
corruption and embezzlement charges. He also talked
about trying to reinstitute the changes in public policy
mandated by the Peace Accords, that Portillo promised
but never got around to. However, after a few years in
office Berger has already resorted to traditional
Guatemalan strongman political tactics to get his
agenda implemented: sicking the military on ¨free trade¨
protesters and land reform activists.

Still, my hope is that if we can get the reconstruction off
the ground with the completion of the water system and
community center building, we might be able to convince
the government to fund housing construction in a couple
of years. But, I´m  not counting on it. The important thing
right now, logistically and psychologically, is that the
process has started and that the momentum behind it

It was clear that the first logical step, as far as
infrastructure goes, was to construct a basic water
distribution system to collect and distribute drinking and
irrigation water to future homes and fields. This step is
now completed.

Finally, we are talking with Habitat for Humanity-
Guatemala to see whether they would build houses in
Petenac if we had enough money in a housing fund to
make the payments for community members. The
Habitat program requires that families receiving houses
pay Q350 a month for six years. Obviously, nobody in
Petenac can do this. However, seeing how we will need
to engage bigger, better funded organizations at some
point if we want to build more than thirty houses,
perhaps raising the money and letting someone else
build the homes might ultimately be the best solution.

A mutual aid group from Montreal --El Comité para la
Reconstrución de Petenác, or CARP-- begins work in
the village funding and constructing the Community

2008 and 2009
The first three houses are constructed and the re-
population of Petenác begins. Economic development
will have to be a priority and parrallel goal of the
reestablishment of the village.

If you’d like to financially contribute to the
Petenác, Guatemala Community Redevelopment
Project or organize a volunteer work delegation

click here
. Thank you.
If you’d like to financially
contribute to the
Guatemala Community
Redevelopment Project
click here. Thank you.
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