The history of Guatemala’s secret abductions reminds us how important the principle of universal equality really is — and points out how far from that principle the United States has gone.
On a recent trip to Guatemala with rabbinic colleagues from around the country, I learned the story of a boy named Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. Marco Antonio reminded me so much of my own son: He loved to draw and write so much that even when he couldn’t find a pencil or paper, he would draw pictures with his finger in the air; he loved outdoor sports, bike riding, and Star Wars.
Tragically, that’s where Marco Antonio’s story ceased to be normal. In the early 1980’s, at the height of Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict (1960-1996), Marco Antonio’s older sister, Emma Guadalupe, became involved in student-led protests for democratic reforms and human rights. One day, she was kidnapped outside of her school by members of the Guatemalan army, presumably as a punishment for her activism. They took her to a military zone, where she was repeatedly tortured and raped. Despite this, after nine days, she managed to escape and return home.
The army set up an intelligence operation to find Emma Guadalupe. Within days, agents had tracked her down. They stormed the family’s house, but Emma wasn’t home. Unwilling to leave empty-handed, the agents took Marco Antonio while his mother looked on, powerless to stop them. He was never heard from again. He was disappeared. He was 14 years old.
Before traveling to Guatemala on a trip organized by American Jewish World Service, I had never heard the terms “to be disappeared” or “to disappear someone.” It was a usage of the verb “disappear” I had simply never encountered. In Guatemala, meeting with human rights advocates and victims of state-sponsored abuses, I heard these terms repeatedly. It turns out that “to be disappeared” or “to disappear someone” is a common term in the world of human rights, although the more proper term is an “enforced disappearance.”
An enforced disappearance is the secret abduction of an individual by the state or its agents. To disappear someone is to make someone vanish indefinitely without a trace, telling no one about where they were taken and what has happened to them. This is different than kidnapping someone, or even imprisoning or murdering them; in those circumstances, the status of the person apprehended is generally known. When someone is disappeared, the objective is the uncertainty; the point is for the victim to go missing and for no one to know what has happened.
Guatemala has a history of extrajudicial forced disappearances. Forced disappearances were a deliberate and systematic government strategy during the period of the Internal Armed Conflict, designed to psychologically torture and terrorize segments of the population into submission. As of 2013, there are 45,000 people who were documented as disappeared during the conflict era. And given the fact that many conflict-era war criminals still populate Guatemala’s ruling and political class and that corruption and repression remains widespread, the tactic continues as a strategy of the security and intelligence services — often with impunity — to this day.
Marco Antonio is one of those 45,000 disappeared Guatemalans. Still today, nearly 40 years after his disappearance, and over 20 years since the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, his family has never been told what happened to him, and no one involved in his disappearance has even been charged with a crime, much less brought to justice.
The establishment of a just society is the indisputable theme of my tradition’s sacred scripture, which Jews call the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). For instance, the Torah demands the death penalty for the perpetrators of crimes like the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio: “He who kidnaps a man — whether he has sold him or is still holding him — shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). That law is but one of many expressions of the famous biblical perception of justice: “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (21:23-25).
Contemporary commentators sometimes criticize this biblical approach to justice as brutal, violent, and unnecessarily harsh. The ancient Jewish rabbis, too, were somewhat uncomfortable with the practical application of this biblical law of retaliation, substituting where they could monetary damages: an eye for the monetary equivalent of an eye, a foot for the monetary equivalent of a foot, and so forth. And yet while the rabbis may have been squeamish about actually cutting off the hand of a violent perpetrator, and while they correctly pointed out that, in effect even if not intent, this kind of retaliatory justice can result in injustice, they did not challenge the basic moral assertion embedded in this biblical teaching.
The basic moral assertion of the Torah’s legal system is that all lives have equal value, that everyone must be treated as equals under the law. The life of a noble and the life of a peasant are legally equivalent — their eyes have the same value, their hands have the same value, their feet have the same value, their bodily integrity and dignity are equally worthy.
Astonishingly for a Bronze Age text, the Torah even goes so far as to extend this equality of status to foreigners, people who otherwise in the ancient world would have never been considered social equals with citizens. Yet the Torah says “you shall have one law” for citizen and stranger alike (Leviticus 24:22), that the foreigner is to be considered legally equal to the native-born, and even goes so far as to enshrine special protections to the alien to ensure their fair treatment.
The Torah, while admittedly imperfect, was a revolution of values in its time, and advances a core principle that we have yet to fully realize even in our time. It thus challenges us, in every place and in every age, to advance societies in which all people are considered and treated as equals, in which no life is treated as more important than another, and in which no life is treated as less worthy than another.
When I reflected on what I witnessed and learned while in Guatemala, this was the principle to which I kept returning. Guatemala today remains a country of profound inequality: Nearly 60% of the country is impoverished, and about a quarter of the population lives on less than $1 per day. About half of all Guatemalan children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. All of these inequities and more disproportionately impact Guatemala’s large Mayan population, the country’s indigenous inhabitants. Corruption and impunity remain rampant. If you are wealthy or well-connected, if you possess political or economic power or enjoy proximity to the powerful, you benefit from legal and extralegal privileges unimaginable to the poor and weak majority.
There seemed to be a direct line between centuries of colonization and exploitation (including American-orchestrated overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically-elected leader in 1954) and the wholesale slaughter of native communities during the conflict period to the discrimination, poverty, and oppression rampant today. The legacy of considering some Guatemalan lives as more valuable than others keeps a select few wealthy and powerful while preventing the majority of the population from rising.
It is why, for example, whole communities can have their lands confiscated by the state with no just cause or fair compensation, and be forced to live in makeshift tent villages in the wilderness with inadequate access to food, water, and healthcare, while fighting years-long battles in the courts that they are likely to lose. It is why human rights activists and journalists are routinely threatened, harassed, imprisoned, and even murdered or disappeared with impunity by the same people they are protesting or trying to expose as corrupt or criminal. It is why very few perpetrators of atrocities during the conflict era have been prosecuted for their crimes. These were the people I met in Guatemala. This is what a society looks like when the lives of some are considered more valuable than the lives of others.
More troubling still, I could not help but hear in all of this echoes of my own country’s history and present realities. As I encountered past and present injustice in Guatemala, the longest government shutdown in American history dragged on. Hundreds of thousands of government workers had been furloughed without pay for weeks over a demand, leveled by some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals, that we treat some people — namely, asylum seekers and migrants from Central America — as less deserving of dignity and opportunity as others.
The shutdown, of course, merely compounded cruelty upon cruelty. Even without a wall, current immigration policy perfectly illustrates how we today treat some lives as inferior to others. What, after all, was happening at the border over the past year if not the forced disappearances of hundreds of migrant children, some of whom died in our custody? Why are those fleeing violence and poverty from places like Guatemala less worthy of dignity and opportunity than anyone else?
It increasingly dawned on me that, similar to Guatemala, the U.S. was built upon a foundation of plunder, exploitation, and brutality; our history replete with legally ordained inequality and judicially enforced discrimination. One can draw a straight line from those historic injustices to the facts that, today, roughly one in every five American children live in poverty, more than two million Americans are incarcerated, and our rate of income inequality is greater than any other democracy in the developed world. And every single one of those inequities disproportionately impacts Americans of color.
It was painful to consider whether my own society’s injustices were differences of degree, rather than kind; that even in America, in practice if not in theory, some people’s lives matter more than others. What, I wondered, will become of us if we remain on this path?
If all lives have intrinsic and equal value then we yet have considerable work to do at home. And, if we accept this core principle of justice, then the inequities in a faraway place like Guatemala must also concern us. We should care about a foreign government disappearing a child before his parent’s eyes, because if all lives have equal value, no parent anywhere deserves to fear such a horror any more than you or I do. If all lives are equally precious, than the systematic murder of an entire population should matter to us whether it is happening to our own people or to people halfway around the world. The principle is universal. It transcends borders and applies across national, ethnic, and religious divides. And it calls us to attention and to action at home, in Central America, and, indeed, everywhere.
The biblical tradition insists that all lives have equal value. Moreover, it demands not just that we cherish this principle but also that we build a society, and ultimately a world, that enshrines and ensures the equal worth of every human being.
Photos by Christine Han Photography