They would become radicalized and then come back and tell our people, “You are working with the church. How can you do this? Don’t you know that the church is identified with the enemy?”
And then our people would have to explain to them our commitment to working for the poor and for justice with regard to the resurrection of Christ and social transformation. So it required every time they were challenged for them to face up to that reality and to justify our vision of a nonviolent response to the violence. And a nonviolent response, I might add, doesn’t mean an inactive or weak response. A nonviolent response can be a strong protest response and a speaking-out response, it just doesn’t include violence. Unfortunately, even that was considered unacceptable by the government. You were just not allowed to criticize any abuses on the part of the government. So some of the people I was working with were killed.
Let me tell you a story. There was a young boy who was something of a hoodlum, and he fell in love with a girl who worked in a cantina in the town where I was pastor. The owner of the cantina, named Tomas, told the boy to not come around any more, and the boy persisted. So Tomas hired some off-duty policemen to assassinate the boy. It was about 7 o’clock at night when they came. There were about eight people there. One of them was one of our catechists. The off-duty policemen grabbed our catechist, and Tomas cried out, “No, not him!” And he pointed out the young man in question. So they released our guy and grabbed this other fellow. He started a struggle with them, so they pulled out their guns and shot him dead in front of everybody.
Well, I had to say some prayers at the funeral of this young man. So after the prayers I talked about the need to respond to this kind of conduct and how we can’t keep quiet about it. Then I preached about it the following Sunday at Mass. Nobody was speaking openly about what had happened. Everybody was fearful that if they said anything they would suffer the consequences, which unfortunately proved to be the truth. So I told the people on Sunday that if we keep quiet about this we are all accomplices in murder. And if we allow this to happen, then other things are likely to happen, and then we would be a murderous people.
Well, Pio Coban was the only one who decided to do something. He went to the national police chief in Guatemala City and told him about it, and how nobody in Chimaltenango had investigated the murder, and that as a matter of fact everybody knew it was two off-duty police who were the assassins, the hired guns.
The next morning at 5 o’clock, the police from Chimaltenango came and dragged Pio out of bed. When I heard about it the next day, I went down to the jail to demand his release. We all thought that he was a goner, because when people are caught by the police in Chimaltenango very often they just don’t survive the abuse; they are tortured, killed, and their bodies dumped somewhere.
I confronted the colonel at the jail, demanding that Pio be released. At first he claimed to know nothing about it, but then he got word that Pio had already been released. I didn’t believe that. He was surrounded by his men, but I challenged him. I told him that I wanted Pio released and I wanted evidence that he was released. It turned out that he had been released.
I don’t think I made any points with the colonel that day and it might explain why my name was to later appear on the hit list. You just don’t do that in Guatemala, you don’t question people in leadership, because by tradition they have the authority of life and death over their subjects. Something that we in the United States take so much for granted, that everybody has basic fundamental human rights, in other countries that isn’t so.