I came to Nebaj to help with photographing an observation project during the town’s re-election on January 10. It was a special election, uncommon because it was not being held with the national presidential elections, and already it had been rescheduled twice because of veying political interests. I did not know what to expect, but it was my job to photograph the election and to also work with observers to teach them to document any irregularities with photography.
Nebaj is in the Ixil triangle, a indigenous region in Northern Guatemala which was the focus of international news in 2013 because of the genocide trial against former-dictator Efraín Rios Montt, who led a violent counter-insurgency campaign in the region in the 1980s against Leftist guerrillas. Ríos Montt’s 18 months as Guatemala’s dictator is considered the bloodiest of the country’s 36-year civil war and his “scorched earth” policies resulted in mass killings and displacement of many indigenous people, especially the Ixíl-speaking people in the Nebaj and surrounding areas.
In 2011, Guatemala held its national presidential elections along with its municipal mayoral elections. Nebaj elected its mayor as Pedro Raymundo Cobo of the UNE-GANA – winning with 12,202 votes against the competing Patriot Party candidate Virgilio Geronimo Bernal. The win came amid much controversy because Bernal’s name did not appear on the ballot and Bernal filed legal complaints against the omission of his name on the ballot. He requested an annulment of the mayoral elections and after a long legal battle a new round of mayoral elections was scheduled for Nebaj first in December and then in January when Cobo changed political parties.
When I arrived on Friday, two days before the election, there was a significant police presence in Nebaj and the numbers continued to grow. More than 350 police had been summoned to Nebaj by the government in anticipation of any violence from the election’s results and the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City sent out an alert to American citizens in the region warning them of imminent conflict.
In downtown Nebaj, black Guatemalan National Police pickups rolled into town by the dozens filled with mattresses (boding overnight stays) and armed agents, anticipating civil disorder around the special elections. The streets were active and the interaction between police and citizens seemed friendly despite the massive police mobilization.
Both candidates, Cobo, and Bernal campaigned before the election in quite different ways which was telling. Cobo walked through town after voting, greeting people, and shaking hands, and then was surrounded by hundreds of supporters. He wore the traditional red vest and white hat of the Ixil region which is typical dress of the region. He held a lunch and rally at his home, with hundreds of supporters who pressed around him, and eventually, moved to a smaller room to meet with advisors and press. Bernal’s pre-election campaign was similar, though he wore a traditional business suit, and travelled around Nebaj waving from the back of a pickup truck, with a seemingly equal number of supporters following and cheering. While divided, the citizens of Nebaj were certainly participating and engaged in the election process.
The observation training was held on the second floor of the Mercado de Artesanías in the heart of Nebaj’s central market. The city had given us use of it for this public project. More than 60 observers, an even number of men and women, many of them in their early 20s filled the room to capacity. In order to get the photos I needed, I even had to walk on desks to maneuver around the room. Throughout the day, volunteers were trained on the basics of electoral observation and how to send SMS texts to a centralized website to report their findings. The mood was upbeat and the participants were enthusiastic. Matilde Terraza, the coordinator of Observe Nebaj Project, and Marvin Pol, of Accion Cuidadana were efficient in training the observers and the seemingly endless logistics of an election observation project, including assigning people to poll tables, distributing identifications, and travel money. Long after volunteers had been trained, Matilde and Marvin pored over logistical details in the emptied room.
On election day, I began my day by taking pictures at the municipality building where turnout was more than I expected as voters lined up for blocks outside the building. Lines of police in black uniforms, many armed with automatic weapons stood by. Men and women in traje tipico of the Ixil region waited patiently in the registration lines all day, having brought most of their family with them. When approached for interviews, many of the people were eager to talk, more to show their inked thumbs as proof they had taken part in the process. As a journalist I was permitted to enter the voting center, which was also where all the votes from the region would be counted.
Inside the municipality, the counting process was underway in a slow, but methodical way with ballots being brought in large plastic tubs from different parts of the region. Word around town was there would be no solid results until late in the night.
Around midnight it became clear that enough votes had been counted to determine Cobo would hold his seat. From my hotel room at Villa Nebaj I heard bullhorns and saw a crowd moving quickly through the street in the center of town. A torrent of people, including older women ran quickly, carrying plastic stools above their heads, cheering. I ran at nearly a full sprint to keep up with the crowd which made its way towards Cobo’s house. Thousands pushed through the metal doors of his house and filed into a large open space where a stage had been put up with flatscreens showing the election tally. I made it on the stage just in time to hear Cobo’s victory speech. Several times while taking photos, I had to change lenses because the amount of people created humidity to the point that my lenses fogged and I had buttons torn from my shirt while other photographers pushed for their shot.
Back at the hotel Marvin and Matilde and a few other observers tallied reports from the observers at 75 polling tables. There were very few irregularities and the numbers coincided with the TSE’s conclusion that more than 80 percent of the municipality of Nebaj had voted with no official reports of corruption or voter manipulation. The Guatemalan press reported minor confrontations and there were no demonstrations against the results. Despite the long, slow legal battle surrounding the elections, the democratic process, as I witnessed it, took the form of a peaceful election.