Werner Kohler was a German farmer who moved to Guatemala in the 1960’s. He cultivated flowers and vegetables, and eventually saved up enough money, together with two friends, to purchase a ranch in the area of Guatemala known as Peten in 1974. Here on this ranch he lived and worked to support his wife and daughters.
Peten was a magical place: animals all over, monkeys swinging in the trees, parrots, and enough fireflies at night to light the way to the outhouse.
In 1977 Texaco came and began drilling for oil. At first “Bernardo” (as he was known in Guatemala) was a good neighbor to Texaco. He rented them land so they could build housing for their workers.
Shortly after Texaco came the military set up a base. This is when problems started. They said they were there to protect Texaco from the guerrillas, but they actually just caused problems. It seemed like they didn’t have much to do. They were often drunk. Sometimes they wouldn’t pay farmers for food, other times livestock was stolen and even women in the village were raped. Then the military began pressuring Bernardo to sell his farm at a price far less than he had paid for it. He refused. Bernardo was not a political activist, but he spoke his mind. He spoke against the military when they were causing problems with the villagers and farmers, and when the military wanted to buy his farm he wasn’t afraid to say “no”. He wanted to live in Peten for the rest of his life.
In October of 1979, Bernardo’s wife received a call from Texaco that he had heard machinegun fire and that Bernardo and his friend Pedro were missing. She immediately went to the closest hospital in search of them and there she found a neighbor, Oviedo, who had been shot. Oviedo had been wounded when he tried to protect his wife whom the soldiers had been harassing before they captured Bernardo and Pedro. Oviedo was surrounded by soldiers at his bedside and was too afraid to say anything about what had happened. That was the last time anyone saw Oviedo or his family.
A day after Bernardo’s wife returned home from the hospital, she found their dead bodies floating in the river all cut up with signs of torture. With the help of some villagers, she pulled them out, but soldiers came brandishing their guns and demanded that she bury them there. She tried to get help from the German embassy, but they told her to just pack up and leave the country. She started getting threatening phone calls that her daughters would be next. With the help of a relative in California, she was able to send their daughters to the United States. She then abandoned the farm herself and fled to join her daughters in California.
Bernardo’s daughter, Katja, was eleven years old at the time she fled Guatemala. She never thought she would go back she was so afraid, but twelve years later she returned with a student delegation.
In 1996 she met FAMDEGUA (Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Guatemala). Through research she discovered that FAMDEGUA was exhuming a clandestine cemetery in Chal, Peten, a few hours from where she and her family had lived. She stayed and helped with the dig in Chal for a few weeks. Katja heard people talk of their loved ones who had been killed or disappeared, but people were still too afraid to mention the names of the generals responsible for the assassinations. Instead, people came to the army base at night and wrote the names of the murderers on the walls with leaves or chalk.
In 1998 Katja, together with her husband Marshall Gause, went back to include the case of Werner “Bernardo” Kohler and Pedro Valerio in the U.N. Clarification Commission Report. They worked with FAMDEGUA to find Bernardo’s grave and exhume it so that forensic anthropologists could perform the autopsy that the military had forbid them from having done.
Katja lived for a long time not talking about her father’s death, but when she spoke with other people who had relatives who died she realized it was important to talk about it. And when she saw her father’s bones, since she was never able to say goodbye to him, she felt a strong sense of liberation. Bernardo’s death had been recorded as a mere victim of a random shooting, when he had obviously been tortured and assassinated by the military.
When Katja finally saw the U.N. Clarification Report, even though Bernardo’s case was only four lines in a volume of thousands of other cases, she had hope that this was the beginning of the path to justice. Projects such as the Remi Report presented by Bishop Gerardi and the U.N. Clarification Committee work towards this goal. They acknowledge that the thirty-six year civil war wasn’t simply a war between guerrillas and military, but that mostly innocent people died or disappeared. These were students, priests, farmers, labor organizers, indigenous peoples, human rights workers, or others who were peacefully living their lives and working to better their situations. FAMDEGUA takes the work of the U.N. a step further, providing proper burials to the victims with family ceremonies and building cases in court in an attempt to hold responsible parties accountable for their actions.
In 2000, the FAMDEGUA offices were raided seeking information on witnesses testifying against the Guatemalan military. A group called the Guatemala Action Network of Austin coalesced to provide emergency assistance to FAMDEGUA, and legal representation to obtain asylum for one of the directors. A year later, the Bernardo Kohler Center was formed to continue to provide needed assistance to immigrants in Texas seeking asylum and other forms of protection.