“We were running from the army, this woman was carrying her son, she was holding him in her arms. A bullet hit her in the back, it came out through her stomach and went through her baby. She died there with her son in her arms. They died together.
The same thing happened to me, except the difference was that I had my baby on my back. I felt the impact of the bullet, but felt no pain. I touched my back and it was wet. When I looked at my hand, it was covered with blood. I kept waiting to collapse, but I didn’t. I kept running, running from the soldiers shooting at us. It wasn’t until later, after we had hidden from the soldiers, I discovered my baby had taken that bullet. I am alive only because my baby died on my back. I am always remembering this sadness.” (Testimony by Dona Eugenia, Tzalbal massacre survivor, in Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala by Victoria Sanford, 2003.)
General Ríos Montt, the ex-president of Guatemala, was found guilty on May 10 of overseeing the killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous population during his rule in 1982 and 1983. The court heard wrenching accounts from survivors of the Army’s scorched-earth policy in the Mayan highlands. Montt was sentenced by the court to 80 years in prison. However, just several days later, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ordered that all trial proceedings since April 19 be disregarded because a procedural decision by a judge on the trial court sent the case into disarray.
Now the case’s future is in doubt. Lawyers on both sides said the entire trial may have to be repeated. Guatemala’s judicial system is known for excessive appeals that can prolong the process indefinitely. General Ríos Montt’s lawyers have filed many appeals already. Some experts fear that the Constitutional Court will let the case end on a technicality rather than allow it to reach a fair and decisive conclusion on the merits.
Even if the case goes forward, there are obstacles. Some witnesses have been threatened and will need to be protected so they can testify again. Any retrial may be handled by another judge who doesn’t have the reputation for toughness and integrity as the one who delivered the conviction. Then there is the influence of President Otto Pérez Molina and the powerful business federation (CACAF). Both have made clear their opposition to the genocide verdict. (Excepted from the NY Times editorial, Justice Interrupted in Guatemala, May 22, 2013.)
How does all this effect Guatemala?
When we ask our Guatemalan neighbors, co-teachers, and friends about the trial, almost always the answer is “It’s controversial.” or “It’s complex.” Further discussion leads us to perceive that while there is less fear of the government and its “orejas” (spies) now than there was during the war, there is still a hesitancy to talk too openly about what happened, since people who were involved in “La Violencia” are still in power and clearly don’t want that part of Guatemalan history re-opened to the truth of what happened.
For one of the best brief analyses written about the trial, the history behind it, and the meaning it has for many Guatemalans, we highly recommend the recent article in the May/June edition of the Antigua magazine, La Cuadra, Efrain Rios Montt: A Trial in Context, by Victor Ruiz. For those wishing an even more in-depth of the issues brought up during the trial, we recommend the book, Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala by Victoria Sanford (2003).
How does this relate to the work of Avivara?
Several of our scholarship recipients are from families whose village was massacred in the early 80′s and were forced to flee into the mountains and eventually escape into Mexico, where they were in exile for nearly 15 years. The parents of these scholarship recipients have recounted to us their stories of fear, escape, struggling to survive in the mountains, living in Mexican refugee camps, and eventually re-locating to Guatemala after the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. In addition, several of the villages where we support schools also have histories of repression and violence during the Guatemalan civil war.
Where were you in 82?
As for me (Gary Teale, Executive Director of Avivara), I remember the early 1980′s as being a time when I had just bought my first home, had successfully established a small business making sheepskin coats, and was generally enjoying life after a somewhat tumultuous period of personal radicalism (Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, Radical Feminism, and Native American fishing rights protests) during the late 60′s and early 70′s. However, by the 1980′s and engaged in pursuing a typical middle-class U.S. lifestyle, I was basically “sleepwalking” through the Reagan years, and completely unaware of what was happening with our U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. In hindsight I now am painfully aware that the U.S. government was also complicit in the massacres of the indigenous people of Guatemala. It helped train the killers. It helped provide the bullets, guns and helicopters that allowed the Guatemalan army to massacre 626 villages and leave more than 200,000 people dead or disappeared.
First, many of the people (Montt, along with many of his other generals and colonels) who carried out the genocidal acts described in the trial had been trained in counter-insurgency tactics in the U.S. run School of the Americas.
Second, a “secret” declassified CIA document from February, 1982 states that the Guatemalan army reinforced its existing forces and launched a sweep operation in the Ixil Triangle where the commanding officers of the army units had been instructed to destroy all towns and villages believed to be cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (even if they were non-combatants). Several months after this the Reagan administration declared that Guatemala was “not a gross violator of human rights.” In August of 1982, President Regain met personally with Rios Montt and declared that he was inclined to believe that “the general had been given a bum rap.” Within a month of this meeting and despite a United Nations condemnation of Guatemala for human rights violations, the U.S. State Department approved more than $6 million dollars in additional military assistance to the Guatemalan army.
This trial, with its testimonies and reversals, has forced people to remember Guatemala’s traumatic past, and has also reminded us that a number of the individuals who carried out, supported or benefited from the atrocities in the 1980′s still remain in positions of significant influence and power.
For many in Guatemala, “La Violencia” is not yet over. It remains a deep psychological wound in the collective psyche of the Guatemalan people. Also, many of the economic structures and power relationships that precipitated “La Violencia” in the 1980′s remain in force today, and have been shown to be capable of resorting to murder and intimidation if their interests are threatened. (Please see the Guatemala Human Rights Commission for recent reports of attacks on human rights and environmental leaders.)