“There was death every day”
– Juan, genocide survivor –
In Guatemala’s Ixil triangle, during the early morning hours, the smoke from countless cooking fires rises to meet the misty fog that rolls down from the mountains. The result is a swirling whiteness that swallows everything… all color, all shapes, all detail.
For over thirty years that mist has concealed a heartbreaking history of violence, suffering and loss. From March 1982 until August 1983, a military dictator named José Efraín Ríos Montt ruled Guatemala. In an effort to defeat a guerilla movement in the countryside, he unleashed a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. With the intent of cutting the guerillas off from any source of social support, he implemented a “scorched earth” policy, targeting the Mayan indigenous population. The result was bloodshed and suffering on an unimaginable scale: massacres, assassinations, torture, rape, burning of homes and crops, and the complete eradication of villages.
Between 70 and 90% of Ixil villages were razed between 1981 and 1983 and thousands of innocent men, women and children were killed– an estimated 5.5% of the entire Ixil population.
But on March 19, 2013 the fog of impunity began to lift, and the details of this horrible history were made visible. General Montt and his chief of military intelligence, General José Rodríguez Sánchez, sat in a Guatemalan courtroom to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
For the next month, hundreds of men and women, witnesses, survivors, forensic experts, scholars and others took the stand to speak the truth: “aqui si hubo genocidio”… yes, genocide happened here. Sitting in the courtroom, one could feel history being written. As lawyer Edgar Pérez proclaimed: “This is the moment that the victims have waited 30 years for!”
Then, on May 10, after weeks of uncertainty about the fate of the case, Judge Barrios reconvened the trial and read the court’s verdict to a packed room. Describing the State’s violent campaign against the civilian population, the partial destruction of the Maya Ixil population and the General’s authorization and oversight of the military plans and operations, she stated: “the Court believes that the actions of Efraín Ríos Montt are consistent with the crime of genocide.”
She remanded Ríos Montt into police custody, and he was escorted from the courtroom amidst a sea of journalists and the spontaneous eruption of song by emotional onlookers.
Justice in Guatemala, Justice in the World
This trial marks the first time in world history that a former head of state has been tried (and found guilty) of genocide by a nation’s own justice system. Other similar cases, such as the trials at Nuremburg or the case of social cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, were prosecuted outside the country by international judicial bodies. Over a decade in the making, this is a precedent-setting case that could have positive implications for similar cases against other dictators and military officials in Guatemala, Latin America, and around the world.
And Justice for All
During the trial, an expert witness testifying against the generals was asked “if what you say is true, why did you wait three decades to denounce this?” It was a valid, if highly ironic, question. The truth is that the Guatemalan judicial system has traditionally been at the service of the wealthy and the powerful. Impunity has been the norm, justice the exception. Despite the fact that the armed conflict, which ended in 1996, claimed the lives of over 200,000 people to date, only a handful of lower-ranking officials, soldiers and paramilitary have been incarcerated. High-ranking military and government officials, such as Ríos Montt, were seen to be untouchable… until now.
That the structures of impunity are under attack is in great part due to the work of Guatemala’s Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz. Appointed in December 2010, she won the first convictions against officers accused in some of the worst massacres. “It’s sending the most important message of the rule of law — that nobody is above the law,” she said.
Lest Ye Be Judged
One of the most commanding figures of the trial has been Judge Yassmín Barrios who has kept the trial moving forward, in strict adherence to law, despite the constant attempts by the defense lawyers to obstruct the judicial process.
For her perseverance and steadfastness she has received criticism, condemnation, and contempt from military supporters and genocide deniers. Human rights organizations are extremely concerned for her safety.
Si Hubo Genocidio – Yes it was Genocide
During the trial, over a hundred survivors and witnesses to genocide bravely made the long trip from the Ixil region to Guatemala City to testify a mere feet away from the men who masterminded the bloody massacres that killed their families and destroyed their communities.
The Mayan people were targeted during the conflict because of their ethnicity. It wasn’t because of their political affiliations or involvement in the guerrilla. Many of the survivors testified that, to this day, they don’t know why the army came to kill them. Army documents presented in trial outlined how the entire population was defined as the “internal enemy.” Being Mayan in the Ixil region of Guatemala during the dictatorship of Rios Montt was, quite simply, a death sentence.
One of the most damning arguments that supported the charge of genocide is that military forces targeted indigenous children. Soldiers cut unborn infants from their mothers’ wombs, threw babies into the air to spear them with bayonets, and swung children by their ankles, smashing their heads against trees until they were dead. Children were shot. Children were stabbed. Children were burned alive.
Why were the children killed? Because they were Mayan Ixil.
GHRC’s own Dania Rodriguez testified in the trial. She was called on to answer questions about her work as a social anthropologist with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG). Through interviews conducted with community members, exhumations of clandestine graves, DNA sampling, and forensic analysis of skeletal remains, the FAFG was able to provide clear and abundant scientific evidence to corroborate the testimonies of the massacre survivors.
Among the most remarkable expert testimonies was that of Héctor Rosada Granados, who headed up the governmental commission that negotiated the Peace Accords with the URNG guerrillas. “In the Ixil area, from 1981 to 1983, the State used the Army to systematically commit the crime of genocide.” The Guatemalan State, in its fervor to defeat the guerillas, went from “a counterinsurgency war to a war against the civilian noncombatant population” which it had defined as “the enemy.” This genocide is demonstrated by the “frequency, repetition, and widespread nature” of the “brutal acts” perpetrated by members of the Army against the indigenous members of this ethnic group.”
The Survivors Speak
“I saw when they killed an elderly woman. The army officials cut off her head. Then they entered the kitchen and played with her head as if it were a soccer ball.” – Julio, who was 8 years old at the time
“All I found were my son’s bones. Animals had already eaten his body.” – Pedro
“One of my little brothers was hiding in the cornfield, crying. The soldiers came and cut his throat with a knife.” – Domingo
“I saw this. They burned the first house and burned the whole family inside. There was screaming inside, the children, the women, they were burned to ash. Later, when the military finished killing the pregnant women, they came down to the catechist’s house. He thought they wouldn’t kill him and so he started to pray inside his house. But then they put the mayor inside and they shot at the house killing the whole family, his whole family. They killed him.” – Tiburcio
“I’m here to testify because I suffered, I was raped. For 3 nights I was there, I was raped. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk. They hit me as if I was a ball. That’s what hurts me, they made me suffer.” – A survivor of sexual violence
“We were treated like animals, worse than animals. If we kick a dog, afterwards we feel bad. We are not dogs.” – Juan
Indian Seen, Indian Killed
A surprising turn of events, and one which has been blamed by some for the sudden halt to the trial, came during day 10 of proceedings, when a protected witness testified that Guatemala’s current president, Otto Pérez Molina, was involved in the Ixil massacres.
Former Army specialist Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes testified that his superior, Pérez Molina, ordered the roundup of villagers for transport to military outposts, where they were then executed. “The soldiers, on orders from Major ‘Tito Arias,’ better known as Otto Pérez Molina, coordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute the people…Those who were brought to the military base to be executed arrived beaten, tortured, with their tongues cut out, with their fingernails pulled out, among other injuries.” Reyes added: “As far as I could tell, the order was ‘Indian seen, Indian killed.’”
A Defenseless Defense
It was obvious from the very first moments of the trial that the defense lawyers representing Montt and Rodriguez Sánchez were more interested in delaying and derailing the trial than defending their clients.
Before being expelled from the courtroom by Judge Barrios on the first day of the trial, Ríos Montt’s lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel went off on a right-wing nationalistic rant. “Guatemala is a country of ingrates! We forget about all the good things we have as soon as the foreigners show up to provoke conflict.” Gudiel was allegedly contracted just that morning to defend Ríos Montt, in an effort to force Judge Barrios off the case.
Then, on April 18th, just as closing arguments were to be heard — days before the final verdict — the trial slammed to an unexpected halt. The entire defense team abandoned their clients in the middle of the trial, stating, “We do not want to be participants in this illegal debate.”
Meanwhile, the prosecution lawyers, survivors, social movements and human rights organizations resolutely continued the struggle for truth and justice.
Dubious legal maneuvers by the defense lawyers found their echo in a justice system still steeped in corruption. The trial was suspended as the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s ultimate legal authority, deliberated over a dozen legal motions before handing the case back to Judge Barrios.
Despite the lack of evidence or witnesses presented by the Defense, they will surely appeal the ruling, hoping to again tie up the case in legal knots.
The Backlash: Trying the Case Outside of the Courtroom
Ultraconservative pro-military individuals and organizations carried out a non-stop campaign of attacks, defamation, and disinformation throughout the trial. The Foundation Against Terrorism, a right-wing extremist group, took out two paid supplements in a national newspaper attacking and slandering the victims, human rights organizations, the Catholic church, Attorney General Paz y Paz…. even murdered Bishop Juan Gerardi.
Meanwhile, a group of 12 Guatemalan “intellectuals,” all former and current government officials, took out an advertisement entitled: “Betraying the Peace and Dividing Guatemala.” The document claims that “the accusation of genocide against officials of the Guatemalan Army… entails serious dangers for our country, including the deepening of social and political polarization, which will undo the peace that has been achieved to date.” They further warn that a guilty verdict in the genocide trial could signify the “imminent danger of renewed political violence.” Current President Otto Pérez Molina stated that he not only agrees with the ad, but that he also personally endorses its content.
Human rights and survivors’ organizations denounced these blatant attempts to try the genocide case in the media instead of the courtroom and make this a political issue instead of a judicial one. Concern about violent retaliation after the sentence was so great that a US embassy statement specifically called for Guatemalans to “respect the legitimacy and integrity of this process,” and to express any disagreement through “existing legal channels.”
Reagan & Ríos
The United States, of course, has played its own nefarious role in the suffering and death of the Ixil people. Soon after taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s national security team agreed to supply military aid to Guatemala’s brutal right-wing regime in order to pursue the goal of exterminating not only “Marxist guerrillas” but also their “civilian support mechanisms.” Declassified CIA and State Department cables confirm that although his administration had knowledge of the massacres and repression being carried out against the indigenous population, Reagan continued to support the general and his regime, and even paid a visit to Guatemala City in December 1982.
After the meeting with Montt, Reagan hailed the general as “totally dedicated to democracy” and added that Montt’s government had been “getting a bum rap” on human rights. “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. … I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”
More than justice, the truth
This historic verdict has implications far beyond the case itself. There has been a shift in public consciousness from silence and forgetting to debate and remembrance. The fact that the entire nation and the rest of the world have followed this case marks a new reality for Guatemala. The courageous men and women who gave their testimonies had their voices heard. In seeking to bring these two genocidal generals to justice, they helped unmask an entire structure of racism, oppression, and violence.
The words spoken by survivors and the truths they told cannot be erased… and they will not be forgotten.