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Fantasy and reality in Guatemala

monttOn 13 May, the Guatemalan Congress held a vote that can only be described as surreal. They voted to deny that genocide took place during the country’s civil war from 1960-1996, which left 250,00 people, mainly indigenous Mayans, dead or disappeared. The vote was apparently aimed at “national reconciliation”. Actually it was also meant to lessen the pressure on former dictator Rios Montt, whose trial for genocide and crimes against humanity during his 1982-1983 rule is scheduled to reconvene next January.

Far from bringing about reconciliation, Congress’s vote “makes a mockery of the victims,” claimed Benjamín Gerónimo, a representative of people bringing a trial against Montt. Congress, he added “wants to maintain impunity so that the truth is not known.”

But the truth is known, thanks to the work of the country’s Truth Commission. Tens of thousands of submissions and years of documentation and analysis produced a stark conclusion: Maya Native Americans accounted for 83% of the victims, and 93% of the atrocities committed during the conflict had been the work of the armed forces.

On 28 January 2012, a Guatemalan judge ruled that General Rios Montt, the US-backed dictator who ruled the country in 1982 and 1983, should face charges of genocide for the scorched earth policy he operated. The charges identify him as the intellectual author of crimes carried out in the Ixil Triangle in the El Quiché department. These include the forced displacement of 29,000 people, the deaths of 1,771 individuals in eleven massacres, as well as acts of torture and 1,485 acts of sexual violence against women. Activists from the indigenous Mayan community, which bore the brunt of these atrocities, hailed the decision as “historic and momentous”.

We can establish these are acts so degrading, so humiliating that there is no justification,” the judge said after detailing the human rights abuses from survivors’ testimonies. The case was filed against a backdrop of rising danger for those involved in fighting for justice – 2011 was the most violent year since 2000 for human rights defenders, 19 of whom were murdered. It also has major implications for Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, who was a military commander in the Ixil Triangle where the genocide was carried out.

The war of the Guatemalan state against its citizens lasted 36 years. Some 200,000 people were killed and a further 45,000 “disappeared” in this period. In 2005 an explosion tore through a dilapidated building being used as a munitions dump and brought to light millions of police documents. This vast archive threw new light on the role of police in kidnapping and killing activists and provided an impetus for the prosecution of those responsible. Hector Bol de la Cruz, a former director of the national police, was charged with the disappearance of a student activist in 1984, in a case that could become a template for many others.

The Guatemalan military’s war on the landless Mayan community peaked in the early 1980s and involved acts of unbelievable cruelty. One documented case was a massacre of over 200 villagers by government soldiers in the village of Las Dos Erres in 1982. According to the US-based Human Rights Watch, the abuses included “burying some alive in the village well, killing infants by slamming their heads against walls, keeping young women alive to be raped over the course of three days.” In March of this year, a Guatemalan court sentenced former soldier Pedro Pimentel Rios to a symbolic sentence of 6,060 years in prison. He was the fifth to be convicted of this massacre.

This was not an isolated incident, but one of over 400 massacres documented. In another outrage, the army arrived in the evening, rounded up the villagers, disabled all escape routes and divided the women into two groups: one for rape before being killed and the other for immediate killing. To save bullets, the victims were crammed into a small house which was set on fire with grenades. Some 250 people were killed. In 2004, the government of Guatemala admitted to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights that the Rios Montt regime had practised a strategy of genocide. Now the old amnesties are being swept aside and those at the top are going to face charges. In May, a second genocide charge was lodged against Rios Montt – specifically in relation to the aforementioned massacre in Dos Erres.

The role of the USA in all this is worth mentioning. Despite a suspension of military aid to Guatemala under the Carter Administration, covert support continued. In 1982, President Reagan resumed arms sales to the regime, saying Rios Montt was receiving a “bum rap”.

Human Rights Watch went so far as to say that “the Reagan Administration shares in the responsibility for the gross abuses of human rights practiced by the government of Guatemala.” The CIA worked inside the Guatemalan army at this time, operating torture centres and helping to run a unit responsible for thousands of killings.

If a country’s national legislature says it wasn’t genocide, it makes it more difficult to prosecute the former president for this very crime. But facts are stubborn things and the historical reality cannot be so easily set aside.

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