A landmark trial for genocide and crimes against humanity concluded last week in Guatemala City, though you could be forgiven for not having heard of it. The trial of former Guatemalan dictator and army General José Efraín Rios Montt and his one-time intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, for wiping entire Indigenous Mayan communities off the map has been almost completely ignored by Canadian media.
More than 440 Mayan villages were destroyed during Rios Montt’s 16-month reign of terror. One shouldn’t speculate, but the fact that the victims of the scorched-earth campaign he launched after seizing power in a CIA-backed coup d’état in May 1982 were uniformly impoverished Mayans may explain the disinterest.
Nonetheless, this trial has the power to change history. If a guilty verdict is delivered when the judge’s decision is expected (in roughly two months), it will mark the definitive end to the impunity enjoyed by a series of right-wing totalitarian leaders in Latin America over the past several decades. For the Maya Ixil people of Guatemala’s northwestern Quiche department, it will cap a years-long struggle for justice.
Suspected of sympathizing with Guatemala’s left-wing insurgents, soldiers targeted Ixil villages for a campaign of rape, torture, arson and indiscriminate massacres. One witness, Nicolas Brito, testified about a 1982 army attack on his village of Canaque. He told of seeing soldiers attack a large group of Ixil women. “The soldiers tore the victims’ hearts out and put them on a little table,” Brito told the court. “They piled them there.”
Other witnesses described how toddlers and suckling babies were also savagely murdered and mutilated.
For Montreal lawyer Elisabeth Patterson (who also works the Grand Council and the Cree Health Board), the treatment of the Maya in Guatemala is consistent with the historical racism among the country’s Spanish-descended elite against the majority Indigenous population. Patterson works with Lawyers Without Borders Canada, which worked with victims’ groups in Guatemala to prepare for the trial. She attended much of the trial’s proceedings this winter along with fellow Lawyers Without Borders member Philippe Tremblay.
“The Mayans were seen as something less than human,” Patterson told the Nation. The threat remains, she adds, telling of an encounter this winter with a pair of “cowboy types” during a demonstration by a group of Mayan women. “I could hear them speaking behind me. One of them said, ‘Rios Montt should have finished the job.’”
Patterson and Tremblay first got involved in Guatemala as students back in the mid- 1990s with Project Accompaniment, a movement that paired First World observers with returning communities as a way to ensure their safety from the armed forces and right-wing death squads that had chased them from the country in the previous decades.
Now, says Patterson, these former refugees are refusing to remain victims; they are empowering themselves by organizing to demand justice for the crimes against humanity they experienced during the long civil conflict.
To convict Rios Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez of genocide, the law requires two thresholds be met: that there was a systematic and massive attack against a specific population; and that intent be proven.
“The testimonies heard last week all support that conclusion,” Tremblay affirmed.
If convicted, Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief face life in a Guatemalan prison. This may end up having more symbolic importance than the actual penalty, Tremblay observes. Rios Montt is 86 years old. But to prove to Guatemalans that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity no longer enjoy the impunity that sheltered them from justice over all these years, indeed, afforded them a place among the political and economic elite, a freer democracy that respects human rights may finally may have the opportunity to take root and grow.
Far from the cooler temperatures and green mountains of Guatemala’s northwest Altiplano that is home to the Maya Ixil, the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston is a hot, dusty outpost largely populated by the descendants of black slaves. The town caters to a trickle of adventurous tourists drawn largely to nearby natural wonders such as the River of Seven Altars, a shady paradise of gentle waterfalls and cool pools that drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
That’s where my companera and I went to take a two-day breather from an at-times tense human-rights fact-finding mission we joined in the summer of 1990 to report on the conditions of Guatemalan refugee camps in the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Quintana Roo, as well as in clandestine in-country hideouts during the last stages of Guatemala’s 40-year civil war