The historic battle for justice is winning against all odds

The absence of despair. The refusal to lose hope. The determination to keep fighting in the face of implacable odds.

These are the characteristics that struck me most about the many Guatemalan refugees I met in the spring of 1990 during a six-week tour of their rudimentary camps in the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Quintana Roo, and in clandestine hideouts through their country that, at that time, was uneasily trying to end decades of civil war and a campaign of brutal repression against the Indigenous Mayan majority.

I met people in absolute poverty living in shacks built with bamboo stalks and roofed with sheets of corrugated tin. Many had seen their family members, including women and children, slaughtered in the worst imaginable ways. Most had fled north to Mexico through mountains and jungle with little more than the clothes on their back. They were far from their ancestral homeland and their futures looked bleak.

But never did I encounter despair. I did see an amazing level of hope and determination to carry on living, something illustrated by the admirable way these makeshift and traumatized communities had organized their own schools, medical clinics, justice systems and political structures.

The communities I visited – including places called Cineguitas, Las Linares, Maya Balam, Tuchumatan and La Laguna – are all gone now. Their former inhabitants are back home, largely in the western highlands, or Altiplano, of Guatemala after a long peace process and international human-rights intervention helped establish a certain level of safety so that they could return. But they are still seeking justice for the genocidal repression they faced under the right-wing dictatorships of the Ladino (Spanish-descended) minority that still controls most of the country’s wealth, land and political power.

As I wrote in this space a few weeks ago, the former military dictator, General José Efraín Ríos Montt, was facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his regime’s scorched-earth campaign against the Maya in 1982-83. That period was the bloodiest of the 30-year conflict, as his army and clandestine paramilitary death squads destroyed 440 Mayan villages, committed hundreds of massacres, and drove 1.5 million people into exile or into hiding within Guatemala.

Well, on May 10, a Guatemalan tribunal found Rios Montt guilty of the charges and sentenced him to 50 years in prison for genocide, and a further 30 years for crimes against humanity, specifically for the deaths of 1,771 Maya-Ixil peasants between March 1982 and August 1983 as part of his counter-insurgency campaign. It is the first time anyone has been called to account for any of the many genocides against Indigenous peoples anywhere in the Americas. It is an historic moment.

The Major Crimes Tribunal A found that, “The Ixils were considered public enemies of the state and were also victims of racism, considered an inferior race… The violent acts against the Ixils were not spontaneous. They were planned beforehand.” Judge Yasmín Barrios referred to evidence that the army exterminated 5.5% of the Ixil people.

The conviction followed a six-week trial, which included the testimony of over 90 witnesses as well as dozens of forensic and other experts, and the presentation of documentary, forensic and other evidence. A week after the verdict, the trial court issued a 718-page judgment laying the foundation for the sentence.

According to an observer in the courtroom from Lawyers Without Borders Canada, Brendan Brock, the guilty verdict was a moment of high drama. “We are going to do the following,” announced Judge Barrios, who had faced numerous death threats during the trial. “We (the judge and clerks) are going to stay seated and wait for the national police and penitentiary authorities to take away the accused.”

Brock says that Rios Montt’s lawyers tried to whisk him away but the judge said “NO! The accused can NOT leave the courtroom until he is taken away to prison by the police and penitentiary authority.” The courtroom again erupted in cheers as people hardly believed they were witnessing this historic moment in the fight for justice in Guatemala and the world.

Recounts Brock: “The Maya Ixil victims were in shock, not knowing whether or not to clap and hardly believing that Guatemala’s poor, disenfranchised Indigenous people had held the elite class responsible for atrocities committed against them. Many of the women were crying and hugging each other. It had been an emotionally grueling battle. When Rios Montt was finally taken to prison, the crowd turned and applauded the victims and witnesses causing further tears. The victims of this genocide have fought long and hard to see justice in Guatemala, recounting unspeakable horrors inflicted upon themselves, their families and their communities. It was an incredibly emotional scene.”

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. As anywhere, courts are not free from political interference. On May 20, the trial court’s verdict was thrown out on a procedural technicality by the country’s Constitutional Court.

On June 6, the Constitutional Court finally ruled that the lower court must rehear all evidence presented after April 19, when the procedural mistake supposedly occurred. It’s still a major victory considering that Rios Montt’s lawyers had appealed to the Guatemalan Supreme Court, demanding that the entire process be quashed because of a post-war amnesty for abuses committed during the during the 1960-1996 civil war. The court refused, ruling that the amnesty does not extend to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Because of backlogs in the country’s court system, however, the trial will not resume until April 2014. Meanwhile, the 86-year-old Rios Montt remains under house arrest.

It’s a roller-coaster ride, with victories and setbacks. But the fight for justice continues.

Elizabeth Patterson, a Montreal lawyer who has worked with the Cree of Eeyou Istchee, attended part of the trial as an observer for Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC). She told me that First Nations from any where in the Americas should take heart that, even in Guatemala, where the odds are so high, it is worthwhile to continue the fight against historical injustice.

The involvement of the ASFC in the trial is a point of pride. The organization accompanied and helped prepare the Maya Ixil witnesses for the intimidating ordeal of giving testimony in an alien setting and in the face of outrageous abuse by Rios Montt’s lawyers. Many problems arose from the translation of testimony given in the Ixil language into Spanish, something defence lawyers tried to exploit.

International solidarity may have been and will continue to be key to this historic legal battle, which in itself is a victory because civil procedures usually produce fewer corpses than do civil wars. But it could never have happened without the determination of the victims themselves to seek justice. They never gave into despair. They continued to hope when there appeared to be no hope. And they still fought when it appeared the fight was lost.