Reckoning With a Genocide in Guatemala

How a war crimes case, 13 years in the making, could bring justice to a nation that has long suffered without it.

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Forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli, a member of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropologist Foundation, surveys remains from one of Guatemala City's mass graves / Ofelia de Pablo/Javier Zurita

GUATEMALA CITY -- A man in a mask opens a door. The smell of rot hovers in the air and everywhere there are piles of paper -- pink, yellow, white, all a bit aged and possibly very important. When searching through the 80 million documents dumped in the archives of the Guatemalan National Police, it's never clear what will turn up. What is contained here, however, in a sprawling building somehow hidden until 2005, reveals how the government of Guatemala committed grave human rights abuses from the 1970s through the 1990s in a war that left more than 200,000 dead and 100,000 women raped. Records of operations, identification cards, and communiqués between departments are just some of the files that compose the near-bottomless archive the regime kept of its own murderous campaign.

In addition to these stacks of papers are a small handful of documents from the military's still-classified archives, one young documentary filmmaker, a bulldog of a forensic anthropologist, two whip-smart female lawyers, and a meticulous American archivist. Altogether, these files and crusaders have led the way to the first indictment of a former Latin American president on genocide charges. General Efraín Ríos Montt, a now-85-year-old mustachioed, seersucker-clad, banana republic dictator, was placed under house arrest on January 26, nearly 30 years after he allegedly ordered the annihilation of Guatemala's indigenous population and other "subversive" elements.

Latin America-watchers agree that the trial could be a complete paradigm shift for Guatemala, and a potentially history-setting precedent for the region. While there are no statutes of limitations on genocide crimes in most national and international courts, political will has been lacking when it comes to prosecuting grand-scale human rights abuses in Latin America. Many involved in the abuses are still in power. Laura Carlsen, the Mexico City-based director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, explains that there is a running debate about historical memory in the southern cone. Is it healthier to bring crimes to justice, to face them head on as a nation, or instead move forward, not reopening wounds? The region might be settling on a direction.

"In the last couple of years, there's really been major movement throughout Latin America to come to terms with history, as in Argentina," Carlsen said.

I have been 'advised' that if I continue to work there will be consequences."

The indictment has generated unprecedented hope for justice in a country where many people still live with the pain of the disappearances and memories of the massacre of family members, lovers, and friends.

"Just the fact that they've opened the prosecution against him is important," said Patricia Ardón, director of a Guatemalan feminist organization called Sinergia No'j. Ardón lost both her husband-to-be in 1979 and her first boyfriend, from when she was 15. "For justice just to recognize that this really happened is important."

Ardón said it's not about vindication, nor is it about that for the other survivors I spoke to -- it's about a public reckoning with the men in power. It's about the realization that these men can no longer terrorize them. And, luckily for those who survived the loss of loved ones, the indictment of Ríos Montt holds real potential for justice, according to the people closest to the case.

"We feel it's a very, very strong case," Guatemala's pioneering attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, told a delegation from the Nobel Women's Initiative and Washington-based Just Associates in Guatemala City on January 30. Though many people I spoke to said they expect her to lose her job any minute because of her willingness to take on the powers-that-be (and were), she's still hanging on. She added that the charge of rape as a war crime is crucial to delivering justice to Guatemala's women: "For the first time, a judge said these rapes occurred. For these women it's like saying they have a real voice. It becomes finally clear that this is something that is not allowed, specifically."

Paz y Paz, with her steadfast, soft-spoken fearlessness, is part of the phalanx of women and men bringing justice to Guatemala, in spite of threats and endless resistance, legal and otherwise. "I have been 'advised' that if I continue to work there will be consequences," said Paz y Paz.

There is sense that weighs heavily over Guatemala, and on nearly every conversation I had here, that the war remains very nearby in everyone's collective memory. Without a Nuremberg-like reckoning, the wounds have not closed. Many in power may have participated in war crimes. Sitting President Otto Pérez Molina, who took office on January 14, was the director of military intelligence in the 1990s. Nobel Prize Laureate Jody Williams, who led the Nobel Women's Initiative and JASS delegation (of which I was a part) through 10 days in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, said that during a meeting on January 30, the Guatemalan president bristled at her mention of genocide, saying, "There was no genocide; it was war," according to a tape of the meeting.  

Presented by

Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. Wolfe is a former senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She writes regularly at

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