Reckoning With a Genocide in Guatemala

Guatemala's internal, 36-year conflict -- from 1960 to 1996 -- began ostensibly as a struggle between the U.S.-backed right-wing government and a leftist insurgency. But with racism and land struggles running deep in Guatemala, indigenous Mayans ultimately became the government's target. Ríos Montt allegedly oversaw a "scorched earth" campaign that destroyed entire villages as his government labeled all villagers "subversives," thereby marking the entire population for annihilation. As the men fled, the women who remained behind became targets of rape.

"It's not in his interest to recognize what happened as 'genocide,'" Williams said of the Guatemalan president. Finding Ríos Montt guilty would set a global precedent, she added. "It would further reaffirm that things are changing -- not as fast as we would like, but with the International Criminal Court and the various tribunals and men in power who've ordered the death of others having to appear before them being found guilty, it is inevitably going to send a signal that you can't get away with that."

The senior representative of the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Guatemala, a gregarious, bald Italian named Alberto Brunori, said that the UN position is that there cannot be justice in the present if there is no justice in the past. "We have to be a bit positive otherwise I shoot myself in the head," he said.

With all the positivity running through the key characters in the Ríos Montt case, it's worth remembering that this trial has been 13 years in the making. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum first filed a case on the genocide in 1999 in the Spanish National Court. Despite the efforts of a crusading attorney named Almudena Bernabeu, who has been leading the lawsuit in Spain, Guatemala refused to extradite Ríos Montt, then a sitting congressman, and the case stalled.

What changed? Newfound political will, the appointment of Paz y Paz, and Ríos Montt's recent loss of state-sponsored immunity as he retired from public office are just a few of the reasons the indictment came down against the former president on January 26.

A teen-faced documentarian named Pamela Yates has also played an unlikely but important role. Thirty years ago, when she was just 29 (and looked 16), Yates embedded herself with first the national army and then the leftist guerillas fighting in the highlands, where war was decimating the indigenous population. She produced two documentaries, one in 1982 and another in 2011, titled, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. The latter is mainly about how the outtakes from her 1982 film helped indict Ríos Montt. She managed to interview him at the time -- terrified, she told me -- and while he denied he had ordered any sort of massacre, he admitted he was the ultimate arbiter of decision for the military. That admission became a central piece of evidence in the case against him.

"It felt like I was going up against impenetrable power," Yates told me recently at the 32nd anniversary commemoration of Menchu's father's death, when he was burned alive at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City. "So now to think that that interview is being used against him to show that actually in the chain of command he was ordering what happened out in the field, it's very gratifying."

While the case has whipped back and forth between Spain and Guatemala, international pressure has helped the country take justice into its own hands. It is the Guatemalans who have suffered, many of whom recall the murders or must live with the memory of their own assault or rape -- and now it is the Guatemalans who have a chance to find justice.

Back in the archives' cement-brick halls, I ask a woman who works there what it's like to spend her days among these haunting papers. Some female police officers, I'd just learned, had been sent to work in the archives as punishment for not sleeping with their superior officers. The center of the labyrinthine building was a sort of secret prison known as "Prisión Isla." It's only accessible by one small door, roughly five feet high. Is it frightening, I ask? Juarez draws out the "s" in "Yesssssssss."

I ask some of the archivists if any of the documents will help convict Ríos Montt. A few of them smirk.

"There are things we can't yet disclose," one says.

What may or may not come out during Ríos Montt's trial could very well expose the leaders, long considered untouchable, of crimes that a UN-backed truth commission termed  "genocidal acts" in 1998. It will take time, and the many people toiling on the case could have several difficult months or years still ahead of them. But after 15 years of inaction, Guatemalans, and the world, can wait a little longer for justice.

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 laurenmwolfe.com.

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