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.

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.

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.