Thursday - May 23, 2019

Ríos Montt’s crime – a testimony from a resisting community in Guatemala

Native Mayan Ikil (above) in the city of Chajul (below).

by Orsetta Bellani

On May 10, 2013, Efrain Rios Montt – 87-year-old former Guatemalan dictator – was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. The general was sentenced to 80 years in prison for the murder of 1,771 indigenous ethnic Ixil Maya peoples. The ruling has a great historical value, as it is the first time in the world that a former head of State is convicted for genocide.
“The recognition of the crime of genocide affects all Guatemalans,” said Judge Yasmin Barrios at the end of the trial, after hearing more than 100 witnesses and victims. “Recognizing the truth helps heal wounds. The administration of justice is a right belonging to the victims. These events should not happen again, because the people of Guatemala wish to live in peace.” However, on May 20, 2013 the Central American country’s Constitutional Court overturned the verdict, so the process returns to where it was on April 19.
As business leaders, agribusiness and financial groups in Guatemala manifested in the capital demanding the annulment of the trial of the former dictator, President Otto Perez Molina declared he accepted the ruling. The decision was taken for granted, as in the past, the Guatemalan President said that there was no genocide and that the accusations were lies of the Communists. In fact, Perez Molina was very close to Rios Montt: the current president was an army major assigned to the Ixil region, where the crimes attributed to Rios Montt in the period 1982-1983 took place.

According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, in Guatemala the toll of dead and missing people during the conflict exceeds 200 thousand, among them 83 percent are indigenous Mayans. In its report, the Commission writes: “Many of the human rights violations were perpetrated with cruelty and publicly. [...] The murder of defenseless children, who were often killed by being beaten against walls or by being thrown alive into pits, where later bodies of adults were thrown, traumatic amputation or removal of members; impalements, murder of people burned alive, the evisceration of victims still alive in the presence of others, the detention of people already mortally tortured, in agony for days, the opening of the wombs of pregnant women. Extreme cruelty was a resource used intentionally to generate and maintain a climate of fear in the population. The vast majority of the victims of the state’s actions were not combatants in the guerrilla groups, but civilians.”

It is estimated that in Guatemala in the early ‘80s, between 500 thousand and one and a half million people were forced to flee from violence: around 150 thousand fled to Mexico, while others were forced to move constantly within the country. Among them, Dona Elvira, a woman who for twelve years was part of the CPR (Communities of Population in Resistance, nomadic communities that became the priority of the army operations) of the Department of Petén.


At that time, families of the CPR-Petén packed a few things every morning because they had to be ready to flee into the jungle at any time. “There was always surveillance in the four points,” says Dona Elvira. “The signal when the army came was a shot in the air, then we had to grab our bag and leave. The army followed and we hit the road and made camp elsewhere, because when they came to camp where we were, they smashed everything.”

Dona Elvira tells about the difficulties of those years, continuous fear, peer solidarity and hunger. They ate whatever the forest would provide: roots, plants and some fruit. “Sometimes the other members found cornfields and stole a little corn to feed the children, there were many children. We cooked the little corn we had, as we were carrying utensils and a pot. We made dough balls wrapped in leaves and found a place to eat them. We couldn´t light a fire during daylight, because there was always a plane over the mountain and if they detected smoke, they would throw bombs at the camp. So we cooked at night.”

After the last attack, in 1992, the exiles of the CPR-Petén understood that the army had not arrived and created four communities in the Lacandona jungle. “When we came over here, we did not bring anything, because we had nothing to bring, but then many organizations supported us,” says Dona Elvira. “The only government institution that supported us a bit was Fonapaz (National Fund for Peace): they supported us with food, but it was a little bit. All we got was through international organizations: the basic and elementary school, the medical center, the radio, the store. The government has not delivered as promised, all they accomplished was the mechanical drilling of a well to draw water, but very soon the pump broke.