Google “Guatemalan genocide” and you’ll find in Wikipedia a description that characterizes it as a civil war between the government and leftist rebel groups made up of predominantly Mayan Indians and poor peasants. This is pretty typical for how aggression against indigenous populations in all of Latin America has been framed in news and other literature since the 1950’s. The applied terms are “civil war,” not colonization. They are “leftist rebels” fighting legitimate governments, not indigenous peoples protecting territories and their rights to exist against settler oligarchies and foreign business interests. This kind of terminology reflects the manipulative, propagandistic language of Cold War-era hysteria where communism was the evil force to be eradicated, and was often a front for despotic leaders in collusion with transnational corporations, all in the name of democracy.
But the facts remain: between 1981 and 1983 the Guatemalan army destroyed 626 villages, killed or disappeared more than 200,000 people and turned well over a million people into refugees. All backed by the Reagan administration government, and accomplished with American and Israeli made weapons.
History was made in May in an interesting turn of events in the Guatemalan legal system. On May 10, a lower court convicted former president/dictator Efrain Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity for overseeing the slaughter of 1,700 people in the mountainous, Mayan occupied Ixil region after a military coup in 1982. According to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, it marks the first time a former head of state has been convicted of genocide in his or her own country. The former dictator was sentenced to 80 years in prison for his role in the massacre; but the judge also called for an immediate investigation of “all others” connected to the crimes, which includes current president Otto Pérez Molina.
The social justice-oriented Democracy Now! has been covering the Guatemalan holocaust since the program’s inception in 1996, but investigative journalist Allan Nairn has been reporting on the Guatemalan genocide since the early 1980s. On April 19 DN aired an interview conducted by Nairn in 1982 with a military field commander named Major Tito Arias, an alias for today’s President Molina. In the interview the commander explains in explicit detail the army’s tactics for torture and execution of civilians when they refused to talk during interrogations. DN reported that President Molina’s “17-month rule is seen as one of the bloodiest chapters in Guatemala’s decades-long campaign against Maya indigenous people, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The trial took a surprising turn last week when Guatemala President Gen. Otto Pérez Molina was directly accused of ordering executions. A former military mechanic named Hugo Reyes told the court that Pérez Molina, then serving as an army major and using the name Tito Arias, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage a Maya Ixil area in the 1980s.”
In DN’s May 13 coverage of the conviction of former president Montt, a clip of a Spanish CNN interview with President Molina (aka Tito Arias) was shown in which the president denies the allegations of genocide, even while, ironically, he acknowledges the justice of the historic verdict, something he characterizes as “unthinkable” 10 years ago (and even despite his efforts to stop the trial). The president now finds himself in a very precarious position as someone so clearly connected to the atrocities as the court-ordered investigations move forward. But as Molina pointed out, this is a lower court decision which will be appealed to a higher court, a higher court no doubt under the influence of the oligarchies that have controlled the Guatemalan government and military for generations. This is nowhere near over yet.
Yet the significance of the verdict cannot be overstated. In Guatemala it is no longer possible to talk about indigenous resistance to domination and the forces of globalization framed in antiquated terms of Cold War era communism. Such language served not only to justify American military intervention in Central and South America, but also erased indigenous peoples from the landscape by its refusal to recognize conflict as an indigenous struggle for survival.
For over 30 years Mayans have fought to bring to justice the perpetrators of one of the most heinous genocidal campaigns in modern history, while indigenous peoples worldwide simultaneously asserted their rights in the international arena with the passage of human rights instruments like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While the Declaration was not what brought Montt to justice in Guatemala, it raises global awareness of the unique circumstances of indigenous peoples, and we might argue, makes it less acceptable for states to conduct genocidal wars against indigenous peoples. This is not the same as saying that the rights of indigenous peoples are now guaranteed, but it’s a step closer in the process of incremental change.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.