Seven Years After The Sentence We Continue Remembering: Yes, There Was Genocide!
In September 2015 the United Nations decided to declare December 9th International Day of Commemoration and Dignity for Victims of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. The decision was in recognition of the convention signed in 1948 regarding this delicate subject. Throughout history there have been many recorded acts of genocide. One of these, initiated by the German government under Adolf Hitler, was brutally committed against Jews because the majority of bankers and businesspeople were members of the Jewish religion.
Guatemala suffered one of the most devastating, violent and repressive periods in history during the 1970’s and 1980’s. From 1960 through 1996 an armed conflict occurred inside the country. The CEH (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico) or Commission for Historic Accuracy estimated there were 200,000 victims and about 40,000 individuals who disappeared, among those 5,000 were children. According to the CEH, 83% of the victimized belonged to indigenous Mayan groups. One of the most dramatic cases was that of Dos Erres, a community in the jungles of the Petén region. It was essentially wiped off the face of the earth by government soldiers in December 1982. A million people were forcibly displaced and 400 communities were completely destroyed.
For more than three decades Guatemala was severely affected by this war. It was a terrible brutality committed against the population. There were “disappearances”, cases of sexual violence, attacks against the press, human rights violations, displacements, torture, and massacres reported. As a result, families were left separated, split up. According to a report entitled “Genocide in Guatemala: Rios Montt, Guilty” from FIDH or International Federation for Human Rights, it was during the regime of José Efraín Ríos Montt that most violence occurred. The violence was the result of a counter-insurgency strategy. The Guatemalan Army carried out attacks against populations in areas that were supposedly sympathetic to guerrilla forces opposed to the government.
Three decades ago a Guatemalan tribunal recognized that the Mayan Ixil people were victims of genocide, putting in place a nation-wide precedent of struggle against impunity. A group of human rights experts from the United Nations urged completion of a process for holding criminally responsible (those involved). On May 10th of 2013, a Guatemalan Constitutional Tribunal declared Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He, the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces during that period, was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide. The conviction was overturned days later when his attorney instead won an injunction protecting Ríos Montt.
The program Accompaniment in Transitional Justice or PASJUST, the Spanish acronym, monitored the first case of genocide. The victim was Elena de Paz, a survivor of sexual assault during the internal armed conflict. She stated: “The last time we went to the mountains I remember airplanes flying over announcing, People, turn yourselves in! Peace is on the way! We have food for you! We couldn’t tolerate hunger any longer. We had no homes, no crops to harvest, no animals because everything had been destroyed. We were desperate and so my mother decided to turn herself in to the military detachment because she was worn out. Rather than receiving us respectfully, well, that was when the harm they did to us began.” In 1982, Elena, then 12 years old, and her mother were raped by soldiers from the military detachment of Tzalbal, a neighborhood in Nebaj, Quiché Department. Her mother died as a consequence of the aggression.
Given that today, the Day of Commemoration and Dignity for Victims of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime, is celebrated, we want to remember that in Guatemala, YES, THERE WAS GENOCIDE! And because of what occurred in Guatemala, we condemn all acts violating human rights, all acts of repression, of massive disappearances committed by the government, land-grabs of territory where indigenous people were living, and elimination of members of the guerrillas, whether voluntarily or not. They were indigenous people forgotten by the state. Although the Ríos Montt sentence was revoked, victims of the conflict and their families will not forget that the sentencing established that the Armed Forces utilized some of the most brutally violent tactics against a civilian population, including assassination, torture, cruel and inhumane treatment, rape and forced displacement, causing physical destruction of many of the Ixil people.
We know that the lasting effect of genocide on survivors can never be completely repaired. A sentence will never exist which fully achieves a complete justice. Nevertheless, information must continually be presented so that Guatemalan history is not forgotten, nor the victims, nor the human rights defenders who perished while in search for justice. May the names of those who were silenced for denouncing such acts, like Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera, never be forgotten. And may future generations know about what happened and that there was genocide committed against indigenous peoples of Guatemala.