In Century of the Wind, part of the Memory of Fire trilogy, the poet-warrior Eduardo Galeano wrote of the indigenous Guatemalans:
Multitudes of hungry indians, stripped of everything, wander the mountains. They come from horror, but they are not going to horror. They walk slowly, guided by the ancient certainty that someday greed and arrogance will be punished. That’s what the old people of corn assure the children of corn in the stories they tell when night falls. Pg. 273
The days of punishment for greed and arrogance have finally arrived, and both the old people of corn and the children of corn can lift their smiling faces to the sun.
On Friday, May 10, 2013, the Guatemalan legal system convicted Ex-President, General Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to 80 years of prison. General Montt is 82. The three Judges also ordered the executive branch to present a bill to the Guatemalan Congress declaring March 23 a national day against genocide, ordered them to build a museum and monuments to commemorate the victims, and additionally ordered the State to establish permanent schools on human rights within the police academy and military.
This is a miracle of due process and an amazing accomplishment for any country’s legal system, much less the small, bloodied country of Guatemala. This verdict is a celebration of the rule of law and the notion that no one is above the law, even an ex-President.
Montt was accused and convicted of the slaughter of 1,771 people. This number is a fraction, no doubt, of the true number killed under his 17 month reign of terror, but sufficient to drag the bloody general down to prison and eternal historical damnation.
The Guatemalan army and death squads used terror tactics taught to them from the School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation). They chopped off arms, played soccer with heads, killed babies by the hundreds. Women, even elderly women and young girls, would be herded into large rooms and serially raped to the point of hemorrhaging. The bodies of victims were left in the streets by the army and death squads as warnings to anyone not on the right side. Many of the 1,771 bodies found and exhumed still had cord wrapped around the wrists.
US involvement in these atrocities is, I find, generally not known by many in America. I was embarrassingly ignorant of them as well. One night, however, while reading a book by St. Noam of Chomsky (How the World Works) in the bathtub, I was blown away by his description. I had simply not been taught or, even more shamefully, had not chosen to read about the horrors in Guatemala.
I started reading what I could from and about people like Allan Nairn, Rigoberta Menchu (follow the link and see what courage-made-flesh looks like) and sources like Wikileaks releases and State Department archives.
A Little History
In 1950, the U.S. Fruit Company owned almost half of the arable land in Guatemala, a nation of essentially subsistent farmers. The indigenous Mayans had been pushed to the more infertile highlands, where they were briefly allowed to scratch out a living.
In 1950, a popular candidate was elected in what was hailed as a free and fair election. Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was swept in on a platform of land reform with 3x the votes of his opponent. He had the idea to redistribute unworked tracts of land to landless peasant farmers in exchange for government bonds.
Árbenz paid the United Fruit Company the ridiculously low value the corporation itself had assigned to the redistributed lands in their own tax records. If you’re quiet, you can still hear Árbenz chuckle in his grave about that move. This land reform was successful in lifting many out of poverty and giving them the hope of a better life. The success of the program was catching the eyes of neighboring nations.
This uplifting movement also caught the eye of the CIA.
Because this land reform threatened the existing power structure, loyal to the US, namely, the United Fruit Company, and threatened to contaminate our “backyard” with more promises of indigenous prosperity, the CIA planned and carried out a coup of the democratically elected government in 1954.
From this coup until 1996, there was civil war between the Guatemalan armed forces & death squads and the more leftist factions supporting equality and land reform. The Guatemalan armed forces killed more than 200,000 people, mostly in the highland areas heavily populated by indigenous Mayans. According to the Truth Commission, over 83% of the fully identified victims are believed to have been indigenous.
The most vicious killing of the decades-long civil war occurred in 1982-1983 during Rios Montt’s term as President.
A Nail in the Generals’ Coffins
Allan Nairn, renowned human rights journalist and pillar-shaker, details many facts about Montt in his excellent post of notes he made for his own testimony in Montt’s trial. Allan has been as instrumental as any outsider in doggedly, over decades, bringing justice to the campesinos. His blog site contains an excellent account of his work in Guatemala. He also did a documentary on the atrocities called, in English, Deadline Guatemala.
Nairn captured current Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina on film, surrounded by freshly tortured corpses, discussing the slaughter of the “subversives”, a term synonymous in his mind with indigenous Mayans. Molina told Nairn about the use of helicopters and mortars, supplied by the US and its client state, Israel. Molina was using the nome de guerre “Mayor Tito” in the film and has since admitted that he was Mayor Tito. He was the local implementor of Rios Montt’s genocidal campaign.
There is no doubt that the Guatemalan legal system will be setting President Molina in its sights when Molina’s Presidential term, and immunity, are expired. Molina is now backed into a corner by a fearless judicial system and the power of the people, who have found that their voices have finally been heard.
Will the Mountains Tremble Again?
This month, President Molina declared Martial Law for an area surrounding the Tahoe Resource’s mines and sent in the military. The community has been angered at the granting of mineral rights without their consent or knowledge. President Molina ordered that no groups could assemble in public, no one except his military and police may be armed, and he claimed the power to search homes without consent. All travel in and out of the region was controlled by the military.
The world needs to keep watching the miracle in Guatemala and not let a desperate President Molina use the military to seize dictatorial powers, preventing his nearly inevitable prosecution for his role in the massacres of indigenous Mayans.
Prayer for Peace:
In certain towns lost in the mountains of Guatemala, anonymous hands sew tiny worry dolls.
A surefire remedy for anxiety, they calm stormy thoughts and come to the rescue when insomnia threatens.
These miniscule worry dolls don’t say a thing. They heal by listening. Huddled under the pillow, they absorb sorrows and regrets, doubts and debts, all the phantoms that undermine a peaceful sleep, and they carry them off, magically far off, to the secret place where night is never an enemy.
(“Night Crossing”, from Eduardo Galeano’s The Children of Days, pg. 108.)
The once all-powerful General Rios Montt is spending his second day in military hospital after feinting on the way to Court.
Rigoberta Menchu, after her Father was imprisoned and tortured, after her Brother was arrested, tortured, and then killed, after her Father was killed, after her Mother was arrested, tortured, raped, and killed…
after all of that and more…
She stood tall with her finger pointing at the Bloody General.
She pointed at his face as he was confronted by his countrymen, on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
And then she pointed at his back, as his countrymen led him to prison for his monstrosity.
Now she points to the heavens, at her lost family and the justice that she and so many others have brought them at long last.