Tecú Osorio was 10 years old
and living in the rural Guatemalan village of Río Negro in March 1982 when soldiers
and civil defense patrollers from a neighboring village raided his community.
They bound and marched 177 women and children up a steep path to a clearing and
savagely raped and slaughtered them. Tecú's father had been killed weeks earlier, and his mother was murdered
that day. The infant brother he tried desperately to protect was wrested from
his arms and brutally killed as he watched helplessly.
Tecú was among a handful of ethnic Maya Achi children spared, only to be enslaved by
those who murdered their families. Thirty-two years later, a simple white cross
marks a tree in memory of the people killed in the raid. The tree bears a haunting
dent created by the repeated crushing of skulls, still visible to visitors who
come to pay homage to the dead.
Negro and 32 other villages were slated for forced eviction to make way for the
Chixoy hydroelectric dam, funded by the World Bank and Inter-American Development
Bank in partnership with successive U.S.-backed Guatemalan military regimes.
The project's proponents claimed it would bring electricity and other benefits
to the locals. But the promises of reasonable relocation were hollow: The
gritty and squalid relocation village of Pacux offered a poor substitute for
Maya Achi communities and deprived them of their ancestral ways. The residents
of Río Negro resisted being illegally and forcibly displaced, and so their
village was violently emptied by five massacres that, in all, killed 440
recent years, a handful of families have returned to Río Negro to reclaim their
land and their history, rebuilding a small cluster of modest houses above the
water line from where their ancestral homes were submerged by the dam. Although the
dam was completed decades ago, the villagers still have no electricity. And
despite a 2010 governmental reparations plan for those affected by the project,
the communities have received nothing to help them heal and rebuild.
eviction of Río Negro's inhabitants occurred in the midst of a "scorched earth"
counterinsurgency campaign by Guatemala's military dictatorship against Marxist
insurgents in the course of the country's 1960-1996 civil war. Frustrated by
its inability to suppress the guerrillas, government forces increasingly
targeted civilians and their communities, including those it believed were
sympathetic to the rebels and standing in the way of state interests.
conflict, more than 200,000 people were
killed and more than a million were dispossessed. The vast majority of victims
were indigenous. The Guatemalan military
perpetrated more than 400 massacres during the conflict and destroyed more than
600 villages. The United Nations later found that the state had committed genocide in
at least four separate regions, including the area where Río Negro sits.
today, 18 years after the conflict ended, hopes that the architects of state terror
will be brought to justice are fading fast. On May 13, the Guatemalan Congress passed a resolution denying that genocide ever
occurred. It stated, "It is legally impossible … that genocide could have occurred in
our country's territory during the armed conflict." The resolution, which won
the support of the vast majority of legislators present during the vote, noted that a
recent, high-profile genocide trial undermined "national reconciliation." Survivors
of genocide and other state repression responded with a fervent plea "that this
resolution be retracted."
congressional decree has no binding impact on the country's judiciary, but it
still impugns the country's separation of powers. And its message is
unmistakable: The powerful military, economic, and political sectors in Guatemala
are unwilling to acknowledge and make amends for the atrocities committed by
the state. The grisly internal conflict is still polarizing, and there is
genuine debate in Guatemala about how to address the past. The Congress,
however, is composed mostly of the country's economic and political elite and
is not representative of the general population -- including the indigenous
majority whose communities were systematically destroyed.
the decree is only one piece of a growing problem: Guatemala's once-tentative
progress toward reconciling with its bloody past has suffered other alarming
setbacks in recent months.
Guatemala's war and
the silence and impunity that shroud it must be contextualized in the country's
colonial and post-colonial legacy. Writer Eduardo
Galeano described the Open
Veins of Latin America -- that is, centuries of plunder, social exclusion, and crushing
economic deprivation. It was against this historical backdrop of economic and
social injustice that Jacobo
Arbenz won an overwhelming majority of the vote in 1950 on a progressive
platform, including his centerpiece of agrarian reform. But the land
expropriation and social mobilization that followed threatened powerful U.S.
geopolitical and economic interests, and Arbenz was ousted in a U.S.-sponsored
coup in 1954. By 1960, simmering conflict had escalated into armed insurrection,
and a cycle of resistance and repression intensified until 1982, when José Efraín Ríos Montt's 17-month rein comprised the
bloodiest years of violence.
formally ended in 1996 with a series of agreements outlining social, economic,
and political reforms, collectively termed the Peace Accords. Among its mandates
was the creation of the Commission for Historical Clarification, a truth commission, which collected
harrowing testimony and concluded that conditions of exclusion and inequality had
been reinforced by authoritarian rule -- and that those conditions should be
dismantled in order to achieve lasting peace and justice. Moreover, shortly
after the final accord was signed, Congress passed the Law of National
Reconciliation, an amnesty statute covering political crimes but explicitly
excluding torture, genocide, and other violations of international law.
These were all
positive signs that Guatemala wanted to cope openly and fairly with its violent
past and build a better future. But today, almost two decades after the
conflict ended, Guatemala is still afflicted by violence, corruption, impunity,
pervasive poverty, inequality, racism, and a fragile democracy. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous leaders,
environmentalists, lawyers, judges, and others are at grave risk of intimidation
and violent repression.
this crisis, just over a year ago the global community hailed the conviction of Ríos Montt for
committing genocide and crimes against humanity. Judge Yassmin Barrios electrified the courtroom as she read
the court's verdict convicting Ríos Montt for the
deaths of 1,771 Maya Ixil men, women, and children during the military's brutal
rampage calculated to destroy the indigenous communities that the military
presumed were sympathetic to the insurgents. The campaign included murder,
rape, torture, slaughtering animals, burning houses and crops, and desecrating
sacred sites. After attempting to block the trial through an endless
series of procedural challenges, Ríos Montt's defense team argued that
culpability did not ascend the chain of command and that any wrongdoing was
solely in the province of his field commanders. That argument was powerfully
repudiated by both military documents and Ríos Montt's own words and video
images from 30 years earlier, in which he claimed to control the military.
in a signal of a backslide of Guatemala's commitment to peace and justice, the verdict was annulled 10 days later in a widely
questioned ruling by the Constitutional Court. The trial is now scheduled to start
up again in January 2015, though it seems increasingly unlikely that Guatemala
can muster the political will to send Ríos Montt or any of the authors of the
genocide and other state violence to jail.
signs that justice will remain elusive have been inauspicious. Guatemala's
internationally acclaimed attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who helped pave
the way for Ríos Montt's indictment and made real progress against impunity and
corruption, was ousted in May. Many observers believe that Paz y Paz ran afoul
of the elite in her steadfast defense of human rights and commitment to ending
impunity for the country's wartime atrocities. Paz y Paz, who was nominated for
a Nobel Peace Prize, was pushed from office. Amid claims of corruption and
manipulation, President Otto Pérez Molina selected her replacement: a lawyer,
Thelma Aldana, with no prosecutorial experience who is closely aligned with
entrenched economic and military elites and who has openly criticized Paz y
the mandate of the United
Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, widely credited with ferreting out corruption and
impunity in the country, will not be renewed after its term ends in September
2015. And Barrios, the courageous judge who oversaw the contentious
genocide trial, was sanctioned for her conduct during the proceedings at the
behest of powerful interests.
figures have evaded a reckoning as well. Allegations
that Pérez Molina (who took office in January 2012 after an "iron fist"
campaign) was himself a war criminal have long circulated among
human rights advocates. Evidence includes video footage of Pérez Molina, who
served as a military commander under the nom de guerre Tito Arias, standing
over the battered bodies of insurgents who had reportedly been tortured prior to
their extrajudicial killing. Ríos Montt's trial provided a more public airing of
accusations against the president: Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes, a former Army
mechanic, elicited gasps when he testified that Pérez Molina had instructed soldiers to destroy
villages and execute villagers even as they fled.
however, supported prominent
signatories to a letter alleging that genocide charges against the military
were fabrications that imperiled peace and stability in the country.
development projects, often funded by transnational companies, evoke the enduring anguish of people from places like Río Negro. Mining projects
face vociferous community opposition, particularly from indigenous populations
whose land is under threat, but this is often met with repression. Resistance against
El Tambor mine, run by the Nevada-based mining company Kappes, Cassiday
& Associates, developed into an organized, peaceful anti-mining blockade that
lasted for two years. But the mining company's patience wore thin, and on May 23, heavily armed Guatemalan military officers
descended on the occupation, dispensing tear gas and violently evicting the unarmed
protesters. They injured at least 20 civilians.
a Canadian company, is being sued for human rights abuses associated with
its Fenix mine project; the company's security guards stand accused of
murdering anti-mining activist Adolfo Ich in 2009, in an unprovoked attack,
leaving his widow to raise their five children in their impoverished Maya Q'eqchi
community. Another man was shot and paralyzed, and 11 women accuse the mine's
guards of raping them.
Proponents of these
development projects, which also include sugar cane and palm plantations, tout
their benefit for local communities. But these claims are belied by reality.
For instance, under Pérez Molina, companies pay the government only 1 percent
of the value of the minerals extracted from their projects, little of which trickles
transformative reconciliation envisioned by Guatemala's peace process has utterly
failed to materialize. The country demonstrates the difficulty in achieving
accountability when entrenched interests refuse to relinquish their tight
control over the machinery of economic and institutional power. In other words,
the forces that engendered misery during the country's conflict continue to do
the same today. Without justice, democratization, and accountability, resources
will continue to be seized, lives threatened, and communities marginalized.
veins of Guatemala will continue to bleed.
The author's legal clinic,
along with other organizations, has filed an appeal with the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights seeking reparations for Chixoy dam survivors.
Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images