Guatemala: Day 5 of Montt genocide trial; "They viewed us as if we were not people."

Photo: From the Facebook page for Pamela Yates' film "Granito," a snapshot of a female Ixil Maya witness giving testimony on the genocide trial's third day.

The genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt, the Army general who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, and his chief of military intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, continues for the 5th day today in Guatemala City. Today marks the beginning of the second week of hearings; dozens of Ixil Maya witnesses have provided testimony of the atrocities committed against their families. This week is Semana Santa, or Holy Week, so this week's hearings will be truncated in observance of that holiday (it's kind of a big deal in Guatemala). But the trial continues at high speed: seven people testified today before the court broke for lunch.

Watch live video from the courtroom here; listen to audio here. A Twitter list with accounts who are live-tweeting the trial is here.

It is difficult to listen, watch, or read the proceedings. As I publish this blog post, Rosa Santiago, the first female witness to testify today, is asked to speak about a massacre that took place on April 3, 1982 in her village of Xel, Chajul, Quiche. "The soldiers forced 96 people into the village church and hacked them to death with machetes; the soldiers later tossed their dismembered body parts under a bridge."

Ms. Santiago's father and her twin sisters, who were around 8 years old at the time, were among those killed. "Babies were killed because their mothers were carrying them; all the corpses were tossed into two great holes dug in the ground; bodies piled one on top of the other."

Efraín Ríos Montt, during the first week of the 2013 genocide trial. Photo: James Rodriguez.

This trial matters to Americans, not just Guatemalans. Ríos Montt and his regime were trained and supported by the US during the Reagan administration; our government supplied weapons, helicopters, and personnel that directly enabled these massacres. CIA personnel participated in torture and extrajudicial executions of populations labeled as "subversive."

The open nature of this trial, the first in history in which a former head of state has been tried for genocide by a domestic court, stands in stark contrast to another important trial taking place in relative secrecy now in the United States.

"There was no genocide here," chant pro-military supporters of Ríos Montt outside the courtroom, to the accompaniment of military march music and the Guatemalan national anthem. According to reports, the pro-Ríos Montt campaign is organized by some two dozen retired military officers and their families.

Guatemala's current president Otto Perez Molina is a military figure who was once closely tied with Ríos Montt: he is a former special forces soldier (the notorious Kaibiles), was director of military intelligence during Ríos Montt's regime, ex-inspector-general of the army, and was the head of counterinsurgency in the Ixil area in 1982-83. The outcome of this trial could change the course of his presidency.

At, there are excellent daily recaps. From Friday:

The court heard 11 witnesses for the prosecution, including 5 women, making 37 witnesses presenting testimony thus far... Many witnesses on Friday were deeply emotionally affected by recounting their stories, with the court stalled on various occasions to give witnesses an opportunity to collect themselves. Nonetheless, the trial continued to advance at breakneck speed.

Photo: James Rodriguez of Cemetery in Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala; one of the sites of massacres at issue in this trial.

NISGUA, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, has also been publishing daily recaps and transcripts of the trial. Here is an excerpt from the testimony on Friday of Ixil victim Juan Raymundo Maton:

We had the custom of going on All Saint’s Day to put candles and flowers where our family members are buried. But as I said, we can’t do that because we don’t have a place to do that. Our ancestors have customs. All of this was destroyed when the military initiated their plan of scorched earth, all of it was destroyed.

During this policy of scorched earth, they destroyed everything, not just our crops but our culture. People couldn't even speak in their own languages. No one wanted to leave their culture, their customs; it was only because of this situation.

It’s hard. I came to give my testimony, they ask who made you testify but I came because of my own pain, my sadness. Maybe I didn't express myself well enough but all the people who came to do this to us, I saw it with my own eyes. Many neighbors were shot to death, I went with them to bury them. Some could only be buried in a hole like animals. At that moment there was only time to open up a hole and bury them. Or sometimes the poor people only had time to throw them in a river.

PBS POV continues to offer free online streaming of Pamela Yates' film "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator" (the film's official website is here, Facebook here) and they're also streaming her earlier film "When the Mountains Tremble." They are both important and powerful documentary works. Footage shot by Yates in the 1980s, including interviews with Ríos Montt and other Guatemalan Army top brass at the time, has become an important element in the process of seeking justice and reconciliation for Mayan victims.

In 2007, I produced a radio documentary series for NPR that included segments about organizations and people whose work is central to this tribunal. Listen: "Group Works to Identify Remains in Guatemala," about the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology (FAFG), and "Guatemalan Archives May Help Locate Missing," about the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive (AHPN).

From my visit to the once-secret Historic Archives of the Guatemala's National Police, in 2007: A document from 1931, the oldest this worker had encountered.


  1. “…And that’s what your holy men discuss, is it?” [asked Granny Weatherwax.]

    “Not usually. There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin. for example.” [answered Mightily Oats.]

    “And what do they think? Against it, are they?”

    “It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”



    “There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

    “It’s a lot more complicated than that–”

    “No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

    “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–”

    “But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

    –from Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett.

  2. The term is objectification and it is at the heart of every damn bully man has faced, every damn act of serial murder and every damn psychopathic thought.

    Its caused by a pathological lack of empathy.

  3. Thank you, Xeni, for continuing your coverage of this trial.  Just like the Crimes against Humanity trials in Argentina over the last few years, it’s really, incredibly important for a society to deal with these horrors out in the open, and to denounce them outright.  And for the US to start to fully process what the US government’s complicity in these killings really is, though we’re still too dangerous for anyone to try to take our leaders to World Court.  Yet. 

    I think it’s hard to comment on, because a lot of us have so little informed opinion, and I for one don’t want to sound ignorant.  But, just reading it and passing it along to all the people who are for Pan-Americanism with full indigenous participation is awesome.  And hard.  Thx again.  

  4. There is another injustice going on right now in Guatemala, perpetrated by Americans looking for gold, of all things – a strongly compelling movie is being made about it and is about to be released. .  Maggie, [some of] the makers are based in Minneapolis too.

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