Guatemala genocide trial: Day 6. "If I die, the story of what I lived will never be forgotten"

Photo: NISGUA. A witness testifies in the trial of Rios Montt, with aid of court-appointed Nebaj Ixil interpreter.

As Emi McLean writes on the Open Society Justice Initiative's blog about the genocide trial in Guatemala, "Semana Santa (or Holy Week) seemed to slow down Guatemala City everywhere but in Judge Jazmin Barrios’s courtroom on Monday."

And the trial continues at breakneck speed. The prosecution of Jose Efraín Rios Montt, the Army general who ruled Guatemala from 1982-1983, and his then-chief of military intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, re-opens for the 6th day today in Guatemala City. The charges of genocide and crimes against humanity they face are based on evidence of systematic massacres of Mayan citizens by Guatemalan troops and paramilitary forces during a most bloody phase of the country's 36-year civil war. The US government provided assistance to Ríos Montt and other Guatemalan military dictators that followed in that era, in the form of funding, training, military and CIA personnel, and weapons that were used against the indigenous population.

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

On Monday, March 25, the court heard 13 witnesses for the prosecution recount horrifying accounts of atrocities they witnessed and survived, committed by soldiers under Ríos Montt's command.

Again, from McLean's account:

Witnesses continued to describe the way that they were treated as subhuman: “as if we were animals”. Some witnesses also described being liberated with the recounting.

NISGUA, the Network in Solidarity for the People of Guatemala, is also providing excellent live-blog coverage of the trial. From their account of Monday's proceedings:

Military allies were absent in the plaza on Friday, while a small demonstration in support of the defendants took place this morning. Anti-communist and anti-foreigner sentiments were expressed on banners held by demonstrators. The gathering dispersed shortly after the proceedings began and participants, including Zury Ríos Montt and former FRG party members, entered the courtroom wearing white.

To date the prosecution's witnesses have been primarily Ixil survivors, 51 since the start of the trial, with some utilizing the services of the Nebaj and Chajul Ixil court-appointed interpreters while others gave testimony in Spanish. The witnesses have shared testimonies on different acts committed by the military --massacres, disappearances, sexual violence, forced displacement, forced service in civil patrols-- each sharing the horrors they experienced and the terrible moments in which loved ones were killed.

Today, Tuesday, March 26, when the tribunal re-opened, Rios Montt's defense team demanded that judge Jazmin Barrios be removed from the case. Their complaint against her (tl;dr: she isn't impartial because she's had various in-court conflicts with members of his legal team over the years) was originally presented on March 21. The court deliberated over their complaint today, them rejected it.

"We are impartial judges and we don't accept threats of any kind," Barrios said. "At this point, no objection can delay the judicial process."

And then, the testimonies of the day began with an 87-year-old man, Clemente Vásquez.

Vásquez described how Ríos Montt's forces killed his wife and children, and methodically raped women in his village.

“I went to get corn and when I came back my wife was dead," he told the court. "The pain inside hurts me, it hurts, but I want justice.”

The second testimony of the day came from Magdalena Marcos de Leon, whose voice trembled as she took the witness stand.

"Do not be afraid, no one is going to harm you here," the judge told her. The judge recognized as she gave testimony that the woman was visibly frightened about speaking in court.

"When my husband died, they grabbed me, I was holding my baby," Magdalena later explained. "I was sick, and he tied me up."

She went on to describe how soldiers burned houses in their village, then arrived at their home and tied her and her husband up. The soldiers then chopped off her husband's head. "I don't know why my husband was killed, he wasn't guilty," she says. "We didn't have any weapons in the house."

Were you raped, an attorney for the prosecution asks her.

"Yes, because they threatened to stab me with knives."

She had 5 children with her. She somehow escaped to hide in the mountains with the children. They all suffered from malnutrition and exposure to the cold, during the six months they hid in the mountains, all their clothing and food and belongings destroyed. She describes how children children died of "susto" (trauma/fear) and hunger, including one of her sons. He was one year old.

Photo: Rodrigo Baires Quezada for Plaza Publica. "Residents of Santa Maria Xalapán accompany the coffin of Exaltation Ucelo Marcos, in the village of El Pito Laguna. Ucelo died in an attempted kidnapping along with three other Xinca activists Sunday night. Two escaped from their kidnappers.

Meanwhile in Guatemala, more political violence: the murder of indigenous activists who are protesting mining operations of the Canada-based multinational firm Tahoe Resources. Renata Avila writes at Global Voices:

While Guatemala attempts to bring former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to justice in a landmark genocide trial, deadly violence elsewhere in the country continues unpunished. In less than one month, five activists and human right defenders struggling against mining companies and fighting for land and labor rights have been murdered in rural areas. (...) as No a la Mina (No to the mine) pointed out [es], the recent repression resembles the death squad operations that once left thousands of leaders killed in Guatemala. If social conflicts are going to be solved with a gun and left in absolute impunity, Guatemala's future looks just like its grim past.

The Center for International Environmental Law has a related petition here: "Call for investigation and company departure in response to recurring violence in area of Canadian-owned silver project."


  1. Xeni, I really appreciate the in-depth coverage you are giving to this trial. During high school in 1998, I spent 3 months in Guatemala and heard first-hand stories similar to the ones you are posting here from victims of Jose Efraín Rios Montt and his regime. I also learned about U.S. involvement in that coutnry. It changed my life path completely.

    I never quite know how to communicate with US Americans about the immensity of the damage our country has done. One key way seems to be enabling them to have first hand experiences, which is why I’ve been working with Christian Peacemaker Teams for the last 10 years. We’re a sister organization to NISGUA and do delegations to Colombia (and other conflict areas) that can open people’s eyes in a way reading an article or watching a video never does.So, thanks for challenging us with some tragedy amidst the wonderful things.

  2. Yet another brainless slaughter at a Canadian mining operation.  One of our major exports and one that’s heavily subsidised by the Federal government.  Many Canadians are all too happy to examine the conduct of other countries at the electron-microscope level, looking for any deviation from divine perfection, while turning a blind eye to our own complicity in the slaughter of indigenous people around the world and our own apartheid system here at home (we were one of the models for the old South African system).

    On a per-capita basis we’re one of the largest exporters of ammunition and small arms too.  As far as we know anyway, in direct violation of several treaty obligations we no longer report on any such exports.  The excuse is that it’s just so hard to put a spreadsheet for this stuff together: ie. we’re too stupid to figure out Excel.

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