Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Genocide in Guatemala, Thirty Years Later

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On June 20th, Guatemala asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to declare itself incompetent in ruling on a series of massacres against Mayan villagers in Río Negro between 1980 and 1982. More significantly, the State publicly rejected the notion that these were acts of genocide, and Secretary of Peace Antonio Arenales Forno went on to say, not for the first time, that genocide had never occurred in Guatemala.

Current President Otto Pérez Molina, in contrast to his predecessor Álvaro Colom, has too asserted that genocide did not take place in Guatemala. Pérez Molina notes that most members of the military were of indigenous blood—his personal estimates range from 70-90 percent. In a July 2011 interview with journal Plaza Pública, he commented, “How can it possibly be called genocide when ixiles were fighting ixiles?” He further stated that no population was targeted on the grounds of ethnicity or religion: “It wasn’t as though we said, ‘All of the kakchiqueles or the kichés or the ixiles will be exterminated.’” Rather, Pérez Molina claims those affected were people involved in the actions of war and its battlefield, many of whom happened to be indigenous Mayans.

The massacres that occurred in towns like Río Negro and Dos Erres tell a different story. In 1982, the Guatemalan military arrived in Dos Erres with an order to “vaccinate” the community. Nearly all members of the town were brutally murdered: babies were thrown into a well, children’s heads smashed against walls, and unborn fetuses cut from mothers’ wombs. This case and others point to a clear targeting of non-combatants. Only two young boys were spared at Dos Erres, both with fair skin and green eyes. They were taken from the town and raised by members of the military.

Pérez Molina’s claims are inconsistent not only with past events but with the very definition of genocide. The definition established at the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by Guatemala, nowhere mentions whether the perpetrators of violence may share ethnic origins with their victims. It qualifies genocide as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group…Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”  The Guatemalan government has previously acknowledged that these acts occurred at Dos Erres and in other locations throughout the country. 

The nation’s U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) used this same definition of genocide in preparing their final report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence. According to their findings, between 1981 and 1983 the Army considered all Mayan communities sites of potential support for the guerilla movement—a view Pérez Molina confirmed to Guatemala’s U.S. Ambassador in 2007. “In this way,” the U.N. report states, “the Army…defined a concept of internal enemy that went beyond guerrilla sympathizers, combatants or militants to include civilians from specific ethnic groups.” Systematic violence against victims like infants who could not possibly have supported the guerilla in any way, the report continues, “demonstrates that the only common denominator for all victims was the fact that they belonged to a specific ethnic group.”

The CEH found that Mayan peoples made up a staggering 83 percent of the war’s victims of violent acts and human rights violations, as compared to 16 percent Ladinos and 0.16 percent others, mostly of European descent. The report also notes the State’s scorched earth practices, which lead to the total destruction of Mayan communities: homes, animals, land, and crops. The Army further destroyed Mayan ceremonial centers and cultural symbols, repressing traditional language and dress.  Mayan women were most often the victims of sexual violence, and violent acts against Mayan villagers of all ages often involved particularly severe cruelty, and in many cases, torture before death.

As a former military leader himself, Pérez Molina has clear reason to state that genocide never occurred at the hands of the Guatemalan army.  Nevertheless his words have a powerful effect on the way the conflict is perceived within the Central American nation. By portraying victims as combatants, Pérez Molina paints a picture of a struggle between two parties of equal strength with like practices. This view is sharply at odds with the findings of the CEH, whose report determined that 93 percent of all human rights violations committed during the war were at the hands of the State, the Army its primary actor.

Pérez Molina argues that the debate about genocide impedes reconciliation. Many counter that seeing aggressors held legally accountable for their actions is an essential step in the process of genuine reconciliation. According to Guatemalan psychologist María Tulia López Pérez, “Judicial justice is the best form of compensation for victims, much better than money or anything else.”

The purpose of the reconciliation process, writes journalist Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, is to restore dignity to the war’s victims, to send a message to society that they did not deserve the atrocities that befell them. This, he laments, has not occurred in Guatemala, where sentences against perpetrators have been few and far between. All eyes are on the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt, leader during the bloodiest years of the war, his immunity recently revoked after more than a decade serving as a member of congress. Judicial proceedings were halted June 21st when Montt’s defense team cited a national amnesty law which would prevent him from being tried. For many seeking justice, Montt’s conviction would be a true sign of change.

Kate Newman is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is a freelance writer dividing her time between Mexico, Guatemala and New York. She is a former Watson Fellow and in 2010 was named Oslo Peace Scholar in a joint program of Australian National University and Peace Research Institute Oslo.


Tags: genocide, Guatemala, Human Rights
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter