I went to Central America as a freelance journalist in August 1982. One of the moments that triggered that decision was reading a Washington Post article in which a reporter recounted crossing the Mexican border on foot, entering a nearby Guatemalan village and finding dozens and dozens of dead Mayan Indians –men, women and children. They had been slaughtered by members of the Guatemalan Army who at the time were trying to eradicate a twenty-year old guerrilla insurgency. Before the Guatemalan civil war was over some 200,000 people would be killed. A United Nations study later calculated that 93 percent of those people were killed by government forces, the overwhelming majority of them civilians.
By the time I arrived in Central America the man who had taken over the country and that slaughter was dictator General Efrain Rios Montt. Rios Montt had very publically declared that his government would follow a “scorched earth” policy against guerrillas. The insurgency had based itself in the Mayan highlands and the earth that ended up being scorched was Mayan villages. Many were wiped off the map. In effect, Rios Montt followed the same strategy employed by the Salvadoran Army next door in El Salvador. There they employed a different description of the strategy. The Salvador military referred to guerrillas as “fish” and said in order to kill the fish you had to dry up the ocean those fish swam in. In other words, you killed the civilian population that might help conceal and nourish the fighters. The notorious massacre at the Salvadoran village of Mozote in December of 1981, where hundreds of men, women and children died, was an example of the Salvadoran military in action.
But back to Guatemala. I remember going there in the mid-1980s. I had been reporting for three years from Central America at that point, first from Honduras and then Nicaragua, with assignments in El Salvador as well. I hadn’t been asked to report from Guatemala, but I wanted to see it. Despite the mayhem there, my reporter friends would often talk about just how beautiful the Guatemalan mountains were. They said it was the most beautiful of the Central American nations. I went with my girlfriend and we spent several days, visiting those mountains, at least the parts where the war was not currently being fought. And, yes, the landscape was gorgeous –deep, deep green with higher peaks and deeper valleys than I had seen in Nicaragua or Honduras. It was especially beautiful when you saw a group of Guatemalan women dressed in their traditional woven huipil blouses – often in bright reds with matching skirts—passing down a trail with those mountains as a backdrop. Those ladies looked like flocks of gorgeous tropical birds –macaws, quetzales–against the majestic mountain backdrop. The fact that so many of them were dying at the hands of the Army was a crime against nature, beauty and humanity.
At the very time I was in Guatemala, a young Guatemalan indigenous woman named Rigoberta Menchu had recently published an autobiography and was starting to become known as a fighter for the rights of indigenous people in her country. She eventually won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and did as much as anyone to divulge the crimes against her people.
But from that visit to Guatemala I also remember vividly a moment far from nature, far from indigenous women in the gift shop of an upscale hotel in Guatemala City. I and my girlfriend, who was a photographer, entered into conversation with the owner, a woman descended from Spaniards, light skinned, a member of the Guatemalan elite. When she heard that we were visiting journalists she decided she had to set us straight on what was happening in her country. She told us that accounts of massacres were all fiction and that the guerrilla insurgency had it all wrong. That the Mayan Indians didn’t want schools, didn’t want health clinics, didn’t want a higher standard of living. Yes, there was dire poverty and disease, but “They don’t want anything different. That’s the way they are.” The whole history of the Mayans having been forced into the most remote, inhospitable regions of the country by the Spanish Conquest had been lost on her. The fact that this educated woman could say that to us demonstrated just what Guatemalans of a certain class were saying to each other and how they could accept and justify the slaughter being perpetrated by their government.
I bring this all up now because Rios Montt has finally been brought before Guatemalan courts on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He is formally charged with 266 separate incidents of official mayhem that resulted in 1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans. That is a drop in the bucket when compared to the crimes committed, but enough to bring him to justice and give a sense of the scope of the tragedy. It is ironic and contradictory that this is happening at the same time that Guatemala just recently elected a new president, a former military officer, Otto Perez Molina, who served under Rios Montt. The fact that Guatemala has of late been besieged by big time drug cartels made his military background attractive. Along the way, Perez Molina has denied any massacres or genocide occurred in the civil war. In that regard, he is a throwback to that lady who owned the gift shop.
But Rios Montt, 85, is still in the dock. The judge in the case is a woman, Judge Carol Patricia Flores Blanco, and she has been very aggressive in insisting that he stand trial for genocide. I don’t know her ethnic background, but she appears to be Guatemalan woman more in the spirit of Rigoberta Menchu than the gift shop owner. In that sense, the people of Guatemala still seem to be wrestling over who writes their history, still wrestling over the country’s soul.