Testimony of the dead

In a small town in the province of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, crews are working to excavate various hillside graves. They expect to find the bodies of more than 100 villagers who were massacred in the 1980s, when US-sponsored military governments eliminated 626 rural villages in an attempt to suppress leftist guerillas. Now, anthropologists are working to recover remains that the victims’ families might give a proper burial. In the process, they are uncovering what may become crucial evidence in lawsuits charging former dictators Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt with genocide. But challenging generals like Montt, who remains a political power in the country (see Worldbeaters NI 338), is a perilous endeavor. Over the past six months members of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation and other human-rights workers have received repeated death threats. One letter said: ‘In a war there are no guilty parties, and it is not your place to judge us.’ The threats culminated on 29 April with the murder of Guillermo Ovalle de León, a staffer at the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation. While police have insisted on treating the murder as a ‘common crime’, the political connection cannot be overlooked. The murder coincided with the start of a Foundation-supported civil case concerning the 1995 massacre of refugees in Xamán. According to one of the Foundation’s founding directors, Gustavo Meono, ten minutes before the killing an unnamed caller contacted the office to play a recording of a funeral march. The police handling of this case fits with a long history of government complicity in human-rights abuses. In 1998, just two days after releasing a report on the genocide entitled Never Again, Bishop Juan Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death with a concrete block. Police first theorized that this, too, constituted a common crime. Later, authorities speculated that another priest, supposedly a gay lover, had committed a ‘crime of passion’. Only intense pressure from human-rights activists forced a serious investigation, which resulted in the sentencing of Colonel Byron Disrael Lima and two other military officers to 30 years in prison for the murder – a remarkable blow against Guatemala’s long-standing culture of impunity for the army. Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a co-plaintiff with Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum in a Spanish genocide case against past dictators Montt and Garcia, says: ‘I want this case to teach a lesson to other human rights violators around the world’. By bringing these powerful Generals to trial, she explains, ‘the world will know and believe what happened to the people of Guatemala’. As with the trial of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, high-profile lawsuits can serve not only to bolster international solidarity, but also to transform an ossified national judiciary. ‘We know the risks and are afraid of what might happen to us’, stated a witness in the genocide trial, ‘but we are looking to honor the death of our loved ones by speaking up and demanding justice’. In doing so, and in defying an atmosphere of intimidation, the communities once targeted for genocide assert that there are criminals in war. Their victims now speak from beyond the grave to judge them.

New Internationalist issue 347 magazine cover This article is from the July 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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