WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a packed forum recently in the U.S. capital, Benjamín Manuel Gerónimo gave a halting and tearful description of what it was like to survive the deaths of 14 members of his family during the administration of Guatemalan ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in the early 1980s.
“There were only four of us (left), four brothers, and we had to get organized and unite to figure out what to do,” he said through a translator. “We got together in 1995, seven years after the massacre to see if we could denounce what had happened. And thanks to the international community that supported us, they gave us the strength to be able to denounce what had happened and to present our formal complaint at the public Prosecutor’s Office.”
Gerónimo was one of the panelists at “Genocide in Our Hemisphere: Justice and Reconciliation in Guatemala Beyond the Conviction of General Ríos Montt,” sponsored by the New America Foundation to discuss the ramifications of the recent trial of Ríos Montt, who was convicted in May of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in prison – 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. It was the first time a former head of state was convicted of genocide by a court in his native country.
Later, a higher court struck down that ruling, throwing the case into legal limbo.
“We really want to make sure that there’s some attention drawn to the significance of this case,” said Daniel Rothenberg, a law professor and Lincoln Fellow for Ethics and International Human Rights Law at Arizona State University. “The case of Guatemala is a very painful, tragic and staggering case in the severity of violence. Here we have genocide in our hemisphere.”
Forum participants looked at how the accusations that brought a conviction against Ríos Montt were swept under the rug for many years.
“Every time there’s been genocide there have also been those eager to deny what took place or to try to shift the responsibility for what took place. There are many instances of trying to discredit genocide, but the way the U.S. behaved in Guatemala may take the cake,” said Aryeh Neier, president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a former director of Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.
Neier offered a quick history of Washington’s relationship with Guatemala and suggested that previous administrations had largely looked away even while there was evidence in plain sight.
“All of these efforts to act as an apologist for genocide or pretend that it was not taking place are important because if there had been acknowledgement while it was taking place it would have had an effect on the situation,” Neier said.
“The genocide might not have been halted, but it would have been mitigated by acknowledgement of what was taking place at the moment. Acknowledgement after the fact, which is what we got at the trial, is immensely important because I think that too has a tremendous impact,” he added.
An Amnesty International report in the 1980s estimated that tens of thousands of Guatemalans were killed by the regime’s military, putting the number of killings and disappearances at more than 3,000 a month.
“Data analysis of Census figures showed that homicide by the Army was eight times greater if you were indigenous, and that under Ríos Montt it was substantially greater than previous and after,” said Patrick Ball, director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group and an expert witness for the prosecution at the trial.
“What makes Guatemala so complicated is that it was out in the open. Many reports said there were massacres and even genocide,” said Victoria Sanford, a professor at the City University of New York and director of the university’s Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies.
The Ríos Montt conviction was overturned several weeks after the conviction, but NAF panelists stressed how unprecedented the conviction was in the first place.
“There is of course that court ruling (overturning the conviction), and now we’re in a state of uncertainty as to where this particular case is going. Even so, anyone working in Guatemala or familiar with the issues would not have predicted this (conviction),” Sanford said.
The unprecedented nature of the case was a turning point for Guatemala, said international human rights lawyer Susie Kemp.
“The coverage we saw in the press would have been unthinkable 15 years ago or when the case was started,” Kemp said, adding that even those opposed to the trial and those who had denied the allegations could no longer refute what had happened. “They were grasping at straws.”
A large portion of the forum was devoted to the Guatemalan court overruling of the conviction and the worry and uncertainty that it represents.
“Right now in Guatemala the homicide rate is as high as it was at the height of the genocide, and that’s what allows the impunity to continue, making it very difficult for people to speak publicly,” said Guatemalan investigative journalist José Carlos Marroquín.
Marroquín, who is publisher of La Hora, told the gathering that he currently works in the United States because he fears reprisals in Guatemala.
“Talking has been a threat for the status quo, and silence has been what they’ve been using for success,” Marroquín said.
Panelists also discussed the fact that many North Americans know about genocide and war crimes in other countries but had little knowledge of the situation in Guatemala, particularly before the trial brought headlines worldwide.
“In Guatemala they say the schools don’t teach the real history of what really happened, but the same thing can be said here (in the United States),” said Kate Doyle, senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive, and a key reason the genocide case was brought to trial.
“There is an understanding here that the United States was involved in a coup in Guatemala but there’s little understanding of what that was, the havoc it wrecked on that society and how that sparked a spiral of violence for years,” she said.
Moving forward, massacre survivor Gerónimo stressed the importance of continued pressure from the international community to ensure the case does not fall through the cracks, particularly as Guatemalans wait to see what happens next.
“We need this precedent (of a conviction to stand) so that the military can’t just repeat what it had done. We need the international community to continue to pressure and show solidarity. We are looking for real justice, for real change for peace. This is a time that’s increasingly harder for the international organizations to be present in Guatemala but they are needed.”