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Interviews: Witness to Massacre

Guatemalan human rights lawyer Frank La Rue speaks about the role of justice in reconciliation and peace-building, and the lawsuits brought against perpetrators of genocide in Guatemala.

Edited from an interview by Patricia Flynn and Mary Jo McConahay in March 2001.

Frank La RueGenocide is considered the most egregious crime. It's "the crime of crimes," as some people call it. Genocide is basically the attempt to destroy a group, an ethnic group. So, we believe that genocide in any country is the most dramatic part of the history of that people.

In Guatemala, we've gone through two periods of genocide: once, five hundred years ago for the conquest when the Spaniards arrived, and a second time, in the early 1980s, with the Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt governments.

These were years when, the Truth Commission establishes, there were massacres carried out with the intention of committing genocide. The intent to destroy the Mayan population that was seen by the military as a potential political threat. Oftentimes people don't trust what they don't know. And the problem was racism and discrimination. The Mayans were here when the Spanish culture came. But for 500 years, Guatemala has lived a virtual apartheid. Not in legal structures — we don't have laws of apartheid. But if you go to rural areas of Guatemala, you will immediately recognize that health services, education services, the state, exist only for the non-Mayan population. The Mayan population has been marginalized to the mountains, to the most remote regions, with very little access not only to schooling and housing and health, but also to potable water or electricity or the fundamental developments of society.

The killing was designed in a centralized way by the government, and in those days it was a military government. In developing the genocide policy, they forced people in the rural communities, Mayan people — especially those that were members of so-called "civil defense patrols" — to go and massacre another community. With the level of poverty of these people, and the level of force and strength that the military had, they could force anyone into conscription. And, needless to say, the army would play on old traditional rivalries that could be amongst communities. The army wanted to destroy these ethnic groups, the Mayan population, using their own force but also by pitting them against each other.

Brief Chronology

1978-1982
Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia serves as president.

March 1982
General Efrain Rios Montt seizes power from President Lucas Garcia. Under his 18-month rule the army burns Indian villages and kills thousands of suspected leftists.

August 1983
The military government of General Humberto Mejia Victores overthrows Rios Montt and takes power.

December 1996
Peace accords end Guatemala's civil war.

2000
Legal action is taken against former President Romeo Lucas Garcia, General Mendoza Palomo, who was the Minister of Defense, and General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, brother of the president, who was the Chief of Staff.

1990, 1995 and 2003
Efrain Rios Montt's repeated attempts to run for president are blocked by the country's highest court.

Compiled with data from Guatemala Timeline, BBC News and CNN.com.

The idea of genocide is a social destruction. You not only destroy a group physically, you destroy them as a social group, so they no longer exist, they no longer reproduce. For instance, the army made a point in killing pregnant women and oftentimes would slice their bellies open and take the child out and throw it on the floor. This was a message that this group would not grow, reproduce its culture and reproduce itself physically. I think one has to understand genocide as an expression not only of physical violence but also as the expression of humiliation and destruction to the values of an ethnic group. This is what the Guatemalan military, and even the oligarchy, did. It was the military who carried this out, but all the rest of the people in Guatemala City remained silent and didn't want to listen or look at it.

The International Community and U.S. Involvement

I think silence always contributes to genocide everywhere in the world. It happened in Rwanda, it happened in Bosnia until the international community decided to respond. In Guatemala, the international community responded really too late. We began going to the U.N. General Assembly in 1982, exactly in the first year of the Rios Montt regime. That was the first General Assembly where different Guatemalans living in exile brought the case. There was a good response. There was interest in it. There was sort of a lukewarm resolution, but there was no clear condemnation of what was happening. The Reagan government in Washington was saying that the press in Guatemala and the international press were giving Rios Montt a "bum rap" — literally, that was his phrase — and it was unfair because Rios Montt was doing whatever he could to establish law and order... by killing everyone.

In the case of the U.S. government, it's interesting that the Carter Administration had actually canceled military assistance to Guatemala. And it was Carter's policies, as much as they were criticized later, that saved the U.S. from a direct participation in this effort of genocide. One of the reasons why the Guatemalan military was so violent and so bloody was because they had very little resources. They couldn't fight from Monday through Friday and then fly back home for the weekend, like they could in El Salvador. And so the army in Guatemala decided to compensate with violence for what they didn't have in resources — especially air resources, helicopters and planes. This is why the campaign was a campaign of terror, of organized terror from the state. You have to terrify the population into absolute fear so they respond to what you want.

And I would say the U.S. did not participate directly, to the extent that the Carter policies had canceled the aid. But the U.S., in the Reagan years, would be responsible for the cover-up, with Reagan himself trying to defend Rios Montt, folks at the State Department during those first years trying to deny what was happening in Guatemala. Twenty years later you have the U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission saying there was genocide in Guatemala between 1981 and 1983. So now it's an unchallengeable truth.

The reality of Guatemala today is very much connected to past U.S. involvement. You see, during the Eisenhower years, the U.S. inaugurated a new foreign policy, moving from overt military operations to very covert actions. The two cases that come to mind are the coup in Iran in 1952 and the coup in Guatemala in 1954. This was a new pattern of foreign policy for the U.S., but also a new period — a tragic period — for Guatemalan history. The coup of 1954 was the famous coup related to the interests of the United Fruit Company. The U.S. government — Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, who was secretary of state — engaged themselves in a covert action to overthrow the legitimate government of Jacobo Arbenz because the United Fruit Company felt their land holdings were in jeopardy. A puppet regime was established, which was a very right-wing regime.

After that point, Guatemala became this ultra-conservative and violent country. Guatemalan society was already marked by racism and discrimination, which date from the colonial period. When you have such a society, and you have these very conservative military puppet regimes, you have a crisis. So in 1960, there was a reaction from the military establishment. Young officers tried to stage a coup that failed and that's when the insurgent movement begins. And Guatemala lived under civil war for 36 years, from 1960 to 1996 when the Peace was signed. In these 36 years, thousands of people, 200,000 people according to the Truth Commission, were murdered or disappeared in different stages. This is an enormous amount of violence, an enormous amount of suffering for a nation to endure. And even within this period, the worst period was the period of genocide, according to the Truth Commission, of 1981, 1982, and 1983.

The Truth Commission

As part of the peace process — when the negotiations were carried out, particularly from 1994 to 1996 — there was an agreement to establish a Truth Commission. In every peace process, there has always been a discussion of how important a Truth Commission is. We believe that you cannot have peace or a transition to a new era of democracy-building unless there is some recognition of what happened — what went wrong and who suffered. The right to truth is a permanent right that everyone should have, but it plays a definite role especially in a moment of transition.

The Truth Commission rendered the report on February 25, 1999 and it was very impressive. People were actually shocked and flabbergasted to see that there were 200,000 victims [and] that 93 percent of the atrocities were committed by the military or government officials. Only 3 percent were committed by the guerillas, and 4 percent by other unknown actors. This gives you a panorama of how consolidated the military governments were, how much of a centralized and direct campaign of violence they had.

Peace-Building and Justice

When you go through a peace process you have to think, as Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, of moving from peace-making to peace-building, which is very different. Peace-making involves the two parties in conflict and peace-building should engage the entire society. In peace-building you have to think in terms of enhancing democratic rule and strengthening democracy, strengthening the rule of law. And you also have to think of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a concept often linked to peace, but it normally refers only to personal relations. That's an important element, but most important is the reconciliation of the citizen with his own state.

This [genocide] was a crime committed by the state — by those who were the leaders of the state, representatives of the government — who embarked on a policy of genocide against the Mayan population of Guatemala, which represents more than half of the total population. Now, first, Mayan people have to regain some form of trust in the state. So that is the first reconciliation we have to see, the transformation in the relationship of the state with its own people.

In Guatemala, very few people trust the justice system. I think the real issue is that if you don't believe in justice, if there is no rule of law, you cannot believe in a new state, you cannot believe in peace and democracy in Guatemala. It's impossible to seek justice in 200,000 cases. But there has to be some form of what is now called "transitional justice." There has to be symbolic justice in order for the people to believe that something has changed, that peace is for real. In order for that to happen, the justice system has to work in at least the most serious cases. And genocide is the most serious crime that can exist.

It's interesting that in societies in transition and many societies that have truth commission reports, the question of justice was left aside. In South Africa there was a conflict because the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) report came at the cost of an amnesty law for perpetrators, and today there is a total rejection by the population because they feel that amnesty was too high a price to pay in exchange for the truth.

In the case of Argentina, there are trials against the military even today after the amnesty laws, and some of the laws are being repealed. In the case of Chile, most important and most public are the trials against Pinochet. We believe this is very important. Pinochet is still a very important figure in Chile, a senator for life with immunity as Rios Montt has in Guatemala. And still, the people of Chile today, many years later, feel that some form of symbolic justice still has to be made. I truly believe that until this is reached, in cases like Pinochet or anywhere in the world, people don't feel the transition has concluded. There's a sense of an unconcluded peace, that peace is not something that can really be achieved.

When we talk about genocide, we think of a crime of the past, of the Second World War, of something that no longer happens anymore. But, tragically, we have to recognize that in the last few years we've had genocide in Bosnia ... in Rwanda. And now we have to come to recognize that Guatemala also had its period of genocide. Genocide becomes a topic of the moment. In the same way that there has been a tribunal in Rwanda or in Bosnia, we believe that justice has to be brought to Guatemala. With domestic courts first, because we want to see the internal, domestic justice system operate and respond to the victims. The Pinochet precedents in Chile are very important [for Guatemala]. If Pinochet can be prosecuted in Santiago, in Chile itself, why can't Rios Montt be prosecuted in Guatemala?

It's not going to be easy. The military is still very powerful. They're not officially in government, but they still have a sort of veto power over the President. The staff of the President still is formed by what's called the "presidential high command" which is in the military. So, there's still a big risk and our biggest fear is for those communities that are coming forward as victims and bringing this case to the justice system. We feel that it is on their behalf that we have to build as much support and international attention [as possible]. We have to guarantee their safety.

Pursuing Justice

In a genocide case, it is always complicated deciding how far you can go in [choosing] a defendant. We decided, as a strategic legal position, to suggest to the communities that the lawsuit be filed against what is known in Guatemala as the "high command." The "high command" is basically the President, as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, the Minister of Defense, and the Chief of Staff of the army. In military governments the president is also a member of the military. We have decided to focus our lawsuits only on these three individuals. They were the higher-level decision makers, they are the ones ultimately responsible for embarking on a policy of genocide.

In the case of the Lucas Garcia [government], the lawsuit was presented by the communities with our legal counsel against General Romeo Lucas Garcia, who was the President, General Mendoza Palomo, who was the Minister of Defense, and General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, brother of the President, who was the Chief of Staff.

The government of Lucas Garcia, [in power] from October 1981 to March 1982, included massacres like the massacre in Rio Negro and many other villages of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz and other parts of the country. Now the interesting fact here — that very few people know — is that Benedicto Lucas Garcia actually designed the policy of genocide. He had studied in France and fought in Algeria with French forces. He was a man of enormous experience and when he came back to Guatemala, he used this experience from the French in Vietnam of "strategic hamlets," massacres to intimidate the population, and eventually a policy of genocide.

Many of these cases rely on the testimony of people that were directly involved with the massacres. It takes a lot of stamina morally and personally to endure the pain of going through the story again, remembering it all and testifying. It takes a lot of valor, political valor I mean, to risk your life and appear in a court.

The fact that you have individuals who are willing to do this, like Denese and Jesus Tecu, I think is very, very important. I mean, these cases rely on their testimonies and thank God they are willing to stand up and speak the truth. The fact that Denese is an American citizen and can bring the story to the U.S. and to other parts of the world is very important. It will definitely increase the knowledge and the weight of attention on this case. I think Denese's testimony is an act of solidarity with the people, the other witnesses and victims here in the case. And her participation brings attention and support and somehow will help for the security of those testifying here.

Frank La Rue is the Executive Director of the Guatemala-based CALDH, the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights. He founded CALDH with the purpose of working on human rights issues in Guatemala. In 1982, La Rue co-founded— along with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu and other Guatemalans then in exile — the Representación Unitaria de la Oposición Guatemalteca (RUOG). For more information about the Justice and Reconciliation Program of CALDH, visit www.justiceforgenocide.org.





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