Guatemala’s Recent History
In January 2012, after 30 years of impunity, former Guatemalan general and dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was indicted by a Guatemalan court for crimes against humanity. Against all odds, he was charged with committing genocide in the 1980s against the country’s poor Mayan people.
Back in 1982, a young first-time filmmaker, Pamela Yates, had used her seeming naïveté to gain unprecedented access to Ríos Montt, his generals and leftist guerrillas waging a clandestine war deep in the mountains. The resulting film, When the Mountains Tremble (released in 1983), revealed that the Guatemalan army was killing Mayan civilians. As Yates notes in her extraordinary follow-up, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, Guatemala “never let me go.” When the Mountains Tremble became central to her life again 30 years later, when a Spanish lawyer investigating the Ríos Montt regime asked Yates for her help. She believed her first film and its outtakes just might contain evidence that would allow charges of genocide to be brought under international law.
Granito spans 30 years and portrays seven protagonists in Guatemala, Spain and the United States as they attempt to bring justice to violence-plagued Guatemala. Among the twists of fate:
- A 22-year-old Mayan woman, Rigoberta Menchú, the storyteller in When the Mountains Tremble, goes on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and then initiates the court case against Ríos Montt that eventually leads to the use of Yates’ footage as evidence.
- A guerrilla commander, Gustavo Meoño, who authorized Yates’ filming with the insurgents in 1982, becomes a key player in uncovering the mechanisms of disappearances and state terror.
- Naomi Roht-Arriaza, the young press liaison in Guatemala who helped arrange Yates’ filming with the guerrillas in 1982, becomes one of the key international lawyers working on the genocide case.
- Fredy Peccerelli, the head of the Guatemalan forensic anthropology team assigned to unearth evidence of the vast killings, repeatedly viewed When the Mountains Tremble while growing up.
Granito is a film about a film and that film’s remarkable afterlife for a filmmaker, a nation and, most dramatically, as evidence in a long struggle to give a dictator’s victims their day in court. It is an inside, as-it-happens account of the way a new generation of human rights activists operates in a globalized, media-saturated world. Granito shows how multiple efforts — the work of the Guatemalan and international lawyers, the testimony of survivors, a documentary film, the willingness of a Spanish judge to assert international jurisdiction — each become a granito, a tiny grain of sand, adding up to tip the scales of justice.
Even after Ríos Montt was deposed and a tenuous democracy restored in Guatemala in 1986, he and the generals continued to enjoy wealth, status and freedom to participate in politics. In 1999, a United Nations-sponsored truth commission concluded that genocide had been committed by the government, and that same year Bill Clinton, then president of the United States, declared that U.S. support for military forces and intelligence units that engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong. Even the Guatemalan generals, who claimed that overzealous field commanders were to blame, admitted that crimes had occurred.
Dedicated Guatemalan activists, victims and lawyers took great risks, working for years to bring cases of human rights violations committed during the civil war to justice in the national courts. But the justice system was weak and the cases languished, with little action beyond cursory investigations by prosecutors.
A new dimension emerged: the growing movement to assert international jurisdiction in cases of human rights abuses, the commitment of activists — and the persistence of memory in film. In Yates’ When the Mountains Tremble and its outtakes from 1982, Ríos Montt repeatedly guarantees that atrocities could not be taking place because he is in total command. Yet Yates’ recorded footage of a military-conducted tour, which the army hoped would depict its successful war against guerrillas, appears instead to show the result of a mass murder of unarmed civilians.
Fast-forward to recent years, when lawyers and plaintiffs were seeking an international indictment in Spain, whose National Court has led the way in such cases. An international indictment comes into play only after local courts fail to act, and no one expected much from the Guatemalan judicial system. And then this past January — one year after Granito‘s premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival — Ríos Montt was indicted in Guatemala for genocide, in what can only be described as a stunning precedent for that country.
Photo caption: Guatemalan Army Soldiers at Finca La Perla, in the Ixil region, 1982. Many people displaced due to the scorched earth policies of the Guatemalan military, came here.
Credit: Jean-Marie Simon
In 1999, Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú filed a lawsuit in Spanish Supreme Court against six Guatemalan military leaders (including Efraín Ríos Montt) and two police officials linked to killings in Guatemala during that country’s civil war.
In June 2006, Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz went to Guatemala to begin an investigation into the genocide case, but he was repeatedly obstructed, making it impossible for him to gather testimony. He returned to Madrid and issued international arrest warrants for the eight military leaders and police officials named in Menchú’s lawsuit.