Guatemala’s REMHI Project: Memory form Below

September 25, 2007

On April 26, 1998, just two days after publicly presenting the final report of the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) Project, Bishop Juan Gerardi, who headed the project, was assassinated outside his home. The REMHI is an unprecedented effort led by the Catholic Church to document the atrocities committed during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. The Archdiocese launched the project in 1995 in an effort to support the work of any truth commission that might emerge from the Peace Accords. Church leaders were correct in assuming that an official truth commission would be limited in mandate and time, and they wanted to add to the data bank available to such a commission. Since Gerardi's assassination, numerous participants in the REMHI project have received death threats and several homes and offices have been broken into. What is so threatening about the REMHI report that it has provoked such a violent reaction?

The report puts some statistics on paper—79% of all human rights violations committed during the 36-year civil war are attributed to the military and 9% to the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Most of these crimes took place between 1980 and 1983, when Generals Romeo Lucas García and Efrín Ríos Montt ran the country. Yet none of this information is new. So what is different about the REMHI report? A close examination of the two available volumes yields several possible explanations.

The REMHT report is not simply another high-level investigation conducted in secret and meant to be taxed out of the country. It was researched and written by Guatemalans for other Guatemalans rather than for the international community. Its authors and protagonists are ordinary citizens once silenced by fear and now willing to speak. The REMHI report is less a collection of information and statistics as much as it is an anthology of the unmistakable words of Guatemalans.

Eight hundred parish workers participated in the training sessions to become interviewers for the project. In addition to technical training on how to conduct the interviews, the participants—many of them victims of violence themselves—engaged in in-depth discussions about the value of testimony, the importance of preserving history and the mental-health implications of reviving painful memories. More than 6,000 interviews were conducted, 61% in indigenous languages and 39% in Spanish. Some victims came forward individually and others came to tell their story in groups. While the report is analytical, covering themes such as "Family Consequenecs of the Violence" and "Violence Against Children," each section is accompanied by the vivid and carefully recorded words of the survivors and witnesses. If the REMHI report is read widely, these testimonies will be definitive evidence for the many Guatemalans who have remained skeptical about the extent of the atrocities committed against their compatriots.

A second explanation for the violence following the release of the report is the fact that it contains testimonies from perpetrators of the crimes. One church worker said that he had interviewed 16 perpetrators of human rights violations. All of his interviews were extensive, lasting from two to 12 hours. In every case, the men cried before they could speak, and in four cases they were accompanied by their wives, who begged them to confess their stories so they could finally get on with their lives. All of the men were afraid of being taped, fearing retribution from a security apparatus they believe still to be in place. Only two talked of what they themselves had done, while the rest spoke only about atrocities they had witnessed. Testimonies like the following appear throughout the report:

We found a woman. I called a soldier and I told him, "Take charge of this woman. She's a gift from the sublieutenant.""I understand, my corporal," he told me and he called the boys and said, "There's meat here, guys." Then they came and grabbed the girl. They took her little boy away from her and they all raped her. It was a huge gang rape. Later I told them to kill the woman before killing her son so she wouldn't feel so bad about his death.

The words of the soldiers who committed atrocities constitute a blatant transgression of the military code of silence—a transgression which has undoubtedly contributed to the terror campaign unleashed in the days following the release of the report.

Third, the REMHI report gives detailed descriptions of the military, paramilitary and police institutions responsible for human rights violations and, unlike the official truth commission established by the Peace Accords, names some of the individuals responsible. Volume II of the REMHI report, entitled "The Mechanisms of Horror," analyzes the strategies of massacres and torture, and exposes each one of the intelligence and counterinsurgency structures involved in the violence. Testimonies provide accounts of the deliberate use of threats, kidnappings, disappearances, assassinations, torture and carefully planned massacres. The document, moreover, establishes that the civilian population was specifically targeted by the military.

The REMHI report also describes how the strategies and techniques of terror were taught and implemented. Testimonies attest to the ways soldiers were educated and broken down to participate in the violence. The process through which recruits were desensitized to violence included humiliation and brutal physical punishment for those who refused to comply, as one soldier's testimony revealed:

The captain said that he wanted to see blood. If he saw anyone hitting softly, that person would be the next in line. We really did that poor son of a bitch in—he was all broken open, and on top of it the captain ordered them to tie him to a tree, and he was left there for three days without eating or sleeping.

For the military and its allies to have any political currency in the near future, they must defend the image of the army as a professional institution that succeeded in its noble mission to rid the country of Communism. If the REMHI report gets the wide circulation it deserves, however, their ability to do so will be undoubtedly undermined. In this context, the report can be seen as a challenge to the entire institution.

The final and perhaps most threatening aspect of the REMHI project for Guatemalan security forces is that it is not over. In fact, its most important phase has yet to begin. The plan, which is now on hold due to Gerardi's assassination and continuing threats, is to take the report back to the communities, organize workshops and discussions around it and continue with the process of exhurning, burying the dead and building memorials. This last phase may in fact be the real target of the recent wave of violence. The real threat to the army may in fact not be the report itself. The challenge to the power of the military will come when the population is no longer quiet or confused about its history. What the army and its allies really fear is that the victims of the 1970s and 1980s will become the protagonists of the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kathy Ogle is co-coordinator of the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA) in Washington D. C, This article was reprinted with permission from Report on Guatemala (Summer 1998) which is published by the Guatemala News Information Bureau.

Tags: Guatemala, civil war, truth commission, REMHI, memory

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