Fading Memories of a Dictator

Part of a roundtable reflecting on the death and legacy of dictator Ríos Montt. Read the rest here.


April 24, 2018

In September of 2015, I drove up to Nebaj to interview three of the oldest witnesses who had given testimony during the Efrain Ríos Montt trial in 2013. Nebaj, in the northern department of Quiché, is one of the areas that suffered the most from scorched earth campaign ordered by Ríos Montt in 1982 and 1983.

I was reporting for the Guatemalan digital outlet Plaza Pública, and I thought I would get deeper insight into the stories of Mayan Ixil victims of the genocide if I met them in their own town, in their own houses. A courtroom is quite an intimidating place to tell the suffering of the civil war years. 

None of the three witnesses spoke Spanish, and I don’t speak Ixil. To find a translator, I asked a well-known Mayan human rights activist and former guerilla fighter for some advice. He proposed his 25-year-old son, who worked as a cook and a receptionist at a local hotel. My problem was solved, I thought. 

The next day, we went to Salquil Grande, a small town three hours from Nebaj, to meet Juana Hernández, a frail 69-year-old women whose husband was killed by the army commanded by Ríos Montt. She agreed to tell her story again. Soon, I noticed that the translator was increasingly confused and struggled to translate properly. It wasn’t a matter of words. He was fluent in both Spanish and Ixil. But he lacked the historical context around Juana’s story. The old woman’s tale was flickering and hesitant, and he wasn’t able to fill the gaps. He didn't know enough to grasp what was implicit in the tale. At one moment, he turned to me and asked, perplexed: 

“So, who were the good guys and who the bad guys during the war? The soldiers were the good guys, right?”

On our way back to Nebaj, he admitted that he didn’t know much about the war. It wasn’t something they talked about in his family. His father had written a book about his experience as a guerilla fighter, but he had never read it.

This young man who worked with me is far from unique. The genocide perpetrated by the authoritarian regimes of the ‘80s is taught little, if at all, in Guatemala's public schools and universities. And the transmission of such painful memories is not the norm among Guatemalan families. The result is a lack of historical perspective among the younger generation. More than 75% of Guatemalans were born after the restoration of democracy in 1985. 

Young Guatemalans are poorly equipped to counter distorted versions of history promoted by far-right organizations as the Fundación contra el Terrorismo (Foundation Against Terrorism). (In Central America, guerrilla fighters were referred to as terrorists). For the members of this organization, Ríos Montt is the hero who saved Guatemala from communism and crushed delinquency on the streets of Guatemala City. The cold-blooded massacres in the highlands are viewed as collateral damage of combats between the army and the guerilla, and the mass graves are presented as old indigenous graveyards—a patent lie.

In a country where most of the causes that led to the civil war—poverty, racism, land grabs—remain unresolved, Guatemala cannot forget Ríos Montt or his accomplice’s crimes. The younger generation is in danger of this very real possibility.

Sebastián Escalón is a Salvadoran journalist based in Guatemala. A 2018 Knight Latin American Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, he covered environmental issues, resource extraction and human rights for the Guatemalan online outlet Plaza Pública. He was part of the team that won the Inter American Press Association Award in 2014 for the coverage of Rios Montt’s trial.

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