Guatemala took a small step toward justice on February 4, when an international genocide case charging eight former senior officials with crimes against humanity opened before Spain’s federal court, the Audiencia Nacional, in Madrid. The suit was brought in 1999, when Mayan activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum filed a criminal complaint charging the officials with state terrorism, genocide, and torture. Inspired by Spain’s attempt in 1998 to try Chilean dictator Augosto Pinochet for human rights crimes, Menchú and other victims hoped to bypass the broken Guatemalan justice system and bring the defendants under the rules of “universal jurisdiction,” which give any country the right to try cases involving crimes against humanity. Their targets included Efraín Ríos Montt, former head of state and architect of the scorched-earth policies of 1982–83, and former minister of the interior Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz. Over the course of the country’s 36-year civil conflict—which began in 1960 and ended with the Peace Accords of 1996—more than 200,000 civilians died.
During five days of hearings, 17 Mayan survivors and one expert witness gave testimony and answered questions from Judge Santiago Pedraz. They described, in vivid and often wrenching detail, a state gone mad, as the Guatemalan army unleashed a sustained and savage attack against Mayan communities scattered across the rural highlands during the early 1980s. (Day-by-day summaries of all of the testimonies given can be found here.)
A witness to the massacres in the Quiché area testified about what life was for those who survived the attacks but fell under military control through the “strategic hamlets” the army established in the region. In 1982, the military’s assaults on his village intensified. The army burned the houses, the fields, and the forests around them. When people tried to flee into the mountains, the troops would pursue and kill them. After his father was disappeared, the witness, his mother, and two brothers decided to remain in the village, though it was occupied by the military. Daily life was strictly controlled; there were rules about how much food was permitted, what clothes one could wear, and when one was allowed to leave one’s house. The rules were aimed not only at controlling the population but suppressing their Mayan culture. It was a hard life, in which, he said, “You had to be silent, completely silent. You were not free.” The authorities used a local convent as an interrogation center. In mid-1982, the witness, then 10 years old, and his mother were tortured inside the convent, his mother raped. They survived and fled into the mountains, but life on the run was so harsh that they returned to their village in 1983.
Another witness described the massacres carried out in and around the village of Río Negro in Baja Verapaz, where the government was constructing the hydroelectric Chixoy Dam. The first massacre took place on March 4, 1980, when soldiers and members of the military police force serving as security guards for the dam killed seven peasants who refused to leave their land, which was fertile but had been expropriated for the project. The violence mounted during 1981 and 1982. On February 13, 1982, a massacre near Xococ left 73 dead. On the morning of March 13, the witness was returning home from sleeping in the mountains for safety when his wife screamed to him from inside their house, “Go back! The soldiers are coming!” He dropped the wood he was carrying and ran, but stayed close enough to see soldiers corralling women and children. He could hear them crying as they were marched up a hill. The next morning he and other men went to the hill, where they saw clubs, machetes, bullet shells scattered on the ground. The bodies were piled there. Everyone in the witness’s family was dead: his pregnant wife and two small children, his sister, his mother-in-law, and her other daughter. With other survivors from the zone, the witness fled to the mountains, where they organized themselves into small groups so they couldn’t all be killed at once. People who did not remain in the mountains were captured and pressed into service on the Cobán military base or imprisoned there. The witness remained in hiding until 1986.
A survivor from Nebaj described his experience living as a refugee for years, hiding in the mountains above his home. The military began showing up in and around his community in 1981. The first time they came, they kidnapped four local leaders. In 1982, they moved through the area accompanied by members of the civil defense patrols (PACs), burning houses and destroying crops. The witness’s house was burned to the ground in December 1982, and he and his family fled to the mountains. Neighbors who did not leave were killed. The witness was able to sow a small, hidden field with other families and planted corn, beans, vegetables, and fruit trees, but the army found it and destroyed it. “We had no more food,” he remembered. “We ate the leaves of trees in the forest, wild sweet potato, and roots.” The army would pass over the areas where the communities camped and bomb them; people also died of hunger and cold. On April 26, 1984, the army set fire to the woods where the people were hiding, and on the following day troops captured the witness’s two sons, aged 9 and 12, and forced them to march with them carrying army backpacks. He never saw them again. They also caught his mother-in-law, who was 65 years old, tortured her, burned her hands and feet, and left her corpse. The witness and other surviving refugees escaped. They spent years on the run from the army, subject to constant attacks, bombing, and the destruction of the forest and fields.
All of the survivors coincided in their descriptions of rape used by the Guatemalan soldiers and members of the civil patrol to abuse and humiliate Mayan women. The first woman to testify was from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. She began her story by recounting the army’s crimes against her and her people: She was raped by soldiers in Rabinal, her husband was forcibly disappeared, her mother was burned alive inside her house, her aunt and sister-in-law were raped, and the survivors fled the massacre in her village, where 32 people died. The witness then gave the judge the details of these crimes: She was taken to an army base and kept there, bound with rope and naked for 15 days, repeatedly raped by soldiers. Her uncle finally came to the base and rescued her. “I wanted to die,” she told the judge.
One of witnesses served with the military as a member of the civil defense patrols and participated in the counterinsurgency campaigns in the Quiché. He testified as to how the army arrived in his community in May 1982, when he was 18 years old. Although some residents of his village decided to flee, his family and many others chose to stay in what became a military-controlled village. As a result, he and his brothers were forced to join the PAC. In 1983, the witness was taken as part of his group of patrollers to the military zone in Santa Cruz de la Quiché to form part of a “task force” with other units. The army created such task forces to destroy Mayan villages and kill or capture suspected subversives. The witness’s company received four months of special training. “They would tell us, ‘You have to be trained to kill your own family,’ ” he explained. “They said that everyone living in the Quiché was a guerrilla and so we had to kill all of them.” The witness participated in numerous operations with the task forces. He said the soldiers always functioned through the chain of command: From military staff to senior officers, to junior officers, to troops, “the hierarchy was always followed.”
The hearings in Madrid will resume at the end of May with testimony from six more survivors and several expert witnesses, including anthropologists Beatriz Manz, Ricardo Falla, and Charles Hale. Human rights advocates around the world are watching as one of the most important cases testing the principles and effectiveness of universal jurisdiction unfolds.
Kate Doyle is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and a member of NACLA’s Editorial Committee.