A Personal Account of Testifying at a Guatemalan Genocide Trial
The Spanish National Court heard testimony from three expert witnesses in the Guatemalan genocide case last week, including my analysis of Army documents containing evidence of the military’s scorched earth tactics that decimated Mayan communities during 1982. The latest hearings, which took place on December 1 and 2 in the chambers of presiding Judge Santiago Pedraz, effectively concluded the investigative phase of this extraordinary proceeding. Although the lawyers for the victims have signaled to the judge that they intend to broaden the complaint and name additional defendants to the case—in part based on the documents submitted by the Archive—the hearings that have been underway since February 2008 have come to a close.From the start, the dimensions of this case have been challenging for the prosecution. The Guatemalan civil conflict produced the most bloody and sustained wave of repression and violence in Latin America, though its effects are less known than the dirty wars of Argentina and Chile. Unfolding over more than three decades, the war took the lives of an estimated 250,000 civilians, including 45,000 disappeared, according to the 1999 Historical Clarification Commission report. Unique to Latin America, the truth commission concluded that the Guatemalan State was guilty of genocidal acts of violence and explicitly targeted Mayan populations of El Quiché and other regions for eradication.
What made the latest hearings especially riveting was that all three witnesses brought vivid supporting evidence of the crimes charged in the case, strengthening the accounts given by dozens of survivors and eyewitnesses who have come before Judge Pedraz over the last two years.
First Fredy Peccerelli, executive director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), summarized his conclusions from a 900-page report he and a team of FAFG investigators produced based on hundreds of exhumations FAFG has done around the country since the mid-1990s to unearth the remains of the massacred and disappeared. In order to analyze the effects of the violence, the report examined in depth 363 exhumations of victims killed between 1978 and 1984 in five municipalities in Guatemala (four in the Quiché and one in Alta Verapaz). Among the devastating conclusions of the report, FAFG found that of the 1,884 victims exhumed, more than 25 percent were infants or children; 78 percent exhibited gunshot wounds to the head; and 65 percent of victims were killed in 1982 alone.
I followed Fredy with testimony about hundreds of pages of original Guatemalan Army records on “Operation Sofía,” a violent counterinsurgency offensive against of Mayan settlements in the Ixil region of El Quiché during July and August 1982. Although survivors of Operation Sofía have described in testimony before Judge Pedraz the effects of the Army’s attack—including the killing of unarmed men, women, and children; the burning of houses; destruction of crops; slaughter of animals; and indiscriminate bombing of civilians fleeing the violence—this was the first time the Guatemalan military’s own records about the operation have been made available in any judicial proceeding. Judge Pedraz paged through the fragile telegrams, planning documents, orders, hand-drawn maps, and reports from patrol units as I summarized my analysis of the documents. In particular, I focused on the proof it provided of the strict chain of command that functioned during the scorched earth operations, with orders issued by senior officers in the Army General Staff flowing down through commanders to patrol units in the field, and subsequent handwritten reports flowing back up to commanders and then the Army General Staff chronicling the killings, captures, and interrogations of unarmed Mayan residents of the Ixil region.
Finally, Pamela Yates, documentary film director and co-founder of Skylight Pictures, provided spellbinding testimony about her experience filming in Guatemala during the height of the repression during the first half of 1982. The trip resulted in the groundbreaking documentary When the Mountains Tremble, but also produced hours of footage not included in the final film. Pam described for Judge Pedraz the consequences of the scorched earth campaign as she witnessed them: accompanying military combat missions into the Mayan regions of the country, interviewing Gen. Benedicto Lucas García and Ríos Montt, and filming a massacre site in Chajul, Quiché in May 1982. As she spoke, she screened selected clips from the film and the additional footage, including interviews she did with the defendants, among other military officers. One of the most striking moments in the testimony came in a clip of Maya-Ixil women grieving for family members killed moments before the film crew arrived. Although the soldiers told the filmmakers that guerrillas had carried out the massacre, the women shouted into the camera that the soldiers were responsible. Perhaps the soldiers leaning on their weapons nearby didn’t understand Ixil, or perhaps they thought the US filmmakers wouldn’t have the wherewithal to translate the Mayan language. They were wrong.
The end of the hearings in the investigative phase of the genocide case comes almost exactly ten years after the case was filed by Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú and other human rights defenders before the Spanish National Court in December 1999. And although the relatives of Guatemala’s victims have already had to wait one decade for the case to evolve to this point, they recognize that human rights justice takes time.
Today marks worldwide Human Rights Day, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, by the United Nations. It reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1967 speech, when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”