An American genocide


Magdalena* and I sit together in a two-room house buried deep in the mountain jungle of Xesiguan, Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. We drink the hot coffee that she prepares over the open fire stove despite the muggy, humid air that brings sweat to our faces.

Magdalena is an indigenous Maya woman, a widow in her forties with six children, clothed in the colorful dress of her ancestors. She gently shoos away wandering chickens as we talk, keeping a watchful eye on her children. They bustle in and out of the house, feeding baby chicks, and peering through the thick cracks in the wood-slab walls of their home at the white woman talking with their mother.

Magdalena holding the last remaining images of two of her dead family members. (By Cody Oesterreich)

We talk of the recent torrential rains, and catch up on each other’s health and lives. Then Magdalena turns to me with an intensity that snaps me to attention, “I would like for you to hear my testimony.”

Magdalena is the survivor of one of several hundred massacres carried out by the Guatemalan military in the early eighties. Throughout the entire country of Guatemala, there are hundreds of thousands of similar horrific accounts to be told.

Volunteering as a human rights accompanier in Rabinal for a year, I had the opportunity to witness the human effects of decades of internal armed conflict. Today, the vicious repercussions remain prevalent in everyday life, 11 years after the end of the civil war. International accompaniers like myself act as human rights observers who provide a physical presence to defenders of human rights who are under threat, including Guatemalan witnesses involved in precedent-setting legal cases. Guatemala’s deadly civil war ended more than a decade ago, but dangerous human rights conditions and rampant violence continue; more than 5,000 people were killed in 2007. With one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, those who defend human rights constantly risk their lives in working for justice and improving human rights conditions. Now, having returned to my Minnesota home, I seek to bring their courageous stories to light.

Guatemala is filled with witness testimonies of murders, rapes and torture that were carried out against civilians during the internal armed conflict that lasted from 1960-96. With support from the U.S. government, Guatemala’s military government mounted a counterinsurgency campaign against the leftist civilian movements and armed guerilla movements that were resisting state repression. However, the military did not differentiate between guerilla fighters and civilians. More than 200,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were indigenous Maya peasants, , were killed during the 36-year civil war according to the UN-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification report, “Guatemala: Memory of Silence”. Today, the violence that was committed by the Guatemalan government is being called genocide, as Guatemalans work to bring ex-military dictators to trial.

“My father was missing,” Magdalena says of the day that remains burned in her memory after more than 25 years. She had just returned to her village after a seven-hour journey to the nearest market, to find her home razed to the ground, her mother and sisters sobbing. “The soldiers had raped my mother and sisters and taken my father. No one knew where they had taken him, only his hat had been found in the path.”

They did eventually find her father’s abandoned body. His hands had been cut off and his body mangled from torture. The bodies of eight more of Magdalena’s family members who had also been murdered were later found.

Magdalena and many others who survived the armed conflict throughout Guatemala are now speaking out for the first time in over twenty-five years against the perpetrators of the atrocities that tore apart their families, communities and country. The witnesses I worked with strive to increase recognition in the United States and throughout the world of their critical situations in Guatemala. They want their stories to be heard in the United States in part because of its vast political influence on the Guatemalan government and its judicial system. Today, Magdalena, and other survivors like her are actively working towards justice in the national courts as members off the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), a group of survivors who are charging ex-high commanding officials in a Guatemalan National court case with genocide and crimes against humanity

But, in this country where citizens have a common saying that ‘the sickness of Guatemala is its impunity,’ few are surprised that several of those accused presently maintain powerful influence within the country.

Samuel: husband, shopkeeper

Samuel is a stoic man, profoundly intellectual though he has only completed the fourth grade. Near his home in Chichupac, Rabinal, not far from Magdalena’s village, Samuel and I gathered beans from his coffee tree patch on the mountain. As we harvest, he recalls how the military called a village meeting back in January of 1982, “They told us that it was about building a new school and everyone must come. Those who refused were accused of being sympathizers to the guerrillas.” Nearly all of the residents of Chichupac gathered in the village center that day and the soldiers handed out free toys to all of the children– then told them and the women to go home immediately. The men of the community remained and one soldier began reading names off a list.

As evening fell, Samuel watched as his father, two brothers and 33 other men whose names had been called were brought into the community clinic. The soldiers cut off their noses, ears and tongues, beat them until they were nearly dead then brought them up the hill from the clinic, choked them with tree branches and shot them. Samuel himself was then called upon by the military along with several other young men and boys from the community to clean out the clinic. The army had tortured and killed all 35 men, accusing them of being guerilla subversives. The guerillas were a revolutionary leftist movement fighting against state military forces; the Government was trying to wipe them out.

“I scraped my father’s skin off the wall and gathered the ears and tongues that the army had cut off of my family and other community members. They forced us to dig a hole outside of the center of the village and dump all 35 men inside.” Samuel’s father was a farmer growing food and raising a few animals in order to support his family. He and his family had nothing to do with the guerillas “We never even had any contact with the guerrillas. We were not the guerrillas; we were farmers, trying to survive through the violence, trying to live our lives in peace.”

The Guatemalan government justified massacres in 669 villages by alleging that they were a response to the potential support that rural farmer communities could provide to dissident guerilla forces at the time. In order to eliminate this risk, the military governments under Lucas Garcia and Ríos Montt implemented the “Scorched Earth Campaign.” The direct goal was the extermination of all opposition before it could develop, to wipe out rural areas before they could become a base of support for the guerillas.

According to the Historical Clarification Commission, the Guatemalan military was responsible for 93 percent of the violence that occurred during the period, with only three percent at the hands of the guerrilla forces. None of the key government military leaders responsible for the bloodshed have ever been convicted of their crimes. In fact, several of those who became infamous for their role in inciting and leading the massacres of the indigenous Mayans today hold very prominent political positions. Most notably, former military dictator Ríos Montt, who stands accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in two legal cases, was voted back into congress this past September.

Manuel: father, farmer

Manuel is an older Maya man, his skinny and crooked body riddled with the human damages of war, his face made up of deep wrinkles and harrowing scars, the face of a survivor. Manuel still copes with the physical effects; debilitating back and joint pain caused by being tortured by soldiers in the eighties, difficulty digesting properly due to malnutrition in the past and painful headaches, which he attributes to the vivid memories of war.

We chatted on the steep slope of the mountain near his house as he dropped three corn seeds and one black bean in each of the small holes he dug with his rickety homemade seeding tool. Manuel was planting well after the rest of the farmers; it was late in the season.

“I haven’t been able to leave the house for the past three weeks,” he says “My back pain has been very strong. If God wishes for my family to eat this year, the corn will still give generously.”

Like Magdalena and Samuel, Manuel is also a member of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation; working towards the legal condemnation of those responsible for his community’s suffering. He gave me his personal testimony of the government-implemented massacre of Chichupac.

A quarter century ago, the state-led Guatemalan military snatched Manuel from his home and used ropes to stretch out all his limbs in an attempt to force information out of him. They wanted to know where the guerrillas were. His family told me how he is lucky to be alive; the army had left him for dead after torturing him. Torture was an integral part of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.

After finishing a row of seeds, Manuel sits alongside me on the edge of his small plot. We take in the impressive view of the vast mountainside, thick with coffee trees and newly cultivated cornfields.

Manuel turns to look at me with his kind, gentle eyes and asks with startling candor, “Why was your country in favor of the war we suffered? Why did they pay for the massacres of my people?”

It is a question impossible for me to answer. The Eisenhower administration backed and funded the CIA in orchestrating the illegal coup d’état of then democratic president Arbenz in 1954, alleging that the revolutionary ideas of his administration were “communist” and therefore posed a threat to the hemisphere’s security. Since the coup, the U.S. government has continuously played a key role by training and funding subsequent military regimes; in 1960 Guatemala began the long civil war that would kill 200,000 Guatemalans.

The U.S. government continued to support the military governments of Guatemala throughout the civil war. In his book “The State: Critical Concepts”, John A. Hall points out that throughout the 1980s, — the most atrociously violent years of the conflict — the U.S. sent over $100 million in aid to the Guatemalan military. It is this direct connection between my government and the violence in Guatemala which leaves me without an answer to Manuel’s question.

With tears streaming down her face, Magdalena ends her horrific story of long ago, now speaking with a profound pride of her inability to remain silent in the gruesome history that resides with her to this day, “I can’t sit with my arms crossed, not anymore,” she says. “I use my voice and my strength to keep fighting, to keep demanding for my people, demanding the justice we deserve. There will never be rest from this.”

If you would like take action to help the survivors see justice or learn more about Guatemala and human rights accompaniment, please visit to find out how you can act in solidarity with Magdalena, Samuel, Manuel and many others. These are only three of many more personal accounts of the horrifying violence that are told by Guatemalans genocide survivors to international human rights accompaniers.

*names have been changed in order to protect the identity of witnesses

Guatemala: Memory of Silence
(Summarized English translation)
Guatemala: Memoria del silencio
(Complete Spanish language original)

The Facts

AJR members are involved in a second case submitted to the Spanish National Court. The complaint charges seven former military and civilian officials with the crimes of genocide, terrorism and torture. In September 2005 the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that the international case of genocide could be tried in Spain. Their decision was based on the principle of Universal Jurisdiction which holds that some crimes are so egregious, they are a crime committed against the international community and therefore prosecutable in the national courts of any country, regardless of the nationality of the victims or perpetrators. In July 2006, a Spanish judge issued international arrest warrants and requested the extradition of several ex-commanders. Last December of 2007, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court announced it´s decision to deny the extradition of Rios Montt and the other former military officials accused of genocide in the Spanish National Court. The Constitutional Court refuses to extradite the former military officials to stand trial in Spain; their claim is that Spain does not have jurisdiction over crimes that are committed in Guatemala. This verdict has been criticized as a denial of justice by human rights organizations and victim’s family members. Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz who ordered the arrests in 2006 is continuing investigations related to the case and will be hearing testimony of 13 witnesses to acts of genocide during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

The survivors that I spoke with are unsure if the International arrest warrants for genocide by the Spanish International Court will be fulfilled by the present administration. The Guatemalan government is still considered by many as imminently corrupt. As of today, the Guatemalan government and Constitutional Court have failed to comply with the Spanish court’s orders.

In only the first six months of 2007 there were 160 reported attacks on human rights workers in Guatemala according to a report published by the Unidad de Protección a Defensores (the Defenders Protection Unit) and Defensoras Movimiento Nacional por los Derechos Humanos (the National Defenders Movement for Human Rights). The dangerous human right conditions in Guatemala prevail today. The Guatemalan National Civil Police reported 5,191 men and 590 women murdered in 2007. The Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemalan reported that only six of the murder cases in Guatemala were resolved. The Mutual Support Group stated that the murder rate today is higher than during the civil war.

Additional Resources:
Several thousand witness testimonies were gathered, analyzed and published through a project of the Recuperation of Historical Memory called “Guatemala: Never Again”. Released in 1998, the project was directed and founded by then Guatemalan bishop Juan José Gerardi, “Guatemala: Never Again” represents an account of the massive violations of human rights that occurred during the internal armed conflict. A short version of the report is available for on line viewings at The Guatemalan Archbishop Human Rights Office web page in Spanish go to: