Content warning: genocide, racism, sexual violence, torture
As the elevator door closes a hand reaches out to stop it. In walk three people and the sickly illuminated space goes silent. My compañero, Edwin, was chatting animatedly with me seconds before, but suddenly he is extremely focused on the wall above my head. I know who it is, but I force myself to look up and acknowledge the newcomer. Staring directly at me is a face I’ve seen in history books, on countless websites, in nearly every documentary that I’ve ever watched about the Guatemalan internal armed conflict. José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, 1982-1983 Director of Military Intelligence in Guatemala and accused architect of genocide, is two feet to my left. Edwin, president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a leader of the struggle for post-genocide justice and survivor of massacres and displacement, is to my right. In the middle, I try to remember how to breath. For fifteen floors our absurd group drops through space, time, and memory.
I came to the top of those fifteen floors to observe a court case, a court case that is internationally famous but that many Guatemalans don’t know is happening. I had climbed each of the fifteen floors four hours before, puffing alongside a group of Mayan allies from the department of Chimaltenango who had come to support the witnesses. The clique of fabulously bossy old women had refused to take the elevator, so there we were, plodding up the stairs. When we arrived at the court room, red-faced and gasping for air, the door was closed. The judges were listening to witnesses give testimony against Efraín Ríos Montt, the 1982-1983 military dictator who was accused of genocide. On April 1 Ríos Montt died, leaving behind an unfinished court case for which, absurdly, he had already been sentenced. In 2013 the Guatemalan Supreme Court found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and sentenced him to eighty years in prison. “We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group,” said Judge Yasmín Barrios in the judgment.
And yet, ten days after Judge Barrios’ sentence, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court illegally turned over the ruling in an extraordinary and unprecedented 3-2 decision. While groups like the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) uphold the 2013 guilty sentence as legitimate and historic, they also want to see the Guatemalan justice system officially recognize the guilt of the military personnel who continue to hold vast political and economic power in the country. They want to the world to recognize the horrors committed not only by Ríos Montt, but also Rodríguez Sánchez, whose trials we attend in the afternoon. And so, there we sit, observing the court case, Mayan women and the memories of their slaughtered family members at our sides. Again.
Although the military murdered indigenous people across all of Guatemala, the court case that is currently in process is focused on the Ixil region. Twenty years ago, when folks started organizing to bring the case to justice, they discovered military documents that clearly show the massacres in the Ixil region were planned and intentional, with the goal of destroying the Ixil people. Many of these military plans, code-named Victoria 82, Sofia, Firmeza 83 and Ixil, were designed and supervised by José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, the man staring at me and my bright green vest in the elevator. INTERNATIONAL ACCOMPANIER my vest blares. Rodríguez Sánchez looks away and shares a glance with his lawyer.
Because of the preponderance of evidence, the AJR and its allied organizations strategically chose to accuse Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez of genocide against the Ixil people. But as the support groups from Huehuetenango, Ixcán, Chimaltenango, and Rabinal demonstrate, this court case is not just for the Ixil; it is a struggle for justice for indigenous people across the country, across the world.
I have the honor of accompanying the trials for genocide because I am on the Equipo Ixil-Ixcán. While I’m in the capital we attend the court cases, but I’m rarely there; for about three weeks of every month I’m in rural Guatemala, taking buses and walking down dirt roads with my backpack and mud boots. In the Ixil region we spend most of our time visiting witnesses in their homes. Families welcome us with shy smiles and warm cups of coffee; “Acompañantes!” the children whisper and giggle to themselves. We sit around the fire, huddling close to warm our hands against the highland chill. The conversation ambles gently from the family (a new grandson!), to the corn harvest (the weather hasn’t been ideal, but they’re hoping it will go okay), to the community (the new church next door makes far too much noise). Eventually we land upon the trial, how they’re feeling about giving their testimony, and if they’ve received any threats or intimidation.
In 2013 the case for genocide was top national news; everyone knew it was happening and the witnesses faced serious threats from ex-military personnel in their communities. This time around, the case is lower profile and very few people in the communities know that their neighbor is going to the capital to give her or his testimony. The threat of violence is less than in 2013, but the emotional pain is deep. “Me duele hablar otra vez,” many witnesses tell us; it hurts me to talk about this again.
I never have been able to see a witness we directly accompany testify, but I can imagine their stories based off of the testimonies I have heard; they’re almost all identical. The witness enters the court room escorted by plain clothes guards. He is wearing the red jacket with black embroidery that is the traditional suit of Ixil men. In his hands is a straw hat with a black band; he bends over it as he walks, moving with some difficulty from his age, but with a strength of a seventy year old who still does manual labor every day. The judge asks him if he would like an interpreter and he answers in broken Spanish that it would be helpful. There are three interpreters waiting on deck as there are three dialects of the Ixil language: Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal. The towns that gave these dialects their names make up the core of the Ixil region.
Once the correct interpreter joins him, the judge swears in the witness and asks him if he knows the accused, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. “No,” he answers, “But I know that he was responsible for the massacre in 1982.” Ten feet away, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez shuffles his papers.
As the prosecuting lawyers begin their questions, the witness’ story begins to take shape. He was a farmer in rural Guatemala, living with his family in a small house two hours north of Nebaj. The army always used to arrive to his town, but they would just pass by. One day the army arrived and gathered everyone in front of the church. (They lawyers want to know when this happened. 1982, he replies. But they want to know the month, the day. I’m sorry, I don’t remember he says. It was the rainy season.) The soldiers interrogated the citizens, demanding to know if they were guerrillas. The villagers had no idea what they were talking about; they had just been working in the corn field, the milpa, like their people have been for thousands of years. The soldier grabbed five men and a women. They heard shots from behind the church. Later they saw their bodies, strewn in the mud. (The lawyers want to know the names of the murdered people. I’m sorry, he says, I don’t remember. They lived on the other side of the village. One was Pedro, I know that. And the other was Flaco, but that was just his nickname. And the other…) Next the soldiers set fire to the homes. His grandmother died, probably burned to death in the house. All of their animals, all dead. All of their corn harvest, all destroyed. His family gathered what they could and ran to the mountain. They lived there for six years. (The lawyers want to know if anyone died in the mountain. Well yes, he replies, we didn’t have any food.) His grandfather fell behind and told them to go on without them. His hunger and age were too much, he couldn’t walk any further. (The lawyers want to know his grandfather’s name. He responds and his voice breaks.) In the mountain his little brother died. It was too cold and he fell sick and they had no medicine. (The lawyers want to know how old his little brother was when he died. I don’t know, he says. I’m sorry. It was all so long ago and I didn’t think this information would be helpful until very recently. I was just trying to survive.)
At the end of the prosecution’s questions, the lawyers always ask the witness what he or she would ask of the court given that they lost their homes, animals, food, health, safety, land, well-being, and family members. "Justice," they always respond. “I just want to see justice so that this never happens again.”
It’s often hard to concentrate after I’ve been to a genocide trial. As I go through my life I’m thinking about the women who was raped, the man who was tortured, the animals that were burned, the grandfather who died on a mountain because he couldn’t walk any further. He died alone, hunted by his country’s military, frozen with a hunger that never had to be, his death funded by money and training from a far away country called El Norte. It’s not much, and it’ll never be enough, but all I can do for that grandfather and the 200,000 other Guatemalans like him is to bear witness to his memory. And so it truly is an honor to sit in the court room and hear his name (and her name, and their names) wash over me. For all those who died alone, unnecessarily, brutally, horribly… we honor their memory.
For the dead, we remember. But for their descendants and survivors, what can we do? Well, unfortunately, their one request for a world free of genocide has not been fulfilled, so there’s quite a lot that we can do. From the desert on the Mexico-Texas border, to the cities of Yemen, to the streets of Ferguson, MO, to the barrios of Honduras, to the apartheid wall in Palestine, the US government’s money and policies are destroying the bodies and livelihoods of black and brown people. Just because the task is unbelievably huge is no reason to back away from it, but rather to begin doing the ant’s task of working away at it, in the ways that we can, together.
Edwin, my compañero from the elevator, is one of those people who gives me hope in the face of overwhelming tasks. As the president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, he is constantly organizing witnesses, meeting with survivors, leading educational events, and attending commemorations. He does it all with a calmness that makes everyone around him at ease. Despite the fact that he is a survivor who is constantly working with the memories of the worst things people can do to each other, he still jokes and laughs with the rest of us afterwards. I always remember to smile more after I see Edwin.
In my first week of being an accompanier I was lucky to meet Edwin’s father and stepmother. They live in the Ixcán region, one of the many places outside of the Ixil region where massacres also happened. While we ate dinner I noticed that they had a cocoa tree in their yard. When I mentioned how much I love cocoa fruit, Edwin’s father jumped outside and picked one for me, cracking it open on the kitchen table. As we slurped the gummy fruit and sipped hot cocoa made from the seeds of the same tree, Edwin’s stepmother and father told us about their children who were murdered by the soldiers. Both of their first spouses were massacred; they met as refugees and married in southern Mexico. In the refugee camps they organized with their neighbors and made the first international request for accompaniers. Years later they returned to Guatemala, terrified of what they might encounter. They worked. They organized. They let the wind fill the silence when they remembered their loved ones. They survived.
Although they may never see legal justice for their pain, the community members in that small town in the Guatemalan rain forest have found their own ways to honor and preserve the memory of their family. Whenever I feel overwhelmed at the task ahead, I think of their crinkled smiling eyes and worn callused hands in mine; “We’re okay now,” they said. “We’ve made sure that we are safe.”
The world is a horrible place. But there are people who are making it better by surviving, by laughing, by remembering. By organizing more than they should ever have to. Perhaps we can be those people.
For ways to be involved with movement building in the US, please check out:
"More than 98% of the people say no to chemical mining of metals. Welcome to peoples in peaceful resistance." Photo from San Juan Bosco, Guatemala.
PC: Sandra Cuffe, Mongabay
Communications Fellow with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Intersectional feminist, aspiring farmer, and plátano enthusiast.