In 2013 a Guatemalan court convicted former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt of overseeing acts of genocide against Guatemala’s Ixil Mayan population from 1982 to 1983. The verdict was based on the testimony of 95 witnesses from the Ixil area. Some Ixils and K’iche’s object to the verdict because they credit Ríos Montt with saving their lives. Was Ríos Montt’s “amnesty” for guerrilla supporters a significant element of what happened in the Ixil area? Should it have played a greater role in the trial? Is “genocide” the best description of what happened?
Guests on the show:
David Stoll is an anthropologist who has been working with the people of northern Quiché since the 1980s. Following the verdict against Ríos Montt, Stoll interviewed Ixils, K’iche’s and Ladinos in Nebaj. The weekly magazine Contrapoder has just published his analysis of what Nebajenses told him, as well as of the testimony of the trial witnesses. His most recent book is El Norte or Bust! How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Guatemalan Town.
Jean-Marie Simon, a graduate of Harvard Law School, worked in Guatemala from 1980 to 1991. She wrote and co-authored six human reports for Human Rights Watch/NY. Her book, Guatemala: Eternal Spring-Eternal Tyranny (WW Norton 1987), depicts the height of Guatemala's internal armed conflict.
RADIO SCRIPT Mesa Pública : Was there Genocide in Guatemala?
Date: Monday, Dec. 2 at 2 PM CST/3 PM EST
For more information see our show page. Call in during the show (714) 816-4717
Guests: Jean-Marie Simon and David Stoll.
KARA: Welcome everyone to our Mesa Pública, our public roundtable. Mesa Pública features guests and discussions, commentary and analysis about current events, trends and entrepreneurship in Latin America. We focus on the solutions in the journalism. I’m Kara Andrade, in Texas, and with us to co-host the show is...
Mike: Mike McDonald in Guatemala City, glad to be on the show.
Kara: Thanks for joining us Mike. Mike McDonald is a reporter for Reuters, NY Times, GlobalPost and other publications. For our listeners, you can call in with questions throughout the show on U.S. phoneline (714) 816-4717, you can chat with us on the BlogTalkRadio show page, you can Tweet us @hablaguate or use the hashtag #mesapublica.
Mike: Today’s show is called “Was there Genocide in Guatemala?” and with us to address that question are our guests anthropologist David Stoll and photographer and lawyer Jean-Marie Simon. David and Jean-Marie, do we have you on the line?
MIKE: Welcome to the show David and Jean-Marie. We wanted to begin by introducing both of you to our listeners:
David Stoll is an anthropologist who has been working with the people of northern Quiché since the 1980s. Following the verdict against Efraín Ríos Montt, Stoll spent two weeks interviewing Ixils, K’iche’s and Ladinos in Nebaj. The weekly magazine Contrapoder has just published his analysis of what Nebajenses told him, as well as of the testimony of the trial witnesses. His most recent book is El Norte or Bust! How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Guatemalan Town.
Thanks for being with us today, David.
Wait for response.
KARA: It’s my pleasure to introduce Jean-Marie Simon, a graduate of Harvard Law School, who worked in Guatemala from 1980 to 1991 during which she wrote and co-authored six human reports for Human Rights Watch/ in New York. Her book, Guatemala: Eternal Spring-Eternal Tyranny (WW Norton 1987), talks about what happened during Guatemala's internal armed conflict, and I’ve worked with her on her most recent book, which has a teachers edition, so Welcome to the show, Jean-Marie.
JM: Thank you for the Invitation.
Kara: It’s good to have both of you on. On today’s show we’re continuing our conversation about the recent legal debates around genocide charges in the case of Efraín Rios Montt. For our listeners, here’s a little context.
Earlier this year, a Guatemalan court convicted former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt of overseeing acts of genocide against Guatemala’s Ixil Mayan population in the years 1982 and 1983. The verdict was based on the testimony of experts and ninety-five indigenous witnesses from the Ixil area. Despite horrifying first-person accounts presented by indigenous witnesses of what happened to them and their families, some Ixils and K’iche’s object to the verdict because they credit Ríos Montt with saving their lives. We’ve invited both David and Jean-Marie to speak to us about whether “genocide” is the best description of what happened in Guatemala and to present the opposing perception of Ixils in Guatemala who support Rios Montt.
JUMP TO QUESTIONS
PART I: BACKGROUND
KARA: So I want to start with you David, you’ve recently published an article that was featured in the weekly news magazine in Guatemala called ContraPoder, and you’re soon to be published in LawFair, about the work that you’ve done in Nebaj shortly after Rios Montt was convicted of genocide. Can you talk to us about your findings after speaking with locals about the case?
DS: Well, the thing about what Ixils say about the violence, um, just about everyone has a horrifying story about army behaviour toward non combatants, and a lot of people, the large majority, will also tell you about terrible things the guerrillas did, but they are very divided about the genocide verdict. I think what most Ixiles do agree on is both sides committed atrocities, but some Ixiles who were following the trial did not see their own experiences reflected in the trial because the trial focused exclusively on the responsibility of the Chief of State. It did not reflect their day to day experiences of survival. It reflected the experiences of people who were victimized by the army, and never talked about the guerrillas.
MIKE: Rios Montt was sentenced to 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. Genocide was the crime that grabbed the headlines. Patrick Ball, a statistician who has worked on several war crimes cases in various countries, found that in 1982-83 in the Ixil region 5.5 percent of the Maya Ixil population was killed compared with 0.7 percent of the ladino population. This was one of the stronger cases that the prosecution used for genocide during the trial. I’m curious to hear what both of you make of those numbers.
DS: Jean-Marie do you want to address that?
JM: Yeah, I don’t think anyone would contest that a percentage of the Ixil population was killed, whether its 5.5% or a different number, but the number still doesn’t go back to the issue of was this genocide, as you mentioned Mike, there were two charges and one tends to be subsumed by the other in the conversation around genocide. Rios Montt was convicted of crimes against humanity as well as genocide. You cannot prove genocide by giving a statistic of 5.5% of Ixiles killed, I think Patrick also said that Ixiles were 8 times more likely to be killed than ladinos, however when you take into consideration the high Ixil population that there was and is in Nebaj, and then compound it with an issue that really has not been thoroughly discussed, which is: what kind of support was there for the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in Nebaj. What was the perception of the army as to who was supporting it, rightly, wrongly, whether the perception was real or based on conjecture is another issue, but to just give a number without the context of how violence evolved in Nebaj is an incomplete picture of that location.
DS: Mike, I could add something there. I’m certain that there was a differential between the percentage of Ixiles killed and the percentage of ladinos killed. That’s an interesting differential, but, we also want to remember that much of the ladino population was urban, that is they lived in the municipal seat, so a higher percentage of them were in the municipal seat, meaning that they were not in a settlement pattern that was attacked by the army, because the army always controlled it. And another factor would be that everybody who could escape the area, and so a very high percentage of the ladino population decided to sit out the war by escaping to the coast or to the capital.
MIKE: We have to talk about the legal definition of the word “genocide” and what it means to convict Rios Montt under that term. Jean Marie, what were the various legal definitions of genocide that the prosecution used to convict Rios Montt and what was the defense’s rebuttal to those arguments?
JM: Yeah, well first I’ll precedence this by saying I actually was working during the trial, so I was not watching the trial as it evolved, I’ve looked at the transcripts but, I think to go back a little bit, you know, when we say Rios Montt is a genocidal killer, that the army was a genocidal military, that this is a genocidal situation, are we talking about genocide as a legal standard, as a legal definition, as articulated in the Geneva Convention’s and then later incorporated into Article 376 of Guatemala’s Penal Code? or are we using it interchangeably with an idea of mass killing and mass atrocity. Genocide is a three-pronged statute, as you know, it requires intent to destroy partially or wholly a population based on race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Again the Guatemalan Penal Code articulates this clearly, for some reason they leave out race, but that doesn’t matter. What people confuse, besides conflating mass atrocities with the term genocide is they, genocide is very hard to prove, to make a colorable claim of genocide you have to prove that the army, or that whoever, X, intends to kill Y because of Y’s race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. That is the intent, the intent to destroy is based on, the intent to destroy partially or wholly, that group because of their race, religion ethnicity, or nationality. It’s not enough to go in and say “The army killed a lot of Ixiles”, which they absolutely did, they killed a lot of Ixiles. To claim genocide you have to prove that their intent was to destroy partially or wholly Ixiles because they were Ixiles, and I didn’t really see much, if any evidence of that either in the testimony or in the documents that the prosecution was offering, for example in the Operation Sophia documents, I didn’t see any articulation of that.
Now again, I want to be really clear about this, it’s not saying the army did not go in and kill thousands of people. I was in Guatemala, in Nebaj, every year, sometimes several times a year between 1982 and 1991. The army was quite clear with me that they were going in and killing indians, and killing whoever else they thought might be collaborating with the guerrillas, either directly or indirectly. But that is quite different from making a claim of genocide. Was this a crime against humanity? Well, the wrong statute does not enter into force until 2002, but still thats basically incorporated into Guatemala’s Penal Code, I think under article 378 whatever. The language, although it’s based on the Geneva Conventions again, is closely aligned enough to crimes against humanity that you can make a claim that it has been incorporated clearly into Guatemala’s Penal Code, and certainly as per common law now I think that crimes against humanity as a crime is now considered, sort of a customary international law, and crimes against humanity was a correct interpretation of what was going on in the Ixil Triangle and elsewhere.
I guess the problem is that some people say that “well what does it matter what you call it? Rios Montt is a genocidal killer” I agree that Rios Montt was, is criminally liable for what happened not just in Nebaj, but elsewhere, but the problem is once you make a claim of genocide, it’s not a human rights standard, it’s not a solidarity term, it’s a legal term, and if you’re going to bring a charge of genocide, you can’t treat it as if it were an op-ed piece, or a human rights bulletin.
There are elements of law that you have to meet, and if you’re going to call a trial you then have to follow the rules of a trial and prove those elements, and if you say “well this is justice delayed or denied or retarded, he should have been imprisoned years ago” well I would actually agree with that, but if you are going to adhere to the due process, and the process of law and the process of a trial, of course it matters that you follow that process, that you prove the elements of the crime, unless you’re, you know, some lawless type and decide to do whatever you want, and then ironically, you start to sound like the very government you’re denouncing.
MIKE: I just wanted to ask, Jean-Marie, since you were up there in the early 1980’s, and David you can chime in too, What was it that the guerrilla army, or what was it the guerrilla movement, was doing up there that attracted the, that the army decided to target this region, I mean maybe not necessarily exclusively this region, because there were massacres in other parts of the country, but what was it about the Ixil Triangle, and what was the guerrilla movement doing up there, and why was this sort of a target at that time?
DS: I can respond to that. The Guatemalan guerrillas of course come out of the destruction of Guatemalan democracy by the 1954 CIA supported counter revolution, and then the abrogation of the democratic process such that about 8 years after the CIA coup, there are increasing numbers of urban intellectuals and army officers who are deciding that they have no choice but to try to take power through armed revolution, through guerrilla warfare, well, we can all understand their reasons for doing that, if I’d been a Guatemalan of the right age at that time I would have been a sympathizer if not a participant myself. But, these were urban Guatemalans, and they had a lot of trouble hooking up with Guatemala’s large indigenous population, there were some false starts, there were some alliances here and there, but the Ixil area was one of the first areas the urban non-indigenous Guatemalan guerrilla leaders were able to enter into an alliance with Mayan indians that didn’t end quickly. The Guerrilla Army of the Poor got started with contacts in the Ixil town of Cotzal, they avoided being smashed by the guerrillas for several years, so after a period of 4 or 5 years in a plantation, in 1979 they started staging lightning occupations of towns and villages, they started ambushing government soldiers, and thats what brought Guatemalan security forces into the region for the first time in strength, so the Ixil area is where the Guatemalan guerrilla movement took on the Guatemalan state, they thought they could count on the Ixil population as a very solid base of support, and they did count on some very solid Ixil support, but its important to remember that just because people are indigenous doesn’t mean that they think and act communally, Ixiles don’t all march to the same tune, they were not all in agreement with this alliance with the guerrilla group, there’s considerable evidence of Ixil opposition to the guerrillas from early on, not least because, as some Ixiles realized, this is a very high risk situation. Anybody who knew anything about how the Guatemalan army had repressed the guerrilla movement in eastern Guatemala, where peasants are mostly ladinos, not indigenous, knew that the army was going to come in and kill a lot of people, the army did come in and kill a lot of people, and thats why typically Ixiles blame both sides for the violence in the area, and will often blame the guerrillas for starting a war they couldn’t finish.
KARA: David you write that Ixiles who reject the genocide conviction say that supporters are former guerrillas seeking to distract attention from their own crimes and that witnesses made up their own stories. How can some Ixils persist in viewing RM as a folk hero? Why do you think it’s not easy to do justice to the opposed perception of the Ixils?
DS: In a trial you can’t expect the prosecution to give a full spectrum of Ixil opinion, in the trial, the prosecution has one goal which is to convict the man who is indicted, so they have actually every right to present just one side of the story, whatever they think is necessary to get this man...it was the duty of the defense lawyers, of course, to present the other side of the picture, but Rios Montt’s defense team apparently limited itself to trying to disrupt the trial, I’m not sure they ever really thought seriously like a defense team. So that that was not in the trial is not the fault of the prosecution, more generally, I think Guatemalan, or Ixil or Mayan in general, Guatemalan dislike of the revolutionary movement is expressed every time you have a national election and one of the most obvious things is the Guatemalan left still does terribly at the polls, in fact, the votes they can attract have gone down since the start of the peace process in the mid 1990’s. So I think theres lots of evidence the revolutionary movement doesn’t have much credibility with the contemporary left.
Kara: David, in your article you talk about the attraction for human rights activists to use the word “genocide”. We also need to talk about the Guatemalan Congress’ amnesty. Because Guatemala signed the international convention on genocide, this offense is not subject to the amnesty passed by the Guatemalan congress, an amnesty that protects both sides against prosecution. Can you speak more about that?
DS: You know, a human rights violation is by definition an act or commision by the state, and so, ordinarily human rights activists are focusing on the state, that might actually not be adequate to the decomposition of state authority we see in so many places, but, traditionally human rights activism is focused on the state, so I would say that because their vision, because their funding is focused on keeping a narrow eye on what the state does and does not do, I think there is a tendency to, what you might say, “verticalize” conflicts.
For example, there’s a lot of evidence that the Guatemalan state is often more absent than it is present in many conflicts in the Guatemalan countryside, peasants are frequently feuding over land, and if you bring a human rights perspective to a peasant land feud, for example, you’re probably going to get yourself into trouble very very quickly because both sides are probably appealing to the state to back them, and what’s an issue here is not really an abuse of government authority, it’s an absence of government authority. So I guess to turn this all into a positive statement I would ask human rights groups not to overestimate the amount of state authority you see in contemporary Guatemala, and then looking back at the violence, obviously you had an aggressive effective killing machine, the Guatemalan army killed a lot of people, and we do not want to stop focusing on what they did, but we also don’t want to forget that it was a war situation. The revolutionary movement had declared war on the Guatemalan state and therefore extrajudicial killings were committed by both sides.
Kara: I think we also need to talk about, and maybe probably a little more context about the Guatemalan congress and the amnesty that was signed that protected both sides against prosecution against crimes committed during the war, and this gets to, what we were talking about, why human rights activists are attracted to the word genocide, because Guatemala signed the International Convention on Genocide, this offense would not get past the Guatemalan Congress, can you talk about, can you speak more about this, and what specifically the amnesty did and how it protected both sides?
DS: Jean-Marie this sounds like a question for you…
JM: Yeah, I’m not really, I think it’s pretty clear that genocide is outside the scope of an amnesty law, genocide is genocide, but so is crimes against humanity, um, I think were too focused on, um, in some ways splitting hairs over this, genocide is clearly outside the scope of the amnesty law, but because crimes against humanity has evolved into something, into acceptance internationally, per customary international law, it is too, it’s also incorporated into the Guatemalan Penal Code, so to me, it’s slightly superfluous to haggle over it at this stage, when you say Kara, that people are attracted to the term genocide I think thats a good term for it, because again, you have to come back to, are people talking about genocide as a legal standard? Are they talking about it as a human rights norm? Genocide, again, is a legal term, and theres a very practical component to why people call it genocide, genocide gets attention, for example if you tell the New York Times, or the Miami Herald “hey I’m a freelancer in Guatemala and there’s going to be this trial over grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, or atrocities”, well, in the year 2013 they’re going to shrug, and I don’t know, point to Sudan, or Syria, or the Middle East, and for good measure they’ll say “well you know we did our bit, we wrote about army atrocities in Guatemala the 1980’s, and thats that.”
However, if you say “Hey, there’s going to be a genocide case” and this is what it was called, no one called it the “Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Trial” it was the “Genocide Trial”, that has a huge impact, people think Nuremberg, slaughter, ethnic cleansing, and it becomes a more compelling story than just saying “egh ten’s of thousands of people are getting killed” I think ironically we’ve come to de-appreciate the enormity of what killing 2,000 people is in this process, on top of that, I think there’s sort of a financial interest in claiming genocide, it gets press and it gets money, and I’ve had this conversation with people, with freelancers and with people looking for funding on films on Guatemala in the past few years, and they’ve told me quite boldly in looking for funding they couldn’t find any until they repackaged their film, or their proposal, or whatever as a genocide film, or a genocide proposal, and then all of a sudden people start to sit up and take notice of this, and so I don’t think one can, sort of, overestimate the impact of the difference of someone claiming something is genocide than the claim that something is murder.
Kara: Good Point.
MIKE: Jean Marie, we’ve touched upon this earlier in our conversation, but I wanted to talk about your findings in Nebaj in the early 1980s. Tell us about what you saw there then and how it compares to now. How have things changed?
JM: Yeah, Nebaj in the 1980’s was an occupied territory. First, in terms of guerrilla penetration there, I went out with the guerrillas 4 times, never in Nebaj, but I did go out with the EGP twice, I went out with ORPA, I went out with the PGT, and there’s this claim that nobody really was collaborating with the EGP, I don’t know, I mean when I showed up at somebodies house to drink, you know, whatever Cusha, I didn’t say “Hey do you collaborate with the EGP?”, but to claim that there weren’t that many EGP supporters in Nebaj until 1980-81 when Benedicto Garcia Lucas got his machinery of war going full throttle, is disingenuous because, you know, you sorta can’t have it both ways, you can’t claim that there was this popular based revolutionary movement comprised of 4 guerrilla groups, and then what, they only had a few hundred people in them? The former Foreign Minister Edgar Gutierrez said at one point that it’s estimated that up to 250,000 people collaborated with the guerrillas at the height of the conflict, but getting back to, so my point is, at least until 1981-82, there were more than 60 combatants in that area.
But then, getting back to what Nebaj was, to answer your point Mike, I went to Nebaj for the first time in May of 1982, and kept going back after that, and it was an occupied town, you couldn’t walk down a single street without having your documents checked, there were big guard posts across every single street, you often had to walk around the army instead of walking through a street. So the army was occupying Nebaj, its impact was hugely felt in Nebaj, people were scared to death of the army, and rightly so, when you interviewed the army, and I interviewed many many people in the army, not just in Nebaj, but in Chajul and Cotzal, and La Perla, San Felipe Xela, La Pista, and Acul, what they talked about, often out of range of their commanding officers, was not genocide, they didn’t say we’re here to kill ixiles because they are Ixiles, what I heard hundreds of times, and that’s no exaggeration is “we’re here to drain the sea that the fish swim in” the fish, of course, being the EGP and the CB, or collaborators, you know real or imagined, but this was their mantra, and you would say, “so who are the fish?” “oh, the subversives” and who’s the sea? “The people. La gente” and then they would sort of just wave their arms around at these poor widows and children living under these lean-to’s in La Pista, and, um you’d ask “well why are you killing them?” and they would say “because they are subversives” and you’d say “what’s a subversive?” and you’d always end up having these circular kind of conversations about someone who has bad thoughts, someone who believes in communism, but I never heard somebody say a subversive, for example, is a Mayan indian.
I heard them say “we’re going to kill subversives” and then you’d say “are these children subversives too?” and they’d say “yes” and I’d say “are these young women subversives?” and they’d say “yes” but it meant something very specific, they had been told and been ordered that these people were collaborating with communists, with bad people, um, and, indeed they did kill, and they did torture, you would, you know, we went to La Perla, we made this documentary with a Finnish film crew and the minute the commanding officers went off some place we said to these soldiers “so what do you do with people you capture?” and they told us in great, not bragging, but in great precise detail about how they tortured people. They weren’t proud of it, it’s as though you were talking about how to change a flat tire. Um, not to trivialize it, but thats how perfunctory the response was, in this context of draining the sea that the fish swam in.
They would talk about all kinds of stuff and clearly Rios Montt was part of this, I remember we were making this documentary and this guy came up to us, we were in Nebaj in September of 1982 Independence Day, Otto Perez Molina was the commander then, and we were sort of following this procession around, this sort of incredibly depressing procession, with, you know army floats and stuff, and we make it into the soccer field and this school teacher comes up to us and he grills us about whether we’re State Department, or PeaceCorps, or whatever, and we kept saying no, we’re freelance journalists, he said “well I want to tell you something” and to cut to the chase here, we filmed him with his back to us, and he was a survivor of the April 1982 Acul massacre, and this is where the army just plucked 3 dozen, 4 dozen men in Acul and arbitrarily said “you go to heaven, you go to hell, you go to heaven, you go to hell” and it wasn’t ladinos versus Ixiles, it wasn’t really anything in particular, it was that they probably suspected them all of being potential subversives and, ok, lets slaughter some of them.
And this guy was saved, he went to “heaven”, and he was forced to dig the graves of the guys who went to “hell” and the parting words of the army were “This is the army of Rios Montt, this is the new order of Rios Montt.” So that was the kind of atmosphere in Nebaj in the early 1980’s. People were being resettled, the orders were also clear, they went out into the hills, and I said “well what do you do when you go into the hills?” “Well we look for subversives” I said “so what do you do when you find subversives?” and they said “well, anybody that stays behind we capture them, and anybody who flees we shoot them.” and we said “well, do you shoot children?” “Well sure, they’re subversives too.” But it was this sort of almost indefatigable mantra of subversives.
Kara: Mike, I have a question for Jean-Marie, so at the time you were doing a lot of...you mention you were doing this documentary, Mike you asked this question too “was she in this documentary?” Could you talk a little more about the documentary, Jean-Marie, that you filmed, and what it did as far as creating an awareness of what was happening on the ground?
JM: Well, I’ll answer that, i don’t think it did much of anything because it was shown in Finland, and I’m not sure what the population of Finland was in 1982, but I dare say not a whole lot of people watched it. It’s called “Titular de Guatemala” “Today’s Headline: Guatemala” and we, in a nutshell, we went to Guatemala thinking that we would demonstrate how this terrible news in Guatemala was not being reported in the United States, and several things happened we hadn’t expected, one we were there when a bomb went off, when a grenade went off in the Nebaj garrison, and four suspected guerrillas were killed. We were also there when Otto Perez Molina was the commander, and we also just, apropo, discovered a Green Beret illegally teaching counterinsurgency at the Politecnica in San Juan Sacatepequez, and so indeed, in the end our little documentary where we were supposed to be showing how the news didn’t make the news in Guatemala, er the United States, did end up on CBS News with Dan Rather, but it’s available there on You Tube, it’s free, it’s on my website for free, and I think though, what’s most valuable today, looking at that documentary, and I never realized it at the time, and I don’t know if David would agree, that, when you’re doing something like that you think “Ooh a Green Beret, Ooh this Ooh that” but what we really showed there was, you know, a way of life that has changed dramatically, because there are all these scenes of Nebaj back then, all these scenes of Nebaj occupied, but just Nebaj. And so that’s what that film is about.
Kara: And I think when the film made it to YouTube is when you started getting more views.
JM: Yeah, and the thing about that film too is soldiers say very clearly in that film “this is how we torture people, we’re going after subversives, this is what we do.” Their commanding officers talked to kingdom come about the Soviet Union and, look, when Mejia was President, he was head of State, he used to sit there at press conferences and pick his fingernails and chain smoke, and talk about how Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were shills of the Soviet Union, and this is only in 1983, so that perception that, there’s no longer a Soviet bloc, there’s no longer a wall dividing East and West Germany, there is no East and West Germany, but back then, this was still the last decade of the Cold War, and it was a different perception, this is not at all to justify anything the army did, but it was a different era, and so today you say, “well why were they all going around talking about Communism? What does this mean?” But sitting there in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was President, and when there still was a Cold War, when there still was a Berlin Wall, when there still was a lot of things, um, you can understand why the army would be enamored of that sort of mantra.
Kara: I’ve got a question for both of you, you’ve both faced some criticism for your views that question the use of the word “genocide”. Why do you think there’s such a backlash against your opinions?
DS: I’m actually not aware of that there is a backlash, you know, the article was published a couple weeks ago, I haven’t, nobody’s backlashing against me, maybe they are muttering something to you but I haven’t annunciations in print or on the air.
Kara: Jean-Marie? You know I hear a lot of different things in my groups, like on Twitter, and against the use, you know, like for example during the trial, there was even a Twitter hastag #sihubogenocidio, it was like a statement, “there was genocide” so I think there is, I just feel like, there isn’t much of a place for the opposing opinion to be presented because there is such a prevalence of that statement that “yes there was genocide” on social media and on different human rights groups that are using social media to create awareness of the trial and what’s happening in Guatemala, and so I guess maybe my question would be more like have you had direct criticism? or people who have asked you “why are you being a supporter of Rios Montt” or specifically…
DS: Well human rights groups might be very, you know, be very committed to that term “genocide” and the people in human rights groups might think, very mistakenly, that criticizing the genocide paradigm is supporting Rios Montt, but I think the more interesting audience here is probably Guatemalan society, and you know, I haven’t been living in Guatemala for the last year, I really just visit briefly, but the genocide trial was not a total hit in Nebaj, I mean, first of all the trial itself was quite an accomplishment, I never ever expected to hear the kind of stories I heard in the late 80’s, I never expected to see those stories getting into a courtroom, it was quite the accomplishment, seeing Rios Montt there in the courtroom, he belongs in the courtroom, but then it’s also, you know, very upsetting to see a big crowd of Ixiles, you know, 500-1000, I can’t tell you the exact number but it was a significant number, show up in Guatemala City and parade down the streets, you know, with “No Hubo Genocido”.
And so it occurs to me that given that, most of the people in that crowd that showed up in Guatemala City, most of the people in that crowd would acknowledge the army committed atrocities, a large majority of them felt that in the flesh of their own family, you know, how could the Guatemalan state, how could human rights groups do this in a way that was less divisive in Nebaj, and among the populations, and it occurs to me that the genocide paradigm could be part of the problem here, um, and that there’s a simpler way of doing this which is simply to indict mainly army people, but then also some former guerrillas for war crimes, that is, violations of the Geneva Conventions, which protects the rights of prisoners, the wounded, and non-combatants. It’s a lower evidentiary standard and it would, I think the acknowledgement of the war situation would be much closer to how Nebajenses ordinarily remember Rios Montt.
Mike: Am I coming through ok? Can you guys hear me?
JM: I’m Sorry?
DS: I can’t understand that.
Mike: Am I still coming through distorted?
Kara: Yes, you are Mike (chuckle) I know you have a couple questions, do you want to write them for me and I can ask them?
Mike: Yeah, Kara, can you hear me? I’ve been fooling around with my settings, with my sound settings but i don’t know what it is.
Kara: We can both hear you, well we can all hear you, the problem is you’re distorted.
JM: I guess what I could just add is, I agree with David and I would also add that when people say “Si Hubo Genocidio” you ask somebody, well how do you define genocidio, and most people can actually not define it, because they do deeply consider it a human rights term, they think it has somehow spilled into the human rights arena, genocide, just like involuntary manslaughter, or felony murder is a crime with elements to it, and felony murder is really different than involuntary manslaughter, and genocide is really different than crimes against humanity, as David says, you don’t have to prove intent in crimes against humanity, it’s a much easier standard to meet, but then on a practical level you ask, well, why is this raising so many hackles? i guess on Twitter or whatever, and i think people, again, people conflate this to think that when you say “well maybe there wasn’t genocide” they think you’re saying maybe the army didn’t kill a lot of people, and that’s not what that sentence means at all, and it’s become almost impossible to have a rational discussion about this, um, people believe that when you inject some healthy skepticism into the conversation over whether this was genocide or not, you’re either an army shill or at least playing into the hands of the, you know, the Fundacion Contra Al Terrorismo, and you’re saying that mass killings did not happen in Guatemala, and then you become a genocide denier, which is definitely not the case at all.
I guess when i assume my colleagues here in the States who were very much in evidence during the trial, they see a conversation on this issue as, i don’t know if it’s a threat, or some kind of challenge to all their very good work, which it’s not. But, you know, I guess the blowback to anybody when you raise the issue that perhaps this is not genocide but something else is, you’re blackballed, um, if you want tenure you don’t raise it, if you’re tenured, there’s obviously safety in numbers and you want to say the same thing all the time, so, and I think people also say “well this is just fair, we can call it whatever we want because people have waited so long for a justice that’s been denied or thwarted or delayed or whatever, that the symbolic victory of the Rios Montt trial, that whatever you want to call it is enough, um, and so they’re less interested in the elements of a criminal trial and due process than they are in being able to raise the victory flag, especially when they believe they scope of genocide is something very different from what in fact it is.
Kara: That’s a really good point to bring up Jean-Marie because I find that when you have these discussions around the legal definition of genocide, people in the human rights community often feel that you’re splitting hairs, when it actually should be that we’re speaking about the legal definition of genocide, so it’s a very interesting point.
JM: Yeah, and if it doesn’t matter, then go ahead and put a few guerrillas on trial for genocide even though it wasn’t genocide. I mean, it’s going to work both ways.
Kara: So, Mike wrote up one of his questions for me, so I’m going to read it out, Mike, you can always chat me if I read it wrong, Rios Montt’s party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), has collapsed. The party’s last president, Alfonso Portillo, is in jail in New York facing money laundering charges and this year the party changed their name to the Institutional Republican Party. Mike wants to know about what you both feel about what happened to this party, and what you see as the future of this party?
DS: Unfortunately while I’m very pleased the FRG is no longer with us, I do not expect it to make a comeback in the Ixil area. One thing we haven’t mentioned is that very unfortunately the FRG was an electoral powerhouse in the 1990’s and even into the 2000’s, but what happened to the FRG is apparently what happened to just about every Guatemalan political party, the country is notorious for the instability of it’s political parties, so there’s a, there’s sort of a law of decomposition here, which is not confined to the FRG, I think it is still the case that not a single Guatemalan party has won reelection, well excuse me, not a single civilian party in Guatemala has won reelection through free and honest elections since the year before I was born, and I am 61 years old. Every, even governing parties collapse at the polls, thats just how weak political parties are in Guatemala.
Kara: Wow, I think decomposition is a word that resonates with both Mike and I, I think it sums up a lot of different issues that Guatemala is facing now. Mike, did you want to ask another question? I don’t know if you wanna try your mic with the settings, ok. (he doesn’t)
One of things I want to ask you about David, you mention something, I was a little bit confused about this in your article, you said that that the best predictor of how Nebajenses feel about convicting Rios Montt of genocide is how they fared under his amnesty. Now I was confused about which amnesty you were talking about, whether it was the military amnesty granted after June 1, 1982 or whether it was the amnesty….
DS: Well yes, I’d like to clarify, the amnesty I am referring to where I do not have the precise date, I’m going to say May 27th, 1982, i won’t swear to it…
Kara: Well, yeah, I think it’s the same one we’re talking about and Virginia Burnett talks about that, she actually dates it right after June 1st, 1982. But that’s why I was confused.
DS: Ok, good enough.
Kara: No, but, a lot of people don’t know about this political amnesty that Rios Montt granted, could you talk about that, and why that was important as far as peoples attitudes about Rios Montt?
DS: Well, what Nebajenses say, um, not the trial witnesses, but the segment of Ixil opinion that was not at the trial, what lots of Nebajenses say is that there was a very important difference between the government of Lucas Garcia which proceeded Rios Montt, and then Rios Montt’s government. Under the administration of Romeo Lucas Garcia from 1978 to March 23, 1982, the army was so indiscriminate in its reprisals against anybody who might have known about a guerrilla attack, that it actually drove tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people into the ranks of the guerrilla movement, but for the simple reason that the army was so brutal, and so unpredictable that survivors of reprisals thought “well gosh, I’m going to die anyway, maybe the only chance I have is to join the guerrillas.” so, under the Lucas Garcia administration army violence was actually increasing the strength of the guerrilla movement.
In December of 1981, the guerrillas launched a sustained attack on the army garrison in the center of Nebaj, as one man told me “Hubo balas dia y noche” (There were bullets night and day) and when the guerrillas withdrew, two helicopters showed up, one of which was carrying none other than Benedicto Lucas Garcia, the President’s younger brother, who at that time was Army Chief of Staff, Benedicto had all the men, summoned all the men to a meeting in the plaza, and he then wished them a merry christmas, and he then told me, he then told everybody, if they didn’t get their act together, if they did not prevent the guerrillas from using the town as a base for attacking his men, he was going to put himself at the head of five thousand men, he was going to start in Chimaltenango, and he was going to finish off, or acabar with, acabar con, the entire population if I have to. So in other words we have the Army Chief of Staff basically threatening to wipe out the entire population if they don’t help to protect his men. So that was the Lucas Garcia administration, and, um, in actuality Rios Montt didn’t come to power for another 3 months, and when he did come to power, there was no immediate change in army behaviour, there was a lot of killing in the immediate months before Rios Montt took power, and there was a lot of killing during his first couple of months in national office, but in May, he declares this amnesty, and Nebajenses say, rightly or wrongly, many of them do say army behaviour did change, and that after Rios Montt came to power it was possible to align yourself with the army by joining the civil patrol, and walk out the door with more sense of security, so what happened is, the army didn’t stop killing noncombatants as soon as Rios Montt took power, but it did become more predictable in the eyes of Nebajenses, so in their opinion, if anyone was behaving in a genocidal manner it would have been the Lucas Garcia government, not the Rios Montt government.
JM: Kara? I think David brings up a really important point because its easy to forget that charges of genocide have been leveled not just against Rios Montt, but against Romeo Lucas Garcia, and Mejia, well Lucas Garcia’s been dead for 7 years, and Mejia has prostate cancer, um, and so, who’s left? We treat this, you know, I think sometimes the danger is the young generations who don’t know, who were born after the war, they tend to see that, we have Rios Montt this kind of old ideological petri dish or whatever, and we see this in a vacuum, and it’s not to exculpate him, he’s guilty of these crimes of mass atrocities, but at the same time as David says, this didn’t, a good portion of this didn’t start with the March 23rd coup, it started way before. If you look at, for example, When the Mountains Tremble, Tom Seagle went out with, um, their big contact was Benedicto, it wasn’t with the Rios Montt defense minister, it wasn’t with Mejia Victores, it was with Benedicto, Benedicto was deposed as of March 23rd as defense minister, but all these awful scenes, and these scenes of, you know, army repression, and army occupation that you see in that film, this was under Lucas Garcia, and again, it’s not to diminish what happened under Rios Montt, but to try to keep it in this historical perspective. For example when I saw this huge Civil Patrol rally in Nebaj right after the Rios Montt coup, those Civil Patrols had been in place way before the Rios Montt coup, who put them there? Benedicto and company. So, in trying to recreate historical memory, you know, history is memory, but you try finding the truth where you can, and that should be the standard bearer, truth, this happened in the context of the military that came before Rios Montt, and the military that came after.
Kara: Good point, thank you, we’re almost out of time, we have 3 minutes, it’s gone very fast, Mike typed out one of his questions, he says he’s always really interested in hearing people’s reactions to Rios Montt’s speech at end of the trial, where he says “Nunca ordene genocidio.” (I never ordered genocide) What did you both make of his final speech, I mean he went on for a couple of other minutes, but, specifically, I think, that statement.
DS: I would not be surprised if he never ordered a single massacre, of course we’re never really going to know, I haven’t seen any kill orders, reliably attributed to him, I don’t think the man at the top would need to say “go wipe out a village” so I think he has command responsibility for what happened, I certainly have seen no evidence that he ordered massacres.
JM: Kara, yeah, I, well there are two elements to what he said, I never ordered, and I never ordered genocide, so well, did he order, if he did order something that’s something else. “I didn’t order genocide but I sure ordered crimes against humanity” um, not to be flippant about this, but I agree with David, it was a very short leash between the National Palace and even the most remote village, so there were probably only 3 or 4 people between Rios Montt and some commander in some canton.
At the same time though, he didn’t have to order it to be criminally responsible, you know, whatever he says in a press conference about whether he had control of his troops or not is at the end of the day irrelevant, the guy is sitting in the National Palace, he’s the head of state, contrary to what people think, the press reported a lot of these massacres, these army massacres, in the 1980’s, when he was head of state, there were 5 daily newspapers in Guatemala, just go to the Hermanteca across the street from the National Palace and you can do a full scope research on what they were reporting, the only thing they didn’t say was who committed these crimes, but everybody knew it was the army, um, it even lead Jorge Carpio Nicolle, a ultra conservative newspaper editor to pen two signed editorials in May of 1982 saying “How can you behead 8 and 9 year old children? How can you disembowel pregnant women?” He knew, he knew any reason to note, and i would just say to Rios Montt as a prosecutor “Can you read and write?”
“Did the National Palace get 5 daily newspapers everyday?”
“Did you ever look at them?”
Kara: Well we’ve got 20 seconds Jean-Marie, you wanna, Mike, any last words?
MIKE: I don’t know if I’m coming in or not but I think we’re running out of time.
DS: I would just say that, um, you know, critiquing the genocide paradigm is not to reject human rights activism, I think Jean-Marie and I are simply asking that everybody try as hard as we can to listen to the full spectrum of Mayan opinion, and I think that will lead to more effective human rights activism.
KARA: Thanks, Well that’s it for our show! We wanted to thank both David Stoll and Jean-Marie Simon for being our guests on our show today. It’s been a pleasure having you both. Mike, it’s been a pleasure as well. From MesaPublica this is Kara Andrade from Texas.
MIKE: This is Mike McDonald from Guatemala City.
KARA: and for our listeners just remember to download the Mesa Pública podcast on Itunes for a complete recording of our show today, and sorry for any technical difficulties.
Have a great week everyone, and thank you again Jean-Marie and David!