Guest columnist Angelina Godoy notes that the recent successful Guatemalan prosecution of four former members of an elite Army force in conjunction with the 1982 massacre at Dos Erres sends an important message that democratic institutions can work in the country.
LAST week, human-rights history was made when a Guatemalan court sentenced four men to 6,050 years each behind bars. Former members of an elite Army unit, these men were among 16 wanted in conjunction with the 1982 massacre at Dos Erres. While this remote jungle hamlet may seem far away from Seattle’s shores, ties of shared history invite us to commend Guatemalans for this important step.
Dos Erres was just one of the more than 600 massacres of civilians committed in the course of Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict. But certain elements made it noteworthy in the postwar search for justice: an abundance of forensic evidence, including scientific confirmation of the murder of at least 67 children; the availability of testimony from two former soldiers whose consciences compelled them to come forward; and the sheer determination of human-rights activists like Doña Aura Elena Farfán, leader of a group of families of the disappeared. In the face of repeated threats, raids on their offices, and even abductions of their staff over the course of the last 17 years, Doña Aura never gave up.
It’s thanks to her efforts, and those of many other courageous collaborators, that history changed this week. Despite the death of more than 300,000 Guatemalans in a counterinsurgency campaign declared genocidal by the United Nations, to date only a handful of paramilitaries and policemen have been convicted. Until now, the institution primarily responsible for the killings — the Army — had escaped judgment. In this context, Tuesday’s verdict sets an extraordinarily important precedent, showing Guatemalans and the world that despite the country’s oft-lamented problems, democratic institutions can work.
This is an important lesson for Americans, too. The war began when officers of the United Fruit Corporation persuaded our government to help overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected regime in 1954. Although aid to Guatemala was cut off in 1977 following reports of massive abuses, the Reagan administration reinstated support following the coup that brought dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt to power.
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On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Ríos Montt, Reagan declared him “totally dedicated to democracy,” accusing human-rights advocates of giving the general a “bum rap.” Two days later, Ríos Montt’s men attacked Dos Erres in an effort to eliminate every living soul.
Yet countless Americans have been on the right side of this history, too. Here in Seattle, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala sponsors the work of human-rights accompaniers, those people who support vulnerable people on the front lines, to support Guatemalan communities struggling for justice.
Other local groups here and around the U.S. work to help tackle hunger, provide medical care, expand opportunities for women, and otherwise address some of the sources of systematic injustice that have made that small country’s suffering so deep. So we, too, have reason to be cheered by Guatemala’s successful use of democratic institutions to reckon with its troubled past.
We also have reason to keep watching, as these same institutions face certain challenges in the weeks ahead. On Monday, forensic experts who testified in the Dos Erres case received death threats warning that they would be made to “pay slowly for each of the 6,050 years.”
On Sept. 21, the trial of former Gen. López Fuentes is slated to begin in Guatemala City. As head of the armed forces at the peak of the killing, López Fuentes is the first member of the military high command to be charged with genocide in the Guatemalan courts.
In a country gripped by contemporary crime waves and low confidence in democratic institutions, the importance of ensuring accountability for those who ordered atrocities is difficult to overstate. The eyes of the world will be trained on that courtroom in September, and the hope in our hearts will be that justice can, once again, be done.
Angelina Snodgrass Godoy is the Helen H. Jackson Chair in Human Rights and the director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington.