Guatemalan Genocides Expert

By Molly Igoe

Elm Staff Writer


From 1981 to 1983, the Guatemalan government implemented a deliberate program called “Operation Sophia” to degrade and wipe out the Mayan Indian population, through mass killing, rape, and a scorched earth policy. By the end of this campaign, 626 Mayan villages were destroyed, and 83 percent of the Mayan population was dead. The Goldstein Program in Public Affairs hosted a talk on Tuesday, March 3 in the Hynson Lounge entitled “Challenging Impunity in Domestic Courts: Human Rights Prosecutions in Latin America,” which focused on atrocities committed during dictatorships in Latin American countries throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Guest Speaker Professor Victoria Sanford primarily discussed Guatemala. She has written several books regarding the genocide there and has researched it extensively. Sanford is the professor and chair of anthropology at Lehman College, and is the founding director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies there. In August 2012, she served as an invited expert witness on the Guatemalan genocide before Judge Santiago Pedraz in the Spanish National Court’s international genocide case against Guatemalan generals.

To open up her talk, Sanford discussed the Truth Commissions that were set up after the dictatorships in various Latin American nations like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These Truth Commissions set out to reveal episodes of government abuse and violations of law. One of the most successful Truth Commissions was in El Salvador in 1993, after the crimes committed in the 1940s, in which government leaders and prominent people were explicitly named for dictating the atrocities. The Guatemalan Truth Commission, released in 1999, was not as successful at naming specific people but was one of the most comprehensive reports released, detailing torture episodes and gross human rights violations.

The mastermind behind the Guatemalan genocide is onetime dictator and Commander-in Chief of Guatemala General Effrain Rios Montt who has to this day avoided being charged with orchestrating genocide. The genocide was separated into phases: the first was the massacre of 626 Mayan civilians, the second was called “hunter battalions” during which the Guatemalan Army dropped bombs on Mayan villages in hopes of killing all of their inhabitants, and the third was the forced removal of survivors into concentration camps, or “model villages,” as Montt termed them.

They also implemented a scorched earth policy, which is the military policy of burning all crops, homes, and factories so the enemy cannot use them. They intended to destroy the Mayan culture, along with their livelihood and land. Sexual violence against women, girls, and elderly people was used as a means of terrorizing the Mayan community. The Army committed 99 percent of rapes during this time.

Sanford said, “This is a genocide, because the Guatemalan government deliberately targeted the Mayan civilian population to destroy and degrade them.” She also cited the United Nations Genocide Convention, formed on Dec. 9, 1948, which defines genocide as the intent to destroy cultural, ethnic, religious, or political groups.

A report in 1990 made by the current Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina indicated that from the beginning the army targeted civilians, and the Guatemalan government approved the deaths of thousands of civilians in order to carry out these attacks. Sanford cited what Montt said about the Mayan civilians. “Vamos al quitar al agua al pez,” which translates to “we are taking the water from the fish.” The water was the Mayan civilians, who were being taken away from the guerilla members to be killed.

The question Sanford raised in her talk pertained to justice. Although some high-ranking members of Montt’s party have been charged with genocide and terrorism and are in jail, Montt himself has not been convicted of crimes against humanity. The family members of those who were disappeared or murdered continue to mourn, waiting for justice from a corrupt government. Sanford said, “I think in the future there will be more convictions, just not overnight.”

During the question and answer portion of the talk, an audience member asked why the Mayan population was so despised by the Guatemalan government. Sanford said, “They were all afraid of what would happen if the Indians had power and what they would do to the rest of the population after all the abuse they had suffered in their own country for centuries. Quite simply, they saw them as less than human.”

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