Guatemala – Justice for Genocide

Guatemala – Justice for Genocide

REPORTER: BENTLEY DEAN

ANDRES (standing in field): Unfortunately, a long time has passed.

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It`s been 17 or 18 years now. The surface of the land has changed a lot.

Andres was tortured for 15 days at this former military base in the Guatemalan highlands. In that time he saw a lot.

ANDRES: And it continues over there. There are hundreds of bodies here. Not just one. Children, women… Those women who resisted rape, they ended up here. That was horrible. Horrible. There were pregnant women… Women who were five or six months pregnant… They were brought here, they were raped… And after raping them, they cut them up like this… And nobody could say a thing. People actually saw that. Things were bad.

FLAVIO (from inside grave) On the surface we can see the remains of people who were apparently males, from the clothes they were wearing. The bodies on the surface are adults, but we`ve also found remains of children.

The UN-sponsored report estimates that over 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared by the army and paramilitary groups during Guatemala`s 34-year civil war. Over 80% were Mayan Indians.

FLAVIO: Here we can see the bones that make up the two arms. These are the ulna and the radius of both arms. The fact that they are crossed gives us an idea that their hands were tied at the time they were thrown into the bottom of the pit.

In the early `80s, the violence reached genocidal proportions.

REPORTER: How many years have those bones been there?

FLAVIO: According to witnesses, they date back to 1982.

The time of Rios Montt?

FLAVIO: Yes, I think so. Yes.

In March 1982, General Efrain Rios Montt organised a coup and declared himself President of Guatemala. For the next 16 months, he presided over the bloodiest period in Latin American history since the Spanish invasion. Colonel Mauricio Lopez Bonilla played a key role in the coup that brought Rios Montt to power. He now directs a public relations firm.

COLONEL MAURICIO LOPEZ BONILLA: I`ve always said that I took part and was injured in battle and I fired my rifle… But there`s one thing I know and I can tell people, looking them in the eye… I never did anything against civilians. When you ask me why those atrocities were committed, all I can say is that when you`re experiencing a war situation for a long time, even the men with the strongest moral principles can fall into a vicious circle in which their basic instincts prevail… their fighting spirit and survival instincts.

REPORTER: It actually seemed as though it was like State policy, like for there to be 626 massacres and over 200,000 people dead.

COLONEL MAURICIO LOPEZ BONILLA: It wasn`t an official policy or a strategy. If it had been an official policy or strategy, there wouldn`t have been just 400, but thousands of massacres.

To this day, no-one has been held responsible for the more than 600 unofficial massacres that took place. In fact, if anything, Rios Montt seems to have been rewarded for his part in the genocide. Last year, Rios Montt was elected President of the Guatemalan Congress. He has a lot to celebrate. The General, as he is still known, has so far evaded every attempt to bring him to justice.

These are the children of some of Guatemala`s 40,000 disappeared. They have gathered to call for Montt`s prosecution in front of a monument of Guatemala`s best-known human rights crusader. Bishop Juan Gerardi. Bishop Gerardi coordinated the Catholic Church`s `Never Again` report, which detailed the army`s involvement in decades of murder, assassination and rape. On 26 April 1998, two days after presenting the report, he was bludgeoned to death.

This is Bishop Gerardi`s replacement – Bishop Rios Montt. he is the brother of General Efrain Rios Montt.

REPORTER: Why do you think you chose such radically different career paths?

BISHOP RIOS MONTT, HUMAN RIGHTS OFFICE: In line with the Catholic doctrine, I believe that every person is unique and that each person makes decisions based on the situation they face. When I was finishing primary school, I met the Marynoll missionary priests from the US. I was led by their example to become like them. I guess that my brother met a soldier either through his studies or in his private life and he wanted to be like them. And so I`m holding this post and he`s holding his.

Bishop Montt believes that Guatemala`s open wounds can only be healed if the truth is faced and justice is seen to be done. Even if this means the prosecution of his own brother.

BISHOP RIOS MONTT: I think it`s important that the Public Prosecutor gets to the bottom of this by doing the necessary work. If a crime`s been committed, and the authorities don`t act seriously to solve it, I think we`ll remain in this very complicated situation. The Archbishopric of Guatemala is bringing pressure so that the culprits of the assassination of Monsignor Juan Gerardi are found, precisely for that reason. Because we want the Guatemalan people to have confidence again in their authorities.

CELSO BALAN (driving through hills of Chimaltenango): To La Plazuela, Dona Francisca`s home, who is the witness for the case we are making with the exhumation.

Celso Balan is an investigator for the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights, or CLADH. His job is to find victims brave enough to testify against Rios Montt in court. Francisca`s husband disappeared on 2 August 1982, while General Rios Montt was president.

SHARON: We were looking for you.

FRANCISCA: I was out gathering wood.

SHARON: Come and sit down… To identify if it`s your husband or not, you have to tell me a few things about him. Can you tell me what he was like… Was he tall, was he thin? Was he fat?

Francisca`s husband was taken away to be questioned during an army raid on the village and never came back.

FRANCISCA: We were sitting around the fire. The army came and surrounded the house and then came into the house with their guns. They said we were trying to run away. We said “Why would we run away? We`ve done nothing wrong.” We said that we were free people and asked why they were threatening us. I was trembling with my kids because my kids were with me. They wanted to know what would happen to their dad. When he came in, he told me “You have to look after them. You have to look after my children because I`m never coming back.” I asked him if he had his papers. Then I said “I`ll find you, wherever they take you.”

Armed with hundreds of testimonies like Francisca`s, CALDH took the unprecedented step last month of calling for the prosecution of Montt in Guatemala for crimes against humanity.

FRANK DE LA RUE, CLADH: We think we have slim chances but we think we have no choice. Our only choice if we believe in peace in Guatemala, if we`re going to build a better country, is to make the justice system work. So, it would be an absolute mistake to ignore these crimes and to let the pass, especially now that Rios Montt is the President of Congress. This is the time to make him accountable for all the wrong things he did in the past.

This is Rios Montt`s most prominent foe – Rigoberta Menchu, seen here shortly after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. For many years, Menchu has been the public conscience of Guatemala, reminding the world of the atrocities which were committed here.

RIGOBERTA MENCHU, NOBEL PEACE LAUREATE: Above all, what I have is a feeling of shame for the international community, I`m ashamed for the Guatemalans, I`m ashamed for the defenders of human rights…because we couldn`t stop the genocide. We could have done something to avoid 200,000 deaths.

It`s the day of the dead in Mexico City, a time for millions of Latin Americans to remember dead loved ones. Threats to her life have forced Rigoberta Menchu to live here in exile. And it is from here that Menchu has continued her assault on Rios Montt. Fuelled with optimism by the attempts to bring Augusto Pinochet – the former Chilean dictator – to justice, Rigoberta Menchu has asked the Spanish National Court to hear her case. She has accused several military men of genocide, terrorism of the state and torture. Rios Montt heads the list.

RIGOBERTA MENCHU: Why in Spain? Because the law never worked in Guatemala. During the genocide there was impunity. It was established and it flourished. Those responsible for the crimes were never punished. Crimes weren`t investigated. We hope that in a court in Spain there can be a trial of the genocide in Guatemala.

Zury Rios is Rios Montt`s daughter and a member of Congress herself.

REPORTER: He`s facing a few problems at the moment. I`m particularly interested in the recent case in Spain by Rigoberta Menchu. What is your opinion of that?

ZURY RIOS, MEMBER OF CONGRESS: I think she has a freedom to do whatever she wants. I think that`s freedom and democracy about. Everyone has the right of petition – is that the correct word? So – everyone can go to courts. The thing is to prove it, and if those things that she`s talking about were truth, I don`t understand the results in the votes. I don`t understand the support of the population, of the people of the country.

RIGOBERTA MENCHU: Popularity? I don`t think so because Guatemala has a population of 11 million and only one million people voted for Rios Montt. When in fact five million Guatemalans should be going to the polls. I don`t think the million people who voted for Rios Montt, are new Rios Montt supporters. At one time, more than one million men were obliged to join the Civilian Self-Defence Patrols. The military held power for many years and they have entrenched themselves in society.

The civil defence patrols, essentially village militias, were Montt`s most insidious contribution to the conflict. Men were press-ganged into Montt`s militias and forced to torture and kill friends and relatives. A few did it willingly to settle petty squabbles. Most killed rather than be killed. Brother killed brother. They became accomplices in their own destruction.

GENERAL EFRAIN RIOS MONTT: My image outside the country may well be different. The fact is that in 16 months, we won a 20-year war. That has been my biggest failure in the eyes of certain media. Why? Because we didn`t do what they wanted us to do but what we had to do. We didn`t assassinate or kill, we simply told the truth. And truth can be painful and uncomfortable. In those 16 months, we didn`t get a rouble or a dollar, yet we achieved peace.

Rios Montt`s `peace` was the second genocide for Guatemala`s Mayan Indians. 500 years after the Spanish arrived, they still commemorate their slaughter at the hands of the conquistadors. Last year, Mayan organisations chose Columbus Day to demand compliance with the 4-year-old peace accords, including redistribution of land and the prosecution of war crimes. Several days later, one of the leaders was shot dead. Threats and assaults against journalists and human rights workers have increased in the last year. Only last month, an American nun working with Mayan groups was gunned down in Guatemala City.

FRANK DE LA RUE, CLADH: We thought that the human rights era had changed in Guatemala, that we would be really free and doing our work, With this Government, the Government of Portillo and Rios Montt, things have changed again. After the inauguration on January 15, there has been a series of intimidation and harassment.

In fact, Frank La Rue`s colleague, Celso Balan, was recently kidnapped and beaten. Since then, he has been accompanied wherever he goes by Nick Rose, a Melbourne lawyer, who has volunteered as a foreign observer.

CELSO BALAN, CLADH: I don`t think I`ll ever forget it. Because, in the beginning I thought that my life would end. I wondered why it had to be me. I thought, I thought of my young children, I thought of them. It was very difficult. My family would ask me why I was doing this. The told me to quit. But I also received support from my colleagues. And they said “Let`s continue, the political situation is changing. It will change. Let`s continue.” They said that giving up would mean letting them get what they wanted.

Despite the intimidation in Guatemala, the Spanish National Court decided not to proceed with Rigoberta Menchu`s case against Rios Montt. Incredibly, a special sitting of judges argued that while the strength of her case could not be disputed, there was no reason why it could not be heard in the Guatemalan courts. It`s a ruling that has mystified many Guatemalans. It was a full three years before the people who murdered Bishop Gerardi were brought to trial. Crucial evidence had gone missing and a total of eight prosecutors, judges and witnesses had fled the country following attacks and threats. The night before the trial began, hand grenades were thrown into the home of one of the judges. She emerged defiant.

JUDGE: I think I must respond to the demands of society. We will continue.”

Against the odds, these army officers were convicted last month. However, it`s still not known who gave the orders. It`s unlikely that General Rios Montt will ever appear in court. Guatemalan members of Congress are immune to prosecution by law.

RIGOBERTA MENCHU: In Guatemala, where horror is part of the present, clandestine cemeteries part of the present, where the disappeared are part of the present, I mean it isn`t past history. Horror is a thing of the present. I`d say that thanks to the terror in Guatemala, Rios Montt is in power. The day we can punish the perpetrators of the genocide, when we can clean up the justice system, when we can take away their impunity, they won`t be in power. They`ll be in jail!

Today, Francisca`s search for her husband is over.

FRANCISCA: For 18 years, I didn`t know where to put my candles. But now that I know where they are I want to take the bones and put them to rest in the cemetery. I ask for those responsible for the crime to be punished. The heartless people who committed this crime have been hiding for years since 1982.

(Praying at graveside) Lord, we`ve had a bitter life, Lord, but today we`re here with your clan. They`re gone, but their bodies and their bones remain. We`ll collect them and take them to a holy place so they can rest in peace. Our Father who art in heaven…