Guatamala's left says the country's ongoing war crimes trials are an overdue reckoning. The country's military says they're a "legal lynching."
- By Saul ElbeinSaul Elbein is a freelance journalist from Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Texas Observer, and on This American Life.
For three weeks in February, a Guatemalan court heard charges against two men for one of the uglier incidents in that country’s 36-year civil war. According to the prosecution, at the height of the war in the early 1980s, Mayan peasants living near the humid Caribbean coast began squabbling with local plantation owners over land rights. According to prosecutors, the two defendants — a former lieutenant named Estheelmer Reyes Girón and a former militiaman named Heriberto Valdez Asij — had participated in a military operation to crush the Maya land movement. According to the prosecution, government soldiers and paramilitaries, including Reyes and Valdez, had kidnapped the leaders, secretly murdered them, and forced their wives into months of sexual slavery.
The trial was the most recent in a four-year campaign by the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office against accused war criminals. For the constellation of international NGOs and development bodies that back Guatemala’s “transitional justice” movement, the trial was a triumph for human rights. The U.S. State Department agreed: Ambassador Todd Robinson was on hand to observe the first day of the trial. “I congratulate Guatemalan society and the Guatemalan justice system for confronting these issues,” the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala quoted him as saying that day. “It is important that the justice and government institutions work properly.”
Not everyone was so happy. To the right-wing and military groups stirred to life by the trials, the human rights campaign has represented nothing less than a new surge by their old enemies, the “Marxists” and “terrorists,” to defeat in courts the men who saved Guatemala in the field. The conservative factions concede neither guilt nor defeat. Instead, they have launched a guerrilla campaign of lawsuits and criminal complaints to cast blame on their leftist enemies for abusing their newfound judicial power — and on their former ally, the United States, for stabbing them in the back. The tribunal is not resolving the country’s earlier conflict, they claim, but renewing it, in altered form. It’s an argument that, for all its cynicism, is becoming something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The problem with the political fight over Guatemala’s war record is that it’s like a game of that popular board game Clue — one side thinks it was Colonel Mustard, and the other says the murder never happened. The last four years have seen soldiers and high-ranking officers alike tried for massacres and mass rapes, most of which occurred between 1981 and 1983, during the army’s brutal scorched-earth campaigns in the western highlands. A chilling postwar report by the U.N.-backed Committee for Historical Clarification found that 200,000 people had been killed and 50,000 forcibly disappeared — that is, kidnapped, murdered, and secretly buried — by the army, police, and intelligence services. A great deal of work has been put into finding these bodies, most of it by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), which, in excavations of secret cemeteries and mass graves since the early 1990s, has compiled a voluminous record of military attacks on civilians during the war. One FAFG archeologist told me he had previous experience digging up mass graves in Bosnia but explained there was a crucial difference: “Over there, you didn’t find children in the pits.”
The right wing, however, dismisses the mainstream account entirely, calling the U.N. report the work of Marxists and the FAFG’s forensic evidence as a willful distortion of the scientific record.
“The war didn’t end in 1996. It’s still going on,” said Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, the president of the Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), the most public and vocal of the right-wing groups that have coalesced in the wake of the trials. In 1996, after 36 years of sporadic, brutal war, the army signed peace accords with the leftist guerrillas — or, as Mendez Ruiz calls them, terrorists. “The only difference now is that we’re not fighting in the jungle or the mountains with gunshots and firearms. Now, the field of battle is the courts of justice and the media.”
Mendez Ruiz founded the FCT in 2012 as a response to what he regarded as a crisis of “legal aggression against our soldiers.” In that year, Claudia Paz y Paz, a crusading attorney general at the Public Ministry, Guatemala’s independent prosecutor’s office, began a campaign to try former members of the military for war crimes like those at Sepur Zarco, where women were regularly raped by soldiers over a period of six years in the 1980s. On the left, these trials have largely been portrayed as a necessary redressing of atrocities committed during the civil war. But to FCT and other groups on the right like Avemilgua, the military veterans’ families association, these prosecutions represented something more sinister: a politically motivated series of “legal lynchings” based on nonexistent evidence. If the civil war was a war between two sides, they demanded to know, why is only one side being prosecuted?
One might answer, as the Commission for Historical Clarification report did in the late 1990s, that soldiers are being tried because they — armed with American helicopters and Israeli assault rifles — committed the vast majority of atrocities. (The American forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow told me in 2011 that while the military’s motives may have been no worse than the guerillas’, they had far greater means and opportunity.)
But on the right, Paz y Paz’s prosecutions aroused something like terror. “In the round and freckly face of Paz y Paz,” journalist José Luis Sanz wrote in the Salvadoran magazine El Faro, “they saw the left, the old communism, taking over their justice system to use it against them.” The goal, the right fears, is nothing less than the conquest of the Guatemalan economy.
Over much of the last two centuries, the Latin American left has pushed for “agrarian reform” — a policy of wealth redistribution by which parts of the region’s large estates are broken up for landless peasants. The right, whose base is made up chiefly of large landholders, has long feared this, and land rights have remained a bloody bone of contention across the continent.
In Guatemala, which has some of the most unequal land distribution in the hemisphere, agrarian reform is the stuff of plantation owners’ nightmares. Prosecutors at the Sepur Zarco trial pointed again and again to the role of land disputes in the rapes and killings during the war, in order to suggest that those crimes were part of a deliberate government campaign to maintain control over the country’s land and resources. This emphasis worried Mendez Ruiz. “The left wants every peasant to have his piece of land to grow corn, to eat, and live like that for the rest of his life — at least until he has 10 children,” he said. “That’s not a solution.” What Guatemala needed, he said, was industrialization. In the case of farmland, that meant maintaining large land holdings and converting them to sweeping plantations of cane, coffee, and palm oil.
According to Mendez Ruiz, the trials are a Trojan horse: The soldiers are not the end but rather “a means to an end.” Once the prosecution has proved in court that the wartime economic establishment — industry, landlords, plantation owners — protected its fortunes with war crimes, he warned, leftists in the government will have legal grounds to expropriate it. In an effort to harry this land grab, he has filed criminal complaints against former Attorney General Paz y Paz; the head of the war crimes unit at the prosecutor’s office; and a number of human rights lawyers.
But it is the recent role of the United States in all this that has most spurred the right’s ire. Since 2008, Washington has invested $25 million into the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a special international task force designed to help the local prosecutor’s office investigate particularly complex or dangerous cases like those involving organized crime. CICIG, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in April 2015, would make sure that “no one stands above the law.”
This was something of a sudden — and, from the perspective of the Guatemalan right, hypocritical — reversal of long-standing U.S. policy. In the 1970s and 1980s, the various peasant rebellions and democratic uprisings of Central America transformed into yet another Cold War proxy fight, joining the ranks of Beirut, Saigon, and Buenos Aires. The putative Marxist rebels in the hills received support from the revolutionary governments in North Vietnam, Cuba, Soviet Russia, and Nicaragua; the government was supported, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, by the United States and its allies in Israel and Taiwan. It was this alliance that finally crushed the guerrilla armies to the point that they sued for peace.
As a result of this strategic relationship, the Guatemalan military establishment built close ties with the United States. A generation of Guatemalan soldiers, including Mendez Ruiz’s father, learned military skills from American instructors at the School of the Americas. Ronald Reagan and Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt got on well (the general’s daughter is married to a former Republican congressman from Illinois). “The [United States] trained us, armed us, and financed us,” Mendez Ruiz said. “The Guatemalan army fought a war for the United States in its back door. In the end, it was a war for our own freedom, but it was also their war. And we won it. We won the war that they lost in Vietnam. And nonetheless, today, the main detractor of the Guatemalan army is the U.S. State Department.”
In this vein, the presence of the U.S. ambassador at the Sepur Zarco trials struck the military establishment as both an insult and an injustice: Rather than defend its former ally, the right believed the United States was helping orchestrate a witch hunt. When Judge Yazmin Barrios found the two men guilty and sentenced them to life in prison, Guatemala’s conservative press published many articles describing how the United States had violated Guatemalan sovereignty. The military, lamented columnist Raúl Minondo Ayau in El Periódico, “the only institution Guatemala can count on to defend [itself], is tied up and persecuted in tribunals that are under the control of a renegade and criminal left (supported from [the U.S. Embassy on] Reforma). Our president seems to take his orders in English.”
But one more element of the right’s reaction may be more personal. The Guatemalan military is a proud and popular institution, and the charges of massacre and mass rape have, in some quarters, engendered a sort of psychic shock: Our soldiers wouldn’t do that. Hector Reyes Girón, an infantry veteran and brother to the convicted Estheelmer Reyes Girón, told me the accusations against his brother of running a rape base didn’t just threaten his freedom — they threatened his dignity and honor. That’s why the family had spent its savings, he said, trying to clear his brother’s name.
There is no serious dispute over whether Guatemalan soldiers raped and murdered many civilians during the war. The highlands were littered with little My Lai massacres, and many of the bodies are still being found. Since 2012, the FAFG has excavated 588 civil war-era bodies from beneath a military base where, today, Guatemalan soldiers train for U.N. peacekeeping missions.
But this is less a debate about evidence than one about values and tribalism. The stakes are clear: One side says that the Guatemalan army was characterized by its bold struggle for the patria during the war; the other, that the war was won by gross assaults on human rights. The hard, ugly, nuanced questions that reconciliation demands — questions like, “Could the army have won the war without committing atrocities?” or, “Why were Guatemalans motivated to kill other Guatemalans for 36 years?” — mostly go unasked.
“This is a lynching, God help me. A political, media, juridical, public lynching,” Reyes Girón said. “A Guatemalan soldier doesn’t rape. A Guatemalan soldier doesn’t kill civilians.” The prosecutor’s office, the “indigenous women,” and the NGOs were just in it to get their cut of reparations money, he said. “This country is full of parasites. There’s too many people who want to take from others just so they can live like queens with their houses and their little cars.” He avoided the court hearings, he said, out of fear of “what I might do to those people.”
Mendez Ruiz is personally connected to the trials, too. In the late 1970s, his father — also named Ricardo Mendez Ruiz — was commandant of Military Zone 21, a base near the city of Cobán. In 2012, the year Mendez Ruiz started the FCT, the prosecutor’s office obtained a judge’s order to excavate the base. They found almost 600 skeletons in 88 pits, most blindfolded, their arms bound. After a four-year investigation, the Public Ministry arrested 11 officers — including a former chief of staff — for the murders. Had Mendez Ruiz not fortuitously died the week before, he would have been one of them.
The revanchist campaign by the right reveals a troubling aspect of transitional justice: It is very hard to achieve when one side rejects the legitimacy of the process, or even whether justice is needed at all. For those whose military friends or family members are tarred as rapists and killers, the trial is more likely to deepen wounds than heal them.
For the families of former government soldiers, as much as for the families of victims, the trials are a battle over the legacy of their loved ones — over whether they were proud victors in a hard counterinsurgency campaign or foot soldiers in a genocidal army. Describing his father’s case at his office in Guatemala City, Mendez Ruiz can’t hide his emotion. “Imagine it, they say in that base … there were children buried. What strategic motive could there be in killing babies, children?” He answers his own question. “No strategic motive. My dad wasn’t the butcher they try to show you.”
Photo Credit: EITAN ABRAMOVICH / Stringer