One of Guatemala’s most brutal dictators has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. On Friday, Jose Efraín Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison in a decision that marks the first time a ruler has been convicted of genocide in his own country. Rios Montt oversaw an extralegal regime in the early 1980s, ordering the killing of 1,771 Ixil Mayans in the name of eradicating a guerilla movement.
Incredibly, Montt’s co-defendant, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who served as director of intelligence during the same time period, was acquitted of the same charges. The current president of the nation, President Otto Pérez Molina, has also been implicated in the atrocities, though not charged.
Throughout the duration of the Ríos Montt dictatorship, his regime was the bloodiest on the American continent. Why did the world permit his brutality, and why did it take more than 30 years to successfully prosecute him? His genocidal campaigns, in full view to the world, were committed in real time.
The simple answer is the actions – and inactions – of US President Ronald Reagan, the man who provided cover for every tin-pot dictator on the continent. A better answer is the preeminence of “America,” with its mythological foundation and narrative. The best answer is the actions – or rather, inertia – of the citizens of the United States of America. It is we who permitted the atrocities of not simply this dictator, but all the military dictators on the continent during that bloodthirsty era.
The majority of US voters put Reagan in office, not once, but twice … and then rewarded his imperial reign by subsequently electing his vice president, Papa Bush, into office. And then he got airports, freeways and buildings named after him.
Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich recently called for a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate how the United States got itself into Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan (plus Yemen and Somalia). That would be an important step. However, before it takes place, a commission must be created to examine the US role in Central America, primarily in the 1980s, which resulted in the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of thousands of civilians from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. All these wars were financed by US tax dollars. All those ruthless dictators and their leading military officers were trained by the US military. Yet in Reagan-speak, the United States was simply spreading democracy (with heavy weaponry) in Central America – the same goal Bush claimed in launching the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And from a Reagan-based perspective, the hundreds of thousands of Central American victims were little brown people whose lives were irrelevant.
In Ríos Montt, we see the legacy of Reagan’s World. During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which officially ended in 1996, more than 200,000 of its citizens were killed. Tens of thousands more of its citizens were disappeared, brutalized and tortured. Indigenous (Mayan) peoples paid the heaviest price, with entire villages being razed and women routinely subjected to rape as a component of military strategy.
During the time of Ríos Montt and a long line of dictators before and after him, the military engaged in both genocidal and brutal anti-insurgent campaigns that targeted educators, student activists, catechists, religious and union organizers – anyone not in government who was deemed to have leadership qualities or potential, and anyone deemed to be supporting the guerrilla movement.
While each war in Central America was different, a common thread ran through them all: the US penchant for propping up military dictators, supplemented by attempts to reinstall ruthless regimes with virtually the same destructive results. US interventions and US imperialism did not begin in the 1980s, but it was Reagan-speak that turned these genocidal campaigns with resultant massacres into “freedom-loving” ventures. This violent era resulted in mass migrations to the United States in quantities not seen since the time of the Mexican Revolution.
Many of the migrants now spread across the United States are family, friends, and neighbors of the victims of genocide. Many still bear the painful scars of those genocidal years – scars that can never heal. To this day, many hundreds of thousands of survivors live among us, clamoring for justice. Putting Ríos Montt away for a little time will not undo the brutal campaigns of that era.
Taking a cue from Kucinich, perhaps we should begin in this country with a truth and reconciliation commission to examine first the US role in Central America, and then, its role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
This would be a broad endeavor: to understand the apartheid regime of Guatemala, and to understand the conditions that allowed the cycle of vicious wars in Central America, one would have to probe deeper. One would have to probe the mythology of the very idea of America. When Kucinich made his call, he said we must go back to the original idea of America, because its founders envisioned a nation of human unity. I have a different take: the original idea of America was predicated on genocide, land theft, slavery, divine providence, westward expansion and manifest destiny (imperialism) and the denial of full human rights to everyone except landowning white males.
The original idea of America was predicated on ignorance and denial, falsehoods and myths. That is what made the Iraq War possible. That is what permitted Ríos Montt to operate with impunity. It is what permitted Reagan to view bloodthirsty murderers as “freedom fighters.” It is what propelled the Iran-Contra (drugs, missiles and guns) affair.
A recent conference in Phoenix, titled “Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery,” examined precisely those myths – the ones that converted invaders into the legal and legitimate populations of “America,” while converting the native populations into hunted aliens. It is this doctrine that provides the best explanation for the Guatemalan genocide and for the violence and oppression that have wracked Central America, Mexico and the rest of the continent north and south.
At this conference, the attendees were in agreement that until the doctrine of discovery is dismantled, indigenous peoples will continue to be subjected to apartheid regimes, land theft, desecration of sacred sites, and efforts to eradicate the original cultures, languages and knowledges of this continent. The story of Ríos Montt and Guatemala is but one sliver of the history of the nation, one small sliver of the history of the United States and one tiny sliver of the history of this continent. Until this history is reconciled, any truth commission that doesn’t examine the 520 years of invasions will not ferret out the continent’s actual genocidal history.
The trial of Ríos Montt has been largely symbolic. In some respects, its symbolism is troubling. Beyond the symbolism, how does one bring justicia, as the Ixil peoples chanted upon Ríos Montt’s conviction, to a nation with hundreds of thousands of victims? How does one bring justicia to a continent whose nation-states are founded upon injustice? One trial at a time?
Perhaps another small answer, provided by the attendees of the Phoenix gathering, is by no longer referring to these continents in the Western Hemisphere as “The Americas,” but rather as Abya Yala (“Land of Life” or “Land in Blossom,” among other translations), the name given to the continents by the Kuna people of Panama long before the arrival of Columbus. Is that too difficult to pronounce? Might it conjure up bothersome memories about the land we are actually standing upon and its original peoples?