While the apology could be interpreted as a hopeful step forward, Stein’s words belied the government’s continuing obstruction of all efforts to obtain justice for victims of the army’s genocidal campaign against the indigenous populations during the 1970s and 1980s. Most political parties in
The worst cases of genocide occurred between 1978 and 1983 when the Guatemalan government carried out a scorched earth policy against Mayan villages in the highlands where the guerrillas operated. It is estimated that as many as 1,000 villages were destroyed during these years. The Plan de Sanchez killings took place during the 1981-1982 dictatorship of Efrain Ríos Montt. Montt’s administration adopted the strategy of “drying up the sea that the guerrillas swam in,” a phrase borrowed from the Vietnam War that described a policy of removing the population from guerrilla areas to deny the fighters food, supplies, and recruits. The army attacked and destroyed Mayan villages with impunity, killing civilians, burning towns to the ground, and destroying crops and livestock. Villagers who survived fled into the mountains where they were pursued by the army and bombed by the air force. The extraordinary impunity enjoyed by the “intellectual and material authors” of this genocide was vividly demonstrated in 2003 when Montt ran for the presidency unencumbered by the blood on his hands.
Only one of these massacres has been successfully prosecuted in Guatemalan courts; the 1982 massacre in
After these convictions the prosecutor in the genocide cases left office. Since then no replacement has been named, throwing doubt on the possibility of other victims and survivors obtaining justice. More than 200 cases have been filed with the courts. New cases continue to be filed as new mass burial sites are excavated.
In the case of Plan de Sanchez, relatives of the massacre victims were unable to obtain justice in Guatemalan courts, so they petitioned the Inter-American Commission for consideration of their case by the Inter-American Human Rights Court. In November 2004, the court condemned the Guatemalan government and found the army guilty of genocide; the first time in history the court had made such a finding. The court ordered the Guatemalan government to apologize and to pay survivors and relatives $7.9 million. So far there is no word on plans to make the court ordered payments.
Though the government has done its best to avoid the issue, new evidence of atrocities continues to surface. Just last week a collection of secret police files were discovered that detailed more cases of human rights abuses. The documents, part of the archives of the now defunct National Police, are estimated to contain 30,000 files. A preliminary survey revealed folder titles such as "Disappeared People 1989" and "Kidnapped Children 1993."
On another front, forensic anthropologist teams plan to start digging up secret graves in
Nearly ten years after the 1996 peace accords were signed, Guatemalans continue to suffer from the aftereffects of the years they refer to as “The Violence,” years that left more than 200,000 people killed and 50,000 disappeared. Forensic scientists, lawyers, and human rights workers continue to labor meticulously to build cases against the government and army, while thousands of Guatemalans are forced to painfully wait for justice to be done. So, one apology to one village is just one tiny step that only leaves us waiting to see what comes next.
Tim Willard has a Ph.D. in history and works at the National Archives. He’s adopted two children from Guatemala of Mayan ancestry and has always had an interest in human rights issues in that region.
“Guatemalan Police Files Depicting Abuse Found,” Reuters,
Victoria Sanford, “The Inter-American Court Condemns Guatemalan Government for 1982 massacre and for the First Time in its History Condemns a Member State for Genocide” http://www.genocidewatch.org/GuatemalaCourtCondemnsStateforGenocide23july2004.htm
Victoria Sanford, Buried Secrets, Truth and Human Rights in