Forensic Case Files: Guatemalan Genocide

Guatemala was once home to an advanced Mayan civilization that flourished from about 250 C.E. to nearly 1000 C.E. Their declining civilization was overrun by the invading Spanish in the 16th century. Conquered by weapons of modern warfare and devastated by European diseases, the Mayans became the Guatemalan peasant and labouring class to the Spanish upper class. But not even invading Europeans would wreak as much death and destruction as Guatemala’s own government in eighteen months between March 1982 and August 1983.

Coffee production is one of the Guatemala’s main industries and was heavily invested in by Americans during its infancy in the early- to mid-20th century. Large coffee plantations were run by the white upper class, while the indigenous Mayan population worked the fields. As a result, a large gap formed between the police-protected white populace and impoverished natives.

During the 1940s and into the 1950s, successive governments made great strides in improving conditions for the native populations, but a C.I.A.-facilitated coup in 1954 overthrew the existing government due to the rumoured threat of Communism. A military dictator was installed to lead the country and this became the style of government for the next several decades. During that time, several guerilla factions rose up to threaten the government, leading to the Guatemalan Civil War (1960 – 1996). The government’s response was to deal quickly and violently to any guerilla threat.

In March of 1982, General Efrain Ríos Montt overthrew the government in power and installed himself as President. His views regarding the guerilla resistance were very clear: “If you are with us, we’ll feed you; if not, we’ll kill you.” Officially, he ordered paramilitary ‘death squads’ out into the mountains with the intent of discovering and killing guerilla soldiers.

But something much more tragic took place. Over the course of the next year and a half, 669 massacres occurred at Mayan villages. Death squad soldiers would wait until the village gathered together for a celebration or market day, and then the entire community was targeted under the guise of harboring guerilla rebels. Peasants were shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death. Many had their limbs amputated. Some were impaled and left to die slowly, or doused with gasoline and set afire. Women and girls were raped, the elderly were slaughtered, babies’ heads were smashed against poles, and children were thrown into mass grave pits of the dead and buried alive. Afterwards, soldiers took or killed the livestock, destroyed crops, fouled the local water supply, and desecrated any sacred places. Then they burnt what was left of the village to the ground. It was true ‘scorched earth’ warfare. Those fortunate enough to flee to the mountains were hunted by soldiers with the goal of exterminating the entire village. Hundreds of thousands of displaced peasants became refugees.

More than 200,000 native Mayans were murdered and another 50,000 ‘disappeared’ during that eighteen month period. The Mayan population refers to this time as the ‘Silent Holocaust’—when villagers were killed simply due to their ethnicity, not because they supported any rebel faction. The government supported their actions with the claim that the Mayan communities had organized, allied with the guerillas, and were working towards a Communist coup.

In 1994, FAFG, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation started out as a small group of forensic anthropologists and scientists dedicated to the goal of uncovering the dead from this atrocity. In 1995, those five scientists began their first exhumation aided by massacre survivors. Currently the group numbers more than ninety and FAFG scientists are considered to be the world’s experts on mass graves. They have assisted in exposing other massacres, such as Srebrenica following the Bosnian War. They work to discover and exhume mass graves, recover human remains, determine the traumatic cause of death, and attempt to ID the victims based on skeletal structure and associated grave goods.

Shortly after the exhumations began, the U.N. investigated the Guatemalan genocide. In 1999, they finally released a report detailing horrific human rights violations by the military as ordered from the highest levels of the Guatemalan government.

In 2009, the National Security Archive presented a report citing President Montt and his military of carrying out genocidal assault against the indigenous Mayan population. Part of their supporting evidence was a ‘death squad diary’, outlining the disappearances, tortures, and executions starting in the summer of 1982 and continuing into 1983.

For the very first time, a previous head of state is on trial by the justice system of his own country for crimes committed within that state. Currently 86 years of age, and decades after his time in office, Efrain Ríos Montt now stands trial. So far, more than 70 witnesses for the prosecution have testified to the atrocities.

Unfortunately, the trial has been plagued by procedural and technical errors. On May 10, 2013, Montt was convicted of ordering the deaths of 1,771 Mayan peasants and sentenced to 80 years in prison.  But on May 20, that ruling was overturned based on ‘illegal proceedings’—Montt had fired his attorneys on April 19th and was left without a lawyer for a short period of time while the trial proceeded. Guatemala’s constitutional court ruled this past week that the trial should have been halted until Montt had lawyers in place and that all court proceedings must roll back to April 19th and start again. All witness testimony up to that time will stand, but the final weeks of the trial now must be repeated.

Guatemala stands as the only modern genocide in the Western Hemisphere during the post-World War II era. One can only hope that justice will be done, but it will be a small consolation to the Guatemalan people, many of whom still mourn those lost during the massacres.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons