The Persistence of Historical Memory


The Persistence of Historical Memory

March 20, 2008

Between 1980 and 1983, the Guatemalan Army carried out hundreds of genocidal massacres against indigenous Mayan communities, killing tens of thousands of civilians.

The repercussions are still felt today.

The Army used systematic rape, torture, forced disappearances, conscription of child soldiers – a comprehensive how-to manual of state terror. Guatemala was a crime, for which many people are responsible – obviously the political and military leaders of Guatemala who were the intellectual authors; the mid-level and junior officers who oversaw the military bases in the country's departments and actually carried out the massacres. It has also been well-documented that the United States government knew what was happening.

There has been total impunity for the parties responsible for Guatemala's state terror. Efraín Ríos Montt, who was President of the country during the genocide, enjoys a comfortable parliamentary immunity as a member of the Congress. There have been no human rights violations trials for Guatemala. The UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification, which worked for two years after the signing of the Peace Accord in 1996, which ended the 36-year civil war, assigned responsibility for 93 percent of the human rights violations to the armed forces. And yet, as part of the Peace Accords, the exhaustive information contained in the commission's report Memory of Silence1 can't be used to bring the people responsible to justice. So they're free, all of them. Not a single high-level Guatemalan officer or politician has been brought to justice for crimes against humanity, let alone any U.S. officials.

Right now, two "genocide cases" are stalled in the Guatemalan court system, and another genocide case is being heard at the Audiencia Nacional (federal court) in Madrid. In early February, several anonymous, protected witnesses, and two who have openly spoken for years about their experiences during the massacres of early 1980s, traveled there to testify. The organizations that accompanied them, such as the Center for Legal Attention for Human Rights (CALDH) and the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese (ODHA) are, among the most targeted for attacks and intimidation in all of Guatemala.

Since 2003, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) has supported Fundacion Nueva Esperanza's bilingual primary education program for the children of victims of the Rio Negro massacre. AJWS also supports FNE's collaboration with other Indigenous community-based education organizations and advocacy efforts to gain government support for intercultural bilingual education programs.   Guillermo Chen director of the Fundación Nueva Esperanza (FNE), has been actively encouraging survivors of the massacres committed against the Mayan population to come forward and give their testimony. On March 5th, the same day that victims were presenting testimony in court, two unidentified men on bikes fired six shots into the door of his house. Guatemalan human rights organizations believe the shots were a clear attempt to intimidate Guillermo, his family and his colleagues from proceeding with their efforts to enable the prosecution of atrocities.2

Please click here to send an e-mail to the Guatemalan authorities on Guillermo's behalf.

[1] "Guatemala: Memory of Silence."

[2] Human Rights First,