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Guatemala confronts Ixil Mayan genocide in courtroom

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 12th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The South American nation of Guatemala is finally addressing a very dark period in its 20th Century history. In the early 1980s, during the war between the government and leftist rebels, the military used the "rebel threat" as a ploy to exterminate rural Ixil Mayan villages accused of harboring insurgents. This tactic led to the genocide of 1,700 Ixil Mayans - and this grisly chapter is now being openly debated in the courtroom. 

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) - According to the United Nations, this is the very first time in history that a former head of state is being tried for genocide by his own nation's justice system. Efrain Rios Montt, now 86 years old, is the ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983. He will now have his fate decided in the courtroom.

It must be noted that previous accusations of genocide, such as in Rwanda or against Serbia, have been presided over by international judges. The Guatemala attacks are believed to be the only incident of genocide in the Western Hemisphere during the modern era.

While the trial must reopen festering wounds, it is hoped that the painful public testimony could help heal the national betrayal reflected in the faces of many Mayan victims.

Rios Montt is accused of authorizing a military strategy so brutal that it was labeled "scorched earth." His attorneys say the former dictator did not order any of the atrocities.

The genocide charges currently rest on the assertion that the army, under Rios Montt's orders, specifically targeted the Ixil because of their ethnicity, and not just because they were suspected of harboring rebels.

A 1999 report by a Guatemalan truth commission concluded that "agents of the state committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people." An attorney for Rios Montt has laid the foundation for the argument that no such ethnic targeting took place.

"I never heard a speech that said 'kill the Ixil, exterminate the Ixil,'" defense lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel said. Rios Montt "never gave an order, written or spoken, to exterminate a single Ixil in this country."

Also standing accused is the United States, in the court of public opinion. Critics say Washington, then under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan callously disregarded the situation -- and worse.

The Reagan administration claimed violence was decreasing during Rios Montt's tenure and lifted a U.S. arms embargo in 1983. Ironically, the U.S. has pushed for Guatemalan judicial reform that has made this trial possible.

Living in the mountainous villages in the country's northwest and mostly isolated from the rest of Guatemala and the world, the Guatemalan Ixil number around 95,000, less than one percent of the nation's population.

Many still speak the Ixil language, and most of the witnesses called to the stand so far have spoken through a translator. The horrific stories that more than 70 prosecution witnesses have revealed so far have been hard to hear in any language.

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