" ... The acts perpetrated by the Guatemalan government during the civil war (fully backed by American government money and expertise, least we forget who bankrolled all of this) were horrendous crimes against humanity. Whether these actions can be defined as genocide - a term also debated in describing the Khamer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia - is less important. They were massacres of non combatant civilians: children, women and the elderly. ... "
Photo: As a young Guatemalan living abroad, it has been interesting to follow Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt's trial since it started on March 19th. The story's main plot points, and its objectives, vary greatly depending on the sources. Worldwide media publications applaud Guatemalans for being the first country to prosecute a president for genocide in-country. However, while the foreign media speak of massacres, the civil war, and the guilt of General Ríos Montt, they do so without critical analysis. (General Efraín Rios Montt, courtesy of "La Hora. ")
Distorted Visions from Ríos Montt's Trial
March 25, 2013
Guatemala is often presented as a “Banana Republic”, - a war-torn Cold War front with brutal dictators and genocide-- a simplistic and misleading stereotype. But when the so-called observations of the media are so neatly in line with widespread assumptions they often go unchallenged. As a result, coverage of this story becomes one-sided.
Publication in Guatemala, on the other hand, tell an entirely different story. Many columns are filled with praise for Gen. Rios Montt as the leader that fought for the country's freedom and saved it from the jaws of communism. Local coverage of the trial emphasizes the blatant injustice of stripping these generals of their amnesty while the equally guilty guerilla leaders walk free. They challenge the definition of "genocide" in efforts to defend the General, claiming that the orders to raze entire indigenous villages were normal acts of war, and reminding us that casualties were equally savaged by both sides. This view popular amongst Guatemala's media is also backed by current president Otto Perez Molina. Locally, this trial is seen as the result of foreign pressure, and former communist supporters encroaching on the Government in hopes of pushing their own leftist agenda.
Such extreme differences in the media's coverage beg the question of what the true story is, if there even is one. Is this trial a symbolic effort to right past wrongs, can it actually serve to shift a national paradigm, or even a global one? It raises questions about the importance of amnesty and who deserves it? And will this trial bring closure and repair the harm done?
The acts perpetrated by the Guatemalan government during the civil war (fully backed by American government money and expertise, least we forget who bank rolled all of this) were horrendous crimes against humanity. Whether these actions can be defined as genocide - a term also debated in describing the Khamer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia - is less important. They were massacres of non combatant civilians: children, women and the elderly and have no excuses. The destruction of the war needs to be repaired, yet the thousands who suffered are neglected.
Now, will trying elderly generals undo the harm done? Not really. Will it stop the current wave of crime in Guatemala? Unlikely. Can the court case be more transparent, open and fair? Probably, the constant switching of lawyers and the judge's strong bias reduces the trial's credibility, and taints the verdict's validity.
What can this trial accomplish? Its main achievement may be to reduce the taboo to discuss this era of Guatemala's history. After years of repressive dictatorships, Guatemalans watch their words because they know the walls have ears and outspokenness has serious consequences. If people begin talking freely then I hope that those who suffered from the war can benefit from articulating the traumas endured. For too long indigenous people's opinions have been undermined and ignored; an attitude that continues during the court case, as can be read in the snide commentary in many local papers when describing the trial's witnesses and victims. Considering the case's proceedings, Ríos Montt will most surely be found guilty, and this will naively be regarded as a success abroad. Meanwhile, little will change in Guatemala; the victims will remain unrecovered, and poverty and discrimination will continue unaltered. The question remains: who is better off because of this process?