Guatemala’s President Is Now in Jail. Some Americans Should Join Him.

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(Photo: hrvargas / Flickr)

The former President of Guatemala, Otto Fernando Pérez Molina, has stepped down amidst corruption charges, after being formally indicted on September 3 for his role in the scandal now known as La Linea.

By far the best coverage of this case for non-Spanish speakers has come from Francisco Goldman in The New Yorker, who’s written a piece that at once captures the historic momentum of this indictment while encompassing the personal reflections of a seasoned journalist. It deserves to be read by all.

Underneath the story of corruption engulfing Pérez Molina as he currently awaits trial, there’s another more painful story that recapitulates Guatemalan history and the role of this former general in it.

I’m talking about the 1981-1983 genocide in Guatemala, which reached its bloodiest height in 1982 in the rural highlands of Guatemala. Efraín Ríos Montt, the military dictator of the country during these lost years, oversaw much of the violence directed towards the leftist insurgents and anyone thought to be collaborating with them, namely the Mayan Indians, who were mostly campensinos — or peasant farmers, the forbearers of Guatemalan history.

A young military officer came of age in 1982 and commanded soldiers in the Nebaj, one of the homes to the Ixil Mayans that suffered from the military genocide. He went by the codename, Mayor Tito (“Major Tito”) and was trained in the U.S. School of the Americas for the Kaibil Special Forces. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Allan Nairn discusses a documentary he made in September 1982 which features conversations with Mayor Tito casually admitting to torture and mass killings.

Nairn couldn’t be sure at first, but he now believes that the man known as Mayor Tito is in fact Pérez Molina, the now former President of Guatemala.

It bears repeating that no one is sure who Mayor Tito was. On the eve of his presidential election in 2011, Pérez Molina adamantly maintained no wrongdoing: “I can tell you it is totally false,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.” According to Reuters, declassified documents support the Pérez position, but other journalists, such as Nairn, have contested that conclusion, citing the fact that he was stationed in the areas where killings occurred and that he went by the nickname “Tito” during his military career.

Guatemalan history has reached a tipping point. With Pérez Molina stripped of his power, the legal system of Guatemala has the historic opportunity to open an investigation into his past, and in some small way, find closure over whether he helped lead one of the most brutal genocides of modern history.

The Genocide

The Guatemalan genocide, which stained the history of indigenous communities with blood, has been almost completely forgotten in the United States, despite the latter country’s prominent role in the atrocities carried out.

The celebrated Latin American historian Greg Grandin offers a succinct account of the circumstances of the genocide in his book, The Last Colonial Massacre:

Beginning in 1981, the [Guatemalan] army executed a scorched earth campaign that murdered over one hundred thousand Mayans and completely razed more than four hundred indigenous communities. Anti-communist zeal and racist hatred were refracted through counterinsurgent exactitude. The killings were brutal beyond imagination. Soldiers murdered children by beating them on rock as their parents watched. They extracted organs, fetuses, amputated genitalia and limbs, committed mass and multiple rapes, and burned some victims alive. In the logic that equated indigenous culture with subversion, army units destroyed ceremonial sites and turned sacred places such as churches and caves into torture chambers. By the time the war ended in 1996, the state had killed two hundred thousand people, disappeared forty thousand, and tortured unknown thousands more.

In Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central and Latin America, the evocative phrase los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) speaks to the sense of unrequited justice for families whose missing members often have never been found. In some ways, the tremendous horror of massacres, rapes, and torture — almost all backed with U.S funding and military and logistical support — at least carry the knowledge that a loved one is indeed gone. A disappearance, on the other hand, contains the longing for return or for answers that never seem to come.

The Guatemalan genocide cannot be fully understood without examining the question of U.S. support for Ríos Montt under President Ronald Reagan. In early December 1982, as the atrocities were being carried out, Reagan met with Ríos Montt and dismissed the “bum rap” the dictator had received from human rights groups, instead praising him as “a man of great integrity” and “totally dedicated to democracy.” Subsequently, declassified U.S. intelligence documents indicated that the State Department knew that the allegations of mass killing were in fact true and well-founded 10 days prior to Reagan’s meeting with Ríos Montt.

And yet U.S. military and economic aid to the Guatemalan government skyrocketed from $11 million in 1980 to $104 million in 1986. As Greg Grandin’s title in the New York Times reads, the “Guatemalan Slaughter Was Part of Reagan’s Hard Line.”

So much for the New Right’s evocative mythology of Reagan the Cold Warrior. The truth is that Reagan helped to facilitate genocide in Guatemala, masked by rhetoric of “defeating communism.”  Cold hearts, not the Cold War, drove U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

At the conclusion of the long civil war in Guatemala (1966-1996), a UN truth commission was established in February 1997 to investigate crimes committed by the military and the leftist “insurgents.” The results of that query found that the state military had committed 93 percent of the killings, with 80 percent of the victims being Mayan Indians.

Where Guatemala Stands Today

In 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and faced 80 years in prison. But the high court of Guatemala struck down the ruling on a procedural technicality, and Ríos Montt has evaded justice ever since.

A subsequent retrial was forestalled because the presiding judge had written her 2004 college thesis connecting Ríos Montt to the genocide. The defense team waited 14 months after the judges were known to mention this conflict of interest. The strategy worked: The trial has fallen into bureaucratic limbo.

As it currently stands, doctors in the defense team allege that Ríos Montt is mentally unfit and therefore unable to stand trial for these historic injustices. Pérez Molina, meanwhile, has quietly downplayed his military career in Nabaj — where he was stationed for 10 months in 1982-1983— saying, “The priority of the army under my command was to win the confidence of the population. Not like how we found them, when they were terrified of the army.”

A former member of the Guatemalan army, however, has testified in Spain that Pérez Molina was in command during some of these very atrocities and actively took part in the genocide against the Mayans.

The facts, of course, are muddled — even contradictory— as the number of formal documents linking Pérez Molina is limited, and some have possibly been destroyed. This doesn’t mean he is innocent of wrongdoing, but rather that we should be careful to rush to judgement.

What Guatemala deserves is a full accounting of these crimes against humanity — another truth commission, and a dismantling of the uncertainty that surrounds a man who undoubtedly has real connections to a military establishment accused of genocide.

U.S. forces involved in Guatemala during this genocide also deserve a trial for their actions. An investigation into who authorized the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to equip, train, and assist the Guatemalan army in its war crimes is necessary for justice to be more than a one-sided affair.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and Mayan activist, Rigoberta Menchú, had this to say about Pérez Molina’s indictment: “I would hope that such arrangements of state terrorism never return, that such arrangements of censorship not return, that we no longer be hushed up and threatened so that they can prevail. That cannot happen again. This is a true watershed for Guatemala.”

This watershed can be even more historic when an honest and thorough investigation into Pérez Molina’s past is finally completed.

Jack Werner has been published by Foreign Policy In Focus, Informed Comment, Antiwar.com, the Lion’s Eye, the Signal, and State of Nature. He hosts a webzine at worldatlargemag.wordpress.com