Guatemalan President Accused of Involvement in US-backed Civil War Atrocities

April 9th, 2013 - by admin

The Associated Press & Mac Margolis / The Daily Beast – 2013-04-09 00:40:26

Guatemalan President Accused of Involvement in Civil War Atrocities

Former soldier tells trial that Otto Pérez Molina ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during 1980s war

Associated Press

(April 6, 2013) — A former soldier has implicated the Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, in civil war atrocities during the trial of the former US-backed military strongman Efraín Ríos Montt, proceedings that have heard witnesses recount a litany of horrors.

Hugo Reyes, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade in the area where atrocities were carried out, told the court that Pérez Molina, then an army major, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during Guatemala’s dirty war with leftist guerrillas in the 1980s.

“The soldiers, on orders from Major ‘Tito Arias’, better known as Otto Pérez Molina … co-ordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute people,” Reyes told the court by video link.

Pérez Molina, who retired as a general, was elected president for the conservative Patriotic party and assumed office on 14 January 2012. As president, Pérez Molina is protected by an amnesty granted to public officials and cannot be subpoenaed.

The secretary general of the presidency, Gustavo Martínez, called the testimony “poorly intentioned declarations and in bad faith”. He said the presidency reserved the right to take action against Reyes.

In line with the gruesome testimony that has marked the trial of Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, Reyes described what happened in one massacre in the early 1980s.

“The people who were to be executed arrived at the camp beaten, tortured, their tongues cut out, their fingernails pulled out,” he said.

Ríos Montt is on trial along with his former head of intelligence in connection with the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he led from 23 March 1982 to 8 August 1983, during which he led a US-backed counterinsurgency against guerrillas.
The court also heard testimony from the victims of massacres. Some told the judges about the shelling of villages, beheadings and body parts kicked around like footballs.

“I saw them kill an old woman and officers cut off her head,” said Julio Velasco Raymundo, 40, who witnessed one massacre as a child. “Those officers played with the old woman’s head like it was a [foot]ball.”

He said he saw soldiers dig trenches with earth-movers, then send children to collect rubbish, which the troops threw on to the bodies, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.

He also told the court he saw the Guatemalan army shelling villages full of civilians.

Velasco said his life was saved by a soldier who carried him away from a massacre even though a higher-ranking officer wanted to kill him.

“I remember a specialist [soldier], a man who, in spite of the war and all the things they did, there were good people,” Velasco recalled. “One day the specialist put me in a tractor tyre and rolled me away, and that saved my life.”

A forensic expert, Mario David García, said the bodies of pregnant women were found among the victims of massacres who were disinterred years later.

The former dictator has remained almost completely silent during the years of proceedings against him, but his lawyers have said there is no clear evidence of his responsibility for the crimes committed by Guatemalan troops.

Coming Clean on the Dirty War:
José Efraín Rios Montt Goes to Trial

Mac Margolis / The Daily Beast

(March 29, 2013) — Stooped and white-haired, the generalissimo isn’t what he used to be. In the conflicted history of Latin America, where political upheaval and state violence reached staggering proportions, the early 1980s in Guatemala stand apart.

This was the time when security forces answering to military men unleashed a brutal offensive against left-wing guerrillas and their perceived fellow travelers. Independent investigators later concluded that some 1,700 people from several indigenous groups were killed in the 17-month counterinsurgency between 1981 and 1982 — unarmed men, women, and children among them.

Though Guatemala has since made the transition from dictatorship to democracy, the memory of such barbarity is an open wound for this Central American nation of 14.1 million. Now all eyes in the hemisphere are on the supreme court in Guatemala City, where former strongman Gen. José Efraín Rios Montt stands accused of waging what may be the dirtiest chapter of Latin America’s dirty wars, capping a civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives from 1960 to 1996.

“As horrific as it got in the Americas, the killing in Guatemala was just off the charts,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy think tank.

The trial under Chief Justice Jazmín Barrios, which began March 19, is expected to drag on for weeks and maybe months, but already is stirring comment across the globe. Rios Montt, 86, is the first former head of state ever to be tried in his own country for actions committed during his rule.

The now stooped, white-haired general and his former military intelligence chief, José Maurício Rodriguez Sanchez, stand accused of genocide and “crimes against humanity,” offenses for which there is no statute of limitations and that are not covered by the blanket amnesty for combatants, signed in 1996.

Guatemalan prosecutors charge that the generalissimo waged a campaign to wipe out the Ixil-Maya and three other indigenous communities thought at the time to be in league with Marxist rebels in the countryside. They built their arguments on the word of witnesses and survivors, who told their harrowing stories to United Nations investigators ten years ago. Many described unspeakable atrocities, including cases of victims who were tortured and burned alive.

Observers judge these few months as the worst moment in the 36-year civil war that turned this nation on the tropical Central American isthmus into a killing ground. It still roils the region to this day. The case against Rios Montt is the centerpiece of the recently inaugurated Central American Archives, a vast collection on the years of repression, backed by millions of digitalized documents, images, and depositions, housed in Guatemala City.

In a time of relative peace, stability, and sweeping democratic renewal across the region, such brutal tales seem out of place. But not long ago the Americas were seething with ideologically inflected violence. That the victims of the dirty wars are getting their day in court is especially significant in Guatemala, where the powerful military lobby fought — and many battle-weary citizens agreed — to turn the page on the bloodshed in the name of national healing and reconciliation.

The outcome is likely to have ripple effects through a region that only now is coming to terms with one of the darkest periods in recent memory.

There is plenty to reconcile. More than 3,000 people were killed under Chilean general Augusto Pinochet, who toppled a democratically elected government in 1973 and clung to power until 1990. An estimated 30,000 died at the hands of Argentina’s ruling junta from 1976 to 1983, while as many as 69,000 Peruvians were killed by state security forces or terrorist groups between 1980 and 2000.

Latin America is in varied stages of truth-telling about its collective past. Peru is completing work on a Memory Museum to the victims of the 20-year conflict between hardline government troops and Maoist Shining Path terrorists. Each side shares nearly equal blame for the two decades of bloodletting, according to a 2003 report by a high-level fact-finding committee.

Driving the reckoning is the redemocratization of Latin America. The armed forces have returned to their barracks.

In 2010, Chile inaugurated its own Museum of Memory and Human Rights [See story below] in homage to those who were tortured and “disappeared” under the rule of General Pinochet.

A Brazilian truth commission is currently poring over the archives on torture and state-sponsored murders during the 1964-to-1985 dictatorship, though a general-amnesty law in 1979 shields most culprits form criminal prosecution.

Argentina has gone further, and recently began hearing criminal cases against dozens of former leaders of the military junta who during just seven years allegedly killed, kidnapped, tortured, and “disappeared” tens of thousands of dissidents and ordinary citizens believed to be state enemies. These trials are the fruit of a legislative reform that rescinded earlier amnesty laws exempting many dirty warriors from criminal liability.

Driving the reckoning is the redemocratization of Latin America. The armed forces have returned to their barracks. Some of the worst strongmen are retired or behind bars, such as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year sentence for human-rights abuses and corruption.

Disgraced by the bloody dictatorship and after the disastrous 1982 invasion of the British-controlled Falklands/Malvinas islands, the once untouchable Argentine armed forces are now on the dock. Free, if flawed, elections are the rule across the region. Even popular autocrats — in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador — must answer to voters increasingly attuned to their civil rights and the rule of law.

“A few years ago this would have been inconceivable. The alignment of political forces in Latin America just wouldn’t have allowed it,” says Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. “The truth-seeking and criminal trials are signs of political maturity and stability, with tremendous repercussions for the entire region.”

Not everyone in Latin America is pleased. A group of Rios Montt supporters marched on the Supreme Court Building in Guatemala City this week waving signs declaring “There Was No Genocide” and demanding “Respect and Dignity for the Armed Forces.” But they numbered just two dozen in all and barely disturbed the workday bustle of the national capital.

Among the discontents is the sitting president of Guatemala, retired general Otto Pérez Molina, who helped wage the counterinsurgency in the 1980s and refutes charges of genocide.

Tellingly, though, Pérez Molina, who was elected in 2011 and immediately called for a national reconciliation, has done nothing to interfere with the investigations and declined to condemn the trial against his former commander. In a country torn apart by bloodshed and recrimination, that alone speaks volumes.

A longtime correspondent for Newsweek, Mac Margolis has traveled extensively in Brazil and Latin America. He has contributed to The Economist, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.

The Art of Darkness:
In Latin America, Honoring Victims of the Dirty Wars Can Be a Political Act

The Daily Beast

SANTIAGO (March 31, 2010) — The new Chilean President, Sebastián Piñera, has his work cut out for him, and temblors and tsunamis may be just the beginning. In January, a month before the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that shook this South American nation, outgoing president Michelle Bachelet inaugurated the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.

She dedicated the sleek, glass- and copper-sheathed building to the victims of the dirty war, the thousands of Chileans who were murdered, tortured, or “disappeared” during the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

“Only injuries thoroughly cleaned can heal,” Bachelet, a physician by training, said at the opening. Visitors to the three-story gallery take in halls of silent horrors — snapshots, letters, even the bones of the dead — and come face to face with a wall of 1,000 photos of those arrested and never seen again.

But poking wounds is risky, especially in Latin America, where some of the worst human-rights atrocities are just coming to light. Now Piñera must help Chileans not only get back on their feet but also quiet their ghosts.

Chile is not the only country in Latin America seeking to reconcile its past. Peru will name the architect to build its Lugar de la Memória later this year. Plans to open or upgrade human-rights museums are underway in Guatemala, Argentina, and Mexico. At one level, these are monuments to renascent democracy, which was shut down across Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, with devastating consequences.

Some 3,065 people were killed under Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. Ten times that many fell to serial juntas in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, while 70,000 Peruvians were killed by terrorist groups or state security forces between 1980 and 2000.

Remembering victims publicly is not new — think Holocaust museums, or South Africa’s Apartheid Museum — nor is the laudable claim behind such memorials: that societies must own up to their darkest hour so as never to repeat it. What’s different — and dangerous — about Latin America is how fresh the wounds are. “The Holocaust memorials went up when most of the victims and perpetrators were long gone,” says Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman. “In Latin America, they’re walking in our midst.”

Managing memories is now part of the job description of the new generation of Latin American leaders, and how they fare at the task may determine the fate of the hemisphere’s still-tender democracies. Clearly, the monuments have been painstakingly planned. A jury of international architects, including Kenneth Frampton and Rafael Moneo, will select the designer of the Peru museum.

Chile’s $19 million Memory Museum, designed by Brazilian architect Marcos Figueroa, dominates an entire block in Santiago. Argentina’s Memory Museum, newly relocated to the city of Rosario, includes exhibits from the dirty wars in Honduras, Algeria, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans.

Some offer interactive galleries where visitors can transport themselves, via “virtual” technology, to the past, and all feature personal effects, letters, and photographs of those who died or disappeared.

At their best, these museums are an attempt to inoculate societies against their basest inclinations. “We must consolidate a democratic culture that can save us from fanaticism and drive home [the idea] that terror cannot be combated with terror,” says Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist who heads the planning group for the Peruvian museum.

The danger is that remembering turns into a political banner, reviving historical animosities and institutionalizing an ideological battle over who controls memory. “In Latin America this is not a disinterested process, much less an effort to work at forgiveness,” says Brazilian political analyst Amaury de Souza. “It’s a struggle over who gets to write history.”

More than posterity is at stake. Memory museums are the latest cultural spinoff of the truth-seeking probes that arose with the resurgence of Latin American democracy. Rival political groups have seized on these initiatives to replay smoldering conflicts. Mexico’s memory museum, to open later this year, is the work of opponents to the PRI, the longstanding establishment party that kept a lid on the political archives for more than half a century.

In Chile, the center-left political coalition Concertación parlayed the launch of the Memory Museum into a campaign tool to demonize Piñera — who didn’t show up for the opening — for his onetime ties to the Pinochet regime.

Across the region, left-wing parties and human-rights groups are arguing that the work of the truth commissions should not end at the museum doors, but should embolden authorities to prosecute the perpetrators. Those on the right decry what they see as a political lynching; one Brazilian general recently labeled the government plan to investigate crimes during the 1964–1985 military rule “the slander commission.”

The main reason the Peruvian government drafted Vargas Llosa for the museum project was to leverage his international prestige and moderate politics to soothe raw nerves in the military, which — with the blessings of the national defense minister — threatened to start a museum of its own. “Reconciliation is only going to occur if all sides see that they are represented with objectivity,” says Vargas Llosa.

Ultimately, the outcome of the museum movement will depend on the diplomatic skill of the national leaders. “It’s naive to think you could remember without creating tension,” says Adelman. “The question is how civil the debate is going to be, and whether there’s going to be violence.”

That’s something Chileans remember only too well. Piñera, an avowed conservative, took office enjoining his battered compatriots to “rise up and work for the future.” To get there, however, they will first have to come to terms with the past.

With Lucy Conger.

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