Guatemala Trials

photo by Johan Ordonez, AFP News via ABC news

Photo by Johan Ordonez, AFP News via ABC News

Rios Montt, ex-president of Guatemala, was recently convicted of genocide in the 1980’s against Maya villagers who lived in the north of the country near Mexico. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the verdict ten days later, saying that the violence stemmed from warfare between Marxist guerrillas and the army, not genocide against the Maya. Nevertheless, the civil war killed 200,000 people and lasted 36 years.

I took a few trips to Guatemala in the 80’s and early 90’s. Fear gripped the countryside.  (The violence mostly affected the indigenous Maya population, not travelers like me.) The war also perpetuated cholera epidemics that claimed many more lives.

Much of the violence stemmed from the Cold War. The U.S. government feared that leftist guerrillas, who sheltered in the highlands and jungles with the desperately poor Maya, would overthrow the Guatemalan government and give the Soviets another foothold in Latin America. The United States funded (off and on) various governments and “extrajudicial forces” not only in Guatemala, but also in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador during this time.

I was never more relieved to have my American passport than when a truckload of soldiers would raid my favorite bar in Antigua and take young local men away to the army if their papers weren’t in order. Those raids were also a good reason not to carry drugs or weapons.

Eventually, an uneasy peace accord was reached in most of these countries, except for Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, overthrew the government. The U.S. funded the “Contras” to overthrow him, in violation of our own laws. (See “Oliver North.”) Ortega lost an election in 1990, and then got reelected in 2007, and is president of Nicaragua now.

The mass killing has stopped in Guatemala, but the uneasy peace accord has failed to bring the poor, rural population into the mainstream of national government.

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