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Guatemala apology belated but welcome

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There were many massacres of innocent people in Central America during the geo-political wars of the early 1980s. They were mostly carried out by the armies of nation-states, although some massacres and many assassinations were conducted by the guerrillas fighting the state. The wars of the 1980s pitted the political organizations and then insurgent armies of the left against the worst of death squads and counter-insurgency armies of the right -- which, in their war footing, killed civilians wantonly and with impunity.

The worst of the worst happened in Guatemala. Perhaps as many as 200,000 Guatemalans died over three decades of civil wars. Between 1978 and 1986 more than 400 whole villages of Indians were razed to the ground. Tens of thousands were massacred. As the war between left and right intensified and repression became unbearable any guerrilla activity in the area would taint the innocent and mark them for death, so increasing numbers of Indians joined the insurgency. The military responded with a campaign of terror against isolated Native Maya villages that was nothing short of genocidal. While such massacres occurred to some degree in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the scale of brutality directed against families and whole communities was much broader in Guatemala.

Nowhere else was a whole ethnicity singled out for state terror. In other countries in the region, a social activist might be pursued and murdered by a death squad. But in Guatemala old people, women and children were also targeted. Whole communities were completely destroyed. Large-scale helicopter and foot patrol operations cut in wide swaths through the central highlands. Where millions of Maya live in humble but largely well-tended rural communities, the state armies massacred whole villages at will. Rape and pillage became common and then the specific instances of extreme sadism scandalized international human rights organizations. Perhaps no population in the Americas in recent years has suffered terror such as was experienced by Guatemalan highland Maya villages in the early 1980s.

The most intense onslaught was under the regime of a messianic (and mysteriously popular) evangelical general, now a leading Senator, named Efrain Rios Montt. Scorched earth hardly begins to describe the scale of mayhem in the season of 1982, where in various instances village adults were divided in half, and all their children were tied together and doused with gasoline. Under fear for the burning of their children, one group of adults, mostly relatives, was forced to club to death the other group. Those who documented such cases later tell of a ritual of permission and forgiveness followed by these desperate Maya villagers forced to kill their kin in order to save their children. The trauma and wretched sense of guilt permeates all of these families to this day.

While the war abated in the late 1980s and came to its necessary conclusion, the truth of the period and the terrible reality of what befell those culturally-rich and peaceful mountain villages has only recently been formally recognized. Now, innocent victims and survivors of one of the many instances of state terror have received direct recognition, including significant financial compensation, from the Guatemalan president. This belated and unexpected acceptance of state guilt and responsibility is completely welcome.

President Alfonso Portillo paid this first, though possibly symbolic, compensation to survivors of a massacre of at least 226 (some sources say more than 300) men, women and children murdered by soldiers and paramilitaries in the village of Las Dos Erres in 1982. Portillo actually apologized for what he called "shameful acts" committed by the country's security forces. The Guatemalan president turned over a check for $1.8 million to the families of those killed. Referring to the apology as an historical message, the president said, "Today it's down to me to humbly ask all the victims of Las Dos Erres for forgiveness."

Indian country should take note of this long-awaited recognition of responsibility by the Guatemalan government for the horror it inflicted on so many innocent citizens. While Portillo's close ties to Senator Rios Montt are clear -- a reality that necessarily taints his intent -- the apology is much in order. Former president Bill Clinton issued a similar apology to the Guatemalan people in 1999, recognizing as well the role played by the American government in the horrible violence. At that time, under then President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. provided huge amounts of military hardware to the brutal army and refused to acknowledge any human rights abuses in Guatemala, which, according to Reagan, was "getting a bum rap."

It is a mark of great human and cultural resiliency that the Guatemala Maya people have sustained and are, in fact, in the midst of a vigorous movement to reclaim their own space in the political life of their country. While Guatemala is beset with criminal delinquency and official intimidation of leaders working on land issues still happens frequently, Indian literature, newspapers and radio programming in Mayan languages are flourishing. Many town mayors and local elected officials are now emerging from the Indian base. A majority population gifted with a strong work ethic, the Maya are gradually again gaining in education and social organization. While the future is not easily theirs, certainly the day of being whipped by patrons in the haciendas (common through the 1980s) must be gone. The Maya are a gentle giant awakening to their economic and political potential.

It is heartening to see our brothers and sisters in Guatemala gain a measure of understanding for their horrible suffering. Preferably, the beautiful and time-tested values that inform their remarkable and resilient culture will be increasingly recognized as a great human asset in that suffering country. Barring new genocidal campaigns against their communities, the Maya of Guatemala will flourish once again.