Guatemala, with one the hemisphere's highest percentages of Indians, was also the site of a brutal decades-long civil war that culminated in actual genocide against the indigenous majority just 20 years ago. Since Guatemala's return to democracy and subsequent peace accords, Maya Indians have continued to press demands for truth and justice as the only path to true reconciliation.
Guerilla movements had persisted against Guatemala's military dictatorship ever since the early 1960s. But the movement didn't seriously threaten the regime until it was embraced by the Maya in the highland departments of El Quiche, Huehuetengango and Alta Verapaz. The turning point was a May 1978 massacre of over 100 Indians petitioning for land rights at the village of Panzos, Alta Verapaz. After this, Maya support quickly grew for the Guerilla Army of the Poor (EGP), and demands for indigenous autonomy were adopted by the formerly rigid Marxist-Leninist leadership. Village loyalties switched from the government to the EGP, and the mountains became unsafe for army patrols.
Fearing that they were losing control of a big chunk of the national territory, Guatemala's generals responded with a "scorched earth" campaign, in which hundreds of villages were burned, the inhabitants forced into military-controlled "model villages." Some 20,000 were killed and over a million displaced in the campaign, which climaxed in the early 1980s.
An international outcry over the slaughter helped spark Guatemala's return to democracy in 1986. But guerilla resistance, while greatly diminished, persisted into the 1990s. The EGP only formally laid down arms in 1996, in exchange for land for demobilized guerillas and government pledges to respect human rights and address indigenous concerns. Since then, indigenous organizations have continued to struggle to meaningfully instate the peace accords, and come to terms with the violent past.
Rigoberta Mench?, a Quich? Maya woman who was drawn into the resistance struggle after most of her family was killed by the military, formed the National Coordinator of Guatemalan Widows in 1988, and became the country's foremost voice pressuring the government on human rights and demilitarization of Indian lands. In 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Guatemala remained dangerous for those who persisted on probing into the past. In 1998, Bishop Juan Jos? Girardi, leading an investigation into 1980s human rights abuses, was assassinated by unknown assailants. The following year, U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the country, and publicly apologized for U.S. complicity in "widespread repression."
That same year, 1999, saw a national referendum on indigenous rights and autonomy, as mandated by the 1996 peace accords. The package of 50 constitutional reforms included recognition of the rights of the Maya peoples to conduct local government in indigenous languages, establish a community-based judiciary rooted in traditional conflict-resolution customs, practice their religion and have access to sacred lands. It would also limit the military presence on indigenous lands.
The May referendum was defeated by less than 1 percent - with less than 20 percent of the country's 4 million eligible voters participating. Commentators blamed the low turnout on an inadequate effort to publicize and explain the referendum, especially in marginalized Indian regions. "The referendum result... confirms that the peace process still has powerful opponents within Guatemala," read a statement on the vote by the Washington office on Latin America.
Guatemala's Anthropological and Forensic Foundation continues to investigate the massacres of indigenous people perpetrated by the country's military forces in the late 1970s and early '80s - as well as the "disappearance" of thousands of dissidents throughout the years of dictatorship. In 1999, a UN Truth Commission found the Guatemalan security forces to be responsible for 94 percent of the human rights violations that occurred during the war, and rebuked the U.S. for its close ties to the military regimes that ran Guatemala.
In a highly-publicized case which finally brought world attention to the grisly human rights climate in Guatemala, the Western Hemisphere's highest international court issued an historic ruling against that country's military forces. In December 2000, after deliberating for several years, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) found the Guatemalan military guilty of secret detention, torture, extrajudicial execution and obstruction of justice in the case of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a Maya guerilla leader who was captured by the Guatemalan army in 1992 - and secretly held and tortured at a clandestine prison for over a year. His case was but one of many, but his wife, Jennifer Harbury, was a U.S. citizen and an attorney, who engaged in lengthy hunger strikes in both Guatemala and Washington in an effort to save his life. In 1995, following Congressional hearings, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) confirmed Bamaca's extrajudicial execution at the hands of Guatemalan military officials - one of them a paid CIA informant, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez.
On an April 2001 visit to Spain, Rigoberta Mench? called for "an ad hoc tribunal to judge crimes against humanity committed in Latin America as we see in ex-Yugoslavia or in Rwanda." She specifically called for charges against those responsible for crimes committed by the dictatorships of Guatemala, Chile and Argentina, calling these "three paradigmatic cases."
"In Guatemala, where there have been 200,000 deaths or disappearances, the most important thing now is that evidence of genocide not be lost," said Menchu, who was in Spain to receive an honorary degree from the University of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. She said there could be no justice for war crimes under Guatemala's judicial system, and called upon survivors of the genocide to "prepare our legal complaints in anticipation the day that we have a legitimate tribunal."