The Left’s Cold War Revenge in Guatemala
The history behind an absurd court ruling that Gen. Rios Montt is guilty of genocide.
By now even casual readers of Latin American news know that a Guatemalan court has ruled Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide against the Ixil Indians during the 16 months from March 1982 to August 1983 that he was the country’s head of state. More difficult to learn from ubiquitous press reports is how far the narrative used to convict the 86-year-old Mr. Ríos Montt departs from reality.
The 36-year war between communist guerrillas and the Guatemalan state that ended with peace agreements in 1996 was bloody and torturous. Both sides committed atrocities. Thousands died. Indians and mixed-race Guatemalans living in rural areas experienced the brunt of the violence.
Yet the claim that the Guatemalan state, led by the general, engaged in genocide—that is, an attempt to destroy totally or partially the Ixil people or displace them—is not supported by the facts. On the contrary, a serious reading of the history suggests that the general bested the guerrillas by empowering those Indians who did not want anything to do with the upper-middle-class ideas of revolution that were being foisted on them. The trial of Mr. Ríos Montt, 30 years after the fact, is more a score-settling exercise by the international left than a search for truth and justice.
Some years back I interviewed a Guatemalan who had infiltrated the rebels during the conflict. He described their military strategy copied from the Viet Cong: It relied on embedding guerrillas among isolated populations, spreading indoctrination, enlisting young teenagers as soldiers, and forcing entire communities to get on board with the collectivist struggle. In areas of the country where the state had no presence, like the Ixil Triangle, that wasn’t hard to do.
These rural regions became havens from which terrorists planned, prepared and executed attacks on the rest of the country. By 1982, having watched Nicaragua fall to the Sandinistas a few years earlier, the guerrillas thought they were close to victory. Then Mr. Ríos Montt came on the scene.
In his meticulously researched two volume book “Guatemala, The Silenced History 1944-1989” (Fondo de Cultura Economicó, 2007, Spanish only), Francisco Marroquin University historian Carlos Sabino cites a key Ríos Montt counterinsurgency document known as Victoria 82. He writes that “the military strategy set as principle objectives ‘to deny the subversives access to the civilian population,’ to reclaim those [who had joined the] guerrilla ‘where possible’ and ‘to eliminate subversives who did not want to disarm.'”
The tragedy was that the guerrilla strategy had brought the war to the Ixil lands in order to use the civilians. When the army, bent on rooting out the terror, followed, the population was forced to take sides or be caught in the crossfire. That’s why so many died.
Some army units, often made up of ethnic Indians, did indeed engage in massacres, village burning and the destruction of crops. This happened “without a doubt, in various places, especially in parts of the Quiché [region] when the army thought that the local population supported the guerrilla,” according to Mr. Sabino. But it was “in no way a policy of the state nor a war strategy,” he explains, because it would have been directly contrary to solving the problem as it was diagnosed.
Such attacks “provok[ed] the flight of the peasants who then remained at the mercy of the guerrilla,” Mr. Sabino writes. The army wanted to keep the peasants from being “unprotected and isolated,” and when exercising official policy it “brought food to the zones that had been devastated by the conflict and reconstructed local infrastructure.”
A majority of army commanders understood very well that “they could not win the war putting themselves against the local populations,” Mr. Sabino writes. The army gave weapons to locals including Ixiles who wanted to resist the guerrillas and helped organize civilian defense patrols (PACs). A former rebel leader told Mr. Sabino that “The PACs were deadly for the guerrilla.”
The peace accords granted amnesty for both sides but the hard left had not given up. It believed that the charge of genocide was a way to get revenge. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, well known for her leftist sympathies, led the charge. Word has it that center-right President Otto Pérez Molina was convinced that Guatemala would be viewed in a more favorable light internationally if the general was prosecuted. Certainly that has been true at the United Nations, where so-called human-rights experts are applauding the conviction. But human-rights experts at the U.N. also come from places like China, Cuba and Syria.
In the trial, the prosecution presented the testimony of numerous Indians who had been victims of the violence. But their stories could not prove genocide.
Neither did the prosecution’s “experts,” mostly foreigners of the leftist persuasion who were not actually witnesses to any alleged acts of genocide. They were used to advance the prosecution’s case that the army strategy “to exterminate” subversives was the same thing as an attempt to “exterminate” the Ixil people.
The absurdity of this has not been lost on many Guatemalans, including Gustavo Porras, a former guerrilla intellectual. He signed a letter, with others, calling the charge “a legal fabrication” and asserting that it could threaten the peace.
Ixil people and others from the region who still view Mr. Ríos Montt as a hero have been holding protests against the verdict. It’s not the first time they’ve shown support for him.
When he ran for president in 2003, he lost. But in the three municipalities of the Ixil Triangle, he not only beat 10 other candidates but perhaps more important trounced former guerrilla leader Rodrigo Asturias 13,451 to 1,202. That hasn’t been reported in the international press much, if at all, either.