Who Says There Was No Genocide? -- Guatemala Dictator on Trial

Who Says There Was No Genocide? -- Guatemala Dictator on Trial

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GUATEMALA CITY - When the judge called his name, 70-year-old Tiburcio Utuy, wearing a yellow nylon jacket and looking determined, entered through tall wooden doors to face former Guatemala strongman Gen. José Efraín Rios Montt, charged with genocide. On a global scale the process is historic, the first time a former head of state stands trial for the flagrant crime in the national courts where events took place, not an international tribunal. On the scale of the life of Tiburcio Utuy, Maya corn farmer, the day was a reckoning so long in coming he talked non-stop for an hour.

“Who says there was no genocide?” asked Utuy of the tribunal. He was referring to the often cited assessment of the Rios Montt years by Pres. Otto Perez, who served as a base commander at the time in the mountainous area known as the Ixil Triangle, home to indigenous Maya where prosecutors say the genocide took place. Still hours by road from the capital, the region was considered home of an “internal enemy” according to one military planning paper, Maya supporting leftist guerrillas.

“The shoes, the belts were piled two meters high and wide, you could see the traces of people who had been killed there,” Utuy said, describing a room alongside the Catholic church in the town of Sacapulas, appropriated by soldiers for a torture chamber and body dump, where Utuy said he was held in 1982. “They tied me up and left me sitting in blood.”

After four weeks of testimony, on April 18 a judge in a separate court granted the request of the defense to annul the trial in a judgement based on a technicality. An appeal is expected. "You are mocking the witnesses," said a prosecution attorney in a small, crowded meeting room amid a crush of press and the under the eyes of silent Maya, some elderly.

"The victims are the accused," said the defense.

The decision muddies the immediate prosecution of the genocide crime, but there is no taking back the information that has flooded the country.  A dozen forensic anthropologists have reported on exhumations indicating violent deaths of children, mass beheadings. A geographer testified to the unraveling of Maya Ixil culture among thousands who fled from the army into wildlands, who ate grass and watched their elderly starve, or straggled into refugee camps in Mexico. Expert witnesses testified on military plans, the history of racism in Guatemala, the statistical analysis used to arrive at numbers of dead.

It has been the testimony of witnesses like Tiburcio Utuy, however, that has reverberated through every other hour of the trial. Prosecutors must prove Rios intended to eliminate people because of their membership in a particular group, Ixil Maya, in order to bring in a guilty verdict. However, refrain of suffering and brutality created by more than a hundred voices is likely to resound in the public memory no matter what the decision on the genocide charge against the general and his co-defendant, intelligence chief Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.

“They caught up to the woman and they struck her in the head with a machete and dragged her like a dog,” said Utuy of a scene he said he saw while hiding from soldiers. Experts have testified that racism toward the majority indigenous was key to slaughter in Maya villages, which occurred in the context of counterinsurgency against leftist rebels relatively small in number. Many recalled experience in terms referring to animals. “"Just as chicks run from hawks, that's what they did to us. Why? If we are human beings?” said witness Maria Cedillo.

Ten women who testified to sexual violence were allowed to drape their heads, partially obscuring their identity. They used traditional woven stoles to hide faces, recalling biblical images of lepers.
Some two hundred thousand persons died in Guatemala’s thirty-six years of conflict that ended in 1996, mostly civilians at government hands according to a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission. The United States government supported Rios Montt with military aid and the personal approbation of Pres. Ronald Reagan, who publicly admired Rios’ declared anti-Communism and visited Guatemala City to declare the general was getting “a bum rap.”

“I tell you judges, I’m not lying,” Utuy said. “What guilt did the baby have still in the womb of the mother?” Witnesses testified that soldiers attacked pregnant women. “I saw this,” Utuy said. Soldiers regularly burned houses, an apparent attempt to erase standing patterns of settlement. When a clay house in his village resisted destruction by fire, Utuy said, soldiers killed those inside, piling clothes, bags and blankets on the dead and set the heap alight.

At one moment in the generally somber proceedings, Utuy surprised onlookers by rising to his feet. ‘I’m not lying, look, here are my scars,” he said, lifting his shirt and lowering his belt.

Judges, two women and a man, stared down from the dias. Soldiers had tied Utuy’s feet and head together to expose his stomach, he said, during torture.

"’Ay, what pain!’ I said. What suffering I felt at that moment when my intestines fell to the floor,” he said. He replaced them with his hands, he said.

Some witnesses have been unable to relate their experience without faltering voices, others respond briefly. Tiburcio Utuy was not exuberant, but he would not let his day in court slip by with less than fulsome expression.

“What I experienced, the suffering I felt, what the military did to me, I am telling this to the whole world,” he said.

Mary Jo McConahay has reported from Central America for numerous publications. She is the author of "Maya Roads, One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest."