In a courtroom in Guatemala City, a gray-haired man sits passively through the trial of the century for the Central American country.
At 86, the former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt has escaped this criminal scrutiny for decades. Now, along with another notorious general, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, he stands accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Specifically, of orchestrating the murder of nearly 1,800 indigenous people and the forced displacement of 29,000 more. The tallies are an astounding amount of suffering for his 17-month reign in the early 1980s.
Since mid-March, dozens of Ixil people, indigenous Mayans of, have taken the witness stand to describe the Guatemalan military’s campaign of extermination against them. They tell of watching families burned alive as their homes were torched, of beheadings and body parts thrown into rivers. Women were raped before being shot to death, and toddlers were hacked up with machetes.
Most North Americans are unaware of the trial, and of the man at the center of it. Sadly, that’s not surprising. Most of us were oblivious when the atrocities occurred. And we remain unmoved by the fact that U.S. military shipments helped Rios Montt inflict his scored earth campaign.
The U.S. provided aid to the Guatemalan military during periods of the country’s 36-year civil war, in which at least 200,000 people died and more than 45,000 disappeared before peace accords were signed in 1996.
How did Rios Montt for so long escape trial for his alleged atrocities? Ousted by a coup, he ran for Guatemala’s Congress. He only recently lost his immunity when his term ended.
All of this might seem like distant proceedings except that Guatemala’s indigenous are also part of more recent U.S. headlines.
Recall the massive 2008 immigration raid — the largest ever at the time — at a kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa. The majority of those arrested were Guatemalans, rounded up like cattle and “processed” for deportation. The abuses were many, and the resulting backlash actually led to reforms in U.S. immigration policy.
One little-known but revealing aspect of the raid was that the Spanish translators provided by the U.S. government were of little use. Many of the Guatemalans were indigenous and spoke different dialects. Spanish was their second language, and most could neither read nor write it. Some were members of the same families that suffered most during Guatemala's civil war.
North Americans often miss these connections, the ways our lives intertwine with events and places far from our frame of reference.
I became aware of one such connection about 10 years ago while wandering through ruins in the highlands of Guatemala. A Mayan woman was there selling intricately embroidered textiles. We struck up a conversation, Spanish being a second language for both of us. She was excited to find out I was from the Midwest.
She pulled out a scrap of paper, a U.S. phone number was penciled on it: 816-761.... My heart skipped, the digits were so familiar. It turned out that her husband was living a few miles from my childhood home in south Kansas City.
Many Americans like to fancy our nation as the injured party when it comes to illegal immigration. They imagine that these immigrants are little more than a bunch of parasitic lawbreakers trying to take something from us. Some ask why the “failed states” to the south of us can't look after their own citizens?
Why indeed? As the Mayan survivors in that courtroom tell their stories, we’d do well to remember that our nation has been more involved in their tragedy than many of us are willing to admit.
MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.