September 10, 2007
Juan Herrera wields an infectiously heartwarming smile, but he wasn’t quite born with it.
The 66-year-old Guatemalan peasant’s prosthetic teeth, which replace those lost in an army-led torture session in the early 1980s, are but one weapon in a growing movement against military leaders that ordered the massacre and burning of his and hundreds of other villages. Herrera also uses his personal testimony of survival.
Herrera belongs to a coalition of Maya massacre survivors and activists called the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR). In addition to spearheading anti-impunity street protests, conducting human rights trainings and educating the world about the extreme violence perpetrated by the state against indigenous Guatemalans in the 1980s and 90s, the AJR has also initiated legal proceedings against the architects of that genocide.
Until December 1996, under the auspices of quelling a guerrilla insurgency, state-led violence resulted in the death and disappearance of upwards of 200,000 individuals, the overwhelming majority of whom were Maya peasants.
Although the AJR’s legal cases (which charge ex-president Efrain Rios Montt and several other military and political officials with genocide and crimes against humanity) have stalled since their initial filing some seven years ago, last month they scored a significant victory.
On July 19, the Guatemalan First Court of Appeals denied a motion filed by Rios Montt–who oversaw the grisliest era of the genocide and appears poised for reelection to Congress in September–ruling that secret military documents that he sought to withhold from the public must indeed be submitted as evidence in the AJR’s case against him.
According to the decision, the Ministry of Defense must provide to the court copies of these clandestine army plans for the attorney general’s use in investigating the charges levied by the AJR against Rios Montt.
WireTap met up with Herrera to ask about his capture and subsequent torture by the army, the AJR’s campaign for justice, Rios Montt’s scheme to maintain impunity and the link between the genocide and free trade.
This is the final installment of a four-part series of interviews with AJR activists.
WT: Why are you a part of the struggle to demand justice for genocide?
Herrera: During the conflict–from 1980 to1982 or 1983–our community suffered a lot of repression from the army. The military arrived to massacre us three separate times. Our people had to leave to defend our lives. Because the army had scorched our land, they had destroyed all of our goods: our homes, our corn, our horses and cows, everything that we had. The homes remained completely burnt down. There was nothing and nowhere to live. We left for the mountains to defend our lives.