Guatemalans Seek Redress in Spanish Court

Guatemalans Seek Redress in Spanish Court

Guatemalans Seek Redress in Spanish Court

As Americans consider who to choose as their next President, Guatemalan Mayans seek justice for Reagan-era atrocities.


On Super Tuesday, when Americans were deciding who would get the power to kill or spare millions, a group of Guatemalan Mayan campesinos went to Madrid, on a civilizing mission.

They were there to testify about the US-sponsored Guatemalan officers who, in the 1970s and 1980s, murdered their families, and came out on top as rich men, drug dealers, US embassy consultants and Harvard fellows.

It’s not as if you can bring back the dead wives, missing kids, or shot-in-the-cerebrum husbands, or even sufficiently punish the guilty, who now grin in elegant Zona Cinco pools and in MacLean, Virginia, homes with lawns. They still twirl power and walk around, uncuffed, in polite society.

But you can, as one of the mountain corn farmers observed, “Capture them, imprison them. That’s sufficient.” It is generous of him, since they butchered his dear ones, friends and animals, and burnt his gut till his intestines spilled out. To the great credit of Spain’s judiciary they were willing to let him try.

Before the Spanish court, one of the surviving Mayans ended his testimony by standing up at the judge’s desk and asking for his land back.

How much land was it? I asked him last night. Less than five acres, corn land.

But after all these years, he still wants it back, and wants to leave it to a surviving son.

When the army of his homeland entered his village they burned the three-room schoolhouse (“They stole the roof!”) and cut and crushed the drinkable-water pipes. And as they raped, throat-sliced, and trigger-pulled their way through, they forced people onto the mountain–dodging US-arranged Israeli Galil bullets as they clambered upward, toward life.

They left behind land–which, in theory, is recoverable; the man was raising a fundamental point–but also much that cannot be gotten back, like a life without tormenting memories.

Speaking publicly in Spain , a very brave man from the Mayan highlands remarked that when he returned to his mother’s house once the US-backed Guatemalan army had gotten through with it, he found that his entire family had been “carbonized,” i.e., burnt carbon-black and crispy.

Soon after, the US sent more money (and other things) to that very army, perhaps pioneering–under Reagan–the first known application of the “carbon credits” concept.

There was another time, for example, a woman recounted just now, that she snuck down from the mountain and found that “all that was left were the dogs, barking in the houses.”

Outside, elsewhere, there were fires, bad smells, smoke, some crying, still-living children, as well as her own mother, dead–dead as a result of policy.

“There arrived a great sadness, a great pain,” she said, “a pain that remains until this moment.”

She said that she had carried that two-decade torment to Spain and that on this formal, legal, occasion, “This is the moment that we take out our pain,” and seek justice from society.

This is a case of torture, state terrorism and genocide–and international arrest warrants have been issued–but the big, tough generals who once could answer the question (posed by the conservative Guatemalan daily El Grafico (May 17, 1982), “How is it possible to behead an 8- or 9-year-old child? How is it possible for a human adult to murder in cold blood a baby of less than a year and a half?” are now afraid to fly to Madrid and face the parents of the kids they consumed while pocketing cash from Langley. (Grafico referred to the massacre of Semeja II, Chichicastenango, but in all, according to army records, 662 villages were destroyed, and perhaps 120,000 civilians were murdered in a place with the population of New York City).

They’re afraid because there’s been something like a tear in the fabric of the political universe and, somehow, as in one of those anomalies of quantum physics, there has emerged–in this world–a stray particle of civilization: a legal forum perhaps willing to enforce the murder laws, even against high officials.

Not yet too high, mind you. There are not yet American names on the defendants list. But as we say in the sports which American guys love, its not over till its over.

The case is in Spain’s Audiencia Nacional (National Court), which, operating on the principle “We’re all people here,” is exercising its right under international law to try atrocity cases involving non-Spaniards.

Imagine if that precedent caught on. Super Tuesday’s US primary might be awkward, as candidates and advisers dodged the cops, were pressed to sign pledges to stop murdering and were asked by the press to explain their own pasts–vis-à-vis killing civilians, not trivia–and to explain their bipartisan ideological softness on official crime.

In this particular US-killing matter, one of dozens from around the world, the Republicans’ patron saint is Ronald Reagan, so beloved by the Guatemalan leaders who slaughtered the Mayans (and others) that they hung ten-foot portraits of him in their homes as he sent them CIA men, surveillance equipment, covert money and–most importantly–open political blessings. The US Democrats’ dove is Barack Obama, whose chief foreign adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, greenlighted Israel to deliver the actual killing rifles (Galils) to Guatemala, since his President–Carter–was a little embarrassed.

Is that the difference between the two big US parties on mass murder–embarrassment versus pride? Maybe.

We shouldn’t have to wrestle with such fine–though, sometimes, bitterly consequential–distinctions.

We should be able to vote effectively against, and prosecute, murder.

Maybe US politics needs a civilizing Mayan invasion.

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