Elias Lawless

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.

Were you safe from army attacks after you had fled your village?

During this time, when we were in the mountains, the army continued pursuing us. As soon as we left our community, helicopters and planes began to bombard us. So we crossed rivers, embankments and mountains to arrive at the CPR-Sierra (Communities of Resistance), and there we stayed for 14 years, suffering the army’s attacks and persecution.

What was it like living in these noncombatant Communities of Resistance in the wilderness?

There was nothing to eat there. We planted corn and beans and sugar cane and malanga but when the army arrived, they completely destroyed it. We suffered from hunger and sickness. Many children died of hunger or thirst because there was nothing left to eat.

What gave us life was the vegetation of the mountains. There was a plant called Santa Catarina that defended our lives, helped us to resist in the wilderness.

How did you come to be captured by the army?

Out of necessity I went to search for something to give my family to eat. But, unfortunately, without knowing that the army had assembled an ambush in the mountains, when I sat down, they managed to capture me. The army tortured me tremendously: They broke open my face, dislodged all of my teeth and burned my stomach.

The burn tore open my belly and eight inches of my intestines fell out. I suffered great pain. They also tortured me while strangling me with a lasso around my neck, hung up in the wilderness. I suffered great pains and was at the point of death; I no longer felt the hours pass.

Later, they hung me up in a room where the army kicked me; they assaulted me from 3 in the afternoon until 10 in the morning. I no longer felt alive. After that, they took me to the military base in Tenam and tortured me with knives. Then they took me to Chu-juwub where I was forced to live in a hole in the ground for five months.

Every 10 to 15 days they would take me from the hole and throw me into this huge river. It was about 200 meters across and maybe 30 meters deep. And the army would throw me in the deepest part, and I would manage to make it out, time and time again. Eventually, I succeeded in escaping from the military base and again arrived where the civilians and my family were in the wilderness.

What was the army’s justification for capturing you?

They told me that I was a guerrilla. They said, “We managed to capture a commander!” And I only had a small machete in my hand, a tiny satchel to carry my papers and a small piece of malanga to eat. When they captured me I had no weapons on me. But they said they captured a commander; I didn’t even know what a commander was. [laughs.] These are the lies they created when they captured me.

We had no problem with the army until they began to massacre our people. Afterward they tried to tell us that there was amnesty, but really, we owe the government nothing. We’re peasants. We’re workers. We are indigenous Maya, and we are also merchants. We have our own products from which we live, to maintain our family.

How has the AJR responded to having survived the army’s violence?

When the peace agreements were signed [December 1996], it was not truly a tranquil peace, rather we remained fearful. I didn’t forget the pain that I suffered.

So we formed a group to pursue those guilty of the massacres, bombardments and machine gunning. We are pursuing genocide cases against those responsible, for those in power in the 1980s: Lucas Garcia, Efrain Rios Montt–so that the weight of these massacres in Guatemala also falls on them.

There are 120 witnesses, because massacres occurred in various villages and provinces, not only one. We continue struggling however we can in the fight against these genocidal men.

My testimony that I wish to clarify before the entire world: In Guatemala there is no longer tranquil living due to the army and government. I also declare that we truly need the support of international communities to pressure the government so that the day of these men’s capture finally arrives.

What do you make of Rios Montt’s bid for Congress, which, if successful, he argues will extend to him “parliamentary immunity” and thereby protect him from the AJR’s charges of genocide?

Rios Montt thinks he is not guilty of any crimes. He wants to continue being powerful. But for us here in Guatemala, he’s a bad seed. He wants to remain a candidate, to continue with the logic of massacring or creating more conflict within the indigenous Maya communities.

Why do you think it is important to demand justice 25 years after the massacres?

Because only in 1997, when they had signed the peace accords, were we were able to come out of the mountains to return to our [original homes].

In 2000, we met up with other sisters and brothers from places where massacres occurred [creating the AJR] and tried to find out how to carry forth our struggle against the genocidal men. And for that reason it was delayed, it wasn’t so quick, because we spent 15 years in the wilderness. The campaign was delayed for the time that it took to regain our freedom to pursue the struggle. There was no freedom to speak against the military until after they signed the Peace Accords.

Today, we all have the right to speak. We have the right to denounce. We have the right to continue organizing ourselves. It took so long, because we had no rights.

Do you see a connection between immigration to the United States today and the violence that took place in Guatemala 25 years ago?

I believe that with regard to politics today and to the economy, that, to be direct, the government and military have had a plan: the free trade agreement. They continue dominating our terrain, the riches of our lands, here in Guatemala, which is legitimately ours as indigenous peoples. But it’s a shame that foreigners, like the U.S. government, act as if they were some powerful person that rules all places–over various natural resources such as gold, petroleum and whatever else they might discuss in the free trade agreements.

Three ways to support the AJR:

Email Guatemalan President Oscar Berger and Ambassador Jose Guillermo Castillo to demand that they prosecute Rios Montt for his leadership in the genocide.

Organize a postcard drive in your community. Contact Amnesty International to request free copies of a new, informative postcard demanding that Guatemalan authorities finally let the survivors testify and move the charges forward.

Apply to become a human rights accompanier. AJR activists, because of the threats facing them, have requested for Westerners to live and travel with them as a measure of protection.

(Editor’s note: Town names and Juan Herrera’s actual name are altered to protect his identity.)

Translation, introduction and photos by Elias Lawless, 23, a Texas-based writer.