Mott and the missing accomplices
MOTT convicted after public campaigning
FORMER Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt has been sentenced to 80 years in prison after being found guilty of crimes against humanity, and specifically for his part in the slaughter of 1,771 Mayan Ixils in the 1980s.
It is the first time a former head of state has been found guilty of genocide in their own country, and the first time a former head of government has been held to account in Guatemala for the abuses carried out during a 36-year conflict that killed an estimated 200,000 people and led to 45,000 other "disappearances".
The verdict was greeted with satisfaction by Guatemalan and international human rights organisations. Pascal Paradis, director of Lawyers Without Borders Canada, which advised lawyers acting for victims' families said the fact the trial happened at all was a big achievement.
"It was quite a feat to get past the amnesty law that was passed when Guatemala signed a peace deal in 1996 to end its 36-year war. Impunity is no longer the rule," he said.
Some of the victims's families and other Guatemalans expressed less satisfaction.
"What I want is for Ríos to feel the pain we felt," said Elena de Paz Santiago, who was 12 when she and her mother fled a massacre in their village in 1982.
They hid in the mountains and survived by eating roots and wild plants for months, before being caught and taken to an army outpost to cook and clean for the soldiers. Her mother died while they were both being gang-raped and was later buried in a mass grave.
"He [Rios Montt] will go to jail but he will have food. We nearly starved hiding out in the mountains," she said in an interview outside the courtroom.
Guardian, May 11 -Former dictator Rios Mott jailed for Genocide
Guatemala may be a faraway country of which we normally hear little, but one of my earliest memories of international affairs was the news of US bombers and the CIA removing a "pro-communist" government headed by Colonel Arbenz, in 1954, supposedly because it had imported Czech weapons with which to defend itself. Assuming that Washington did not seriously fear Guatemala was planning to invade the United States there seemed no reason to object to Guateemala having weapons, unless you were planning to attack it anyway.
I subsequantly learned that Colonel Arbenz had wanted to take some uncultivated land from the American-owned United Fruit Company in order to give it to Guatemalan peasants, a truly dreadful crime. Nowadays there are more than bananas at stake for companies involved in Guatemala, and more international interest than the media might reflect.
Even before he gained infamy as a mass murderer Rios Mott had distinguishing features from the long list of Latin American dictators. He was known as “Brother Efraín,” having converted to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity offered by the California-based “Church of the Word” (Verbo), But as well as thanking God in heaven for anointing him as Guatemala’s president, he had the State of Israel on earth to thank for his successful March 1982 military coup.
Israeli press reported that 300 Israeli advisors were on hand to assist and train his soldiers. Israel became a major supplier of weapons and aircraft, as well as technical expertise, to the Guatemalan regime. While the United States taxpayer could go on subsidising the regime, letting Israel supply the weaponry, even US planes built under licence, had the advantage that it was not restricted by Congress, Indeed US officials have learned over the years that mentioning Israel is one way to quieten congresspersons from asking awkward questions.
Rios Mott justified his war on native peoples by claiming he was fighting against subversion.
“Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten working behind him.” Rios Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people’. But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion” (Witness to Genocide, Survival International, 1983, p. 12).
The Israelis helped the Guatemalan forces build an airbase, and set up an intelligence network similar to that in Israel's occupied territories, as well as outposts resembling those of the Israeli army. A report for Time magazine:: “Colonel Gustavo Menendez Herrera pointed out that his troops are using Israeli communications equipment, mortars, submachine guns, battle gear and helmets.” Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García had stated previously: “The Israeli soldier is a model and an example to us.”
Israel had always boasted good relations with Guatemala, promoting agricultural projects and cultural links. But as Yossi Sarid protested in the Knesset, it had “abandoned the green route of agriculture for the red and bloody route of arms,” . Likud member Yigal Hurwitz replied, “Your speeches, Yossi, are not saleable on the foreign market; weaponry we can sell."
If acting as America's proxy and even competitor in this way was profitable, it brought some other results. Guatemalan refugees and exiles, from those driven from heir land into refugee camps in southern Mexico to those fortunate enough to be in US universities, have found it not too difficult to identify with faraway Palestinians, dreaming of the right of return, and to their land.
María García Hernández, co-founder of a refugee women’s organization called Mama Maquín, described the standpoint of her group: “The Guatemalan refugee and returnee women are clear about the fact that land is the most important family possession that we have. Land is…a space where we can live and work, defend our rights and pass on our culture, customs and languages to our daughters and sons.”
Some of Israel's supporters seemed to think that because Guatemala supported Palestine partition and was first to recognise the State of Israel back in 1948, it would oppose Palestinian recognition at the UN. In fact, last month Guatemala's governmen became the first to recgnise a sovereign state of Palestine. There's a sort of continuity there, as well as poetic justice.
Matt Carr on Mott and his crimes