REPORT: Human Rights and the Question of Genocide in the Guatemalan Civil War

Father Ricardo Falla, S.J. Photo Credit: Georgetown CLAS

By: Simon Machalek

The world has experienced genocide far too many times. Horrifying events such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Bosnian genocide were full of vicious violence directed against groups of people who shared the same ethnicity, nationality, race, or religion. After the horrors observed in the brutal Rwandan genocide, where the international community failed to intervene and stop the killing, the world said that such actions must never happen again. Although some may believe that genocide is a phenomenon of the past, the fact is that the “never again” consensus has repeatedly failed to meet its objectives, as many groups are still confronted with genocide. The Rohingya in Myanmar, the Nuer in South Sudan, and Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria are all groups of people that are victims of violence. Genocide remains a relevant issue in the 21st century.

On October 25th, to promote discussion and increase awareness about genocide, the Center for Latin American Studies hosted an event called “Human Rights and the Question of Genocide in the Guatemalan Civil War.” The event looked back at a civil war that ran from 1960 to 1996, in which the government of Guatemala fought leftist rebel and guerrilla groups who were supported by ethnic Maya indigenous people and Ladino peasants. Seeing the Maya as being supportive of the guerrillas, the Guatemalan military began a campaign of cruelty and violence against them, murdering and displacing thousands. The violence peaked in 1982, when the government massacred multiple Mayan villages, for which it was heavily condemned by the international community.

Father Ricardo Falla, S.J., guided the, at times, emotional discussion, recalling stories of the genocide of the Mayan populations. Fr. Falla is a renowned Guatemalan anthropologist who has documented human rights violation for decades. His pastoral work during the 1980s in Guatemala introduced him to many victims of the genocide who told Fr. Falla their personal stories. Fr. Falla dedicated his career to recording these accounts and retelling them to the public audience.

One of these victims was Mateo Ramos, a man who in 1982 miraculously escaped the Guatemalan military’s massacre of his entire village. After fleeing to Mexico, Mr. Ramos met Fr. Falla and recounted his story. Fr. Falla documented this in a 2001 book called “Negreaba de Zapilotes,” which in English means “Branches with Vultures.” The title of the book encapsulates what happened to the village, as Guatemala’s military, in vulture-like fashion, violently and mercilessly exterminated anything that came into their way.

Before describing Ramos’ story, Fr. Fall took a moment to talk about genocide in general terms. He noted that the nature of genocide is universal and that, unfortunately, mankind may never fully defeat it. Even today, as Fr. Falla noted, the Rohingya crisis continues to spiral into chaos and continues to be generally ignored by the international community

Fr. Falla then spoke about what happened the day Guatemalan military entered Mr. Ramos’ village. Based on Mr. Ramos’ accounts, it was obvious that the gruesome actions of that day were planned, rather than spontaneous. More than 400 soldiers arrived and encircled the village and began to push inward, raping women and murdering entire families, including babies. Such monstrous methods were unfortunately not exclusive to Mr. Ramos’ village.

Fr. Falla argued that the genocide was largely a symbolic act; the Guatemalan soldiers attacked Mayan populations for their alleged support of the rebel groups. The Guatemalan army wanted to punish Mayan groups, but also wanted to definitively deter any other dissidents by sending a message of unquestionable brutality. To that effect, Guatemalan soldiers often even drank their victim’s blood. Fr. Falla also noted that the genocide cannot be explained by rational terms and that looking back it is difficult to explain why so many innocent people were slaughtered.

When Fr. Falla asked Mr. Ramos about how he felt following his escape, Mr. Ramos answered that he did not feel sadness or remorse, but instead felt completely disoriented, almost as if he was drunk. He described how he was not able to tell if it was day or night and that he could not comprehend what just had happened. Fr. Falla recalled being particularly struck by Mr. Ramos’ mix of confusion and emotion. After the genocide, Mr. Ramos lived for some time in Mexico until he was killed for alleged witchcraft.

Concluding the event, Fr. Falla highlighted how many countries in the world are grappling with civil wars, in which it is usually the civilians themselves who pay the highest price and suffer the most. Looking at the Guatemalan case, Fr. Falla assessed that the war ultimately failed to resolve any issues; it was instead just a dead end, a situation in which millions suffered and in which no-one came out as victorious. He argued that the country is dealing with the aftermath of the genocide to this day, as its consequences live on in the current generation of Guatemalans. He also noted how crucial it is to never forget these crimes and instead learn from them, applying the knowledge going forward.

Fr. Falla’s storytelling succeeded in describing the nature of genocide and its severe implications. He was able to describe the massacre in concrete details, immersing the audience in the story while educating in the process. His work demonstrates years of dedication to the issue of genocide, both in the public and in the church. To confront genocide now and in the future, lessons of the past must not be forgotten and must instead be fully understood. Genocide is and will continue to be a recurring issue, but its impact may be diminished if the international community fully grasps its complexity and comes up with helpful policies.

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