In a courtroom in Guatemala City, a gray-haired man sits passively through the trial of the century for the Central American country.
By MARY SANCHEZ
The Kansas City Star
At 86, the former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt has escaped this criminal scrutiny for decades. Now, along with another notorious general, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, he stands accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Specifically, of orchestrating the murder of nearly 1,800 indigenous people and the forced displacement of 29,000 more. The tallies are an astounding amount of suffering for his 17-month reign in the early 1980s.
Since mid-March, dozens of Ixil people, indigenous Mayans, have taken the witness stand to describe the Guatemalan militarys campaign of extermination against them. They tell of watching families burned alive as their homes were torched, of beheadings and body parts thrown into rivers. Women were raped before being shot to death, and toddlers were hacked up with machetes.
Most North Americans are unaware of the trial and the man at its center. Sadly, thats not surprising. Most of us were oblivious when the atrocities occurred. And we remain unmoved by the fact that U.S. military shipments helped Rios Montt inflict his scorched-earth campaign.
The U.S. provided aid to the Guatemalan military during periods of the countrys 36-year civil war, in which at least 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan met with Rios Montt, praising his efforts as a heroic fight against Marxist guerrillas. President Bill Clinton would later apologize for the U.S. role.
How did Rios Montt for so long escape trial for his alleged atrocities? Ousted by a coup, he ran for Guatemalas Congress. He only recently lost his immunity when his term ended.
All of this might seem like distant proceedings except that Guatemalas indigenous are also part of more recent U.S. headlines.
Recall the massive 2008 immigration raid the largest ever at the time at a kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa. The majority of those arrested were Guatemalans, rounded up like cattle and processed for deportation. The abuses, and the resulting backlash, led to U.S. immigration reforms.
One little-known but revealing aspect of the raid was that the Spanish translators provided by the U.S. government were of little use.
Many of the Guatemalans were indigenous and spoke different dialects. Spanish was their second language, and most could neither read nor write it.
Some were members of the same families that suffered most during Guatemalas civil war. North Americans often miss these connections, which involve the ways our lives intertwine with events and places far from our frame of reference.
I became aware of one such connection about 10 years ago while wandering through ruins in the highlands of Guatemala. A Mayan woman was selling intricately embroidered textiles. She was excited to find out I was from the Midwest.
She pulled out a scrap of paper, a U.S. phone number was penciled on it: 816-761 . My heart skipped, the digits were so familiar. It turned out that her husband was living a few miles from my childhood home in south Kansas City.
I visited him and he recounted stories of violence from the countrys long civil war, telling how his family had been uprooted and how he came north for work. On the outskirts of Kansas City, he was working under a fake Social Security number at a fast food restaurant.
Many Americans like to see our nation as the injured party when it comes to illegal immigration, and see immigrants as parasitic lawbreakers trying to take something from us. Some ask why the failed states to the south of us cant look after their own citizens.
As the Mayan survivors in that Guatemalan courtroom tell their stories, wed do well to remember that our nation has been more involved in their tragedy than many of us are willing to admit.
To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to email@example.com.