01/30/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

Our Debt to Guatemalans: A Chance for Atonement

A past-president of Guatemala is being called to justice in Guatemala, for atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army under his leadership in the 1980s. General Efrain Rios Mont is being held under house arrest for ordering the killing of more than 1,700 Mayans during the years in which he was head of state. During the Civil War, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or "disappeared," and although the United Nations-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification attributed 93 percent of the atrocities to state security forces, the government and military leaders have lived with impunity.

The news about Rios Mont may provide some measure of comfort to the many Guatemalans who lost loved ones in that era. But can we also learn from the past to address problems of today?

In the 1980s I was active in what was known as the "Solidarity Movement" -- a loose network of people who stood in solidarity with the people of Central America. I worked with the Guatemala Information Center in Los Angeles, a group of Guatemalans and North Americans dedicated to bringing to public attention the human rights violations in that country at the time. We had an "emergency response network" in which we got the word out as quickly as we could whenever we learned of a new "disappearance," in an attempt to save lives. We spoke at house meetings, rallies, and other public events. We held a walkathon through the streets of Los Angeles in which we carried posters printed with the individual names of thousands of Guatemalans who had been "disappeared."

There was plenty of documentation of atrocities. Rigoberta Menchú, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and other unionists and activists came up from Guatemala to give testimony to the violence at a public tribunal held at Los Angeles City Hall. The film, "When the Mountains Tremble," which we showed widely, includes live footage of the aftermath of a massacre in a Mayan village, as well as interviews with Rios Mont and clips of his California-based evangelical church. I traveled on a Human Rights delegation to the supposed "model villages" that were built by the army over the villages that had been burnt to the ground. I took photos of the street names, such as "Calle del Ejercito" ("the Street of the Army"), and of the evangelical church in the center of the town -- also one of Rios Mont's denomination.

So if we knew all these things then, why did it take 30 years for some measure of justice to be meted out?

Although there is little that can be done truly to compensate for the losses that so many Guatemalans and other Central Americans suffered during the 1980s, perhaps there are lessons we can take from history to understand our contemporary context.

First, we need to call for atonement not just in Guatemala, but in the United States, as well. The U.S. government supported the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, and so we were complicit in the genocide. It is also well established that the CIA overthrew the only democratically-elected government of Guatemala, that of Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, ushering in a period of military dictatorships that led directly to the reign of Rios Mont. The notorious Guatemalan "kaibiles" -- elite army forces that were responsible for most of the massacres -- received military training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

There are currently some 2.9 million Central Americans living in the United States. The majority began arriving in the 1980s, fleeing civil unrest, but few were recognized as refugees. Many have by now legalized their status, but in their efforts to reunite with family members, thousands of Central Americans remain among the huge numbers of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Perhaps, some grasp of this history can give us new ways of thinking about the need for immigration reform. Could we see immigration reform as some small measure of atonement for our complicity in the horrors of the Central American past?