In 1984, as the Indian government was terrorizing Sikhs in northern India, mass campaigns of state-sponsored extermination were occurring in the Americas as well. The small Central American nation of Guatemala, under the rule of U.S.-backed Efrain Rios Montt, was one such place. While Indira Gandhi's army was attacking Darbar Sahib (aka the Golden Temple) with an insatiable thirst for Sikh blood, Guatemala was in the midst of what is sometimes called a civil war. Another name for it might be the deliberate and targeted mass killing of indigenous and poor people. In both cases, though thousands of miles apart geographically and politically, campaigns of state-sponsored genocide were underway.
On Friday, a Guatemalan court found Rios Montt, now 86 years old, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He came to power in 1982 in a U.S.-backed coup and oversaw "a scorched-earth policy in which troops massacred thousands of indigenous villagers. He entered the court on Friday to boos and cries of 'justicia!' or justice. Prosecutors say Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a 1960-1996 civil war in which as many as 250,000 people."
The former dictator has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for genocide and 30 more from crimes against humanity. This is the first time in history that a head of state has been found guilty of committing genocide in his or her own country. The significance of this conviction cannot be overstated for the people of Guatemala as well as other parts of Latin America and the world where genocidal tyrants have never been held accountable for their atrocities.
What we're not hearing much about in the U.S. news coverage of this unprecedented trial is our own government's role in Guatemala at the time (and earlier, beginning with the CIA coup against Arbenz in 1954, essentially for the benefit of the United Fruit Company). While there is much to celebrate in this conviction, key architects and underwriters of these policies of terror in Guatemala (and other parts of Latin America) have faced no consequences for their instrumental role in the genocide. Efrain Rios Montt was trained by the U.S. Army at the school formerly known as the School of the Americas, infamous for training Latin American soldiers and leaders in the art of torture and repression. Rios Montt was close ally of the Reagan Administration, which considered his leadership style necessary in the so-called fight against communism. Revolutionary struggles were building in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and the Reagan Administration saw to it that they would be crushed as would anything or anyone that posed a real or perceived threat against multinationals corporations exploiting the continent's rich natural resources. In practice, what this meant in Guatemala (and elsewhere) was if you are indigenous and/or poor, you must be a leftist and thus, you must be silenced, intimidated, and/or killed.
I learned about brutal U.S.-backed dictatorships in Latin America years before I learned about Operation Blue Star and the months and years of terror for Sikhs that came after in north India. It was not until senior year of college when I decided to do a research paper on 1984 that my eyes really began to open. The stories of disappearances, of systematic torture, of rape, of setting people and villages on fire, sounded disturbingly similar to the stories of Rios Montt's Guatemala, Pinochet's Chile, Trujillo's Dominican Republic. In all cases, targeted, ruthless violence against a specific community was obscured by claims of ad hoc guerilla groups or "communal riots" being behind the terror. In Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, anti-communism justified everything, in India anti-terrorism. In Latin American indigenous people, poor people, and leftists paid the price, in India, Sikhs. In all cases, thousands upon thousands were tortured, imprisoned, and killed by government forces themselves or agents of the government (i.e. civilians paid off and armed by the police or Army).
As Sikhs are still waiting (and fighting for) justice for what our families and communities endured in India, perhaps we can learn from our Guatemalan brothers and sisters who successfully tried and convicted a former head of state who once seemed untouchable. Perhaps we can also learn from the overlapping stories of both horror and survival and resistance in the face of horror from Latin America. While there is much to celebrate in yesterday's conviction in Guatemala, we know that the status quo of impunity still rules in most parts of the world. Hopefully Guatemala will inspire us to continue even stronger in our struggles for justice and accountability.