06/12/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

Genocide and Justice and Empathy in Guatemala

Just after dawn on a recent morning, I picked up a hitch-hiker on my way over the hill to the coast; he was a Guatemalan construction worker I'd given rides to before. From past conversations, I knew he's up before dawn to get to work and often not back until after dark; he has a wife and 2 kids at home. I don't know if he's "legal" here and don't care, but on the car radio, coverage of the national immigration "reform" debate came on. There was an uncomfortable (for me) silence as we listened; then I ventured to ask my hitchhiker what he thought of the whole thing. There was a prolonged pause, and then he offered: "I think they should talk with the Native Americans," he replied.

I laughed, he grinned, and we rolled on, but I didn't have the heart to further ask him about the recent trial and conviction -- and then reversal -- of former Guatemalan dictator/General Efrain Rios Montt for mass human rights violations -- a somewhat polite term for the virtual genocide of Mayan people there in the 1980s while Rios Montt was in charge.

Strangely enough, Rios Montt was also once known in the 1970s as a "born again" convert to a Humboldt County, California-based "charismatic Christian commune" called Gospel Outreach -- they had set up a branch in Guatemala after a devastating earthquake. The horrors Rios Montt subsequently presided over as President, with United States assistance, funding, or at least tacit approval, were long ago now, but justice deferred is better than none at all.

Over a decade ago, I read and reviewed a harrowing book by UC Berkeley anthropologist Beatriz Manz about the Guatemalan "human rights meltdown" titled Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror and Hope.

The book begins with a slaughter. The horrific details are retold in the indelible images of eyewitness; suffice it to say that anyone who has children, who loves his family, who cares for others in his community, would find the prospect of witnessing such things happening to his own loved ones too shocking to even imagine. But it was all too real for the people of of Santa Maria Tzeja, a village near the border of Mexico where Manz spent more than two decades piecing together that village's story.

"Many people -- both within and outside academia -- have been more fascinated with the ancient Mayan civilization than with the living Mayas," Manz pointedly notes, noting that slow-motion genocide occurred in Central America's largest nation for decades, ever since the CIA-supported coup that overthrew a democratic government in 1954. Some Guatemalans were able to flee landless poverty and military repression to establish new villages such as Santa Maria Tzeja in the early 1970s. The town was cleared from raw jungle, and life there was also hard, but better than near-slavery on plantations: "The Ixcan jungle consumes you, there is malaria, diarrhea; it just consumes you," recalled one settler. "But people came from all over the country to obtain a parcel in the promised land."

That promise wasn't to last. By the late 1970s there were guerrilla groups forming to combat the military junta, partly emboldened by the fragile success of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. The majority of people, who just wanted to grow food and live on their own land, were caught between aggressive insurgent recruiting and military repression. And as it turned out, the guerrillas were overoptimistic, for as Manz writes, "By late 1981 the Ixcan was about to descend into a poisoned darkness; the military repression would escalate into wholesale slaughter." The indiscriminate massacre of whole families and villages had a purpose: "It was meant to induce submission and to embed fear, distrust and disunity into everyday life." Soon, at least a thousand local villagers had been killed. Those who survived fled into the jungle, their villages in ruins. "A decade of hard work lay incinerated, and dreams were shattered," Manz writes. "Hiding and fearful in the rain forest, the terrified residents of Santa Maria Tzeja knew that simply to survive would be a victory."

This was doubly true given that President Reagan in 1982 "met with President Rios Montt in Honduras and dismissed reports of human rights abuses in Guatemala published by Americas Watch, Amnesty International, and others as 'a bum rap.'" Reagan then lifted an arms embargo so that weapons sales could resume to the military rulers. Terrorized, many villagers made their way to refugee camps in Chiapas in southern Mexico, and some, of course, made it all the way to United States. But some stayed in the jungle, joining the guerrilla movement out of desperation. Family members were separated for years. "For many years I have given my life to the rich; now I have to give my life to the poor," reasoned one such villager-turned-fighter. "After the early 1980s, in particular, peasants began to join in fierce anger at army atrocities, seeking both protection and retribution through the insurgency," Manz notes. "In sum, it felt safer to have a gun in your hands."

Probably for most, however, "our idea was not to give ourselves up to the army or to surrender," as one villager recalls, "but to go back to live in our village and to live a normal life without being bothered by one or the other." Yet relative peace was not established until 1996, when most villagers could safely return. The village has since prospered in a relative sense, with schools and a new way of life for many. But the struggles of persistent poverty remain, and some of the most poignant reflections come from the many villagers Manz asks about what they might have gained and learned in the struggle.

"What is positive about the struggle is that it opened minds. It left big lessons," holds another. Manz is an academic, and sometimes writes like one, but she cannot be accused of keeping her distance. In fact, a colleague is killed after tragically joking that "in America you publish or perish; in Guatemala you perish if you publish!" She was herself terrorized by government troops.

As for Rios Montt, "whose name was to become synonymous with blood-drenched slaughter and a merciless scorched earth policy," he was a candidate for president again in 2003 but did not win, and eluded prosecution until this year. Now he's been sentenced to 80 years in prison, and then had that conviction reversed pending another trial. In a bizarre example of just the kind of blind ideological obsession, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece arguing that Montt had gotten a bad rap from "the left" - something that would surprise, at a minimum, the hundreds of thousands of people who perished and suffered under his rule.

But most of those were Indians, of course, and tend to be invisible, uncounted, nonvoting, and to vanish from official histories of some nations... sound familiar? But some of them were able to testify at Rios Montt's trial, with their stories and official documents showing that "under Mr. Ríos Montt's 17-month rule during 1982 and 1983, the entire Mayan Ixil population was a military target, children included." I can't help but wonder what the WSJ author might think if her own family had been among them.

However his re-trial turns out, perhaps Rios Montt now wishes that, way back in the 1970s, he had stayed with the hippie Christians in the Humboldt Gospel Outreach commune. Perhaps countless lives would have been spared, and stranger things have happened up there.

As for my hard-working hitchhiker, I hope he lives long and prospers, here in the United States, where we endlessly debate immigration policy while learning more all the time that most immigrants contribute more than they "cost" our nation. So while the debate heats up again, I hope our leaders consider where many immigrants have come from, what they have fled from and endured to get here, and that most of us still endorse those words on the Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"