Exhuming the Past

Guatemala is painfully exhuming its bloody past following a recent flurry of indictments in several of the country’s most notorious human-rights cases, arising from the “scorched earth” military repression of the early 1980s and the 1998 assassination of a Catholic bishop who exposed the armed forces’ involvement in these and other atrocities during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

Five people are being prosecuted for the 1998 bludgeoning death of Bishop Juan Gerardi. Former President Romeo Lucas García and two other military officials have been indicted in connection with the massacre of 800 Mayan villagers during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú has taken legal action in Spain against seven political figures of the early 1980s, including former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt, now speaker of the National Assembly, has canceled European travel plans in an effort to avoid a Spanish extradition order similar to the one that kept Chilean General Augusto Pinochet under house arrest in the United Kingdom for more than a year.

In Mexico City’s liberal newsmagazine Proceso (May 28), Velia Jaramillo reports that Ríos Montt could suffer damage from President Alfonso Portillo’s decision to make public a military archive from the 1970s and 1980s with data on an estimated 650,000 citizens, or about 6 percent of the entire population. Frank La Rue of the Guatemala City Human Rights Center told Jaramillo that the sheer breadth of the files “indicates that, here, anyone who expresses a critical opinion is seen as an enemy of the state.”

In Guatemala City’s conservative Prensa Libre (June 16), columnist Margarita Carrera observes that Ríos Montt’s survival as a leading political figure represents an “incredible” attraction that many Guatemalans find in his popular image of military machismo and religious fanaticism, reinforced by “a fear of liberty and the responsibility it implies.” After at last securing a peace treaty in 1996, “the Guatemalan people forgot the atrocities of the armed conflict and went to the polls to vote for one of the architects of the genocides: Ríos Montt.”