Student Engagement

A Teachable Moment: Justice in Guatemala

May 13, 2013
Photo credit: ruthbruin2002 via flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

If I was still in the classroom, I'd divert from the plans I'd etched out for this week and I'd teach a few lessons on justice -- what it means, how it's attained -- by examining something that happened in Guatemala at the end of last week. Something happened in that Central American country that offers tremendous hope and inspiration. I want to tell you about it; I want you to tell your students about it.

Guatemala, 1982

In order for you and your students to understand what happened on May 10, 2013, you'll need to know what happened in Guatemala over 30 years ago. The Maya haven't been treated well for the last 500 years, but in 1982, a military campaign led by then-dictator Efraín Rios Montt, reached new levels of brutality.

During Rio's Montt's 17 months of rule, some 80,000 people -- mostly Mayans -- were killed. In the Ixil region of the western highlands, between 70-90 percent of the villages were destroyed. Fields were burned. Livestock killed. Thousands and thousands of unarmed Mayan people were tortured, raped, and slaughtered. Infants were thrown into fires, unborn babies cut out of their mother's bodies.

And then there were the 45,000 who "disappeared" from their homes, or as they walked home from work, or who knows where they were abducted from. We know who did it, however. In 1999, a United Nations Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report found the nation's Armed Forces responsible for 93 percent of the brutality during the 30 year civil war. How many will never know what happened to their mother/father/sister/son?

The ruling powers intended to terrorize survivors, to prevent the Maya from ever again advocating for rights to own their land or receive a decent wage for their labor. I've heard the stories -- both when I traveled in Guatemala in the late 1980s, and from written testimonials -- stories of witnessing your entire family killed before your eyes, of hiding in the forest while every member of your village was gunned down, of finding the dismembered remains of your loved ones in the corn fields. I can't imagine the terror or the trauma, or the courage it took for survivors to ever speak truth to power again, as they've done in recent months.

Rios Montt Found Guilty of Genocide

The Guatemalan military and elite have long denied that there was a systematic campaign to kill the Maya. Human rights organizations, Guatemalan activists, international activists, and the Maya themselves contend there was a genocide. But a lengthy and coordinated legal effort brought now 86-year-old Efraín Rios Montt and his former chief of intelligence to trial in Guatemala City.

The six-week trial, which heard the testimony of hundreds of survivors and victims, concluded on Friday, May 10, 2013, and Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. In her decision, Judge Yassmin Barrios said Rios Montt was fully aware of plans to exterminate the indigenous Ixil population carried out by security forces under his command. This genocide conviction was the first for a current or former head of state in a national court.

Into the Classroom

This is a story of justice and of what it takes to bring those who once seemed all-powerful, and above all law to justice. It is a story of the tremendous courage of rape survivors who testified, of the forensic anthropologists who in spite of death threats continue to exhume clandestine mass graves, of the nation's Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, who relentlessly compiled the legal case to prosecute Rios Montt. There were contributions from an American filmmaker who traveled to Guatemala in the early 1980s and captured key evidence. There were writers and photographers and farmers who came to tell their stories, and children of the disappeared who became lawyers, and the thousands of family members of the disappeared who marched year after year demanding the return of their loved ones and reminding the world of what had happened in Guatemala: those who did not stay silent.

And so if I was in the classroom, I'd explore the different roles that people played in bringing Rios Montt to justice. I'd want my students to know that one day, they too could play such a significant role -- that it doesn't take millions of dollars or military might to do something this big. It takes a whole lot of courage, years of work, partnerships with others, and a commitment to the truth and to justice. I'd explore how we tell our stories and how we are heard.

This is what I'd want students to know: "The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Without the persistence and bravery of each participant in this effort -- the victims, prosecutors, judges, and civil society organizations -- this landmark decision would have been inconceivable."

Another thing I'd explore with my students: the role of the U.S. government in supplying and funding the Guatemalan military during this period of genocide. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan had nothing but praise for Rios Montt; unclassified documents show the U.S.'s financial and technical support to the dictatorship -- the torturers were trained in the U.S. The others guilty for the atrocities in Guatemala will never be brought to justice but at least the world should know of the role they played.

On Monday, May 13, the Guatemalan court will consider reparations for victims. I'd follow this news with my students because it raises the question of how harm can be repaired. It indirectly raises an issue at the core of our country's history that we have yet to deal with -- the genocide against the Native peoples who once lived on this land and of the enslavement of African people. One day our country will have to address this past. Perhaps we can't bring the orchestrators of that plan to trial but reparations are possible. The verdict in Guatemala raises all kinds of possibilities for how the past is dealt with and for how injustices are rectified. These are the kinds of ethical and moral quandaries that make learning exciting and relevant for students.

There is much to learn from Guatemala's recent victory, and much to discuss with our students. There are opportunities for them to feel empowered and hopeful. As teachers, it is our responsibility to include this kind of instruction for our students -- all this learning to read, and write persuasive essays and understand statistics needs to have some socially useful outlets.


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