Fighting against oblivion is probably the greatest struggle waged by human rights groups in Guatemala when they want to promote the historical memory among younger generations. In many of these cases, people ignore the fact that for more than 30 years, ordinary citizens in the country lived under the shadow of fear, death and disappearance.
Guatemala's bloody past is well-documented, even by the military dictatorships who kept detailed records of their death squad operations during the civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. The U.S. government was intimately involved in the conflict, equipping and training state security forces that murdered thousands of civilians, most of them Indigenous.
Throughout the war, the Guatemalan Armed Forces used abduction, torture and assassinations as part of the regime's sweeping scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign targeting leftist guerrillas — including the main rebel group, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of the four organizations making up the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity organization or URNG — as well as their suspected sympathizers.
“They had a systematic way of eliminating people and they used it for years. In their so-called 'Diary of Death,' they admitted everything," Francisco Sanchez, founding member of Hijos Guatemala, told teleSUR. "We are talking about what is probably the largest genocide committed against Indigenous people in recent history, because most of the victims were innocent Indigenous people."
Like its Argentine namesake, Hijos Guatemala is an organization of the children of people who were disappeared during authoritarian regimes. They describe themselves as "sons and daughters for identity and justice against oblivion and silence."
The struggle to recover historical memory and win justice for thousands of victims continues today in Guatemala, 20 years after a peace deal brought an end to more than three decades of bloody internal conflict. At the end of 1996, the government of President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen and the URNG — together with the United Nations playing a mediating role — concluded a long negotiating process and signed the peace accords.
Guatemala: New President, Old Problems
By the time the government and the guerrillas signed the peace deal, some 160,000 people had been killed and 45,000 disappeared. A staggering 93 percent of abuses were carried out at the hands of Guatemalan security forces, according to the definitive 1999 report by the Historical Clarification Commission titled "Guatemala: Memory of Silence."
The peace accords came along with a “reconciliation law” that was contested by grassroots movements and advocates of victims and their families, as former military officials wanted the total elimination of criminal responsibility for political crimes committed during the armed conflict.
Their position was firm and clear: to pardon crimes against humanity and crimes of the state. Human rights defenders continue to fight against the longstanding reign of impunity that has shielded the worst human rights abuses from facing justice.
Francisco is one of the many activists on the frontlines of that fight, inspired by personal experiences during the war. When the Hijos Guatemala co-founder was a child, Guatemalan death squads swept away Francisco's aunt, Luz Haydee Mendez, a prominent militant and leader of the Guatemalan Communist Party, or PGT. Mendez was kidnapped, tortured and disappeared by the repressive state forces under the dictatorship of General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores.
“There are many crimes that cannot be pardoned, and we have struggled a lot to have some justice even when it has been recognized that there were acts of genocide in at least four regions," Francisco said. "Beyond fighting against oblivion, as social organizations we have had a major task which has been to bring to justice the military commanders who committed crimes against humanity, because despite the atrocity, many remain free living in impunity and with political power."
For Hijos Guatemala, the 2013 genocide conviction against former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt — whose brutal military regime oversaw one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala's civil war — was “a turning point” in the long struggle to prosecute the masterminds behind civil war violence. The despot was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for the killings of 1,771 Mayans.
Even though the guilty verdict was overturned just 10 days later in a stunning blow to justice, the historic Rios Montt conviction has remained symbolic, as efforts to prosecute other top military officials continue.
“Rios Montt’s conviction is a great achievement. However, there are a lot more former military officials to prosecute” Francisco said, adding that another big achievement has been the demilitarization of the streets.
“Soldiers are the symbol of the dictatorship. Even new generations are influenced by the old guard who are still there in power," the activist continued. "Today, more than ever, Indigenous movements — which have always represented the revolutionary force of Guatemalan society — are being persecuted and repressed.”
While strides toward healing old wounds and providing closure to the families of thousands of victims have been made over the past two decades, more work is needed to realize the promise of transitional justice as post-war problems of inequality, poverty and violence continue to plague the Central American country.
The 36-year civil war in Guatemala became synonymous with the U.S. government’s support for atrocities in a brutal campaign to stave off left-wing and communist movements in Latin America and the rest of the developing world during the Cold War.