Within 48 hours of arriving in Guatemala I had learned more about justice, genocide and journalism than all my English education had taught me. You bet I was cheering last week when the former dictator was jailed for 80 years.
There was chaos in Guatemala City when I landed in July 2003 – streets crowded with demonstrators and traffic at a standstill. The radio in my hotel told me the crowds were supporters of Efrain Rios Montt – former President, military dictator and commander of the government forces responsible for the worst excesses of Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war.
What? A man accused of genocide – why would anyone want him back?
Heading out of town I saw posters, slogans and flags of rival political parties festooned across streets and painted on the road. Buses roared past on their way to the city to register candidates for the upcoming local elections. Perhaps the same buses that had carried the angry mobs into the capital the day before?
In 2003 Guatemala was still off the main tourist track. Guide books made scant mention of the civil war and few people strayed into the indigenous communities that were targeted in the genocide. My guide Ruben showed me things I would have missed, like the small crosses scattered across the cemetery, marking the civil war graves. Many more bodies lay in unmarked mass graves, their location still secret 10 years after the end of war.
I asked Ruben if the war had been in his village. He said yes: his people had supported the rebels and so US-backed government forces had moved in with helicopters and small planes and carried out a scorched earth campaign. Unable to defeat the rebels, the army simply targeted the communities that sustained them. Witness testimonies record villagers being terrorized, raped, tortured and killed indiscriminately.
He came home from school one day to see a truck full of boys from his village being taken away. He ran. His friends were forced to join the army and become executioners of their own people.
When the peace accords were signed in 1994 two international commissions were established to investigate the truth of the struggle between successive military regimes and leftist guerillas. Both reports held government forces responsible for over 89% of the 200,000 deaths and 45,000 disappearances.
In 2003 the generals were still in prison, but not for much longer. I arrived just as many peoples’ worst fears seemed to be being realized and the past, in the form of Rios Montt, looked set to return.
When I asked Ruben about the demonstration in the capital he smiled patiently. They were paid. Most of the demonstrators did not even know why they were there. It was true, though, that in many rural areas, including those where the terror had been worst, Montt was the candidate of choice.
His political party, the Columbian drug cartel-funded FRG, was the only one that identified with the poor. Eight million Guatemalans lived in the countryside, 60% below the poverty line. Widespread illiteracy, no media and an almost passionate determination to bury the past meant that most people knew nothing of Montt’s history. What they did know was that he promised cheap fertiliser, free health care, new schools and land reform. None of the other parties even pretended to care about the poor. Of course the stakes were lower for them – without Presidential immunity, Montt knew that his crimes would catch up with him. As they did, last week.
I saw the poverty. Six and seven year old boys in orange wigs and face paint juggling fruit at intersections in hope of winning a few quetzales from hard-faced motorists who wound up their windows against them. Tiny children who made toys out of garbage; teenagers who risked their lives taking dares from passers-by. There were 6,000 children living on the streets of the capital in 2003 and persistent rumours that private security groups were hired to shoot them because they were bad for business.
I never ‘did’ Latin America, presumably because it was never ‘ours’. When I left school I could not even have found Guatemala on the map. Without time on the ground, Ruben, the writings of Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu and considerable research I would still have no idea why last week’s verdict was historic and monumental.
I also never once considered that the BBC could simply be wrong.