As Guatemalan courts deliberate on whether or not to grant amnesty to former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes committed during his 1982-1983 “presidency” which he assumed after a military coup, Anselmo Roldán, a massacre survivor from La Libertad, Huehuetenango is traversing the U.S. in search of solidarity for the victims of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict. One of the organizations at the forefront of the struggle for peace and to end impunity has been the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), a community group of which Anselmo is the current President.
As Guatemalan courts deliberate on whether or not to grant amnesty to former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes committed during his 1982-1983 “presidency” which he assumed after a military coup, Anselmo Roldán, a massacre survivor from La Libertad, Huehuetenango is traversing the U.S. in search of solidarity for the victims of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict. In March of this year, a Guatemalan court convicted Ríos Montt of both genocide and crimes against humanity for the death of 1,771 indigenous Maya in the Ixil region, sentencing him to 80 years in prison. The trial was historic in that it marked the first time in the Western Hemisphere a former head of state was tried for such crimes within his/her home country and the sentence marked an important victory for survivors who have led a decades-long process of seeking recognition and justice for the violence. One of the organizations at the forefront of this struggle has been the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), a community group of which Anselmo is the current President.
I got the chance to talk to Anselmo during his first stop in Washington DC. He started by telling me about the Cuarto Pueblo massacre of March 14, 1982, in which he lost several family members. On that day, over 400 people in Cuarto Pueblo were killed by the Guatemalan military as part of the “scorched earth” counterinsurgency strategy outlined in “Plan Sofía”, a military document that was disclosed by the National Security Archive in Washington DC and used as evidence in the genocide trial to demonstrate that the area’s massacres were premeditated and mandated by the state. Anselmo described how that day unfolded:
I was out fishing and when I came back in the afternoon with my fish, my family wasn’t there, only the boxes.
What did I do? I dropped the fish and forgot about them. I went into the mountain and, well, I already knew where my family was becayse we already had a defense plan in place. We were already prepared so that if anything happened to us, we would know where to find each other. So I went to search for my family and I found some of them. But then we couldn’t leave because the military was persuing us. We spent a few days up there. I still had to look for the rest of my family, my siblings and my mother, but I couldn’t yet.
About eight days went by and I left to go look for them, but with fear. The massacre in Cuarto Pueblo had happened on March 14th. I went back to find them maybe the 20th or 25th of March, something like that. Let me tell you, when the massacre happened in Cuarto Pueblo, everything was left savagely desolated. I was able to find the remains of my loved ones. They were strewn about, still fresh. I saw the clothing of those who had been massacred, their clothing, their necklaces, their hair. I couldn’t do much then because I was still guarding my own life as well. I had to leave. I kept looking for my family to see if they were alive but I found nothing. What did I do then? I went looking in another community and I found my mother, who was also looking for her family. She was crying. When I saw her she became very happy, but there still wasn’t much we could do.
I protected my mother for a long while. We went up into the mountain and couldn’t return. Maybe six months passed. We began to seek refuge in Mexico, but I didn’t want to go. My mother went alone to Mexico with my other younger siblings. I stayed in the mountain with my mother-in-law, still holding out. I lasted another year, but then I couldn’t stay. My son who’s now here is Los Angeles, he was very young at the time, one year old, and we couldn’t stay because he was crying too much. When he cried, the military would hear the noise. We had to cover the childrens’ mouths so that they wouldn’t cry.
So because of my son and because there was no medicine, we had to leave for Mexico. That’s how we left the mountain. We didn’t return to Guatemala until 11 years later.
… I came back to the “Communities in Resistance” in the Ixcán and I joined the struggle again. That was very historic for me, because I have never stopped fighting. I will continue to fight. I don’t care what may happen to me, I have to keep working.
You were one of the founders of the AJR. Why did you feel it was necessary to form this organization at the time, based on your own experiences during the armed conflict?
Let me tell you a little bit about the situation in which an organization like the AJR emerged. Because before, in ’95 or ’96, we began searching for justice or at least to name a few of those responsible for the tragedies we lived through in ’80, ’82, and ’83.
We had some communication with people in Rabinal from Rio Negro. That’s where the work first began because Cuarto Pueblo had brought forth a case against the soldiers that had carried out the massacre in Cuarto Pueblo together with the massacre of Rio Negro. We began to move together, together with Rio Negro, but we weren’t sure about what we were doing because we were only blaming the soldiers. That was the difference. In Rabinal, they knew very well who they were pointing fingers at, but not in Cuarto Pueblo. So in 1996 the struggle began, the Peace Accords were signed, but the violence continued during the signing of the Peace Accords. So we had the idea to form an organization to defend human rights in the Ixil Region, and it was formed in Cuarto Pueblo. That’s where I began my struggle and formed this this association with the other compañeros, to search for the truth and to find those responsible of these huge violations that had been committed during that year of violence.
I was the President of this human rights organization in 1997 and we made contact with people in Rio Negro and next with CALDH (Center for Legal Action for Human Rights), who began accompanying us. CALDH came to visit us in Cuarto Pueblo and asked if we were ready to form an organization to open the genocide cases. They explained to us what it would be like, and we decided to do it.
There weren’t many of us at first, as I said, about 4 or 5 of us got together. I remember those moments, we said “we’re going to do it.” Because I was the legal representative of the other human rights organization, we decided that I would also be the provisional representative of the AJR… Later on, I took a break, but I was always working because people saw me as a human rights defender, as someone who was speaking out. Even when the military came into the area, into Cuarto Pueblo and we denounced them and we kicked them out too. We told the people that it wasn’t the role of the military to be in our territory and in order to defend our territory, we kicked them out of Cuarto Pueblo.
What year was that?
It was in August of last year. It was very important. I wasn’t part of the AJR at the time, but I was working on it.
When you filed charges against Rios Montt, did you ever think, in that moment, that you would be able to bring him to trial and reach a sentence like the one he received?
Yes, we knew, we were certain that one day we would achieve justice but we didn’t know when. Years went by and we never… Sometime in the middle of all of it, we would get demoralized and ask ourselves, “when?” and the cases weren’t moving forward. We were giving our testimony in the public prosecutor’s office and, nothing…they would just hear the testimony but they wouldn’t move any faster. So we would get demoralized but we knew we were clear in our thinking and that one day we would win. We had hope but we didn’t know when it would happen.
And you were present at the genocide trial all 28 days, correct? What was that experience like?
I was there for almost the whole thing. It was difficult because it wasn’t easy preparing so many witnesses and bringing them [to the capital]. It was a lot of time that we invested in preparing them in their own language, some had to find interpreters to translate their words into Spanish. It was very hard, but we did it. We did it with the support of other compañeras that could translate into their own language.
In the courtroom, in theory the tribunal should have provided people, found people to interpret into Spanish so that the witnesses could speak in their own languages. This is the responsibility of the tribunal, but it was a lot of work for us. We moved a lot of pieces throughout this process. At the end, we learned a lot from what happened. CALDH was supporting us, and so was ECAP (Team for Psycho-social Community Action), with our mental health. Thanks to all of them we were able to move forward, but it was difficult.
And for you all, what did the guilty verdict for genocide mean, and what would it mean to you if in the end, Ríos Montt is granted amnesty?
I think the ruling for us was a big success. Perhaps not just for us, the victims, but for the Guatemalan people. It’s the state’s responsibility to provide justice to those who need it. It’s like I said, it’s a fundamental pillar in the rule of law, that a country with democracy should guarantee justice to its citizens, but this hasn’t been the case. So we ourselves fulfilled that right. Despite the fact that the Peace Accords were signed, and they emphasize the application of justice as part of the application of democracy, it hasn’t worked here.
But we were so happy because no tribunal in the history of Guatemala has done what this one did, or has listened to us. It was so interesting. It was the biggest pride for us, as victims. And not just for the victims but for everyone who had been on the forefront, longing for justice in Guatemala, and we did long for it.
So, what would happen if they dropped the sentence and took away our rights in Guatemala? It was constitute a huge weakness in the Guatemalan state, a huge embarrassment to the rest of the world, to be a state that commits such huge mistakes after signing peace accords. This is the cruel shame of Guatemala. We feel that if this were to happen, we would surely return to the past, or we would already be re-living the past. Because if a government is incapable or lacks the courage to respect our rights, that’s like a father who can’t keep order in his home. There could be disarray. That’s what’s happening in Guatemala.
And you are on the first stop of your tour. What hopes or expectations do you have for this tour with NISGUA in the U.S.?
What we are doing now is seeking out more solidarity, more connections because we think that, during the war, we didn’t have that opportunity. I regret that at that time we couldn’t speak as I am speaking now.
But thanks to all the changes we’ve seen throughout time, it’s helped us a lot to have connections with people internationally, like today we have accompaniment from NISGUA and we have the United Nations. It’s helped us to strengthen our own organizations, our social bases. It’s changed things for us and that’s what we’re doing now, seeking more solidarity. There are some ways in which you can apply pressure, just like the United Nations, can apply pressure for our laws to be respected, and for any international treaty or law that Guatemala has ratified to be complied with. I think that’s where we can find some solutions in this whole process for justice in Guatemala.
From here moving forward, what are the next steps in the fight for justice, maybe through other legal processes?
We’re thinking that with everything that’s happened in Guatemala, the denial of justice, that the case will also be brought here to the Inter American Human Rights Commission to continue this process. If the case is not reopened in Guatemala then we will already have moved forward here with the Commission. However, we’re still trying to find a way in Guatemala. What they haven’t told us, is when the case will re-open. They’ve said April, but they might go back on this, or they could send the case back to the middle, or make all the victims give testimony again.
One thing we think about is that a lot of the witnesses are elderly, so there’s no guarantee they’ll be around. All of these problems will be presented to the Commission, because the elderly also have rights and they are getting a little sick, so it’s not guaranteed they can come back. They’ve already testified and they’ve already told the truth, so it’s not convenient for them to have to repeat it. That’s why right now we’re taking a series of actions in order to present the case here with more support from national and international organizations.
They’re talking about amnesty, but I think that there is no amnesty for these crimes. That’s clear to us…Amnesty is only for political crimes, but they are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. What we are calling for is international pressure so that Guatemala does what it must do.
And aside from respecting the rule of law in Guatemala, what does justice mean for a society that has experienced something like this, for memory, for the people of Guatemala in terms of a national peace? What does it mean?
Justice means a lot to us and all of Guatemala is longing for justice to be done. Without justice, we are a country without peace…I think following the law is the most essential thing that a country must do. Another example is how today we are seeing people rise up in defense of their territories, which is related to natural resources. This is a very clear struggle and, according to the Convention 169 [of the International Labor Organization] it is the right of indigenous peoples. I think that if this right is not respected, there could be problems again. We are worried that the peoples’ rights will be violated again. There is also the question of the United States supporting the Guatemalan military. In San Marcos, the U.S. military itself is also there, supposedly to combat drug trafficking. But they are criminalizing community leaders. It’s confusing, what’s happening in Guatemala… There is a lot of militarization in different areas but it’s all for the pillaging of the wealth that belongs to the people.
Anselmo Roldán will be touring with NISGUA through ten U.S. cities until November 19th. For a full schedule of events, you can visit their website.