Update from Guatemala: Rios Montt in Jail or Congress?

Six weeks ago, I began my work here as a human rights accompanier in the Ixcán region of Guatemala. 

I have had the opportunity to listen to incredible stories which remind me why it is important to continue in this struggle for justice and to remind people outside the country about a forgotten genocide.  

A civil war ravaged this country for 36 years which ended with the peace accords in 1996 and more than 200,000 civilians dead. 90% of the casualties were at the hands of the US-backed Guatemalan army under the auspices of fighting “communism.” In 2000 and 2001, a courageous group of war survivors filed charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against former military dictators Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt and their military high commands in the Guatemalan court system.  Seven years later, these cases remain in the investigative phase due to a lack of political will to bring the accused to justice. 

Living as an accompanier in these communities not only helps to deter threats against the genocide case witnesses but also teaches the lesson of survival and perseverance. Some people might think that this type of work would be depressing. Simply put, the fact that accompaniment exists is because massacres happened.  

But, the stories I have heard about lost loved ones are not told with a defeatist attitude. Yes, people still talk about the tragic losses they lived through, but the remembrance of the dead in this culture is very important. Many new children are named after the ones who died during the conflict… to remember. Yes, survivors still cry and grieve. Maybe that will never stop, but who’s to say what a normal reaction is after living through a massacre?  

What is unbelievably apparent in this community is the sense of hope. The collective commitment is evident every day as an ongoing process to raise the quality of life through education and better health standards. Santa Maria Tzejá is organized and it seems that everyone is involved in either one committee or another which is directly related to a decision making process. 

The Story of Santa Maria Tzeja (SMT) 

In 1970, Mayan campesinos (peasant farmers) made the long, 150 mile journey from the highlands to the jungles of the Ixcán in search of autonomy… a place where they could cultivate their land to support their families and live in peace. They settled in SMT and began cutting down trees, building houses, planting food and building a new life for them selves. For the next ten years, they worked hard, formed cooperatives and established a community that prospered.   

12 years later, Monday, February 15th, 17 people were brutally massacred; houses were burned to the ground; crops were destroyed. Even the animals were slaughtered. One woman in particular was pregnant during this time. She was shot and killed, her stomach sliced open and the baby ripped out. Witnesses say the army cut off the head of another man and put it in her stomach for others to find later. Her little son escaped and hid under a log and later recounted what had happened to his mother. 

People have actually used the expression “lucky” to describe that day in comparison to what took place in other neighboring communities. The ¨scorched earth¨ campaign which began in 1981 by General Lucas Garcia had started around the city of Chimaltenango and crossed through central Guatemala towards the borders. The purpose of this campaign was to eradicate the ¨subversive¨ guerilla forces but included eliminating many innocent Mayan campesinos and their families in the process. One slogan of this campaign was “the fish can’t survive without water.” In other words, the guerillas were the fish and the easiest way to kill fish is to eliminate the water… the water was innocent civilians. 

A neighboring community called Santo Tomas was invaded a day earlier (February 14th, 1982) by the Guatemalan army. 41 people were killed and the rest (400-500 people) fled to the mountains. SMT, being very near the border to Mexico was fortunate to have heard about the army coming and most of the town escaped to the mountains before they arrived. Of course, not everyone had the opportunity to flee. Some hid and were not found by the army. Others were killed. 

Less than a month later, in another Guatemalan community on the border of Mexico called Cuarto Pueblo, more than 350 people were killed. 

So, the community of SMT disappeared into the mountains… men, women, children, elderly, the sick… everyone. One couple, Thomas and Maria recounted their story to me. They left suddenly and were forced to leave everything behind to save themselves. Thomas has tears in his eyes as he remembers how their family was prospering at that time. They owned seven head of cattle, 60 chickens and a parcela (plot of land for harvest) ready to harvest. He recalls years of hard work and when they left, “the army destroyed everything.” They killed all the animals and burned all the crops and houses. 

They had three young children with them while they lived in hiding in the mountains of Guatemala for nearly 10 months before crossing the border into Chiapas, Mexico. Maria recalls that during this time, many people, and especially babies died from dehydration and other sicknesses. Food was scarce and they constantly watched their backs in fear that the army would find them. 10½ years they lived as refugees in Chiltepec, Mexico   as they waited for the peace accords to be signed. 

12 years later, when the community returned to SMT, they started over from scratch. The sole surviving building was the community center, which was promptly converted into a catholic church. Everything else was re-built, the land divided into parcelas and a new school was implemented. 

Since then, the people of SMT have worked hard to create a thriving community that continues to grow through the work of the food cooperative, the women’s union, the school committees and other community development committees. Today, there is a library, a computer center, many new community buildings and a proposal on the table about building a high school. 

25th Anniversary of Santa Maria Tzeja Massacre 

Around 500 people gathered into the Catholic Church to attend the mass that was held in commemoration of the dead on February 21st. People from neighboring communities came to the church in SMT along with Radio Ixcán to broadcast the service live.  

A monument in dedication to those that lost their lives in the region stands outside the church. It is a triangular shaped stone painted bright green about 6 feet high which is surrounded by a small metal fence. The names of the victims are etched into the stone on all three sides. On this day flowers and burning candles surrounded the monument and palm leaves covered the fence.  

Members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the survivors/witnesses, were in attendance and some spoke live on the radio about the importance of remembering this day and the fact that the guilty parties still have not been tried and prosecuted for their crimes. During the service, the priest and members of the AJR read the names of the dead five times and once more in front of the monument. 

25th Anniversary of the Coup d’etat of General Rios Montt 

Rios Montt headed a military regime which began on March 23rd, 1982. He left a legacy of violence including widespread massacres, rape, torture, and acts of genocide against the indigenous population that still haunts the country today. Extradition requests for him by the Spanish Courts (under international jurisdiction) have been received by Guatemalan courts. As of today, the Guatemalan courts have yet to issue detention orders due to an appeal filed by Rios Montt’s attorney disputing the constitutionality of applying an arrest order with intent to extradite the former dictator. 

Montt is planning to run for President of the Guatemalan Congress in this year’s elections in order to gain immunity from prosecution. The Guatemalan Attorney General’s office is obligated to respond to the AJR’s demand to move the national legal process forward, which would mean that Rios Montt would no longer be allowed to run for office. This action must be taken to prevent his candidacy before candidate registration begins on May 2nd.  

Please take one moment of your time to send an e-mail to the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office to demand that the cases be moved forward at this link:


The U.S. government financially and militarily backed many of the dictators in power during the Guatemalan conflict, including General Rios Montt. This gives us an added responsibility to urge our representatives to support anti-impunity efforts in Guatemala. They also need to request that the US Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs comply with the international arrest warrants, including investigating and freezing any assets held in the US. 

A Bit of My Life in Santa Maria Tzeja 

The low-land jungle where SMT is located is very beautiful. Everywhere I look I see uncountable shades of green mixed with a bright blue sky. The rolling hills stretch on for miles and miles until they reach the mountains of Alta Verapaz. Goats loiter in the grass outside the door of my house and chickens and pigs run wild where they please. 

Depending on where I walk, I can catch the scents of the banana and orange trees, women making fresh tortillas or food being cooked over an open fire. Everyday, the molinero (a very loud machine that processes the corn into masa to make tortillas) competes with the roosters to wake me up around 5:30 in the morning. All throughout the day are sounds of kids playing and constant announcements for community meetings over the loudspeaker of the cooperative store. 

Life here, like anywhere in the “rural country-side,” revolves around food. All day the men work on their parcelas planting or harvesting. Some also have cows and horses that they raise and sell.  

The women spend the day mostly in the kitchen turning corn into masa and masa into tortillas, shelling black beans, shucking corn, boiling drinking water and cooking. Along with those duties, they also do all the washing and take care of the (usually) many children. Some women also work outside the home as teachers in the school or in their tiendas (stores). 

I enjoy helping from time to time in the traditional daily activities of women. I am learning to make tortillas and to carry water on my head, which by the way, is WAY harder than it looks. It’s something I am sure I will never master while I’m here, but like the señora’s say, “poco a poco” (“little by little”). 

(Kimberly Kern is a resident of Austin, TX living and working in Guatemala with the Network in Solidarity With the People of Guatemala <NISGUA>)