Justice Dreaming

UA professor to provide academic testimony at historic genocide trial in Guatemala

Mari Herreras
Elizabeth Oglesby: "This is the first time a genocide trial has been held in Latin America."

When UA associate professor Elizabeth Oglesby testifies this month as an expert witness in the ongoing genocide trial of former Guatemalan leader Efraín Ríos Montt, she'll be thinking about her former colleague Myrna Mack, who was assassinated in 1990.

Oglesby, who teaches in the UA Center for Latin American Studies, is there to provide testimony based on a report she wrote for the country's justice ministry based on research she did in the mid-1980s on the forced displacement of the country's Mayan population during Montt's brutal military rule.

"It was such a compelling experience to do that research. But the Guatemalan anthropologist I worked with that was assassinated in 1990, her case became a major human rights case as well. (Thinking of her), I feel a professional responsibility to continue to do the research and share the results of that research out of respect."

During Guatemala's civil war, Mack did fieldwork in many Mayan communities. In 1990, outside her Guatemala City office she was stabbed 27 times by a military death squad. In 2004, a judgment was issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Guatemalan government was forced to publicly recognize it was complicit in her murder and compensate her family.

However while thinking of Mack, Oglesby is there to testify on her own research at what is considered the first genocide trial in Latin American actually held in the country where the crimes were committed. The trial began March 19 in Guatemala City.

"This is the first time a genocide trial has been held in Latin America and one of the few incidences a former head of state is put on trial for human rights violations in his own country. It's taken a long time," she says.

The case against Montt was first filed in 2000 in Guatemala, as well as the international courts in Spain, where the case proceeded enough that it began to call witnesses to testify. However, Guatemala refused to extradite Montt. In 2011, the courts in Guatemala began to move - human rights hearings, arrests and indictments, but all lower level officials.

Oglesby first went to Guatemala in 1986, hired by one of her Tufts University professors to be a research assistant. It was Guatemala's first year of civilian government after decades of military rule. Her research was looking at repatriation of Guatemalan refugees coming back from camps in Mexico.

"I stayed there for four years and did several years of research on internally displaced populations in Guatemala's Mayan villages forced into the mountains because of army massacres in the early 1980s," she says.

"I worked with Myrna (Mack) on the project looking at the return of those populations. Could they come back to their villages? What happened to their land? What was the security situation for them? In the wake of the real brutal military campaigns of the early 1980s, 1.5 million people from 1981 to 1983 were displaced. That was about 15 percent of the population."

Oglesby says in some regions where they did their research, all the Mayan villages had been destroyed and hundreds of massacres had taken place. The military went through those villages and burned houses, destroyed crops, killed animals and settled people in miltary-controled model villages.

In 2010, Oglesby was contacted by Guatemala's justice ministry to do an expert witness report based on that work. She was also asked to provide research to Guatemala's Commission for Historical Clarification, or its truth commission, which was set up after the peace accords were signed in 1996.

Montt's trial will focus on what happened to the Maya Ixil in El Quiché, one of 22 Maya indigenous groups in Guatemala, that comprises three towns and surrounding villages. Between 1981 and 1983, in that region 75 percent of villages were destroyed and the entire rural population was displaced. Many went into the mountains hiding from the army and "the army would chase them into the mountains and shoot at them. My report focuses on this population based on the prior research that I did."

Oglesby has to appear in court to ratify her report in person. Knowing what happened to Mack, when asked if she's scared, Oglesby paused before carefully saying, "There is a high threat level now in Guatemala, but I'm testifying as an academic professional purely there in my professional capacity regardless of the verdict in the trial."

Although Montt's dictatorship was brief, the former general is accused of killing more than a thousand Maya and is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. More specifically, Montt is charged for the deaths of 1,700 Maya during his rule. He isn't alone, Oglesby says his former military intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, is also accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

While justice is arriving late to hold Montt accountable for the crimes committed during his dictatorship, there remain injustices faced by the country's Maya. For example, in western Guatemala, Mayas are working against a Spanish company's hydroelectric dam project and have had to experience harassment, detentions and 17-days of martial law. Will the Montt trial impact the injustices that continue?

Oglesby says she thinks the trial, and others before this one, demonstrates that "no one is above the rule of law in Guatemala and I think that is especially significant for the Mayan populations. Throughout Guatemala's history they have been so brutalized and faced such discrimination. ... This is a very important step regardless of the verdict. ... It's also very important that victims of the counter insurgency that have experienced the state violence get a chance to tell their story."

Before sitting down for an interview, Oglesby had said there is reason to tell this story in Tucson because some Tucsonans may no longer be aware of or know the city's history that connects it with Guatemala - the Sanctuary Movement.

In the early 1980s, the Mayan villagers being displaced - the ones that are part of Oglesby's report - came through our border region in the early 1980s to escape the violence of their country.

"In Guatemala, 15 percent of the country was forcibly displaced. It was not safe for people to stay in Mexico during that period, so a lot of people came all the way up to cross the U.S. border," Oglesby says.

"There's a fascinating history in Tucson of the response by the churches and faith community to create the Sanctuary Movement. They came together to aide them, to help them find safe harbor and a platform to speak out. Most did not receive political asylum, in part because of the U.S.'s tacit support of the governments."

Oglesby says it's also important for people in Tucson to think about the long-term effects - how that early displacement has created patterns of migration that continue today. "Currently we have Guatemalan dying in our desert as they cross. They are the third largest undocumented group in the United States."

"You can't really tell a story about Guatemala without discussing the Maya and the violent displacement of the 1980s and the massacres that forced people out of their villages and destroyed community ties of the Maya communities. There's a legacy of that that is still very present - the exodus began and it's just never stopped."

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