A Guatemalan tyrant, in old age, faces justice at last

In a courtroom in Guatemala City, a gray-haired man sits passively through the trial of the century for the Central American country.

At 86, the former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt has escaped this criminal scrutiny for decades. Now, along with another notorious general, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, he stands accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Specifically, of orchestrating the murder of nearly 1,800 indigenous people and the forced displacement of 29,000 more. The tallies are an astounding amount of suffering for his 17-month reign in the early 1980s.

Since mid-March, dozens of Ixil people, indigenous Mayans of, have taken the witness stand to describe the Guatemalan military's campaign of extermination against them. They tell of watching families burned alive as their homes were torched, of beheadings and body parts thrown into rivers. Women were raped before being shot to death, and toddlers were hacked up with machetes.

Survivors describe hiding, starving in the mountains, fearful even to light a cook fire, lest they alert paramilitary government troops who chased after them.

Most North Americans are unaware of the trial, and of the man at the center of it. Sadly, that's not surprising. Most of us were oblivious when the atrocities occurred. And we remain unmoved by the fact that U.S. military shipments helped Rios Montt inflict his scored earth campaign.

The U.S. provided aid to the Guatemalan military during periods of the country's 36-year civil war, in which at least 200,000 people died and more than 45,000 disappeared before peace accords were signed in 1996.

A United Nations truth commission found that the Guatemalan military committed 90 percent of the atrocities, largely targeting the indigenous.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan met with Rios Montt, praising his efforts as a heroic fight against Marxist guerrillas.

President Bill Clinton would later apologize for the U.S. role.

Rios Montt studied at the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia, the alma mater of many Latin American military leaders who went on to distinguish themselves with horrific acts of brutality.

How did Rios Montt for so long escape trial for his alleged atrocities? Ousted by a coup, he ran for Guatemala's Congress. He only recently lost his immunity when his term ended. His trial is expected to continue into April.

All of this might seem like distant proceedings except that Guatemala's indigenous are also part of more recent U.S. headlines.

Recall the massive 2008 immigration raid -- the largest ever at the time -- at a kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa. The majority of those arrested were Guatemalans, rounded up like cattle and "processed" for deportation. The abuses were many, and the resulting backlash actually led to reforms in U.S. immigration policy.

One little-known but revealing aspect of the raid was that the Spanish translators provided by the U.S. government were of little use. Many of the Guatemalans were indigenous and spoke different dialects. Spanish was their second language, and most could neither read nor write it. Some were members of the same families that suffered most during Guatemala's civil war.

North Americans often miss these connections, the ways our lives intertwine with events and places far from our frame of reference.

I became aware of one such connection about 10 years ago while wandering through ruins in the highlands of Guatemala. A Mayan woman was there selling intricately embroidered textiles. We struck up a conversation, Spanish being a second language for both of us. She was excited to find out I was from the Midwest.

She pulled out a scrap of paper, a U.S. phone number was penciled on it: 816-761.... My heart skipped, the digits were so familiar. It turned out that her husband was living a few miles from my childhood home in south Kansas City.

I later visited him, and he recounted stories of violence from the country's long civil war, telling how his family had been uprooted and how he eventually came north for work. On the outskirts of Kansas City, he was working under a fake Social Security number at a fast food restaurant.

Many Americans like to fancy our nation as the injured party when it comes to illegal immigration. They imagine that these immigrants are little more than a bunch of parasitic lawbreakers trying to take something from us. Some ask why the "failed states" to the south of us can't get their acts together and look after their own citizens?

Why indeed? As the Mayan survivors in that Guatemalan courtroom tell their stories, we'd do well to remember that our nation has been more involved in their tragedy than many of us are willing to admit.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

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