“Yes, there was genocide!”: Guatemala´s Ixil Vow to Keep Fighting for Justice

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In the early hours of June 21hundreds of human rights defenders, artists, feminists, musicians, religious workers, community organizers, independent journalists, international accompaniers, campesino and indigenous activists and others gathered in Guatemala City to participate in “The Caravan for the Dignity of the Ixil People and Against Genocide”.

Buses, vans, and cars decorated with banners that read, “Yes there WAS genocide!” and “Justice for the victims of the massacres!”made a seven-hour journey through flat farmland and winding mountain roads en route to Nebaj, Quiché. Along the way, buses carrying community members from Huehuetenango, Ixcán, the Southern coast and other regions of the country joined the caravan.

Upon arriving in Nebaj, we were met by local indigenous authorities who, with ceremonial staffs in hand, headed up the multitudinous march through the spectator-filled streets. A light drizzle didn’t dampen spirits as we proudly carried banners, shouted slogans, and played music in defense of truth, historic memory, and justice.

Juana Brito Bernal, an Ixil woman and genocide survivor, explained the nature of what was at once a protest and a celebration. “Every nation in the world should know that genocide happened here in Guatemala,” she told the crowd. “They tried to exterminate us, but they couldn’t exterminate us.”

The event was organized as a show of support and solidarity with the brave men and women of the Ixil Triangle who participated in the historic genocide case against General Efraín Rios Montt, and to remember all of the innocent victims of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. It was the first large event in the region since the May 10 guilty verdict against the former president and the Court ruling that overturned the sentence.

The evening finished with a candlelight vigil in a scared shrine, invoking the memory of the 1,771 Ixil men, women and children who were killed during the genocide under Rios Montt’s dictatorship. While this is the number used in the court case, the actual number is suspected to be much higher.

The following day, June 22, Nebaj celebrated the Day of Dignity and Resistance of the Ixil people, a commemoration of the seven indigenous leaders who were killed by a firing squad in 1936 for their opposition to the brutal dictatorship of General Jorge Ubico. The historic memorial dovetailed with the march and rally protesting the lack of justice in the genocide case.

Accompanied by the poignant sound of a single flute and softly beating drum, hundreds of people again took to the streets, carrying candles, flowers, banners and hand-painted signs. Widows and orphans carried photographs of their loved ones, disappeared by the army or civil patrollers during the massacres of the 1980s.Their message was simple: the Ixil people were victims of genocide.

In front of the cathedral, indigenous leaders from across the nation gave speeches decrying the decision of the three Constitutional Court judges to overturn the guilty verdict against Rios Montt, suspending hopes for long-awaited justice.  A Mayan ceremony was performed in honor of the disappeared; candles and incense burned next to small wooden crosses bearing the names of those whose lives came to an abrupt and violent end during the Montt dictatorship.

The highlight of the activity was the symbolic handing over of the May 10 guilty verdict and sentence against Rios Montt by representatives of the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) and the Association of Jurists for reconciliation (AJR) to the indigenous authorities, in representation of the victims.

Fransisco Soto of CALDH, addressed the Ixil population gathered in the park, “We never wanted revenge, we never wanted vengeance, we sought only justice and we set forth on that journey. For many years the government denied us justice. It wasn’t until now that we were able to obtain a fair trial, a trial where the voice of the Ixil people was heard.”

He recalled the hearings, where scores of Ixil people testified to the horrors they survived. “They told the Guatemalan people everything that had happened to them. The court ruled that in Guatemala there was a genocide, and here is the sentence.”

Soto formally presented the guilty verdict to the Ixil leaders, bound in black, hardcover volumes. The Ixil leaders lifted  the sentence on high  to the sound of thunderous applause.

The event closed with uplifting speeches by Lorena Cabnal and Sandra Morán of the Women’s Sector and boisterous music performed by a drum circle of energetic women.

As evening fell, the buses, vans and cars of the caravan headed back to Guatemala City carrying out-of-town supporters. Throughout the trial and now as the fight for justice continues, the linkages formed between the Ixil organizations and national and international supporters have been critical in advancing the case.

As we headed back, the feeling of unity, camaraderie and solidarity didn’t fade with the long trip home. Instead, the bus ride provided us with ample opportunity for reflection.

Despite a faulty justice system that in the end responded to external pressures instead of adhering to the truth; despite the angry campaign of those who deny genocide, despite the troubling remilitarization of the country, and despite the deeply-ingrained racism and discrimination that exists in Guatemala, May 10 will always be remembered as a day when the truth was told and justice prevailed. The guilty sentence against Rios Montt may have been overturned, but it will never be erased.

The Ixil people survived the genocide directed against them. After more than three decades, their search for justice will continue.

Robert Mercatante is the Director of the Guatemala Office of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission and contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org.

Writer: Robert Mercatante

Editor: Laura Carlsen