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Past horrors revisited in Guatemala


Tiburcio Utuy, 62, of Xix in Ixil, Quich
  • Tiburcio Utuy, 62, of Xix in Ixil, Quich

COBAN, Guatemala -- Streams gurgle under stone bridges and through the verdant, colorful gardens of the elegant Park Hotel -- a long, long way from the village Xix in many regards.

Two decades have lapsed since Mayan villagers, hiding in a mountainside forest, watched as a "civil defense" patroller used a machete to decapitate their friend in Xix below on Feb. 16, 1982.

Next they saw a pregnant neighbor flee her burning home, only to be disemboweled by another machete-wielding patroller who then smashed her unborn baby on a rock.

Some say memories are short in Guatemala, where many rural residents hope to elect former dictator Efrain Rios Montt as president this Sunday, Nov. 9. But for survivors of the multiple massacres during Montt's rule in the early 1980s, memories do not fade.

Montt, 77, is charged in lawsuits here and abroad with torture, war crimes and the genocide of more than 60,000 indigenous Mayans during his scorched-earth campaign that decimated 440 Mayan villages.

The United Nations Historical Clarification Commission concluded in 1999 that genocide had been committed in Guatemala from 1981 to 1983. It recommended the perpetrators be tried and convicted.

And on June 6, 2001, the Guatemala City-based Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) filed a criminal complaint against Montt and his military high command. The case is set for trial next month.

Montt, known as "Guatemala's Pinochet," studied at the notorious, U.S.-financed School of the Americas, where U.S. experts admittedly trained Latin American "anti-Communist" strongmen and their armies in anti-guerilla combat, psychological warfare and mass coercion. Montt ruled with covert U.S. support during the Reagan era and its Iran-Contra illegalities.

Despite 36 years of civil war, Guatemala's worst spate of tortures, massacres and illegal detentions occurred during Montt's brief 18 months as dictator, launched with a coup d'tat in March 1982.

Yet in the upcoming presidential race he currently ranks third, behind wealthy businessman Oscar Berger and lifelong politician Alvaro Colom, in polls of presidential candidates.

Massacre survivors who met at the Park Hotel here in September remember Montt's "administration" all too well.

Tiburcio Utuy, 62, of Xix, is proud of his new teeth and smiles broadly during the hours he needs to recount months in hiding with fellow villagers and the eight months of torture he endured after his capture.

But even Utuy collapses in tears when he recalls finally being left naked in an open pit for 12 days, only to be rescued by a "miracle of God." He had been beaten, stabbed, starved and deprived of water so often that no one would contest his claim of a miracle.

Juan Tojin Chibalan, 57, still doesn't smile much. His memories remain far too vivid, much too personal. Catarina Tojin Tum and her daughter Josefa, 26, were slashed to death by machetes as they tried to flee, he says, rattling off names of friends slain decades ago. So were Josefa's children, Magdalena and Nastasia.

Many villagers had stayed behind despite the patrollers' approach, he says. They thought, "I didn't do anything."

"They didn't want their houses to be burned," he says ruefully, slowly shaking his head.

Victims have "gone from grief and sharing the horror to demanding justice," says Christina Laur de Perez, a Canadian political scientist working on the CALDH suit.

Among hundreds of witnesses is a farmer across the border in Mexico, who received more than 5,000 fleeing Guatemalans in 1981 and 1982. In one day alone, 1,900 Guatemalans arrived at his farm.

Emaciated women would appear and, though starving, their first request always was for plain clothing so they could shed the indigenous apparel that identified them as Mayans, Laur says.

Despite pounds of evidence and testimony, she warns: "When this case comes to trial, watch for bombings of judges' homes, threats against the legal community and witnesses being killed. If Rios Montt is elected, we're going to have to have backup plans for how we (human rights workers) evacuate and get witnesses to a safe place."

Billie Stanton ( is a veteran journalist and former member of the Denver Post editorial board.


To learn more on the current situation in Guatemala, check out the following Web sites:

Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA):

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA:

The Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH):

To learn more about how Coloradans are helping, or to learn about volunteer or charitable opportunities, check out the Denver Justice and Peace Committee Web site at

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