Editor’s note: The military campaign that killed more than 1,700 Mayans during Guatemala’s civil war is widely considered by experts as the only act of genocide in the Western Hemisphere during the modern era. According to the United Nations, Efrain Rios Montt is the first former head of state to face genocide charges by a national tribunal.
Guatemala City (CNN) — The soldiers killed Jacinto Lopez’s teenage daughter Magdalena by repeatedly stabbing her in the neck.
Then they shot and killed his sons, 13-year-old Domingo and 10-year-old Pedro.
His in-laws were not spared. Barely anyone in the village was.
These atrocities, which took place in the remote Guatemalan town of Santa Maria Nebaj in July of 1982, have never been described in a courtroom.
For the first time, Lopez has shared his terrifying story in the nation’s highest court.
And for the first time “anywhere in the world,” according to the United Nations, a former head of state is being tried for genocide by his own nation’s justice system. That man is Efrain Rios Montt, an ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983.
“They killed my family and destroyed our crops,” Lopez testified. “They took even my cows.”
The attack against the Lopez family was just one of countless assaults in the early 1980s during the war between the Guatemalan government and leftist rebels.
The military used the rebel threat as a guise to exterminate rural Ixil Mayan villages accused of harboring insurgents, prosecutors say. According to prosecutors, the campaign led to the genocide of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayans.
Previous accusations of genocide, such as in Rwanda or against Serbia, have been presided over by international judges. The Guatemala attacks are considered by many experts as the only incident of genocide in the Western Hemisphere during the modern era.
The trial reignites debate over the United States’ controversial pro-government policies in the region during the 1980s. It also offers a fascinating look in real time at how a nation is choosing to face its own demons. Painful public testimony could help heal the national betrayal reflected in the faces of many Mayan victims.
Lopez, now 82 years old, is among dozens of witnesses who have testified at the trial being heard by the nation’s three-judge Supreme Court.
Rios Montt, 86, is accused of authorizing a military strategy so brutal that it was labeled “scorched earth.” His attorneys say the former dictator did not order any of the atrocities.
The genocide charges rest on the assertion that the army, under Rios Montt’s orders, specifically targeted the Ixil because of their ethnicity, and not just because they were suspected of harboring rebels. The charge has been made before, but not in court. A 1999 report by a Guatemalan truth commission concluded that “agents of the state committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people.”
During the opening remarks of the trial, an attorney for Rios Montt laid the foundation for the argument that no such ethnic targeting took place.
“I never heard a speech that said ‘kill the Ixil, exterminate the Ixil,’” defense lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel said. Rios Montt “never gave an order, written or spoken, to exterminate a single Ixil in this country.”
The United States stands accused in the court of public opinion. Critics say Washington turned a blind eye to the abuses, and worse. The Reagan administration claimed violence was decreasing during Rios Montt’s tenure, and in 1983, lifted a U.S. arms embargo. But there are bookends for this dark chapter of Central American history. More recently, the United States has pushed for Guatemalan judicial reform that has made this trial possible.
For generations, the Ixil have lived in mountainous villages in the country’s northwest, mostly isolated from the rest of Guatemala and the world. According to the country’s 2002 census, Guatemalan Ixil number around 95,000, less than 1% of the nation’s population.
They still speak primarily the Ixil language, and most of the witnesses called to the stand so far have spoken through a translator. The horrific stories that more than 70 prosecution witnesses have revealed so far have been hard to hear in any language.
Woman trial witness whose identity was protected by the court
“I was 12 years old,” said one woman, whose identity was protected by the court. “They took me with the other women and they tied my feet and hands. They put a rag in my mouth … and they started raping me … I don’t know how many took turns. … I lost consciousness … and the blood kept running. … Later I couldn’t even stand or urinate.”
Stories about rape were so widespread that the trial set aside an entire day of testimony just for rape victims.
Their shocking stories prompted many of the hundreds of Guatemalans sitting in the courtroom to use their hands to cover their mouths. The powerful proceedings often wrapped the courtroom in profound silence, only to be broken by the sound of sobbing.
Pedro Chavez Brito was 6 or 7 years old when the military attacked his village in November 1982. Soldiers killed his mother, he told the court. In a frantic bid to escape, he hid with his pregnant sister and her two children among the family’s chickens.
It didn’t work.
When soldiers found them, they lashed Chavez’s sister to the stairs of their home, he testified. The soldiers then set the house on fire, killing her and her two children, Chavez testified. Seven other family members may have died in the fire, he said.
Chavez, like many other survivors, lived to share his story because he fled into the unforgiving mountains.
That’s how Maria Cruz Raymundo and her family escaped, too. But conditions there were so harsh that her husband, daughter and son starved to death, she told the court.
More than 100 witnesses have taken the stand so far — a marathon of gruesome stories.
Another witness, Nicholas Bernal, testified that he, too, escaped to the mountains.
Bernal told the court he had watched soldiers kill his neighbors and then rip out their hearts and burn their bodies.
Each passing day of the trial reveals similar nightmarish stories. Human rights organizations such as the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights and Association for Justice and Reconciliation are broadcasting the trial live on the Internet. In addition, the U.S.-based Open Society Justice Initiative is providing daily summaries on a dedicated website. Testimony in this report is culled from all these sources and state news media.
Shifting U.S. behavior
When Rios Montt assumed power in a coup in 1982, Guatemala was already in the throes of a violent civil war that would last 36 years. The insurgency, and extrajudicial killings by the military, had been going on for two decades as part of the broader conflicts between leftist rebels and hardline governments across the region.
By the time a peace accord was reached in 1996, an estimated more than 200,000 had perished.
Rios Montt faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity connected to his 16 months as dictator. He is being tried together with his then-chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.
Sanchez is accused of designing and executing the army’s strategy.
When Rios Montt became president, human rights violations had already prompted the United States to cut off aid to the Guatemalan government. But a political scandal in the U.S. in the 1990s revealed that in fact the CIA continued to provide money to Guatemalan military intelligence sources for years during the civil war.
Now-declassified secret CIA cables indicate that the United States had knowledge of the atrocities being committed against the Ixil Mayans, but did little about them, according to Victoria Sanford, director of the Center for Human Rights & Peace Studies at the City University of New York.
“At best they chose to look away, but often they were covering it up,” Sanford said.
In one CIA document, from February 1983, the agency reports to Washington that an increase in violence against civilians is because of “right-wing violence.”
But the U.S. ambassador at the time added a note to the same memo with a distinct explanation: “I am firmly convinced that the violence described … is government of Guatemala ordered and directed violence.”
Another CIA memo shows the U.S. government may have had knowledge of the violent tactics being used against the Ixil Mayans.
“When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed,” the 1982 document states. “The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is (pro-rebel) has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”
Critics blame the United States, in its anti-communist zeal, of standing by during these atrocities by denying them and lifting the arms embargo. Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan went as far as to say that Rios Montt was being given a “bum rap” by critics. At the same time, the United States was backing other strongmen in Latin America against leftists.
But if the United States deserves criticism for openly supporting Rios Montt’s rule, it also should be credited for supporting Guatemalan efforts to put the former dictator on trial, said Anita Isaacs, a professor of political science at Haverford College whose research focuses on Guatemalan politics.
She is a fierce critic of the U.S. role in the 1980s, but adds that “this trial wouldn’t be occurring were it not for the role played by the United States pushing for reform in Guatemala’s judicial system.”
In her view, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala from 2008 to 2011, Stephen McFarland, was “single-handedly” responsible for shifting the country’s perception of the United States from meddling to supportive.
McFarland listened to survivors’ stories of the civil war and attended hearings in support of the victims, she said.
The historic nature of the trial isn’t lost on the nation’s public, although some say too much time has passed for the process to be fair.
Even current President Otto Perez Molina, a former general who once commanded troops in the Ixil lands, has said he believes there was no genocide. Instead, some see the attacks as a kind of national defense campaign.
The Guatemalan military viewed the Ixil Mayans as rebel collaborators who threatened the government.
This view is shared by protesters with military ties who have stood outside the courthouse, holding signs demanding respect for the military and a fair trial. One demonstrator, Victor Manuel Argueta, told the state-run AGN news agency that the soldiers are “proud of what we did during the civil war.”
The army in the early 1980s, he said, “was dedicated to defending the people from those who wanted to usurp power.” The trial, he said, is nothing more than a “political lynching.”
Declassified U.S. documents repeated the Guatemalan military’s assertion that the Ixil were protecting the rebels.
But dozens of studies by anthropologists have indicated that it was much more complex than that, said Kate Doyle, director of the Guatemala Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, a leading research institute.
Some Ixil Mayans joined the guerrillas as combatants and others provided food or protection, but still others were not connected to the rebels. Some even actively opposed the rebels, she said.
Since the trial began, Rios Montt has fired his attorneys and then rehired them.
Defense attorneys have argued there’s no evidence proving that Rios Montt ordered any of the abuses.
His lawyers have repeatedly and unsuccessfully demanded that the chief judge recuse herself. They say the judge violated Rios Montt’s rights by pressing on with the trial when his attorneys were not prepared.
A victory, no matter the outcome?
The victims’ stories are haunting, and the desire for justice strong, but the task of proving genocide isn’t easy.
Prosecutors must prove the attacks targeted a specific ethnic group with the intention of destroying it, said Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law.
To convict Rios Montt, prosecutors must also convince the judges that he was responsible.
What’s at stake is less clear. The genocide charges are without precedent. If Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez are convicted, their maximum possible sentences are unknown.
In 2011, a Guatemalan court sentenced four soldiers to 6,060 years in prison each for their role in the 1982 massacre at Dos Erres, a village where 201 people were killed. Thirty years for each death. A fifth soldier was sentenced to the same last year. The unheard-of sentences were for crimes against humanity, not genocide.
Naomi Roht-Arriaza, University of California Hastings College of Law.
Given Rios Montt’s age, many assume that he will serve little, if any, time in prison if convicted.
For the moment, legal observers say the trial itself stands as a huge triumph.
A national conversation
So many of the Ixil Mayans have described their ordeals using the same phrase: They said the army treated them “like animals.”
These heart-wrenching revelations, said Roht-Arriaza, allow victims a very important opportunity.
Finally, they can acknowledge in a public courtroom the horrors they experienced so many years ago.
Several witnesses said they do not seek revenge, but simply want to be “liberated” by having their stories etched in the official record.
They must “make public what they may have kept inside,” Roht-Arriaza said. “It opens up the nation to conversation. It lets people see that the justice system works.”
Looking into the eyes of some of the victims in the courtroom, it’s hard to know if they reflect pain or faith or peace — or the relief of a weight lifted.
As the witnesses detail their horrifying stories, Rios Montt sits just a few feet away, expressionless. Listening.
As Isaacs put it, this “in itself is a form of justice.”
CNN’s Mariano Castillo reported and wrote this story from Atlanta. Journalist Miguel Salay contributed from Guatemala City.
There are moments when we feel alone in this calling to form a movement of hope. There are moments when we feel that no one else cares. There are moments when we feel that people are not hearing the call. There are moments when we are about to lose all that we have worked for because people are not helping. But…. there are moments that remind us that God is in control and that this is not our vision, this is not our ministry it is His and we are all united in this ministry of Jesus…..A Hope Movement.
The Hope Movement is a grassroots ministry, it started humibily by a poor young person, without connections to funds, but only a connection to the Most High. We have been struggling to get people inspired to help us by becoming financial givers to help us complete the will of God. We felt that the doors of our Haven of Hope Outreach Center in Escuintla, Guatemala was going to close because of the lack of financial support, but in our dark moments, God sends people who decide to listen to His voice and give.
These are our Angels, our friends, our family and we love them deeply.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
(CNN) – A flaring furnace blasts another wave of searing heat on the faces of workers hauling bricks under a southern Indian sun.
They work up to 22 hours a day propping heavy stacks of bricks on their heads. None expects to be paid for this labor. None knows how long they’ll be kept here. Some are as young as three years old.
Manoj Singh was one of 149 people rescued this year from a brick kiln outside Hyderabad, India. Like millions of other Indians, the toddler was born into extreme poverty.
When CNN correspondent Mallika Kapur visited Manoj’s family, now back home, he and the some of the 34 other children freed, showed her how they would make the bricks from wet clay.
“They recall from their muscle memory,” says Anu George Canjanathoppil, of International Justice Mission, a non-profit dedicated to eradicating slavery around the world. “So if you ask them to explain what they did, they cannot say.”
Older laborers, however, had plenty to say.
Pregnant woman kicked
According to reports from IJM investigators at the scene, one pregnant woman claimed she was kicked by her manager, when she pleaded for rest. A man had raw wounds so deep that the bone showed through.
The workers’ grueling schedule permitted little time for eating. After being freed and having a full meal, many of the malnourished workers vomited.
“We had to work 18 to 22 hours a day,” Manoj’s father, Lucky Singh, told Kapur. “We didn’t get time to eat or to bathe. One day, I dozed off. Then the boss came and beat me with a stick.”
Lucky says he ended up at the kiln because he was desperate to provide for his impoverished family.
When a recruiter came to his small village in Odisha state in eastern India, near the Bay of Bengal, he willingly went on the promise of a $400 advance, which became a $400 debt – and they were locked into working to try to pay it off. They couldn’t leave without permission and wouldn’t be told when, or if, they could ever pay off their debt.
Bonded labor in India is the most prevalent form of slavery in the world today. It was declared illegal in India in 1976 but persists. A vast majority of India’s workers scrape together a meager living through informal, unregulated work contracts, making them more susceptible to unsafe working environments and exploitation.
Illegal yet widespread problem
The CNN Freedom Project has worked for more than two years, taking aim at this illegal yet widespread practice and questioning the Indian government about its efforts to crack down on these human rights violations.
Eighteen months ago, Kapur was in the same state, reporting on the rescue of more than 500 victims from another brick kiln.
Months before, correspondent Sara Sidner filmed a three-part series showing the process for bringing entire villages out of slavery. When she asked the supervisor of a brick kiln factory to explain his use of bonded labor and why none of the workers was receiving a wage, he asked her to pay him for his answer.
At its core, slavery today exists for two reasons: greed and desperation. It’s greed on the part of landowners and illegal recruiters. And its desperation for the tens of millions of people who are willing to take a risk to improve their lives, no matter how long the odds.
“Although we can’t solve all the challenges of poverty or poverty itself, we can change the mindset,” says Saju Mathew, the director of operations for International Justice Mission in South Asia.
“We can equip these people to know the law and their rights and to be able to identify when traps like this are laid for them. 90 to 95% of the people we have rescued are not returning back into bondage. They learn to make a livelihood in freedom.”
Newly freed laborers
Working alongside the Indian government, International Justice Mission has carried out dozens of raids in the past six years. More than 3,200 people have been freed as a result.
Newly emancipated laborers are returned to their home villages, where they receive two years of community-based training and education, where they learn their rights and make plans for building sustainable businesses.
In addition, the government also provides them with 20,000 rupees, ($400) in restitution money, so they may begin to create a new life, far from the grip of illegal agents.
“For me, these are encouraging signs the government is taking proactive measures to address a very big problem. That’s a shift,” says Mathew. “There’s been such a culture of denial, but now there is a real movement among the government officials to take on something big and confront it.”
And that is all the millions of Indians like Manoj and his father would ask for.
At least 28% of South African schoolgirls are HIV positive compared with 4% of boys because “sugar daddies” are exploiting them, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has said.
He said 94,000 schoolgirls also fell pregnant in 2011, and 77,000 had abortions at state facilities, The Sowetan newspaper reports.
About 10% of South Africans are living with HIV, official statistics show.
Mr Motsoaledi has been widely praised for his efforts to curb the disease.
South Africa has run the world’s largest anti-retroviral (ARV) programme since President Jacob Zuma appointed him health minister in 2009.
The number of HIV-positive people receiving life-saving ARV drugs more than doubled from 678,500 to 1.5 million after he took office, according to official statistics.
The government of former President Thabo Mbeki, who questioned the link between HIV and Aids, had argued it could not afford to roll out this treatment to all the South Africans who needed it.
Speaking at a public meeting in the town of Carolina in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, Mr Motsoaledi said the large number of young girls who were HIV-positive “destroyed my soul”.
“It is clear that it is not young boys who are sleeping with these girls. It is old men,” The Sowetan quotes him as saying.
“We must take a stand against sugar daddies because they are destroying our children.”
Mr Motsoaledi said some pregnant girls – aged between 10 and 14 years of age – also tested positive for HIV.
“[About] 77 000 girls had abortions at public facilities. We can no longer live like that. We want to put an end to it,” he said.
More than five million people in South Africa are HIV-positive – about 10% of the total population.
Last year more than 260,000 people with Aids died – almost half the figure of all those who died in the country.