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Guatemala’s ‘Silent Holocaust’ Under The Shadow

Above photo: View of a Guatemalan Army soldier as he sits on a felled tree on a section of the Pan American Highway, Los Encuentros, Guatemala, March 7, 1982. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

In the 1980s, US-trained and sponsored state forces perpetrated a genocide, killing 200,000 mostly Indigenous Guatemalans.

Forty years later, justice remains elusive, and the ghosts still linger.

In the third episode of Under the Shadow, host Michael Fox visits a memorial for the disappeared on the outskirts of the Guatemalan town of San Juan Comalapa. Then, he walks back in time to the 1980s, into the country’s genocide of Indigenous peoples—and the overwhelming support for the violence that came from the United States and then-President Ronald Reagan in the name of fighting the so-called “communist threat.”

Between 1962-1996, 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and 45,000 were forcibly disappeared. For the majority of families, the whereabouts of those lost loved ones are still unknown, even decades after security forces abducted them. Most of the victims of the conflict were Indigenous. Most of the perpetrators were members of government forces.

Later in the episode, we walk back to present day and look ahead to the upcoming inauguration of new Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo, the son of the country’s first democratic president, who will be sworn in on January 14, 2024.

Under the Shadow is a new investigative-narrative podcast series that walks back in time to tell the story of the past by visiting momentous places in the present. In each episode, host Michael Fox takes us to a location where something historic happened: a landmark of revolutionary struggle or foreign intervention. Today, it might look like a random street corner, a church, a mall, a monument, or a museum. But every place Fox takes us to was once the site of history-making events that shook countries, impacted lives, and left deep marks on the world.

Many thanks to filmmaker Pamela Yates for allowing us to use clips of her award winning documentary When the Mountains Tremble in this podcast. Her Guatemala documentaries are being rereleased this year. You can find out more at https://skylight.is/.

Hosted by Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox, Under the Shadow is produced in partnership between The Real News Network and NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America).

Transcript

Michael Fox:  Hi. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that today’s episode deals with some harsh and heavy themes from Guatemala’s internal conflict and military dictatorships, including killings and forced disappearances. If you’re sensitive to these things or you’re in the room with small children, you might want to consider another time to listen. Okay. Here’s the show.

[Bus Sound]

It’s early, about 7:30AM. I’m in the town of Antigua, Guatemala. A big volcano looms over in the distance. I’m in the bus terminal. All these former US school buses are painted varying colors and are done up so you couldn’t even tell that they are former US school buses, but they are. Many of them are still yellow. I’m sitting on a bus that I very well could have gone to elementary and high school in a long time ago. Same seats. Same round bumps over the wheels in the back. The only difference is there are handrails that run up the middle and luggage racks along the top. I’m headed from Antigua to Chimaltenango and then up to Comalapa. So it’s going to be a little bit of a ride.

[Bus Sound]

I’m in Guatemala’s Central Highlands, a few hours from Tiquisate, where I visited in the last episode. The bus winds over mountain hills, heading north. One hour turns to two and then three. I think about the place where I’m headed; I’m nervous about what I’m going to find when I get there.

Through the map app on my phone, I watch us getting nearer and nearer to the location. And then I get up and walk down the aisle.

Bus Driver:  Muchas gracias.

[Sound of bus driving off]

Michael Fox:  I step off onto the side of the highway, pine forest all around. There’s a big white concrete wall built into the side of the hill. In front of it is a small green sign, which reads, “Paisajes de la Memoria, Verdad y Justicia” or “Landscapes of Memory, Truth, and Justice.”  I’m here. I finally made it to this memorial for the disappeared, here in Guatemala, and it has got to be one of the most intense, powerful, amazing, and tumultuous things I’ve ever witnessed.

This is Under the Shadow: a new, investigative, narrative podcast series that walks back in time to tell the story of the past, by visiting momentous places in the present. This podcast is a co-production in partnership with The Real News and NACLA. I’m your host, Michael Fox – Longtime radio reporter, editor, journalist, producer, and host of the podcast Brazil on Fire. I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years in Latin America.  I’ve seen firsthand the role of the US government abroad. And most often, sadly, it is not for the better. Invasions, coups, sanctions, and support for authoritarian regimes; Politically and economically, the US has cast a long shadow over Latin America for the past 200 years.

In each episode in this series, I will take you to a location where something historic happened, a landmark in revolutionary struggle, or foreign intervention. Today, it might look like a random street corner, a church, a mall, a monument, or a museum but every place I’m going to take you to was once the site of history-making events that shook countries, impacted lives, and left deep marks on the world. I’ll try to discover what lingers of that history today. We’ll dive deep into the past and I’ll take you there with me, on Under the Shadow.

This is Season 1: Central America. Episode 3: “Guatemala: The Disappeared”.

I’m standing in this beautiful mountain pine forest. It almost smells like Colorado which is where I used to live for many years and used to study and work up in the mountains. Birds are twittering between the trees. You can hear the highway off in the distance. Beautiful blue sky, the sun overhead, warm. What a nice cool breeze; It’s so comforting. Brown pine needles cover the ground in this thick, soft mat, and before me is an open, excavated, mass grave: one of 52 that was found in this place and one of three that they kept open so the memory of what these graves meant, what they were and the violations and the deaths and the torture that happened here, would not be forgotten.

See, the place where this memorial is located is a former military barracks of the Guatemalan army. It’s a couple of miles outside of San Juan Comalapa, a Maya Kaqchikel town where the military government carried out at least five massacres during the 1980s. Of course, this was all during the country’s nearly four-decade-long internal armed conflict. When activists, students, and community organizers were rounded up here by the military or police, these barracks were where they were often taken and most of them were never seen again.

Today, Max Perén is the caretaker of the memorial. He’s from Comalapa. He’s been watching over this place for almost 20 years. He says back in the 1980s, everyone suspected what was happening, but there was nothing they could do. Not until after the war ended in 1996.

That was when family members began to look for their loved ones in unmarked graves here. They enlisted help from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which was founded in 1997 for exactly that reason: to help family members find and identify their disappeared loved ones. Between 1962 and 1996, 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and 45,000 were forcibly disappeared. For the majority of families, the whereabouts of those lost loved ones are still unknown, even decades after security forces abducted them. Most of the victims of the conflict were Indigenous. Most of the perpetrators were members of government forces.

Here at the former military barracks, the forensic anthropologists and relatives of the disappeared discovered the remains of 220 people, including a baby and two children. Their remains were uncovered in the excavation of more than 50 unmarked graves between 2003 and 2005. Years later, through records and DNA samples, forensic anthropologists were able to identify about a fifth of those people. Of course, this was only a tiny, tiny fraction of the total disappeared here in Guatemala throughout the armed conflict. Nevertheless, it was a huge achievement. Particularly, in a country, where the horrors of the Civil War have long been shrouded in secrecy, and the perpetrators of those horrors have long been shielded from justice.

Max says that even from the time of the first exhumations in 2003, the families of the disappeared said they wanted to see their deceased loved ones returned and buried here. And not just those who were identified but all of the victims who were found here. Max says they pushed this process and want to see their bodies returned here before we die. Max explains that the National Coordinator of Guatemalan Widows, known in Spanish by the acronym CONAVIGUA, bought part of the land of the former barracks in chunks over the years. They dreamed of one day opening this memorial.

That dream finally became a reality in 2018. In a ceremony to lay the dead to rest in a dignified way, the families of the disappeared marched down the street alongside a truck loaded with 172 small wooden coffins, carrying the recovered bodies. They placed both the identified and unidentified remains in rows of above-ground concrete graves under the peaceful pine forest.

Victoria, a relative of a disappeared person, was there for the ceremony.

Victoria:  They will rest in peace because they are being taken someplace where they will rest forever. There is no better place.

Michael Fox:  Feliciana is a member of the widow’s organization that helped to found the memorial.

Feliciana:  This is really important because it’s families working together, who have been hit by the war in Guatemala.

Michael Fox:  She said during the opening of the memorial, that this was a place of torture and killings by the Guatemalan army and it’s been transformed into something beautiful. And it’s here where these people will rest.

Besides the tombs is a square room, known as a Nimajay in the Kaqchikel language, candles are lit there daily. It serves as a constant memorial for the dead and disappeared. It’s also a sacred place where Mayan ceremonies are held. A brightly painted mural wraps around the entirety of the outside of the building, depicting the community’s connection with the past and the violence that same community has faced at the hands of military forces.

Alongside the simple concrete graves, on the edge of the hillside, there’s a little path. Alongside it runs a long white marble wall, engraved with the names of the more than 6,000 people who disappeared in this region of Guatemala alone. The names go on and on—the names of the disappeared; Jose Francisco Lara Juz, Jose Gabriel Martin Toon,  Jose Guillermo Valenzuela Guillar, Jose Humberto Guardado Flores, Jose Iban Herrera Mata, Julio Antonio Escobar Ojedes, Marco Tulio Gomez Lima, Milton Carbonell, Santa Cruz. All of those names are from the town of Guatemala. And then we’ve got Esquintla. El Progresso. Chiquimula. So many from Chimaltenango. Baja Verapaz.

They called this the “Silent Holocaust” here. 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala’s internal conflict, 85% of them Indigenous. So many of them, the Military walked in, surrounded their villages, separated men and women, and proceeded to kill and torture every last one of them. 93% of the deaths were carried out by state forces, military forces. More people died here in Guatemala than in the conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile, combined. The Guatemalan genocide was, in many ways, committed in the name of fighting Communism. And the US government played a tremendous role in supporting this violence.

Remember, as we talked about in the last episode, the 1954 CIA coup that overthrew the government of Jacobo Arbenz, destroyed any semblance of human rights and democracy in Guatemala and it set the country on the tracks for decades of repression, violence, and successive US-backed military dictatorships.

I want to introduce someone here, who’s going to be with us throughout this episode.

Jo-Marie Burt:  I’m Jo-Marie Burt. I’m a political scientist and I teach at George Mason University, the SHAR School of Policy and Government, I’m also a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, and I’m currently the president of the Latin American Studies Association, LASA.

Michael Fox:  Jo-Marie is also a former NACLA editor and she has spent years focused on state violence and transitional justice in Guatemala.

Jo-Marie Burt: There are a lot of books that have been written about the origins of these revolutionary movements in Central America. And they’re all pointing to this one inevitable fact that these brutal, repressive, oligarchic, and military regimes are giving people no option for political participation to live basic, decent lives leads inevitably to revolution, right?

Michael Fox:  In Guatemala, that came in 1960, when a group of military officers took up arms against the state.

Grahame Russell is the founder and director of Rights Action. We also spoke with him in the last episode.

Grahame Russell:  The straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the post-coup regime was when Guatemala became used by the US to try and overthrow the revolutionary movement in Cuba, like the Playa de Giron and all that. In that invasion, the US was using part of the territory of Guatemala near the Caribbean to train the counter-Cuban revolutionary forces for their invasion. And that sent some sectors of the Guatemalan military into the mountains to say we have to overthrow this P-O-S government. And so the small Armed Revolutionary Movement begins in the late 50s to early 60s. The touchstone was the new regime, allowing the US to stage their efforts to overthrow the Cuban Revolution from Guatemalan soil.

Michael Fox:  The revolt was quashed but the rebellion grew. As did the repression.

Gabriela Porras would know. Today, she works at the Comalapa Memorial for the Disappeared and she’s also a member of Guatemala’s Forensic Anthropology Foundation. But back in the 1970s, both her parents had joined the guerrilla resistance. Her dad would go on to be one of the people who signed the Peace Accords. She had to flee the country when she was about 10 years old after her cousin was kidnapped and they tried to take her, too.

I met her at her home in the forested hills outside of Guatemala City. She wears glasses and has shoulder-length curly hair. She has a contagious smile and a lifetime’s worth of history, both lived and learned, to share with the world.

Gabriela Porras:  If you compare Guatemala with other countries in the region, these repressive tactics often happen here first because it’s an easy place to silence.

Michael Fox:  That’s because many of the killings, the massacres, and the disappearances happened far from the cities. The carnage largely took place in and against Indigenous villages and communities. People there spoke their Indigenous languages. Many spoke Spanish as a second language, if at all.

Gabriela Porras:  The state strategy of forced disappearances began in 1963 with the capture of 28 leaders of the Guatemalan Labor Party. They disappeared and from then on, forced disappearances became a part of the repression. The massacres that would also come were the result of the implementation in Latin America of practices that had previously been used in Indochina or Algeria. The military who led the most repressive governments, particularly Lucas García who came from the School of France, is the one who started with the scorched-earth policies.

Michael Fox:  Scorched-earth. The military strategy of wiping out whole Indigenous villages to cut off support for the insurgency. That was the late 1970s. Guatemalan state security forces were already killing an average of 20-30 people a day, according to human rights groups at the time. This was one of the reasons President Jimmy Carter cut military aid to Guatemala in 1977: The military government wouldn’t commit to human rights.

But then something extraordinary happened that shook the region: The Sandinista Revolution. The left-wing insurgency in nearby Nicaragua successfully forces out US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, the rebel Sandinistas take power, and their victory scares authoritarian regimes across Central America and the US.

Gabriela Porras:  The year is 1979 and the Sandinista Revolution triumphs. Support from the US and Israel to the Guatemalan army is significantly increased because it’s very clear that they are scared of the expansive effect of the possibility of a victory for Nicaragua, and, of course, what that meant for us. It’s an example that showed us that we could get there too.

Michael Fox:  Political scientist Jo-Marie Burt says the Guatemalan army didn’t want to take any chances of letting the revolution spread to Guatemala.

Jo-Marie Burt:  So they launched really what was a preemptive counterinsurgency and they launched these scorched-earth tactics in the countryside starting in ‘78 but intensifying over the next several years to a frenzy in 1982 and 1983, when Efrain Rios Mont is the dictator of the day.

Michael Fox:  Efrain Rios Montt. Born-again Christian. A general in the Guatemalan army who took power in a military coup in March 1982. He has slicked-back hair, a thick mustache, and a smooth smile. He likes to dress in these stylish white suits and is happy to speak to the press about the advances his country is achieving under his leadership, even if they are not true.

Three months into his rule, foreign journalists interviewed him about violence in the countryside. So, there’s no repression on the part of the army? one of them asked. No, there shouldn’t be, he says. Today it does not exist. I guarantee in the past three months, from March 26 until now, no repression. It was a lie.

Again, Jo-Marie Burt.

Jo-Marie Burt:  In his first few months, something like 10,000 people are murdered in massacres. The massive deployment of military operations, against especially Indigenous populations in the Western Highlands and other parts of Guatemala, was between 78 and 82, 83.

Michael Fox:  Meanwhile, Rios Montt and the Guatemalan military received newfound support, from one man, in particular.

US President Ronald Reagan :  My fellow citizens of this great nation, with a deep awareness of the responsibility conferred by your trust, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the US.

Michael Fox:  Ronald Reagan entered office as US president in January of 1981. He promised to double down on issues of  US security and tackle the so-called Communist threat close to home. Central America was ground zero.

US President Ronald Reagan :  Central America is a region of great importance to the US. And it is so close. San Salvador is closer to Houston, TX than Houston is to Washington, DC. Central America is America. It’s at our doorstep. And it’s become the stage for a bold attempt by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua to install communism by force throughout the hemisphere. When half of our shipping tonnage and imported oil passes through Caribbean shipping lanes and nearly half of all our foreign trade passes through the Panama Canal and Caribbean waters, America’s economy and well-being are at stake.

Michael Fox:  Reagan’s government would have a tremendous impact across the region. I’ll dig into all of that, at length, throughout this podcast series. In Guatemala, though, he was dedicated to once again jumpstarting military assistance and support for Rios Montt’s government and military.

US President Ronald Reagan :  Well, ladies and gentlemen, President Rios Montt and I have had a useful exchange of ideas, about the problems of the region, and our bilateral relations.

Michael Fox:  In December 1982, Reagan met Rios Montt during his first visit to Central America. After the meeting, Reagan told reporters that the Guatemalan dictator had received a “bum rap” from human rights organizations.

US President Ronald Reagan :  I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. His country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala. I have assured the president that the US is committed to supporting his efforts to restore democracy and address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.

Michael Fox:  Rios Montt said he appreciated the US’s commitment to working with his government to achieve “prosperity and economic opportunities in the region.” Two days later, an elite US-trained Guatemalan military battalion entered the Indigenous jungle village of Dos Erres, in the Northern Peten. They massacred virtually all of its residents. Only two boys survived.

Jo-Marie Burt:  The entire community was wiped out. 200 people were killed in the space of a morning. Kate Doyle uncovered these US declassified documents that show that the US flew over Dos Erres a day or two after reports of the massacre had come in. It was very clear that they understood exactly what had happened and knew that the Rios Montt-controlled military was responsible and yet our policy of support for the Rios Mont and other military regimes continued, unabated.

Michael Fox:  The following year, the US officially resumed aid and training assistance to Guatemala.  But documentary filmmakers and freelance journalists who traveled to Guatemala in 1982 found that the US had never stopped offering assistance and training to the Guatemalan military. Between 1978 and 1980 alone, the Guatemalan military received almost $8 million from the State Department’s Military Assistance program.

While filming her award-winning 1983 documentary, When the Mountains Tremble, Pamela Yates and her team interviewed a US Green Beret training Guatemalan soldiers on counterinsurgency tactics. He wears a camouflaged outfit, the words “US Army” written over his chest.

Jesse Garcia:  I help them in infantry subjects. They often ask me about Vietnam and my experiences there and I explain to them everything that happened there and they are very interested in my experiences.

Michael Fox:  I spoke with Yates about the US. role in Guatemala in the 1980s and US support for the country’s repressive and violent tactics.

Pamela Yates:  I would say that the US helped to create the conditions. They trained the military men, Rios Montt himself was trained at the School of the Americas, and of course, they did reopen arms sales and provided arms to Guatemala but the Guatemalan military was the one who carried out the genocide. Rios Montt and his allies were the ones who decided on the military strategy and the military tactics. So I would say that the US is complicit in the Guatemalan military carrying this out. Many of the documents that were declassified –  And are part of the National Security Archive’s Dossier on Guatemala – Are communicates from the US Embassy about what they knew and what they didn’t know. So they knew what was going on then but they weren’t able to stop it or they didn’t want to stop it. There are all different degrees of complicity that you can read in the archives themselves.

Michael Fox:  Atrocities continued long after the military coup that overthrew the Rios Montt government. And the US was well aware of what was happening. The violence would stretch on for another decade. Until finally, 1996. Peace accords are signed between the government and the rebel forces: A momentous occasion ending 36 years of conflict. The agreement mandates demilitarization, respect for Indigenous rights, and the creation of a UN Truth Commission.

Jo-Marie Burt:  The Commission for Historical Clarification is very important. It came out with its report in 1999. It determines that 200,000 people were killed in the course of the 36-year war in Guatemala. They documented 626 massacres, the vast majority committed by the military. It documented that 400 Indigenous villages and rural villages had been completely wiped off the face of the earth as a result of these military scorched earth counterinsurgency policies. And that the army and its proxy forces, mostly the civil defense patrols in which it forced young mostly Indigenous men to participate in these paramilitary units were responsible for 93% of the violations. The guerrilla was responsible for 3%, and 4% they were not able to determine. So you can see that the overwhelming source of violence, of massive violations of human rights, was the army.

Michael Fox:  Rights Action’s Grahame Russell.

Grahame Russell:  The genocides of the 80s served a similar purpose as the coup in 1954 was to keep in place the same old elites who are our partners. And so the wars of the 80s, they’re over but they’re not over, because it’s a constant state of inequality, injustice, and violence to keep in place a fundamentally unjust, violent, and unequal political-economic model.

Michael Fox:  A model that’s remained until today. But things may be about to shift. Bernardo Arévalo, the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, considered the father of the country’s “democratic spring,” will be inaugurated on January 14, 2024. He has faced an onslaught of attempts to block first his candidacy and now his government. But he’s risen above it and there is excitement in the air.

Grahame Russell:  You can’t overstate the upbeat energy because of the fear, the fatigue, the anxiety, and the legacy of all the ongoing, grinding poverty, the legacy of the violence of the past, the legacy of recent violence, depending on what region of the country you live in. It’s heavier than heavy so it’s not like a “yippee” happy hope in the country; It’s a “holy shit.” But it’s a real hope and it’s slowly percolating up and up and up.

Michael Fox:  Something else has been percolating since the end of the war: demands for justice.

In 2013, former dictator Rios Montt was convicted of genocide. That’s the sound of the crowd in the courtroom, exploding after the verdict is issued. Tears flow. Many chant, “justice.” The trial was used as key evidence in Pamela Yates’s documentary When the Mountains Tremble.

Pamela Yates:  Our filming and film outtakes were used as forensic evidence in the genocide case against Efrain Rios Montt. It was key forensic evidence because it helped prove the chain of command, which is a very difficult thing to prove in a genocide case. Genocide, the crime itself, is really hard to prove because most genocide cases have never gone to the scene of the crime.

So you have to prove that they ordered these killings and that the killings were carried out, and then those who carried them out reported back up the chain of command to the person who ordered it. And the material that we contributed from When the Mountains Tremble, provided that.

The significance of the genocide case itself, well, it was the first time that anyone was tried for the genocide of Indigenous people anywhere in the Americas, and that’s significant because there have been a lot of genocides against Indigenous people in the Americas.

Michael Fox:  Freelance journalist Allan Nairn reported from Guatemala in the 1980s. He told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman that US officials should also be held accountable.

Allan Nairn:  All of the crimes were crimes not just of General Rios Montt, but also of the US government.

Michael Fox:  He told Amy Goodman that the Guatemalan courts should issue indictments against US officials for their role in the genocide.

Allan Nairn:  The top officials of the Reagan administration who made the policy, the US CIA personnel on the ground who worked within the G2, which is the military intelligence unit that coordinated the assassinations and disappearances, the US military attaches who worked with the Guatemalan generals to develop the sweep and massacre strategy in the mountains, there would be hundreds of US officials who were complicit in this and should be subpoenaed, called before a grand jury, and subjected to indictment. And the US should be ready to extradite them to Guatemala to face punishment if the Guatemalan authorities are able to proceed with this.

Michael Fox:  But just 10 days after Rios Montt’s conviction, amid widespread backlash from the military and powerful groups, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court vacated the verdict on a technicality. The retrial languished in the courts as the defense repeatedly stalled the case.

Rios Montt died in 2018. He never served time.

Jo-Marie Burt:  How do you calculate the level of responsibility the US had? With a brief interregnum during the Carter administration when he pulled aid from Guatemala, which was then very quickly supplemented by Israel the US has very steadfastly supported, very steadfastly supported the Guatemalan military during the course of the Civil War.

They knew about the violence that was happening. In fact, the National Security Archive and its key researcher there, Kate Doyle, have called from the archives, numerous documents showing the level at which the US knew exactly what was going on, either turned a blind eye or thought it was a good thing because they were “fighting the communist threat.”

Michael Fox:  Rios Montt is not the only one whom the people of Guatemala have tried to hold accountable for their crimes. Over the last decade, Jo-Marie herself has observed over a dozen trials in which survivors and families of the victims have fought to hold the perpetrators of horrendous crimes accountable.

Jo-Marie Burt:  There have been numerous criminal prosecutions that have brought – Some anyway – Senior military officials to justice. Also, mid-ranking officials, soldiers, and members of the civil defense patrols have faced criminal charges. Not nearly as many trials or convictions as I think are needed in Guatemala, but it’s still important what has been achieved at the level of seeking justice in Guatemala. It allowed a window into how the Guatemalan state operated through the direct testimonies of victims.

Michael Fox:  For Jo-Marie, these trials are another face of the efforts by family members to remember the past, to not let it fade, so that it may never be repeated. Like the Memorial for the Dead and Disappeared in Comalapa.

Jo-Marie Burt:  It’s really important to highlight that in Guatemala, unlike other countries that have experienced massive human rights violations by the state, there is no state memorial or museum to commemorate the past. There’s one in Peru, there’s one in Chile, there’s the ESMA in Argentina. There’s nothing like that in Guatemala because the Guatemalan military and the Guatemalan state, overall, continue to deny responsibility for human rights violations. The Colon government did acknowledge some responsibility in some instances but overall the government and the official story is there was nothing to see here. We fought a war, we ended communism, the communist threat and that’s all there is to it. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, that’s the kind of logic.

Jo-Marie Burt:  So memorials like the one in Comalapa and around the country are grassroots initiatives by the communities of survivors and families of the victims themselves. And to me, they carry so much meaning because they’re forged by the very hands of the people who suffered this terrible violence at the hands of the Guatemalan military.

Michael Fox:  Back at the Comalapa Memorial, there’s one more thing I wanted to show you. See, while many figures within the US government aided and abetted the violence in Guatemala, others from the US have done their best to right the wrong.

I mentioned at the beginning that the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation had overseen the exhumations and identification of the bodies from the unmarked graves. Well, this foundation got its start after groups of survivors reached out to US forensic anthropologist Dr. Clyde Snow. He had worked on exhumations in Argentina following the reign of state terror during that country’s US-backed military dictatorship. And he had helped to set up Argentina’s Forensic Anthropology Team.

So Dr. Clyde Snow went to Guatemala. He helped find the bodies here in Comalapa, he trained people for the work ahead, and he fell in love with their struggle and their communities. Snow passed away in 2014. When the Comalapa Memorial opened four years later, his wife fulfilled his last wish and brought his ashes to be buried here among the disappeared. “Here lies the remains of Clyde Collins Snow. Born Fort Worth, TX January 7th, 1928. Died Norman, OK May 16th, 2014.”

It’s amazing that this man, the father of forensic anthropology, felt so strongly that he wanted to be buried with the bodies of the disappeared here, in this hillside memorial with so many others. There’s this plaque here set off from the wall of over 6000 disappeared names. Before it is a basin with his ashes and it looks over this beautiful hillside in this pine forest with the little plantation below of crops and corn being grown down in the valley. The fact that he wanted to be buried here, of all other places, says a ton. It’s so powerful.

In the next episode, we will also visit a memorial for the innocent victims but this time, it’s across the Guatemalan border, in El Salvador.  Again, we’ll look at the outsized role of the US government in the war there and its support for widespread atrocities, but also the people who fought back. That’s next time on Under the Shadow.

A couple of things to say before I go: First, I wanted to let you know that you can find pictures of the Comalapa Memorial, where I started this episode, on the websites of both NACLA and The Real News.  Second, I’d like to thank Pamela Yates for allowing us to use sound from her documentary When the Mountains Tremble in this episode. It’s been 40 years since it came out, and in honor of the anniversary, she is re-releasing it, together with a trio of other documentaries she has made about Guatemala. Definitely, check it out. There’s a link to her production company, Skylight, in today’s show notes.  Finally, if you like what you hear, please consider heading on over to my Patreon page, patreon.com/ mfox. There you can support my work, become a monthly sustainer, or sign up to stay abreast of the latest on this podcast and my other reporting across Latin America. I appreciate the support.

See you next time on Under the Shadow.

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