In a courtroom in
At 86, the former dictator Gen.
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.
In 1982, President
Rios Montt studied at the infamous
How did Rios Montt for so long escape trial for his alleged atrocities? Ousted by a coup, he ran for
All of this might seem like distant proceedings except that
Recall the massive 2008 immigration raid -- the largest ever at the time -- at a kosher meat processing plant in
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
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
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
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
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.
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(c) 2013 Tribune Media Services , "A Guatemalan Tyrant Faces Justice at Last"