© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Guatemalan genocide trial echoes among South Florida's Ixil Maya

Indigenous Defiance: Ixil Maya women in 2014, in the western Guatemalan town of Nebaj, carry the coffin of an exhumed villager, killed during a military massacre there in 1982, to a new burial site.
Moises Castillo
Indigenous Defiance: Ixil Maya women in 2014, in the western Guatemalan town of Nebaj, carry the coffin of an exhumed villager, killed during a military massacre there in 1982, to a new burial site.

A genocide trial has been underway in Guatemala since April 5 — and although Pedro Brito Matom says it's too dangerous now for him to attend it, he takes consolation in knowing he helped bring the historic case to court.

Brito, who lives in Lake Worth Beach, is an indigenous Ixil Maya from the town of Nebaj in Guatemala’s western highlands. He was four years old in April of 1982, during the worst days of Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war, when he says soldiers came to his family’s house late one night.

They wanted to kill Brito’s father, Miguel, whom Pedro says they falsely accused of being a leftist guerrilla. The father wasn’t there, but Brito's two uncles were. So he says the soldiers murdered them instead.

“They slashed their throats with knives, right in front of me,” Brito recalls, his voice softly choking.

“I was just a little boy, but I remember watching the blood spill out of my uncles.”

Now 46, Brito still has a cherubic face — but a determined mind. He later defied army threats and located the mass grave where he says soldiers buried his uncles, named Jacinto and Diego Matom. He then decided to help other Ixil Maya exhume murdered relatives and give their survivor testimonies.

“Their plan was to exterminate us as a people,” Brito says of the Guatemalan military of that time. “And we wanted it known that one person was most responsible.”

That person, they insist, was Army General Benedicto Lucas García. And, in fact, it's the 91-year-old Lucas García who's now on trial in Guatemala for genocide — for, as Brito says, trying to exterminate the country’s Ixil Maya population.

READ MORE: From scorched earth to Palm Beach: the Maya are coming to Florida

Lucas García denies the charge. Brito, who says military death threats forced him into exile, now lives in Lake Worth Beach, in Palm Beach County, as part of its large Maya migrant community — a product of the persecution inflicted on Guatemala's indigenous for centuries.

“The large Guatemalan Maya community in Florida — why are they here, why were so many displaced?" says Mari Blanco, assistant executive director of the nonprofit Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach.

"It's because they were brutally targeted and murdered. They refer to it as the silent genocide, because it was happening right under our noses and nobody knew that it was occurring.”

The U.S. supported Guatemala’s military during the civil war, which ended in 1996. More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared in the conflict. And more than 80% of those victims were Maya — most often not because they were actually rebels, but because merely being indigenous meant they were potential communist sympathizers in the eyes of the army and the government.

Lucas García's trial, taking place in Guatemala City, isn't the first time the genocide charge has been brought there. In 2013, the late Efraín Ríos Montt — a brutal Guatemalan military dictator in the early 1980s — was actually convicted of that crime against the Maya. But, in a sign that both the military and the country's socioeconomic elite still insist the war's anti-indigenous terror was justified counterinsurgency, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court quickly overturned the conviction Ríos Montt's, who died in 2018.

Ixil Maya community leaders and massacre survivors
Tim Padgett
Ixil Maya community leaders and massacre survivors (from left to right) Pedro Terraza Rivera, Miguel de Leon Ceto, Francisco Chavez Raymundo and Pedro Brito Matom check on news of the Lucas Garcia genocide trial in Guatemala last week at the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach.

Blanco says that makes the Lucas García trial all the more urgent for the Guatemala's Maya there and here. They see it as perhaps their last chance to convince the world that genocide can occur in the Americas, as it happened in Europe in the Holocaust or Africa in Rwanda.

“This is incredibly important," Blanco says, "because we always think, well, who would allow something like this to happen — and how do we prevent it from happening again.”

At the outset of the trial, Nery Rodena, human rights director for the Roman Catholic Church archdiocese of Santiago de Guatemala, which helped bring the case along with victims organizations like the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, called Lucas García “one of the bloodiest generals known to Latin American history.”

That’s a pretty high bar. Militaries have frequently committed mass murder throughout Latin America's history — but Guatemala is arguably the only place where genocide has been legally claimed.

And proving genocide is more difficult. But Ixil Maya like Miguel de León Ceto, another exile in Lake Worth Beach, insist the evidence against Lucas García, who in the past decade has been tried and convicted for other war-related crimes, is ample.

This wasn't just counterinsurgency — it was an attempt to eradicate the culture and presence of an entire group of people, the Ixil Maya. That’s genocide.
Miguel de Leon Ceto

“We have several witnesses who heard Lucas García, after arriving by helicopter in the wake of massacres, order all the surviving women to stop wearing the clothing that identified them as Ixil Maya,” says De León, who is a former mayor of the Ixil town of Nebaj.

“That isn’t just counterinsurgency — it’s an attempt to eradicate the culture and presence of an entire group. That’s genocide.”

Lucas García — whose late brother, Romeo Lucas García, was president of Guatemala from 1978 to 1982 — argues he would not have done that because, though he’s not Maya himself, he grew up in that region.

“He more of less said to me, ‘How could you ever think that I would do anything dastardly to them?’” recalls U.S. journalist Mary Jo McConahay, who lived and worked in Guatemala in the 1980s and 90s and is author of the book Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of Rainforest.

Death squads

McConahay, who is covering Benedicto Lucas García’s genocide trial, interviewed him in 1993, toward the end of the civil war. And she says he was unabashedly proud of creating the so-called “civil patrols” — the paramilitary death squads that terrorized the Ixil and other Maya communities, like the Quiché and Q'anjob'al.

“Now, you can debate whether genocide was the [most effective] charge to bring against [Benedicto] Lucas García," says McConahay, most recently author of Playing God: American Catholic Bishops and the Far Right. "It’s going to be difficult.

"But I’ll tell you," she adds, "if you just depended on the narratives of the witnesses — you would say 'yes.'”

Another of those Ixil Maya witnesses and witness organizers now exiled in Lake Worth Beach is Pedro Terraza Rivera. He says Guatemalan soldiers and civil patrol members murdered his father, Miguel, in their village of Vilacamá, shooting him between the eyes. Terraza, six years old at the time, says he then watched the village's houses, fields and livestock get torched.

“We had little time to bury my father — just deep enough so the dogs wouldn’t eat him,” Terraza says.

Former Guatemalan Army General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, on tra former army commander credited with founding Guatemala’s paramilitary groups, arrives to a courtroom in Guatemala City, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. On Wednesday, prosecutors arrested Lucas Garcia, the brother of deceased former President Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia in connection with killings and disappearances during the country's 1960-1996 civil war. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
Moises Castillo
Former Guatemalan Army General Benedicto Lucas Garcia at a hearing in Guatemala City in 2016 after his arrest for crimes related to the country's civil war, which ended in 1996.

He adds he and his mother had to leave the destroyed village quickly after that, homeless, and walk for two weeks in the mountains before finding safe refuge.

Years later, Terraza found his best revenge was to help victims get the transportation, lodging — and forensic experts to exhume victims — that they needed in order to come forward to testify against Lucas García.

Terraza, who says Maya witnesses still need those aid donations in Guatemala, himself left the country five years ago after he claims he could no longer ignore the death threats from former soldiers because of his work.

McConahay says that's a reminder that military veterans, as well as the conservative Guatemalan political and business elite that backed them in the civil war, still wield power there.

"The old guard in Guatemala, the people who are against this reckoning," she says, "are still active — and they have money."

Florida's Guatemalan Maya refer to the brutal horror they experienced as the silent genocide — it was happening right under our noses and nobody knew.
Mari Blanco

But other exiled survivor organizers like Francisco Chávez Raymundo say that old guard can’t suppress memories like the sound of military helicopters disgorging soldiers into towns like Nebaj to kill Ixil Maya like his father, Tomás, and then separate him from his mother, Catarina, for years. Unless a genocide reckoning comes, Chávez insists, this sort of thing could happen in Guatemala again.

“We’re not looking for vengeance,” says Chávez, who also lives in Lake Worth Beach now. “We just want the justice of their acknowledgement that what happened to us was not war, but a crime.”

Chávez says the Ixil and other Guatemalan Maya are heartened by the fact that reform candidate Bernardo Arévalo won last fall's presidential election — and that the country's old guard failed when it tried to block Arévalo's inauguration in January.

They were just as encouraged to see that both liberal and conservative U.S. political leaders, including Republican Senator Marco Rubio, stood up for Arévalo.

That was significant, they say, given the U.S.'s cold-war role in aiding the Guatemalan military's alleged genocide. Benedicto Lucas García himself, they note, was trained at the U.S. military's controversial School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Guatemala and its army received more than $100 million in U.S. assistance in the 1980s.

"This has to do with U.S. history," says McConahay. "To actually connect Guatemalan history with genocide, we unfortunately also have to talk about the United States."

But whatever the outcome of the triai, which is expected to last into the summer, Blanco of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach says the courage of the Maya victims has already had a galvanizing effect on Maya youth here in South Florida — who over the decades have wrestled with their indigenous identity in 21st-century U.S. society.

“Ten years ago, to be Guatemalan Maya wasn’t something that they particularly wanted to be proud of — but now, especially because of increased attention to this trial, they are," Blanco says.

"You see more teenagers wearing Maya garments in public with pride, learning the different Maya dialects. And so I think for the younger folks there’s more of an interest now to be a part of that cause.”

Especially the cause of making sure the Ixil and other Maya are never erased the way leaders like Benedicto Lucas García allegedly tried to eliminate them a generation ago.

READ MORE: A brutal story we missed? New film recalls obscure chapter of Guatemala genocide

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
More On This Topic