Guatemala confronts a dark chapter

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NEW: Defense attorney: Ex-dictator "never gave an order ... to exterminate a single Ixil"

A historic genocide trial is under way in Guatemala

Former dictator Efrain Rios Montt is accused of atrocities against Mayans

U.N.: For the first time, an ex-head of state is tried for genocide by his own country's justice system

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.

Until now.

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.

Map: Guatemala

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.

Guatemala begins first genocide trial

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.

Horrific memories