Former Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt was hauled off to prison last Friday. It was a historic moment, the first time in history that a former leader of a country was tried for genocide in a national court. More than three decades after he seized power in a coup in Guatemala, unleashing a U.S.-backed campaign of slaughter against his own people, the 86-year-old stood trial, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. He was given an 80-year prison sentence. The case was inspired and pursued by three brave Guatemalan women: the judge, the attorney general and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“My brother Patrocinio was burnt to death in the Ixil region. We never found his remains,” Rigoberta Menchu told me after Rios Montt’s verdict was announced. She detailed the systematic slaughter of her family: “As for my mother, we never found her remains, either. … If her remains weren’t eaten by wild animals after having been tortured brutally and humiliated, then her remains are probably in a mass grave close to the Ixil region. … My father was also burned alive in the embassy of Spain [in Guatemala City] on January 30th, 1980.”
Rigoberta Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.” She continued telling me about her family’s destruction: “In 1983, my brother Victor Menchu was also shot dead. His wife had her throat slit, and he was fleeing with his three children. Victor was jailed in the little town, but his three children were kept in a military bunker. My two nieces died of hunger in this military base, and my brother Victor was shot. We still have not found his remains.”