All posts tagged “genocide

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Faith and political leadership

Following the historic ruling in the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former dictator Rios Montt on Friday, it’s been fascinating to watch the varied reactions on social media, especially from Christians with very different interpretations of the character of the man now sentenced to 80 years in prison. They also differ widely in their understandings of who bears responsibility for the events of the war, and how Guatemala could best heal from the (relatively undisputed) wounds of the past.


I respect those with differing viewpoints on this issue, and I affirm the overwhelming complexity of the matter. Everyone interprets these events through the lenses of their experiences, values, and allegiances, and I’m no different. But amidst the tweets ranging from jubilation to disbelief, I was reminded of a story I’d read several years ago that offers us a different vantage point. It’s not a comprehensive account of the war’s atrocities, to be sure, but rather a glimpse of a moment in time – an eerie one at that – which sheds light on Rios Montt’s faith and the extent to which it impacted his political leadership.

It comes from Ruth Padilla DeBorst (the daughter of René Padilla) who gives leadership to the Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL) in addition to her more recent work with World Vision. This story first appeared in an interview with Andy Crouch in Christianity Today in 2007 as part of its Christian Vision Project:

My husband was part of a group from Calvin College that personally interviewed many of these political leaders. They sat with Ríos Montt, who had been president of Guatemala in the early 1980s, in his office in 1987. He welcomed them effusively and gave an impassioned speech about brotherhood in Christ and about how blessed he was in receiving these guests from North America. He knelt in front of them and led them in prayer for his nation, with great passion. And then they started interviewing him.

They asked about the condition of the people in his country and how he viewed the statistics on malnutrition and poverty. They asked, “How do you see your government bringing light to these situations?” When they began pressing these questions, he worked himself into an absolute fury and threw them out of his office. They were afraid for their lives. They had to get out of Guatemala in a hurry.

He had the jargon. He was the founder of a church. Only God knows what was in his heart. But there did not seem to be any connection between his faith and his political leadership. Some of this is simply symptomatic of a young church—Christians who have had very little exposure to public policy and administration of public affairs.

That’s why the core of our proposal in the FTL is that Christian mission is, or must be, “integral mission.” God is Lord over every last corner of the world. And that has to do with interpersonal relations and with our relationships with him, but it also has implications for the way society is organized—who gets favored and how.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

[Photo: Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters via]

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Repaso: May 10, 2013

1. The view from below
John Stackhouse (@jgsphd) shares a poignant passage from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison and concludes:

I almost never, ever, thank God for setbacks, disappointments, frustrations, and injustices in my life that would let me, for once, see things the way so many people see them all the time. I almost never, ever, reflect on what I have learned from those experiences…except how to do all I can to control the world (!) such that they cannot recur. I have, that is, learned nothing from the Desert Fathers, nothing from Benedict or Francis or the Jesus Prayer mystic, nothing from the Mennonites, nothing from the missionaries or activists or front-line relief & development workers. But Bonhoeffer—like me, a well-educated and successful scion of a physician’s home in a prosperous modern Western society—warns me about, and welcomes me into, a new vantage point from which so much (more) can be learned. Alas, Providence likely will have to teach me the way it taught him: the hard way.


2. Secrets in Guatemalan soil
With the genocide trial against Rios Montt appearing to be nearing its end, PBS NewsHour ran this story about the remarkable men and women who have courageously and carefully uncovered the forensic evidence being used in the historic trial.

3. Prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Last year, the Kuyper Lecture (sponsored by the good people at the Center for Public Justice) was given by Miroslav Volf, who made a compelling case that religious exclusivism provides a solid basis for political pluralism. This year’s lecture was given by Stanley Carlson-Thies, a religious freedom advocate, who challenged the recent HHS contraceptive mandate, arguing:

The government must honor institutional religious freedom, and not just individual religious freedom or freedom of worship. It needs to have a policy of institutional pluralism rather than a policy of uniformity. It should acknowledge a general right for organizations to be distinctive in moral vision and religious conviction and practice, rather than expect moral uniformity with only the occasional exemption.

4. Playing God
If you’re anxious to read Andy Crouch’s (@ahc) forthcoming book (coming this November), you’ll enjoy this short talk he gave last year at Q. The video can’t be embedded, but here’s a blurb:

The word “power” often brings to mind the image of a mighty dictator or rolling tank, marble floors and wealthy exuberance. Power in our world is synonymous with force, violence, and poorly wielded influence. But Andy Crouch believes that power, as described in the words of Jesus, is creative, not coercive. It calls us to restore God’s image in a world full of broken bearers. In this talk, Crouch calls listeners away from a distorted definition of power to one that can change culture for good.

5. Switchfoot’s “The Sound”
I’m looking forward to seeing Switchfoot tonight at Chase Field after the Diamondbacks game. Here’s a favorite song of mine from a few years ago.

[Photo: Focus Forward Films]

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Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

I’ve blogged before about Rios Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala who is facing two genocide charges for the role he played during the country’s long and ugly civil war. Guatemala’s justice system doesn’t have a particularly great track record, and these days it’s known more for impunity than for maintaining order and defending the victims of crime. So it has been a big, somewhat unexpected step forward to see a former head of state standing trial for war crimes.

Interestingly, key evidence leading to Montt’s indictment was provided in a 1983 documentary called When the Mountains Tremble, directed by Pamela Yates and featuring narration by Rigoberta Menchu, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize nearly a decade later (though she later became embroiled in controversy).

Yates has now released a new documentary called Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, “The extraordinary story of how a film, aiding a new generation of human rights activists, became a granito — a tiny grain of sand — that helped tip the scales of justice.” Here’s the trailer:

The film aired on PBS in late June, and is available for viewing online in its entirety through the end of this week. I assume this goes without saying, but it’s probably not fit for family viewing.

I’d also add that while I think it’s clear the Guatemalan government was responsible for the vast majority of the atrocities committed during the war, that doesn’t mean the guerrillas were particularly good guys either. My take is that a great many poor Guatemalans found themselves caught between the two sides of the conflict, and both sides terrorized them. The distinction is that one of those sides had the resources and the inclination to sow far more terror than the other. I’m not sure the filmmakers of Granito would agree with that assessment, but it’s the conclusion I’ve reached and I think it’s an important point to make.

For those interested in learning more about the latest developments in human rights work in Guatemala, the Washington Office on Latin America is hosting an event this Thursday called Obstacles to Justice: Accountability for Human Rights Violations in Guatemala. The event will be live streamed at WOLA’s site and will feature, among others, Fredy Peccerelli (the forensic anthropologist featured in Granito) and Óscar Ramírez (who I blogged about here).

[Image credit: Skylight Pictures]

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A massacre, an adoption, and the hope that all things will be made new

A week and a half ago, This American Life aired the story of Oscar Ramirez, a Guatemalan man living in Boston. It’s a story that Oscar himself didn’t fully know until very recently. Here’s the teaser blurb:

In 1982, the Guatemalan military massacred the villagers of Dos Erres, killing more than 200 people. Thirty years later, a Guatemalan living in the US got a phone call from a woman who told him that two boys had been abducted during the massacre — and he was one of them.

It’s a tragic story but it’s also, in a bittersweet way, a hopeful one. Most of all, it’s masterfully told. I hope you’ll listen to it. The story is also available as an essay from ProPublica and as an eBook. Accompanying the essay is a slideshow, character guide, and timeline. It’s all very well-done.

The massacre at Dos Erres in December 1982 took place during the short-lived and brutal presidency of former army general Rios Montt. Earlier this year he was formally charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for the atrocities that occurred under his watch, and in late May a judge ruled he’d stand a genocide trial for the Dos Erres massacre as well.

I’ve blogged about Rios Montt before, mentioning that I was born in Guatemala during his presidency. The very fact that Montt is finally facing trial is extraordinary, given the widespread impunity that has been the norm in Guatemala since the war. And even more remarkable is the fact that he is being charged during the early days of the presidency of Otto Pérez Molina, another former military leader who, according to the U.S. State Department, “was stationed during the civil war in a region that saw some of the conflict’s worst atrocities against civilians.” One might imagine that this president specifically would prefer the secrets of the past to remain hidden.

What happened in the Dos Erres massacre is horrible, almost beyond words. But the story needs to be told. You can’t understand the proliferation of violent crime in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America — or the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who have left these countries for the United States — without understanding this history and its legacy today.

If you don’t know very much about what took place in Guatemala (too few do), I’d encourage you to learn Oscar’s story. As you’ll see, it’s a story of tragic loss, but it also gets at the complexity of it all, when Oscar considers the mixed legacy of his adoptive father. It reminds me of the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

I am grateful that Rios Montt is facing trial for his crimes, even as I mourn with the families of his victims. And I’m grateful that Oscar has been reunited with his biological father, even as I mourn the many losses that have marked his life. Most of all, while stories like these serve to remind us that this is not the way the world was supposed to be, I live with the expectant hope that one day, all things will be made new.

[Photo credit: Matthew Healey for ProPublica]

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Who is Rios Montt and why does it matter?

If you follow international news, you may have heard that a man by the name of Efraín Ríos Montt is set to appear in court in Guatemala this week. It’s important to understand why.

Montt is a former army general and televangelist who gained control of Guatemala in the early 1980s through a coup d’état.  He has long been tied to charges of genocide that took place during his short-lived rule as military dictator in 1982-3. During that time he had the full support of Washington, and in the midst of Cold War fears, Ronald Reagan famously asserted that Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy.”

As a sitting member of Congress until last week, Montt has enjoyed immunity from prosecution — until now. Importantly, while military leaders in Guatemala have always denied that genocide occurred (a claim that former general and newly inaugurated president Otto Pérez Molina continues to hold), Montt’s strategy has simply been to deny that he had anything to do with it — not to deny that the 626 massacres and 200,000 deaths over the course of 36 years actually happened. Military documents, for their part, seem to show a fairly direct chain of command from top to bottom during that time, so we’ll see how that argument holds up.

It’s impossible to understand Guatemala today without understanding its past, and Montt was at the center of one of its darkest hours. Here’s how I summarized the country’s recent history in a magazine piece I did on what’s currently happening in the town where I grew up:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer described history as the story of what people do with power. History has not been kind to Guatemala’s indigenous people. The country’s Mayan descendants, though comprising well over half the population, have time and again been dealt a losing hand by those in power.

After Columbus “discovered” the New World, Europeans  began settling in the region, usually exercising force as a means of gaining control in matters of politics, economics, and even religion. This wealthy and powerful Old World elite established large-scale coffee and banana plantations, or fincas, on Guatemala’s fertile lowlands. Many of the indigenous people, meanwhile, were pushed to resettle on small tracts of land in the more topographically challenging, and often less fertile, highlands, while some were forcibly conscripted into harvesting the fincas. The Guatemalan Catholic Church, which had by this time become a well-established social and political force, gave its silent assent to the new arrangement.

In the 20th century, with colonialism-as-usual waning, US interests at times assumed a less overt, but no less insidious, role in Guatemala. When, after years of dictatorial tyranny, a delicate democratic process resulted in the election in 1951 of a president committed to land reform, a major US fruit company with much to lose persuaded the Eisenhower administration that recent developments in Guatemala represented a turn towards communism. According to the domino logic of the Cold War, this was seen as an intolerable threat, and the CIA swiftly engineered a coup to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s head of state.

Within several years Guatemala had spiraled into a civil war over the struggle for land that would last 36 years, waged between left-wing guerrillas and the military forces representing right-wing dictators. Wanting nothing more than peace, the majority of Guatemalans — and especially the rural-dwelling indigenous poor — were caught in the middle.

After the signing of peace accords brought fighting to an end in 1996, reports by the United Nations and the Guatemalan Catholic Church (which had since “converted” to the side of the poor) revealed that the vast majority of  “disappearances,” deaths, and human rights abuses during the war occurred at the hands of the federal government and military forces. Among the most notorious offenders of human rights during the civil war was Efraín Ríos Montt, an army general and evangelical televangelist with strong US support, during whose short-lived presidency in 1982-83 the country saw an alarming escalation of rape, torture, and gruesome massacres of indigenous people. The United Nations accused him of genocide.

This was the world into which I was born at a small hospital in Guatemala City in 1982.

When I heard the news this week that Montt would finally be heading to court, I picked up a book by Victor Montejo, who as a school teacher witnessed one of the massacres that took place in rural Guatemala in 1982, and though he was tortured, he managed to escape with his life. The book is called Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, and while it is terrible to read, I believe it testifies to the reality of what life was like for indigenous Guatemalans at that time. I hesitate to recommend it because it is vulgar and graphic, but it’s part of the legacy of the war, and one way or another, part of the legacy of Ríos Montt.

For those concerned with justice and peace, I’d encourage you to follow what happens with Montt and others connected to genocide and human rights abuses in Guatemala. God forbid that we’d ignore it, or that we’d lose this chance to learn from the tragedies of the recent past. And please, pray for the perpetrators, pray for the families of victims, and pray that some semblance of peace and justice would prevail in Guatemala at last.

[Photo credit: AP via]