The Witness

I remember him at odd times, a small quiet man whose scars on his thumbs spoke far more about his suffering than his own words could. He had come to the United States after witnessing Guatemalan army soldiers decapitate his wife and children.  He himself had escaped death by leaping from the cliff where the soldiers had brought the family to die. All of this took place back in 1983 in the Quiche region of Guatemala, while the Guatemalan military waged war on their fellow citizens.

The soldiers had bound the poor man’s thumbs together with copper wire; thus the scars.

His name was Francisco.  I met him in 1988, when he came by the parish office looking for a couple of nights’ hospitality while his asylum application was processed. His family’s murder had been a part of Plan Sofia, a military  “pacification” operation that targeted Mayan Indians for extermination.  Francisco’s grounds for asylum would seem ironclad, but in his case, the evidence for the claim were inconvenient for the US government. Operation Sofia was planned, ordered and carried out by American-trained and supervised military leaders. This connection to us (the US) bears repeating. Our responsibility for the atrocities has been documented by peer-review quality research papers, captured in movies, published by the Archdiocese of Guatemala City, and found, as well, in the scars on Franciso’s thumbs.

Photo by Hugo Muralles

Further documentation of this genocide can be found, of all places, on the fence that surrounds the Cathedral in Guatemala City. The names of some of the 200,000 victims of the systematic murders are etched on the stone facings of the columns that hold up the fence. Ironically, paradoxically, tragically—poetically—the cathedral shares the central plaza with the offices of the government’s ministries’ offices. Courage and socio-pathology, side by side.

Francisco’s case was given a preliminary “Ok, we will check this out” and he was allowed to travel north to start a new life. I have not heard from him ever again, and hope that he is well.

He did come to mind last week when I heard that Guatemalan authorities had charged Efrain Rios Montt, the Guatemalan dictator during Plan Sofia, with genocide. For anyone with even a passing familiarity with Guatemala’s history, this is an extraordinary event. Rios Montt’s actual conviction is, of course, quite another matter.

For the moment, Rios Montt, under house arrest, is not speaking. Unlike his victims, he will not be tortured, he will not be forced to sign fake confessions, he will not be starved to death, and his wife and children will not be killed in front of him.

The newly-elected president of Guatemala, Mr. Molina, served as a major under Rios Montt during the massacres (Mr. Molina denies this, but there are photographs and documentary evidence establishing his presence and activity there). Mr. Molina is campaigning for military aid from the United States, claiming to want to battle drug traffickers.

Amongst the many allies and companions of the crimes of Rios Montt and Molina are a special group of commandos called kaibiles. These special forces’ soldiers received training straight out of Fr. Benning, Georgia, at the School of the Americas. The most recent infamy of this relationship between our military and the Guatemalan military  was the desertion of several of these well-trained killers (kaibiles) to the most violent drug cartel in the hemisphere (the Zetas).

The evil circles back on itself, much like the copper wire around Franciso’s thumbs.


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