Guatemalan Genocide Trial: Prosecution experts testify on psychological issues

The following is taken, with some minor edits, from the Trial Website


Ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt

Jose Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala for nearly seventeen months during 1982 and 1983, and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, his then chief of military intelligence, are on trial in Guatemala City for genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges arise from systematic massacres of the country’s indigenous population carried out by Guatemalan troops and paramilitary forces during this phase of the country’s long and brutal civil war, and the related mass forced displacement.

This is the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in a national, as opposed to an international, court. The trial is an important milestone in holding political and military leaders accountable for international crimes. For Guatemalans, it is hoped it will also contribute to an accurate historical account of the gross human rights violations committed during the civil war….

A United Nations sponsored truth commission established under the peace agreement that ended the civil war in 1996 estimated that more than 200,000 died or were subjected to forced disappearance during the 36-year conflict, over 80% from Mayan indigenous populations. The commission found that state security personnel and paramilitaries were responsible for 93 percent of the violations. The commission identified over 600 massacres, and found that the state was responsible for systematic violence – including extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, sexual violence, death squads, the denial of justice, and other crimes and violations, with the victims largely from indigenous and rural communities. The three-year period between 1981 and 1983 accounts for 81 percent of the violations.

Psychological Evidence presented in court

On 13th April, the first expert witness was Nieves Gómez, a psychologist with a specialty in criminology. She testified about the psychological impacts of the war and the “harm to the mental integrity” of individuals and the Maya Ixil community. Gómez told the court she had interviewed about 100 people in several Maya Ixil communities. Those interviews highlighted the interplay and reciprocity between the individual and the group.

She mentioned several aspects of everyday life specific to the Maya Ixil community, including profound respect for nature and the dead, spiritual ceremonies for specific events, language, the special place of animals, women’s roles in transmitting culture within the family and the role of elders in regulating community norms and resolving conflicts.

Gómez then described certain traumatic occurrences and their impact on people in the community. During massacres, people were divided with men on one side and women and children on the other. The massacres were not events that took place on a single, isolated occasion but were carried out over a period of time, resulting in “extreme terror” and vulnerability among the people before they were killed.

Those who were able to flee into the mountains suffered other impacts. They lived in an “emotional climate of terror” (“clima emocional de terror”). Making the situation worse was the fact that the army forced the population to give names of guerrillas and if they did not do so, they were threatened or killed. Community members were also forced to serve in the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, PACs). This created conditions in which no one trusted each other.

Read more on Rios Montt trial website.

Thanks to Anita for drawing this to our attention.

Photo-essay on exhumations in Guatemala – note several psychologists working within the community / liberation psychology frameworks have been part of interdisciplinary teams working on this difficult task – both finding evidence of he genocidal acts and also working with the Maya communities to commemorate the atrocities and honour the dead – recovery of historical memory being a key concept and tool in liberation psychology.

More information in Spanish