Semana Santa (or Holy Week) seemed to slow down Guatemala City everywhere but in Judge Yassmin Barrios’s courtroom on Monday. Inside the courtroom on the fifth day of the prosecution of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, the tribunal heard 13 witnesses for the prosecution recount horrifying stories of events under Rios Montt’s rule.
The first order of business was, again, the legal representation of Rios Montt. Danilo Rodriguez re-appeared alongside the former military head of state, having failed to represent him in court for the first four days of the trial. He explained to the court that he had not abandoned his client, but that his client had asked for Rodriguez not to represent him at the opening of the trial. Rodriguez requested, and was granted, permission from the court to re-incorporate himself into the legal team. Rios Montt’s legal team now includes Rodriguez and Cornejo, both present on Monday.
Witnesses continued to describe the way that they were treated as subhuman: “as if we were animals”. Some witnesses also described being liberated with the recounting.
As with prior witnesses, the witnesses on Monday described accounts of killings, including of children, women and the elderly; the burning of houses and entire villages, and the cutting of crops and killing or robbery of animals. They recounted sometimes long displacements, most often in the mountains, in which conditions were difficult and deaths occurred from hunger, sickness, or military action or bombing campaigns. They did not have access to health facilities. All said that finding food was difficult, and some added that cooking was also difficult as smoke or fire would alert the military that continued to pursue them.
Elena Caba and Rosa Santiago were two of three women to testify on Monday. Both described the same April 3, 1982 massacre in their village in Chajul, Quiche in which soldiers killed 96 people. Caba limped to the witness stand and told how, when she was 8 or 9 years old, the military shot to death her younger siblings, aged 4, 3, and 1, hacked her father to death with a machete after shooting him, and killed her mother. She recounted that she also nearly died: soldiers stripped her naked and threw her from a bridge into a river. When she fractured her body hitting a hole in the river during the fall, but did not die, the soldiers above threw rocks and shot at her, hitting her foot with a bullet. She saw many dead bodies in the river, but was able to swim to the riverbank and hide, and eventually flee. The defense did not ask her any questions during cross-examination.
The military captured Rosa Santiago’s father on the same day and forced him and others into a church. They later killed those captured, including her father, hacking them to death with a machete and throwing their body parts from the bridge. On the same day, the military killed her mother and her twin sisters, aged around 8 years old. The people were unable to recover all of the bodies or body parts for burial, and those that they could bury, they buried in two mass graves, with the bodies piled on top of each other. The military also burned all of their houses and belongings. She said that no one died in the houses because everyone was already dead at that point and there was no one left to kill. When asked how long the military stayed in the community, she said that “they came only to kill.” Santiago spent about two years in the mountains after the massacre, with her surviving siblings and cousins, where they fled continued military persecution and helicopters dropping bombs.
Calderon, the attorney for Rodriguez Sanchez, asked Santiago in cross-examination whether soldiers died on the same day (“no”), if she knew who the army was fighting then (“no”), if she knew why the army was in her village in 1982 (“no”), if members of the village were guerrillas (“no”) and if she saw guerrillas in 1982 (“no”). The attorneys for Rios Montt declined to ask her questions.
Maria Elena Bernal described a massacre on April 12, 1983 in which soldiers killed 46 people, shooting some, hacking others to death with machetes, and burning others alive. Among the dead were her elderly grandmother, mother, two brothers, sister-in-law, and the two young children of her sister-in-law. She recounted that the military shot at her as well from close range, three times. With the third shot, she pretended she was dead and lay still until the soldiers left and she could escape to the mountains.
Calderon asked similar questions of her as he did of others—whether there was a war where she lived, among who, whether others besides soldiers were armed, and who the leaders of the community were. She responded that there was a war, but that the community only saw the soldiers coming to attack them, and the people were unarmed.
Francisco Oxlaj Gonzalez described how the military came to his community repeatedly during 1982 and 1983, killing various people who were unable to escape, destroying houses, belongings and animals, and forcing the people to flee to the mountains. He recounted how the military beheaded a 25-year-old woman who tried unsuccessfully to escape, and hacked to death a 50-year-old woman, “like an animal.” He said that, in the mountains, the people learned to eat things that they had never eaten before, out of necessity, but that others died of hunger or sickness. When asked by the defense why the military invaded his and surrounding communities, Oxlaj answered, “to kill us.” When asked further why, he said, “I do not know why they wanted to annihilate us.”
Two witnesses also alleged that the soldiers sexually abused Mayan Ixil women. Francisco Pablo Carillo recounted that in the military attack on his village in April 1982, soldiers raped young women before shooting them to death.
For the first time, the majority of witnesses (8) testified in Spanish without interpreters. Several witnesses on Monday, and previously, described the lack of salt in their forced displacement in the mountains. In response to questions from the prosecution, witnesses on Monday said that this was difficult because it is part of their food and their culture.
On Monday, the defense focused their questions in cross-examination on whether witnesses saw or knew guerrillas, to which most or all witnesses answered no; whether they were armed, or saw armed people besides soldiers in the mountains or in their communities, to which virtually all witnesses answered no; whether the witness saw dead or injured soldiers, to which witnesses answered no; the leadership or organization in the communities or in the mountains, to which most witnesses answered that there was not formal leadership; the ethnicity of those in the villages or the mountains, to which some answered that there were indigenous groups other than Ixiles; and the ethnicity of the civil self-defense patrols, to which one witness on Monday answered that they were “our people already captured” and another answered K’iche’.
To the final witness of the day, Jacinto Velasco Osorio, Calderon asked why he came to testify. When Velasco did not understand the question, Calderon elaborated: “did they bring you, did they tell you to come, or … ?” Velasco responded that he came of his own will.
The defense contested, and Judge Barrios was stricter with, witness accounts of abuses outside of the temporal scope of Rios Montt’s rule. The defense challenged, through objections or in cross-examination, at least two witnesses who told of their experiences prior or subsequent to Rios Montt’s rule; and Judge Barrios proactively prevented two witnesses from testifying about events in 1981 and 1984.
Outside the courthouse, during the entire day, there was a small but boisterous band of pro-defense protesters. They reject that there was genocide in Guatemala, and at least one entered the courtroom wearing an armband reading that “there was no genocide,” (no hubo genocidio). With military music blaring, the group hung signs stating that “Communism finances the destruction of national unity,” and decrying a “world in reverse” in which “defenders of your liberty” are imprisoned and condemned and “terrorists” are “free, exalted, honored.”