Guatemalan Genocide Conference Panels Cover Justice, Solidarity and Personal Stories

Thu, 09/15/2016 - 5:08pm







Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens chairs the "Transnational Impacts of Genocide" panel


Over the course of the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research’s three-day conference “A Conflict? Genocide and Resistance in Guatemala,” over a dozen scholars from all over the world gave presentations about their research on various aspects of the Guatemalan Genocide. Here is a sample of just a few of those presentations.


Brigittine French, a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College in Iowa

Much as Hitler relied on anti-Jewish propaganda to rally ordinary Germans, Efraín Ríos Montt – president of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983 – employed a rhetorical strategy to shore up citizen support for the military’s scorched earth policy against Guatemala’s indigenous people.

Specifically, Ríos Montt used the metaphor of Guatemala as a family, of which he, as president, was the father and the citizens were the children.

This was the primary argument of Brigittine French, a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College in Iowa, in her talk Monday (Sept. 12) during the panel entitled “Racist Discourse and Genocide.”

Under a patriarchal pretext, French argued, Ríos Montt justified violence against perceived agitators as a disciplinary measure to keep the family together during a time of national crisis.

“Within this logic, it gets tied to a deeply broader, resonant evangelical Christian moral discourse, where change must come from within,” she said. “And so there’s really no need to change anything except one’s own internal state. And then of course (for citizens) to comply with the patriarchal rules of the family.”

In an Orwellian twist, Ríos Montt – who declared himself the “presidente de la familia” – used this patriarchal conceit to cast blame on the parents of people who were forcibly disappeared or murdered by the state.

“He identifies the immoral family as the source of all subversion,” she said. “In this manner, they are presumed to be responsible for the death of their children instead of agents of the state or anyone else.”


Catherine Nolan-Ferrell, a history professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio

The northward flow of indigenous Guatemalans into Mexico to escape extermination at the hands of their own government in the late 1970s and early 1980s initially provoked a xenophobic response – sometimes with tragic results.

The fraught relationship between Mexico and fleeing Guatemalans was the subject of a presentation Tuesday (Sept. 13) by Catherine Nolan-Ferrell, a history professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

Among the first to express alarm were Mexican labor leaders, who charged that the Guatemalan refugees were cutting wages and taking jobs, said Nolan-Ferrell, whose talk was titled “The Guatemalan Refugee Crisis in Southern Chiapas, 1980-1984.”

“There’s one interview where (somebody says), ‘They are taking bread out of the mouths of Mexican children,’” Nolan-Ferrell said.

She went on to tell the story of 400-plus refugees who arrived by boat. The Mexican government deported all but about 45.

“We think they were all killed,” she said of the deportees.

However, Nolan-Ferrell argued, pressure exerted by the survivors, as well as ordinary Mexican citizens – and the church -- influenced the Mexican government to start thinking of the mass migration as a group of political refugees, as opposed to people in search of jobs.

Citing an example of citizen concern, she quoted a letter written to a church official from the member of a Mexican farming family.

“We have a real problem, and we want to help these people, but we don’t have the resources to do so.”

Even though Mexican law at the time lacked a mechanism for handling refugees, the government in late 1981 began setting up refugee camps. 

She cited another letter written by refugees to the governor of Chiapas, Mexico requesting official refugee status because they intended to return to Guatemala once the fighting subsided.

“You can see where the resistance is here,” she said. “How do we label the people who were fleeing from the violence? They are very actively trying to push their position as refugiados, not because they per se want to settle in Mexico, but because they want to eventually be able to go back to Guatemala.”


Susanne Jonas, a Latin American and Latino Studies professor at UC-Santa Cruz

It was commencement day 1991 at Harvard University, and a man in robes named Hector Gramajo was standing in line, waiting to accept his master’s degree, when he was served with a subpoena.

Gramajo, as it turns out, was a Guatemalan war criminal, but certain powers that be in Washington D.C. felt he might make a good Guatemalan president, and had arranged for him to obtain a degree at the Ivy League school.

But now he was getting his comeuppance. This wasn’t the product of a move by the American government or NGO, but rather a group of eight Guatemalan refugees who had fled the violence, and now were filing a civil suit against him for atrocities committed against their relatives. 

This anecdote anchored the talk given by Susanne Jonas, a Latin American and Latino Studies professor at UC-Santa Cruz. Her key point: that Guatemalan refugees and migrants in the United States have been the primary drivers of bringing perpetrators to justice.

“The influence of Guatemalan refugee organizations in the United States helped put the Guatemalan government more sharply under the glare of world opinion,” she said. “They influenced U.S. public opinion to the point that Congress and eventually Presidents were no longer able to fully support the Guatemalan regimes."

She added that this includes then-President Ronald Reagan, who was a "cheerleader" for then-Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, who in 2013 was convicted of genocide for the killings on his watch, although his conviction was overturned on a technicality. He will be retried.

In the 1980s, Reagan was barred by Congressional legislation from sending  the Guatemalan military direct military assistance, Jonas said.

The indigenous community has also played a key role in a successful suit against the U.S. government in the early 2000s granting asylum to some 250,000 Guatemalans and Salvadorans, as well as in the recent war crimes trials against Rios Montt.

As for Gramajo, he never paid a penny of the $47.5 million judgment against him, but he was barred from the United States. He ran for president in Guatemala, but was trounced, picking up just 1 percent of the vote. He died in 2004.


Morna Macleod, a researcher and lecturer at the State Autonomous University of Morelos in Mexico

Morna Macleod, a researcher and lecturer at the State Autonomous University of Morelos in Mexico -- and a former human rights worker who worked in Guatemala during the finals years of the genocide -- gave a presentation about reports written 30 years ago by the United Nations and NGOs whose work addressed the mass violence in Guatemala as it was unfolding.

“Thirty years down the track gives you a very different reading,” she said. “I wanted to see how genocide was framed.”

Before getting into the reports, Macleod – whose talk was titled “International Solidarity and Genocide in Guatemala in the Eighties” -- shared the story of a testimonial taken of an indigenous woman whose words haunt Macleod to this day.

"Why did they kill us like dogs?’" the indigenous woman said, continuing "I think these massacres are worse for women, because first the women are raped, and after raping her, they pull out her tongue they pull out her eyes, they tear away her breasts and afterwards they just leave her dying there. Many times we have said witnessing such terrible suffering that we would prefer it if they simply shot us.”

Meanwhile, the official reports were tame – even whitewashed – in comparison.

A few highlights:

•       A United Nations report authored by human rights investigator Mark Colville – a British judge and politician – denied the scorched earth tactics, made no mention of massacres, and recommended that the international community “look with benevolence on the newest set of progressive initiatives (of the military).”

•       A 1981 report by Amnesty International is carefully worded. It mentions 21 “Indian peasants” who died in the Spanish embassy. But there is no mention of massacres, nor of the fact that the victims are of Mayan descent.

•       A 1983 report by Trocaire, an Irish aid agency, whose delegation was headed by a bishop, was actually pretty detailed. It did not shy away from mentioning indigenous people. It explicitly mentioned genocide, massacre and scorched earth. But there was little mention of women. A quote from the report: “The victims have included many thousands of ordinary peasants and workers, the majority of them of Indian communities, political and trade union leaders, academics, university students, priests, nuns, development workers and thousands of catechists.”

2016 International Conference Panels

2016 International Conference: Welcome Remarks and Presentation by Fredy Peccerelli

The Center's 2016 International conference began Monday, September 12, with welcome remarks from Stephen Smith, and conference organizers Wolf Gruner (USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research) and Victoria Sanford (Lehman College, CUNY).

After welcome remarks, Fredy Peccerelli from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) presented on “Guatemala: New Testimonies and the Guatemalan Genocide.”

  • 2016 International Conference: Welcome Remarks and Presentation by Fredy Peccerelli

    Language: English

    The Center's 2016 International conference began Monday, September 12, with welcome remarks from Stephen Smith, and conference organizers Wolf Gruner (USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research) and Victoria Sanford (Lehman College, CUNY).

    After welcome remarks, Fredy Peccerelli from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) presented on “Guatemala: New Testimonies and the Guatemalan Genocide.”

  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Studying Perpetrators

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderadora: Carol Wise, International Relations/Relaciones Internacionales, USC

    • Sofía Duyos, Law, Madrid, España

      “Documentos del ejército y su trascendencia para comprender el genocidio Maya Ixil”
      (“Military Documents and Their Significance in Understanding the Genocide of the Ixil Mayans”)

    • Sergio Palencia Frener, Anthropology/Sociology, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla

      “Contrainsurgencia en Chimaltenango, 1978-1983: Comalapa, San Martín Jilotepeque y Poaquil”
      (“Counterinsurgency in Chimaltenango, 1978-1983: Comalapa, San Martín Jilotepeque y Poaquil”)

    • Manolo e. Vela Castañeda, Sociology, Universidad Iberoamericana, Ciudad de México

      “Butchers: racism, specialization, group pressure, and incentives. Lessons from the Guatemalan genocide”
      (“Carniceros: racismo, especialización,  presión grupal e incentivos. Lecciones del genocidio guatemalteco”)

  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Repression and Resistance

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderadora: Bonnie Taub, Latin American Studies, UCLA

    • Betsy Konefal, Latin American Studies, College of William and Mary

      “Mayan Repression, Resistance, and the Road to Genocide”
      (“Represión, resistencia Maya y el camino al genocidio”)
    • Sandra Gruner-Domic, Social Anthropology, USC Shoah Foundation

      “Motivaciones sociales y personales para la participación femenina en actos de resistencia antes, durante y después del genocidio en Guatemala”
      (“Social and Personal Motivations for Women’s Participation in Acts of Resistance Before, During, and After the Genocide in Guatemala”)
  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Racist Discourse and Genocide

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderadora: Norma Chinchilla, Sociology, CSU Long Beach

    • Brigittine M. French, Anthropology, Grinnell College

      “Rios Montt's Public Discourse and the Cultural Logic of the Guatemalan Genocide”
      (“Discursos públicos de Ríos Montt y la lógica cultural del genocidio en Guatemala”)
    • Jorge Ramon Gonzalez-Ponciano, Anthropology, UNAM/Stanford University

      “El racismo y el “problema indígena” en la prensa guatemalteca antes y después del genocidio”
      (“Racism and the ‘Indian Problem’ in the Guatemalan Press Before and After the Genocide”)
  • 2016 International Conference Keynote and Round Table with Rosalina Tuyuc

    Language: English

    Keynote/Presentación: Rosalina Tuyuc, CONAVIGUA (Coordinadora Nacional de Viudas de Guatemala / National Association of Guatemalan Widows), Guatemala

    Roundtable/Mesa redonda: Sobrevivientes y refugiados del genocidio guatemalateco (Survivors and Refugees of the Guatemalan Genocide)

    • Rosalina Tuyuc 
    • Dr. Marvyn Perez (Los Angeles)
    • Victoria Sanford (Moderator/Moderadora)
  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Transnational Impacts

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderadora: Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens, Latin American Studies, CSU Northridge

    • Catherine Nolan-Ferrell, History, University of Texas at San Antonio      

      “The Guatemalan Refugee Crisis in Southern Chiapas, 1980-1984”
      (“La crisis del refugiado guatemalteco en el sur de Chiapas, 1980-1984”)
    • Silvia Posocco, Anthropology, University of London, UK

      “Traces, Remnants, Genocide: Transnational Adoption in Guatemala in the 1980s”
      (“Las huellas, artefactos, genocidio: Adopciones transnacionales en Guatemala en los años ochenta”)
  • 2016 International Conference Panel: International Solidarity

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderador: Patrick James, International Relations, USC

    • Morna Macleod, Latin American Studies, State Autonomous University of Morelos, Mexico 

      “International Solidarity and Genocide in Guatemala in the Eighties”
      (“Solidaridad internacional y genocidio en Guatemala en los años ochenta”)
    • Susanne Jonas, Latin American & Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

      “A Key Social Actor against State War Crimes: Guatemalan Refugees and Migrants in the U.S.”
      (“Un actor social clave contra crímenes de guerra estatales: Refugiados y migrantes Guatemaltecos en EE.UU.”)
  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Post-Genocide Justice

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderadora: Hannah Garry, Law/International Human Rights, USC

    • Roddy Brett, International Relations, University of St. Andrews, UK

      “The Ríos Montt trial as a consequence of the resistance of indigenous survivors”
      (“El juicio contra Ríos Montt como consecuencia de la resistencia de los sobrevivientes indígenas”)
    • Marta Elena Casaus, History, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

      “La violación sexual de las mujeres Mayas Ixiles, Achíes y Kekchíes: Un caso comparado de racismo, genocidio y feminicidio”
      (“The rape of Ixil, Kekchí and Achí Mayan women: A comparative case of racism, genocide and femicide”)
    • Jo-Marie Burt, Political Science, George Mason University

      “The Guatemalan Genocide Case in Comparative Perspective”
      (“El caso del genocidio guatemalteco en perspectiva comparada”)
  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Personal Reflections on Resistance

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderador: Douglas Carranza, Central American Studies, CSU Northridge

    • Ana María Méndez Dardon, Law, Canada

      “Historia personal: Creciendo en la resistencia”
      (“Personal story: Growing up in resistance”)
    • Heather A. Vrana, History, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven

      “H.I.J.O.S.: A New Politics of Memory beyond Reconciliation”
      (“H.I.J.O.S.: Una nueva memoria política más allá de la reconciliación”)
    • Miguel Zamora-Mills, International Relations, Guatemala

      “Resisting Impunity, Preserving Truth: Victim participation, the querrellante adhesivo, and the Rios Montt trial”
      (“Resistiendo la impunidad, preservando la verdad: participacíon de las victimas, el querrellante adhesivo y el juicio de Ríos Montt”)
  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Genocide Denial in Guatemala

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderadora: Beatriz Cortez, Central American Studies, CSU Northridge

    • Rebecca Clouser, International and Area Studies, Washington University, St. Louis

      “Elite erasures and lethal legacies: Examining genocide denial in Guatemala”
      (“Borrando las élites y legados letales: Examinado la negación del genocidio en    Guatemala”)
    • Debra Rodman, Anthropology/Women Studies, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, VA

      “Greasing Guatemala’s Military Machine: Genocide Denial in Eastern Guatemala”
      (“Engrasando la máquina militar guatemalteca: Negación del genocidio en el oriente de Guatemala”)
  • 2016 International Conference Panel: Memory, Politics and Cultural Resistance

    Language: English

    Chair/Moderadora: Marjorie Becker, History and English, USC

    • Ricardo Falla, AnthropologySanta María Chiquimula, Guatemala

      “Enfoques del genocidio y la resistencia, una experiencia personal”
      (“Perspectives on Genocide and Resistance: A Personal Experience”)
    • Emilio del Valle Escalante, Romance Languages, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

      “Maya Responses to Genocide in Guatemala: The Poetics of Survival in Sabino Esteban Francisco’s ‘Gemido de huellas’”
      (“Respuestas Mayas al genocidio en Guatemala: Poéticas de la sobreviviencia en  ‘Gemido de huellas’ de Sabino Esteban Francisco”)
    • Betsabe A. Martínez Manzanero, Antropología Social, El Colegio de Michoacán, Mexico

      “Memoria y resistencia cultural entre los Mayas guatemaltecos del sur de México”
      (“Memory and Cultural Resistance among Guatemalan Mayans in Southern Mexico”)
  • 2016 International Conference Concluding Remarks

    Language: English

    • Victoria Sanford, Lehman College, CUNY
    • Wolf Gruner, USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research