Institute News

Paula Cuellar Cuellar Lecture (Summary)

Paula Cuellar Cuellar (University of Minnesota)
"A Tale of Two Genocides: Scorched Earth Operations as Genocidal Practices in El Salvador and Guatemala"
September 22, 2016

A Tale of Two Genocides: Scorched Earth Operations as Genocidal Practices in El Salvador and Guatemala

Language: English

Paula Cuellar Cuellar, 2016-2017 USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research Center Graduate Research Fellow, discuss esher dissertation research on scorched earth operations in Guatemala and El Salvador. She investigates and analyzes whether scorched earth  operations constitute genocidal practices, independently of the group categories protected by the legal definition of genocide. In her lecture, Cuellar will discuss the contribution of the Guatemalan testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA) to her research and how they compare with oral histories she has collected in El Salvador.

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Paula Cuellar Cuellar, the 2016-2017 Center Graduate Research Fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, gave a public lecture focusing on her dissertation research about whether scorched earth operations in El Salvador and Guatemala constitute genocidal practices. During her monthlong residency at the Center, Cuellar Cuellar watched many recently-collected testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the genocide in Guatemala. Ten of these testimonies are now available in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, with more to follow.

Mass violence in Guatemala during the early 1980s left 200,000 mostly Mayan Guatemalans dead and more than 1.5 million people displaced without basic resources – a genocide hidden under the cover of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 with a peace accord. In El Salvador, an armed conflict began in the early 1980s that would last 12 years, during which 75,000 people were killed, 8,000 were forcibly disappeared, and one million people fled.

Cuellar Cuellar began her lecture by pointing out that while many people automatically think of Europe when thinking about the origins of the term “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the term, did not have a Eurocentric perspective. Lemkin’s writings reveal that in addition to the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, he also considered the mass deaths in Latin America -- particularly the colonization of the continent and its indigenous people by the Spaniards -- in formulating the framework of genocide.

Cuellar Cuellar argued that the term “genocide” has been assigned to scorched earth practices during the civil war in Guatemala in the 1980s because the military targeted an ethnic group – the Maya. However, in the armed conflict in El Salvador, similar acts have not been labeled genocide because the government primarily targeted poor peasants. Poor peasants do not fall into the four groups protected by the legal definition of genocide: national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. 

Cuellar Cuellar explained that since men had often fled from the villages, it was primarily women, children, and the elderly who bore the brunt of scorched earth campaigns. She described accounts of indiscriminate killing, bombing of fields, and burning of houses. Cuellar Cuellar went on to focus on sexual violence and how it was politically motivated. Attacking women’s bodies became a way, in both Guatemala and El Salvador, to terrorize the population and teach the lesson of what would happen if the people supported guerrillas. After describing accounts of rape and humiliation from both countries, Cuellar Cuellar pointed out that the criminal tribunals in the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) were instrumental in defining rape as a genocidal practice.

Cuellar Cuellar highlighted some intriguing differences between the testimonies from Guatemala and 49 oral history interviews she conducted in El Salvador. First, the survivors that she talked with in El Salvador identified themselves as victims of scorched earth operations. In the interviews from Guatemala, interviewees refer to themselves as victims of massacres. She has not yet discovered a testimony where someone identifies himself or herself as the victim of scorched earth tactics per se. Another distinction is that in El Salvador, she also interviewed people who described violence committed against them and their communities by guerrilla forces. In the Guatemalan case, she has only watched testimonies about state-sponsored violence and has not yet encountered a testimony describing any guerrilla perpetrators.  

Cuellar Cuellar then returned to a discussion of the flaws of the definition of genocide: the limited groups protected by the definition and the complexities of defining intent to commit genocide. She emphasized the problems with excluding political, social, and economic groups from the definition. She pointed out that categories of identity, which are stable and permanent in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, are much more mutable and exchangeable in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was ratified by the United Nations only a day after the genocide convention. 

Cuellar Cuellar expressed approval of Chalk and Jonassohn’s definition in which they define genocide as “a form of one-sided mass killings in which a State or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.” Cuellar Cuellar argued that this definition would allow for political, economic, and social groups currently excluded by the definition to be protected, and it rightly prioritizes how the perpetrator defines the group they have set out to exterminate.

Why does the term “genocide” matter so much, Cuellar finally asked. Why not just call the acts in El Salvador “crimes against humanity”? There is a powerful emotional charge to the word “genocide,” she argued, and it is perception that matters. 

The lively Q&A that followed Cuellar Cuellar’s lecture covered a wide range of topics, including a lengthy discussion of the judicial, economic, and psychological effects and aftermath of the genocides in Guatemala and El Salvador and the remnants of impunity that remain. There was discussion about future prospects for trials against the perpetrators or justice in El Salvador given the current political climate. Cuellar Cuellar described her contributions as a human rights lawyer to the proceedings that resulted in the amnesty law in El Salvador being ruled unconstitutional. She went on to explain how the invalidation of the amnesty law is presenting challenges for her research in El Salvador, because perpetrators are now much more cautious about being interviewed. One audience member returned to Cuellar Cuellar’s focus on the definition of genocide, asking how the changing state of warfare (particularly drone strikes and their collateral damage) might affect the definition of genocide (and associated notions of intent) in the future. Finally, as part of reflecting on the Guatemalan testimonies and her own interviews, Cuellar Cuellar commented that one testimony from the Guatemalan collection was eerily similar to what she heard in El Salvador. The acts described were almost identical. She wondered whether the similarity stemmed from the fact that military leaders in both countries had been trained at the US Army School of the Americas. 

 

Summary by Martha Stroud