Remembering Guatemala’s First Genocide Conviction as the Trial Resumes Today

Read the original article on the NACLA website.

What a moment that was! General Ríos Montt convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison. On May 2013, Guatemala, this small, Central American country, had for the first time anywhere in the world successfully prosecuted a case of genocide committed against indigenous people. Hundreds in the courtroom could not be silenced, and as they poured onto the streets to spread the news, they were dancing, shouting Justicia!, and singing the words of an Otto Rene Castillo poem, “Here, no one cried / Here we only want to be human / Eat, laugh, fall in love, live / Live life, not die,” evoking the memory of those who perished at the hands of the genocidaires.

I had gone to Guatemala in March of 2013 committed to filming the entire trial, gavel to gavel, with two cameras and a film crew of Guatemalan, Colombian, and U.S. filmmakers. We were determined to document this groundbreaking trial in its entirety—to throw open the trial court doors to the entire world. We began by uploading a new webisode of trial highlights every few days. Eventually, these trial highlights turned into Dictator in the Dock, a 23-episode webseries and online educational hub. The final webisode, “The Verdict,” recapitulates the trial in 14 minutes, with the reading of the verdict as the narrative spine.

But 10 days after the verdict was announced, the pendulum of justice that had swept away the impunity of the old order swung back like a wrecking ball to destroy the gains made. Ríos Montt’s guilty verdict was vacated on a procedural technicality by the Constitutional Court, with the case set to resume again in January 2015. While over the past few weeks Rios Montt’s lawyers have made last-minute attempts to thwart the trial from moving forward, we share with NACLA readers, this morning, January 5, as the trial resumes once again, our first Dictator in the Dock episode “Anticipating Justice,” filmed on the first day of the trial in March 2013.

A number of events in the months since the verdict was first announced have exposed the fragility of challenging impunity in a state whose legal and political ties to a genocide committed just over 30 years ago remain strong. Ríos Montt’s lawyers’ principal legal strategy has been to delay and to deny in order to prevent Ríos Montt, now 88, from ever going to prison. The Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, who vigorously prosecuted the Ríos Montt case, was forced out of office early. The following day she left the country, and her assets and bank accounts in Guatemala have been frozen since.

Judge Yassmín Barrios, head of the tribunal of the three judges who tried the case—herself a model of judicial rectitude in Guatemala—has been professionally censored by The Court of Honor of the Bar Association of Guatemala on a bogus accusation that she disrespected and defamed Ríos Montt’s defense team. In fact it appears that the opposite was true, as can be seen in the scene from the episode “Respect” from the Dictator in the Dock series. And worse, Judge Barrios has been marginalized by many of her fellow jurists who are afraid to show support for her. She has become the victim of slander and has been threatened with physical attacks. Her world is circumscribed between home and the courts, and she has 24-hour police bodyguards. She continues to assert that the Ríos Montt trial was fair, and in an interview with Skylight Pictures for our upcoming film 500 years, reiterated that “the verdict and the sentence did exist; they were born in a court of law, they achieved national and international recognition, and they are irrefutable.”

In a shocking suicide that dismayed the judicial community and human rights defenders, Supreme Court Justice César Barrientos Pellecer, one of the greatest crusaders against impunity in Guatemala, was unable to endure the number of threats against him and the legal action taken against members of his family. As president of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, he supported and helped implement the High Risk Courts for the most serious crimes, where Ríos Montt was tried.

Though one of several actors working to wipe out the court’s guilty findings, the organization the Anti-Terrorism Foundation is emblematic of the neo-fascism dominating the post-trial debate. They assert that “Guatemala is not a genocidal country.” And incumbent President Otto Perez Molina, as he told Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and me at a meeting in 2012, concurs. The Foundation has made numerous attempts to discredit Guatemalan and international experts who testified for the prosecution in the Ríos Montt trial, calling them “enemies of the state” in full page ads in Guatemalan newspapers and on television. The Public Ministry and several private citizens have brought spurious criminal charges against the most effective activist leaders.

Together with this foreboding legal climate, on May 13, 2014, the Guatemalan Congress voted 87 to 24 to adopt a resolution decreeing that “no genocide occurred in Guatemala.”

The government of Guatemala has hired the Washington DC Public relations firm of Otto Reich (remember him as the effective promoter of the U.S.-backed Anti-Sandinista contras as “freedom fighters”?). He states in his Foreign Agent Registration that he is to “design a strategy to move forward [to] change North American political parties that are willing to abandon the reference of the Guatemala of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the last century, and are eager to talk about the present and future of Guatemala of the 21st century.”

Right after the verdict was read, The Association for Justice and Reparations (AJR) and the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) published Yassmín Barrios’ 718 page sentencing report that describes in great detail the evidence behind Ríos Montt’s conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity. They have distributed the book widely throughout the Mayan highlands, where the survivors, witnesses at the trial, and large segments of the population consider that the guilty verdict is valid. On Nov. 6, 2014, AJR and CALDH’s legal representatives of the victims petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to condemn the state of Guatemala for obstructing justice and promoting impunity for crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Maya-Ixil people.

The reverberations from the Ríos Montt trial continue to threaten the powerful and to empower the dispossessed.

The fight-back on the grassroots level is gaining momentum. Peaceful resistance protests against the extractive industries continue, and are becoming more forceful. On June 23, 2014, 50,000 people came out in support of a National Mayan Work Strike, creating human blockades in 29 places on the Pan-American highway from Tecpán to the Mexican border, ensuring that no commercial truck serving the mega-projects could do business as usual that day.

The popular song “Amnesia,” written and performed widely by Alejandro Arriaza and rappers Alioto Lokos, sums up the mood:

Y ahora pretenden decretar amnesia, / And now they want to decree amnesia,

y ahora quisieran reescribir la historia, / And now they’d like to rewrite history,

pero no cuentan con la resistencia / But they didn’t count on our resistance

ni que tenemos muy buena memoria. / Nor that we have very good memory.

Y ahora resulta que ellos son los buenos, / And it turns out that they are the good ones,

y ahora resulta que no hicieron nada, / And that they did nothing wrong,

pero no vamos a morder su anzuelo: / But we’re not going to fall for that:

Ellos la deben, ellos la pagan. / They owe, and they’ll pay.

Medios en Movimiento (Entrevista con Martín Rodríguez Pellecer)


Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, fundador de Nómada (Nómada)

Para leer esta entrevista en inglés, haga click aquí.

Uno de los fundadores de Plaza Pública, Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, ha lanzado un nuevo sitio de medios digitales, Nómada, que está compuesto de periodistas comprometidas que se dedicarán a perseguir investigaciones, crear información visual de datos, y mezclar estilo y diseño para jóvenes urbanitas de Guatemala y más allá. Me senté a hablar con Martín por skype el 27 de agosto de 2014.

Uno de los fundadores de Plaza Pública, Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, ha lanzado un nuevo sitio de medios digitales, Nómada, que está compuesto de periodistas comprometidas que se dedicarán a perseguir investigaciones, crear información visual de datos, y mezclar estilo y diseño para jóvenes urbanitas de Guatemala y más allá. Me senté a hablar con Martín por skype el 27 de agosto de 2014.

Pamela Yates: ¿Por qué viste la necesidad para crear Nómada? Danos una breve explicación de lo que esNómada.

Martín Rodríguez Pellecer: Nómada es un medio digital que aspira a retratar la sociedad o a reflejar parte de la sociedad de Guatemala desde ángulos mucho más frescos y atrevidos que mezclan política y cotidianeidad, política y sociedad. Hace un tiempo participé en la fundación de un medio digital [Plaza Pública] para una universidad jesuita—; esto sucedió cuando todavía habían pocos medios con circulación en internet en Guatemala. Luego decidí fundar mi propio medio que tomando lo que había aprendido de mi experiencia previa y con el objetivo de llegar a un público más amplio. Quise llegar no solo a lectores con conciencia social o con algún interés en política sino a todos los jóvenes urbanos, sobre todo del país, que tengan o no interés en política y que tengan o no conciencia social.

PY: ¿Cuáles son las fuerzas de Nómada?

MR: Hay varias cosas. Nos interesa en Nómada no solo contar historias sobre la política y la sociedad en Guatemala sino contarlas con otra estética, con otro lenguaje, e ir mezclando la preocupación por la estética con la preocupación por las noticias importantes. Hacerlo con el lenguaje fresco y con el mejor nivel de periodismo de América Latina o del continente.

1 Periodismo Independiente from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.

PY: ¿Y por qué el nombre Nómada? ¿Qué tiene que ver un nómada con un periodista investigador? Es muy poético para un medio digital en línea.

MR: Pues estaba buscando una palabra que evocara futuro y evocara vanguardia y movimiento. Conversando con una amiga filósofa me contaba de un antropólogo que había venido a hablar en Guatemala en unas conferencias y mencionaba todo el tema de las sociedades nómadas. La tecnología nómada es la que tenemos ahora, que está en constante movimiento. Además era una palabra esdrújula, lo que le daba más fuerza. Después tuve la fortuna de descubrir que hace cien años los unionistas centroamericanos que querían unir Centroamérica democráticamente también hablaban de periodismo y letras nómadas para referirse al periodismo independiente.

PY: Tú has dicho que Nómada ayudará a la sociedad guatemalteca a ser más democrática y transparente, pero ¿Cómo?

MR: Ese objetivo involucra varias responsabilidades. Desde hacer un poco de watchdogging a los actores con poder, hasta transparentar los medios de comunicación que, a pesar de ser los mayores promotores de la transparencia en la sociedad, en muchos casos esconden sus estructuras, sus accionistas, etc.

2 Alianzas con otros Medios Latinoamericanos from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.
PY: Tú usas varios adjetivos para describir Nómada. Uno de ellos es “vanguardista”, éste usualmente se utiliza para describir movimientos revolucionarios ¿Qué quiere decir “vanguardia” para Nómada?

MR: Bueno, se usa para los movimientos revolucionarios del siglo XX y también para la moda. El adjetivo tiene varios usos. Nómada es vanguardista en tanto que, por ejemplo, es el primer medio en América Latina que tiene cuotas de género, y eso es un avance también. Hacer periodismo más transparente y con otro nivel de diseño—nuestro diseño no tiene nada que envidiarle al mejor diseño de periódicos del planeta—, esos son otros aspectos en que Nómada es vanguardista.

PY: El otro adjetivo que usas es “feminista” y éste tampoco es muy usual al describir el periodismo o los medios en línea.

MR: Sí. Eso se refiere a tener principios de equidad entre hombres y mujeres que se traducen en cuotas de género, en no aceptar publicidad de prostíbulos, en hacer notas que tengan enfoques de denuncia cuando hay actos misóginos o machistas. Entonces, somos una publicación feminista puesto que consideramos el tema de la equidad en todo momento que hacemos periodismo o tomamos decisiones institucionales y no únicamente en el día de la mujer o el día de la violencia contra la mujer.

PY: Es interesante porque tú has escogido adjetivos para describir Nómada que son inusuales y producen shock.

MR: Queremos contarles a los lectores, que son sobre todo jóvenes veinteañeros, que el mundo es distinto de cómo lo han intentado enseñar las generaciones de nuestros padres o de nuestros abuelos, o de cómo lo ven otros jóvenes que piensan como nuestros abuelos.

3 Tu tambien eres poeta from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.

PY: Tú también te describes en tu perfil de Facebook como feminista.

MR: Sí, también soy un activista feminista.

PY: ¿Qué quiere decir eso para ti?

MR: Esto involucra desde denunciar las injusticias en el tema de género—que es tan profundo y tan alarmante como las injusticias económicas o interétnicas—hasta tomar decisiones en el medio como el tema de las cuotas de género. También tiene que ver con hacer activismo en todos los momentos de la vida y tratar de hacer avanzar el debate. Recordemos que en Centroamérica, que es una de las regiones más desiguales del mundo económicamente, también es una de las más desiguales en las relaciones entre hombres y mujeres. Entonces no podemos considerar que sean batallas secundarias estas batallas de equidad.

PY: Estas basado en Guatemala. Pero ¿Consideras que Nómada es o será panamericano?

MR: Pues, me gustaría que en unos años se convierta en una revista de referencia latinoamericana en lo que respecta a los cambios que están sucediendo en nuestras sociedades. O sea, ya no son sociedades que se enfocan únicamente en la dicotomía campo-ciudad, sino que son sociedades cada vez más urbanas. Aunque obviamente tenemos muchos problemas en las provincias de nuestros países, también tenemos muchos problemas urbanos que no están siendo contados. Sobre todo problemas de jóvenes que son marginados por la forma en que piensan, visten, o trabajan. Creo que conforme nos vamos urbanizando más en América Latina nos vamos pareciendo más. Entonces yo espero que cuando en Sao Paulo quieran enterarse sobre tendencias en otras ciudades de América Latina puedan entrar a Nómada y puedan ver lo que está pasando en esta parte del continente y tomar ideas, o retroalimentarse, o compararse, o ver que se está haciendo. Entonces sí me interesa que Nómada sea una referencia a nivel latinoamericano respecto a qué estamos haciendo como sociedad, aunque estemos contando historias desde Centroamérica.

4 Creciendo rapido from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.

PY: ¿Cómo es que un medio digital como Nómada puede producir cambios?

MR: Creo que podemos aportar a que los ciudadanos jóvenes tengan muchos más facts y mucho más contexto en sus vidas para tomar mejores decisiones y para discutir con más argumentos con sus papás o con jóvenes influidos únicamente por los libertarios. En Guatemala el debate está muy influido por los libertarios tipo tea party porque tienen muchos recursos y mucha disciplina y nadie contrarresta o enriquece el debate nacional con facts. Entonces al aportar periodismo, facts, y artículos independientes, podemos hacer que el debate nacional sea mucho menos conservador o mucho menos libertario y que sea más real, que refleje más lo que está pasando en la sociedad y lo que están pensando los ciudadanos guatemaltecos y las guatemaltecas—y no solo lo que piensan quienes escriben columnas de opinión, entre los que me encuentro yo. Entonces queremos contribuir al aportar en reducir los espacios de impunidad para actores con poder, al contar más partes de la sociedad, al contar qué está pasando, y al contextualizar la discusión

PY: Tú eres un ciudadano del mundo, has estudiado en el extranjero y hablas varios idiomas ¿Por qué te quedas y trabajas en Guatemala? ¿Cuál es el atractivo para ti?

MR: Nunca me lo he preguntado mucho, pero cuando fui a hacer la maestría a Madrid siempre lo vi como algo temporal para prepararme para regresar, igual cuando fui a hacer un intercambio a Berlín. Cuando he viajado siempre lo he hecho pensando que no solo tengo una responsabilidad como ciudadano guatemalteco que ha tenido más oportunidades que el promedio sino pues porque disfruto mucho de estar en casa y aquí están mis amigos, mi familia, todo un país por construir y por mejorar. Si viviera en un país que no es el mío y en el que todo está construido y todo está establecido, probablemente me aburriría mucho. Entonces no solo es porque hay muchas cosas por construir, muchas cosas por cambiar, muchas cosas por mejorar sino porque es más entretenido y más divertido que vivir por ejemplo en Berlín, donde está todo hecho y todo es perfecto o imperfectamente lindo, y donde hay pocas cosas por cambiar. Aquí tenemos muchas vidas por mejorar, muchas vidas por cambiar, hay muchas injusticias y mucha gente que no tiene conciencia de esas injusticias. También mucha gente que tiene naturalizada la inferioridad entre etnias o entre géneros. Entonces hay mucho trabajo por hacer. Nunca me he planteado la idea de vivir fuera de Guatemala.

5 Future Features from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.

PY: ¿Cómo describirías este momento en Guatemala y América Latina?

MPR: El momento actual es como una olla en la que la presión está aumentando. Entonces hay ebullición desde las protestas del interior contra el modelo extractivista hasta el movimiento de ciclistas, o el de corredores, o entre los artistas, o la gente que abre bares o páginas de internet. O sea hay una ebullición como en el resto de América Latina que es un continente que se está moviendo y que lleva un par de décadas moviéndose, o creciendo económicamente o con ideas nuevas. O sea que Guatemala está cada vez latinoamericanizándose más con eso. Los primeros que plantearon la despenalización de las drogas en el mundo fueron Guatemala y Uruguay, y después un colorado de Washington. También aquí se están haciendo medios digitales con nuevas narrativas. Éstoshacen ver que el boom del periodismo iberoamericano no es algo de hace diez años sino algo muy actual y que los lectores pueden seguir sorprendiéndose de la manera en que estamos contándoles la sociedad. Entonces creo que es un momento muy lindo para estar en América Latina y Guatemala porque la estamos contando de otra manera, estamos rehaciéndola,construyéndola. Es un momento que a mí, a pesar de todas las dificultades, toda la injusticia, toda la violencia . . . es un momento que si uno mira solo la fotografía de cómo están los países, están mal, pero si uno mira el video, de dónde venimos y a dónde estamos, como en el trabajo que ustedes han hecho que en ese sentido es muy impresionante, ver ese video del pasado al presente a mí me da razones, me da facts, para ser optimista.

Farewell to a Giant of Human Rights

L1080831On May 16 of this year the world lost Clyde Snow, one of the greatest defenders of human rights of our times.  Clyde was a tall garrulous Texan with an easygoing manner that masked a tenacious commitment to finding the truth and advancing justice through the science of forensic anthropology applied to the exhumation of victims of mass atrocities. As Clyde often said, “the bones tell stories.”  And these were stories that often helped land the perpetrators of heinous crimes in prison, from Argentina to Guatemala, the Balkans, Rwanda and beyond.  And although the world won’t be the same without Clyde, his work lives on through the crack forensic anthropology teams he formed in Argentina, Guatemala and Peru, two of which are featured in our films “State of Fear” (Peru) and “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator”.   The young people that he trained, like Mimi Doretti (Argentina), Fredy Peccerelli (Guatemala), and Jose Pablo Baraybar (Peru), amongst many others, are carrying on his legacy in all corners of the world.  As Fredy says, “He changed the world and Guatemala. He also changed every one of us that were fortunate enough to work and share life with him.”  And here at Skylight, Clyde’s example of courage and tenacity in the quest for justice has been a constant inspiration, informing all of our work.  This Saturday, September 27, we will be attending a memorial service in Norman, Oklahoma, where he lived with his wife Jerry.  We miss you Clyde.

“Wherever atrocities had been covered up he would soon appear, a polite but rumpled figure in a tweed jacket with a fedora tilted on his head. His ways of working could seem casually slow, starting at noon and punctuated by many a meal of good steak and good wine. But his intensity of purpose, to bring to justice the rational, well-dressed men who had sat round a table and ordered mass killings, was ferocious.”    (Anne Wroe 05/24/2014)

Read his full obituary in The Economist.


Filmmakers’ Statement on the Making of “Disruption”

Since founding Skylight in 1981, we have been committed to the advancement of human rights and social justice through media.  We have told stories that explore and document a range of pathways to social change; from rebellion against a brutal military dictatorship in Guatemala (When the Mountains Tremble), to direct action movements by the poor in the U.S. (Takeover,Poverty Outlaw), to the role of new transitional justice mechanisms like truth commissions (State of Fear) and the International Criminal Court (The Reckoning), to the relationship of justice to social change (Granito: How to Nail a Dictator).

For more than 30 years, the human rights movement has achieved extraordinary advances in criminal justice, such as the prosecution of military dictators (Argentina, Guatemala) and former heads of state (Fujimori) for grave human rights violations.  But at the same time the roots of the social upheavals we’ve been documenting over this span – extreme poverty and economic inequality – have remained an endemic, even deepening atrocity.  DISRUPTION poses a challenge to the global human rights movement to rethink how economic rights can be made a significant force in development, through strategies that relate more effectively to potential allies in government and the private sector. We believe that those who believe in the power of human rights must find new ways to address economic injustice – and on a scale commensurate with the millions of people around the world that are mired in poverty.

DISRUPTION builds on our decades of commitment to the struggle for human rights to illuminate new developments that should be part of our debates about how they can be expanded and made more effective in our world today.

Pamela Yates (Director), Paco de Onís (Producer), Peter Kinoy (Editor)


A Human Rights MOOC

Welcome news for the human rights field: the eminent Chilean human rights scholar and activist José Zalaquet will be launching a human rights MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) next month from his base at Diego Portales University in Santiago.  Here is their announcement (y sigue el anuncio en español):

Free online human rights course on

Committed citizens all over the world are being attracted more and more to ‘issue politics’, including human rights. Thus, there is a growing need to contribute to the formation of an emerging generation of human rights leaders and activists. MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) technology offers the opportunity to do this for free and with a global range.

Chilean human rights professor and activist Jose Zalaquett directs a MOOC on human rights from the University Diego Portales that will be initiated by the end of August 2014.  The course consists of 33 classes in English with captions. The classes average 10 minutes in length. They will be imparted by Chilean and non Chilean academics. The course could be followed for free in and in Youtube. More details in

 En español:

Cursos gratuitos en línea sobre derechos humanos en

“Ciudadanos comprometidos a lo largo del mundo se ven cada vez más atraídos hacia temas de interés público, incluyendo los derechos humanos. De este modo, existe una necesidad creciente de educar a una generación emergente de líderes y activistas en derechos humanos. La tecnología MOOC (del inglés “Massive Online Open Courses”) ofrece la oportunidad de hacer esto de manera gratuita y con alcance mundial.

El profesor chileno y activista de derechos humanos, José Zalaquett, dirige un MOOC en derechos humanos desde la Universidad Diego Portales, que comenzará a fines de agosto de 2014. El curso consta de 33 clases en inglés con subtítulos en el mismo idioma. Las clases duran en promedio 10 minutos. Serán impartidas por profesores chilenos y extranjeros. El curso podrá ser seguido gratuitamente en y en Youtube. Más detalles pueden ser encontrados en

Setting the Record Straight

There are several erroneous facts being published and republished in the mainstream media, and on social network sites and Wikipedia about me and my films. In my statement of our preliminary investigation into Batzul, dated June 9, 2014, I did not say that we were going to re-edit “When the Mountains Tremble”, and “Granito”. I wrote that, “We intend to make a correction that will clarify what happened in this scene.” What we will do is put a sticker on every single DVD explaining what we discovered in 2014 happened in the Batzul scene we filmed in 1982. We will place a title card with the same explanation at the head or attached to the films’ streams on digital platforms. In addition, we are editing a short film shot in Batzul in 2014 with what we now know to be the true story. This short film will be accessible free online in English and Spanish.


The other factual error is “Skylight Pictures produced two Guatemala based films prior to the making of When the Mountains Tremble. The first called Central America in Revolt and another hour episode of CBS reports called Guatemala.” I was hired as a sound recordist and associate producer on these two reports that were produced by CBS News, not Skylight Pictures. CBS News did not acquire films from independent filmmakers in 1982, nor do I know of them doing so now.


Read the Investigation Results / Lee los resultados de la investigación

(The following text was originally published on Facebook on June 9, 2014)

We have investigated the massacre scene from “When the Mountains Tremble”.

I met the woman eyewitness who speaks in our 1982 film, as well as 2 men who were in the village at the time of the killings – her husband was killed that day as were the fathers of the two men[1]. They guided us to their former village of Batzul, leaving our vehicle on a dead end dirt road and then hiking a mile on a narrow trail, along a ravine and through cornfields, until we arrived at the scene of the massacre. Nothing remains of that village except for the faint foundation of a schoolhouse.  We had to crawl under a barbed wire fence to get to the ruins of the schoolhouse because, according to our guides, what used to be the village is now private property. But by comparing images from our 1982 footage with the woman eyewitness today, it became clear to us that she was the same woman. And the 2 men were able to positively identify grieving family members who also appear at the scene in our 1982 footage. Comparing the geography of the surrounding mountains from our images of the Army helicopters landing left no doubt in our minds that the village where we filmed in 1982 was Batzul.


When we arrived there in 1982 in Army helicopters, Tom Sigel and I were told, and we thought, that we were in the outskirts of Chajul. Returning now 32 years later, our guides told us that shortly before the massacre, the Army had convened a meeting in Chajul, calling together the leaders of villages in the area and telling them that they had 72 hours to decide whether to collaborate with the Army or face consequences. Our guides told us that the village of Batzul decided to collaborate with the Army and formed a civilian patrol. What the woman eyewitness told me at that traumatic moment when I interviewed her in 1982 regarding the people who came and attacked wearing soldiers’ uniforms was true, and now we had the opportunity to hear the full story from her and our two male guides, all victims of the massacre.  They added that the guerrillas knew that Batzul had decided to collaborate with the Army, and the guerrillas pretended to be Army soldiers in order to trick the civilian patrol members into gathering in front of the schoolhouse.  When the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) published its findings in 1999, it found that the massacre was initiated by guerrillas dressed as soldiers to trick the members of the civilian patrol into gathering in front of the schoolhouse. This is what the CEH says then happened[2]:


The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) also used camouflage to trick the civilian patrol members, capture them and execute them for having collaborated with the Army. On May 17, 1982 at 6am, 3 men dressed as Army soldiers, in camouflage, arrived in the village of Batzul, municipality of Chajul, department of Quiché, but there were some 30 men dressed in olive green [fatigues] who were hidden in the outskirts of the village. They got all the men together and told them that they had to go on patrol to guard the bridge over the River Chicá. But before that they wanted the men to meet in the school in Batzul. They led the 17 men in a line to the school. They tied them all up and killed them one by one.


What our guides from Batzul, victims of the massacre, asked of us is that we make clear that the guerrillas and not the Army carried it out. We intend to make a correction that will clarify what happened in this scene in both “When the Mountains Tremble” and “Granito”. It stands as a reminder of the terrible human costs of the violence in 1982-83, when the Guatemalan Government launched a massive offensive against the Maya Ixil people – part of a state sponsored campaign targeting civilians and which led to the CEH’s findings that during the years of the internal armed conflict 93% of the deaths were at the hands of the Armed Forces.  What we have learned from this investigation will inform our new film “500 Years”. We remain committed to historical accuracy in our work and to supporting efforts to secure full human rights for all the people of Guatemala within a freely functioning democracy.


Pamela Yates, Peter Kinoy, Paco de Onís

[1] The woman and our two male guides wish to remain anonymous.

[2] Original Spanish version from the CEH Report: “El EGP recurrió también al camuflaje para engañar a los patrulleros, atraparlos y ejecutarlos por colaborar con el Ejército. 

El 17 de mayo de 1982 a las 6 de la mañana llegaron a la aldea de Batzul, municipio de Chajul, Quiché, tres hombres uniformados como soldados del Ejército, de pinto, pero unos 30 hombres que iban vestidos de verde olivo estaban escondidos en las afueras de la aldea. Juntaron a todos los hombres y les pidieron que fueran a patrullar para cuidar el puente de río Chicá. Pero antes dijeron que iban a hacer una reunión en la escuela de Batzul. Llevaron a los 17 hombres en fila hasta el lugar. Amarraron a todos y los mataron uno por uno. 


(El texto a continuación fue originalmente publicado en Facebook el 9 de junio de 2014)

Hemos investigado la escena de la masacre de la película “When the Mountains Tremble”.  Me encontré con la testiga que habla en nuestra película del año 1982, y además con dos hombres que estaban en el pueblo cuando ocurrieron los asesinatos; el esposo de la mujer fue muerto ese día, así como los padres de los dos hombres[1].  Ellos nos guiaron a su aldea anterior de Batzul.  Dejamos nuestro vehículo al borde de un camino de tierra y luego caminamos un kilómetro por un sendero estrecho, a lo largo de un barranco y por medio de una siembra de milpa, hasta que llegamos a la escena de la masacre. Nada queda de ese pueblo excepto la ruina de una escuela.  Tuvimos que pasar por debajo de una cerca de alambre de púas para llegar a las ruinas de la escuela porque, segun nuestros guías, lo que antes era el pueblo es ahora propiedad privada.  Al comparar imágenes de nuestro material de archivo de 1982 con el rostro de la testiga en el presente, quedó claro que ella era la misma mujer.  Y los dos hombres identificaron positivamente a los familiares en llanto que también aparecen en la escena en nuestro material de 1982.  Al comparar la geografía de las montañas de los alrededores con nuestras imágenes del aterrizaje de helicópteros del ejército, no dejó ninguna duda en nuestras mentes que el pueblo en el cual filmamos en 1982 fue Batzul.
Cuando llegamos en helicópteros del ejército en 1982, a Tom Sigel y yo nos dijeron, y nosotros pensamos, que estábamos en las afueras de Chajul.  Volviendo ahora, después de 32 años, nuestros guías nos dijeron que poco antes de la masacre, el ejército había convocado una reunión en Chajul, juntando a los líderes de las aldeas de la región y diciéndoles que tenían 72 horas para decidir si iban a colaborar con el ejército o enfrentar las consecuencias.  Nuestros guías nos dijeron que el pueblo de Batzul decidió colaborar con el ejército y formó una patrulla civil.  Lo que la testiga me dijo en ese momento traumático en 1982 con respecto a las personas que vinieron y atacaron vestidos de soldados era cierto, y ahora tuvimos la oportunidad de escuchar la historia completa de ella y de nuestros dos guías, todos víctimas de la masacre.  También dijeron que los guerrilleros sabían que Batzul había decidido colaborar con el ejército y que los guerrilleros pretendían ser soldados del ejército con el fin de engañar a los miembros de las patrullas civiles para que se reunieran en frente de la escuela.  Cuando la Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) publicó sus resultados en 1999, concluyeron que la masacre fue iniciada por guerrilleros vestidos de soldados, con el fin de reunir y matar a los miembros de la patrulla civil.  Esto es lo que la CEH dice que sucedió:  “El EGP recurrió también al camuflaje para engañar a los patrulleros, atraparlos y ejecutarlos por colaborar con el Ejército. El 17 de mayo de 1982 a las 6 de la mañana llegaron a la aldea de Batzul, municipio de Chajul, Quiché, tres hombres uniformados como soldados del Ejército, de pinto, pero unos 30 hombres que iban vestidos de verde olivo estaban escondidos en las afueras de la aldea. Juntaron a todos los hombres y les pidieron que fueran a patrullar para cuidar el puente de río Chicá. Pero antes dijeron que iban a hacer una reunión en la escuela de Batzul. Llevaron a los 17 hombres en fila hasta el lugar. Amarraron a todos y los mataron uno por uno.”

Nuestros guías de Batzul fueron víctimas quienes perdieron familiares en la masacre, y nos pidieron que clarificáramos que se llevó a cabo por la guerrilla y no por el ejército.  Tenemos la intención de hacer una corrección a esta escena, tanto en “Cuando las Montañas Tiemblan” y “Granito”.  Sigue siendo un recordatorio del terrible costo de vidas humanas causado por la violencia en 1982-83, cuando el gobierno de Guatemala lanzó una ofensiva masiva contra el pueblo Maya Ixil – parte de una campaña patrocinada por el estado con enfoque en civiles, y que llevó a la conclusión de la CEH de que durante los años del conflicto armado interno, el 93% de las muertes fueron a manos de las fuerzas armadas.  Lo que hemos aprendido de esta investigación informará a nuestra nueva película “500 Años”.  Seguimos siendo dedicados a la precisión histórica en nuestro trabajo y apoyamos los esfuerzos para garantizar los derechos humanos plenos para todo el pueblo de Guatemala en el marco de una democracia libre.


Pamela Yates, Peter Kinoy, Paco de Onís

[1] La mujer y nuestros dos guías desean permanecer anónimos.

The Battle for Guatemala

Last week the battle for the soul of Guatemala came to a head during the genocide trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. After the prosecution rested its case midweek with a screening of the full interview of General Ríos Montt conducted by Pamela Yates in 1982, the Ríos Montt defense said that their witnesses weren’t reachable, that their videos weren’t ready, and so forth – they were clearly delay tactics, in the face of which Judge Yasmín Barrios adjourned the trial to give them time to come back the next day prepared to defend their client.

ERM defense team 2As soon as she left the courtroom the defense team rushed to present a motion to the prosecution that they had filed in another branch of the judicial system, demanding the annulment of the trial. This led to a rather comical press crush that swung back and forth between the defense and prosecution tables as everybody tried to figure out what was going on. The defense strategy became clear – rather than prepare for a trial and gather evidence that would defend their client Ríos Montt, they applied their tried and true tactic of having a judge in the judicial system emit questionable rulings favorable to their aim of blocking or shutting down any genocide trial against Ríos Montt.

Judge Patricia FloresThat judge turned out to be Carol Patricia Flores, who has a checkered record of handing down questionable if not outright illegal rulings that reveal a pattern of bolstering entrenched impunity in Guatemala. Before her ruling to stop the trial was made official at 2pm on Thursday afternoon, that morning the Ríos Montt defense team had staged a stormy exit from Judge Barrios’ courtroom, shouting that the trial was an illegitimate sham. With only a couple of days left for the trial to conclude, their move of last resort was to try to delegitimize the trial and force it to shut down. After Judge Flores issued her ruling that afternoon before yet another press crush, it was followed by TV, newspaper and radio attacks on Judge Barrios and Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, impugning their character and questioning their motives, and giving voice to Ríos Montt supporters that claim there has never been a genocide in Guatemala.

People stand up in CourtroomBut AG Claudia Paz y Paz fought back saying that the Judge Flores ruling was illegal, and the next morning Judge Barrios convened her court and announced that she also considered the ruling illegal and that she would not heed it, and she was asking the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad – the ultimate judicial arbiter in Guatemala) to make a decision on whether the case could proceed. This led to a huge cheer from the audience and prolonged chants of “justicia, justicia” – it was an extraordinary moment and will go down in the annals of human rights history no matter which way the Constitutional Court decides (they have 10 working days to decide as of this past Friday April 20). The swell of emotion was clear in Judge Barrios’ expression as she clasped her hands to her heart and thanked the audience – she became an instant human rights hero.

Pam and RigoIn many ways all of this has made me think of the Jim Crow trials in the American South, reminiscent of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, with Judge Barrios being the Atticus Finch of this story, standing up against the deeply powerful forces of impunity. “To Kill A Mockingbird” was the first film that Pamela Yates ever saw and it opened her eyes to injustice in the world and put her on a path that led to the making of “When the Mountains Tremble”, “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” and now “The Dictator in the Dock” (working title). Rigoberta Menchú was in the audience as well, and all these days at the trial I’ve often thought of her and Pamela’s parallel journeys in seeking redress for the tragedy that befell Guatemala, and how their paths have crossed again at this dramatic juncture of history.

With the court session closed, the gathered crowd spilled into the streets and marched 10 blocks through downtown Guatemala City to the doors of the Constitutional Court, demanding that it not become a court of impunity. Now we wait to hear what they will decide.

One big factor in play is how much the prospect of international opprobrium might play in the decisions of the judges, and how much pressure they might be getting from President Otto Pérez Molina one way or the other. While some say that Pérez Molina is wary that the genocide trial could eventually implicate him for his role in 1982 as military commander of the Nebaj army base (in the Ixil region), he has also made a great effort to position himself in the world as a respected statesman, by having Guatemala join the International Criminal Court the day after he took office; getting invited to the Clinton Global Initiative; receiving the Key to the City of Madrid; and so forth. A vote for impunity by the Constitutional Court could deal a serious blow to that image, and could spark a very embarrassing international campaign against impunity in Guatemala that could bring to light many facts beyond what has been presented at the Ríos Montt trial already. This week could tell what the future holds – stay tuned.

night vigil


“A Greater Story Never Told”


Yesterday began the historic trial of retired General and former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges that he committed genocide against nearly 2000 Maya-Ixil people in Guatemala in 1982 – throngs gathered inside and outside the courtroom.  The dictator finally facing justice!  Guatemalan bootleggers at the scene saw this as an opportunity to sell pirated DVDs of our film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, which tells the story of how our film became evidence in the genocide case.  If you look closely at the text at the top of the DVD, it says “UNA HISTORIA MAS GRANDE JAMAS CONTADA” (“A GREATER STORY NEVER TOLD”).  There is no honor or award that could surpass this endorsement of our film by the Guatemalan people.  Bootleggers all over the world are tuned in to their cultures, and what people want to see and hear.  Having your film bootlegged in a country is a great affirmation of its value in that society, whether it be for entertainment or in this case, hunger for a suppressed history and the restoration of collective memory.  The street price, by the way, is 10 Guatemalan Quetzales (US$1.25).

Using a Film to Nail a Dictator



Efrain Ríos Montt is going to trial. The brutal Guatemalan dictator is the first head of state to be prosecuted for genocide in genuine proceedings in his own country. And my video evidence helped send him there.

I went to Guatemala in 1982 to make my first feature-length documentary When the Mountains Tremble. Rigoberta Menchú, the protagonist, lays out what was happening from the Mayan perspective – why they were fighting, what they were fighting for, and how the civilian population was being viciously targeted by the Army in a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign backed by the United States.

After Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala in 1996, a Truth Commission uncovered evidence that “acts of genocide” had been perpetrated by the State. This occurred during the bloody tenure of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the President and Head of the Armed Forces from 1982 – 1983, a period when the civilian massacres spiked. Yet whenever the possibility of seeking justice for Ríos Montt’s horrific crimes came to the fore, the General and his legal defense made excuses. Their primary assertion was that the General hadn’t known about it, nor had he ordered it. They ascribed the massacres to “rogue” elements in the Army.


Photo credit: Dana Lixenberg / Skylight Pictures

In 2003, I went to Guatemala to present the first public screening of When the Mountains Tremble at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. Although it premiered at the first Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast throughout the world, the film had been banned in Guatemala for 20 years. The auditorium was packed, standing room only. People told me as I entered that they had shown When the Mountains Tremble clandestinely thousands of times during the war years.

In the audience that night was an international attorney. She approached me afterwards and asked whether I had kept all of the filmic outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble.  She was investigating a genocide case, and two of the generals in When the Mountains Tremble were part of that investigation – General Efraín Ríos Montt and General Benedicto Lucas García.  Could I go and find the entire interviews I’d done with the Generals? Could I find all of the film of military missions including aftermaths of massacres?

And so we embarked on a kind of archeological dig through 25-year-old outtakes of 16mm negative film and ¼ audio recording tape, the raw materials of When the Mountains Tremble. Miraculously, I and my Skylight Pictures partners—Paco de Onís, the Producer, and Peter Kinoy, the Editor—had kept all of the outtakes in a warehouse in the swamplands of New Jersey.

The lawyers were as surprised as we were when they saw the outtakes.. In 1982, I had asked: “What would you say to the charges that it’s the Army that is massacring (Mayan) peasants in the highlands? Is there repression on the part of the Army?”

Ríos Montt responded, “There is no repression on the part of the Army. Our strength is in our capacity to make command decisions. The Army is ready and able to act, because if I don’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?”

My filmic evidence helped prove the prosecution’s command responsibility liability theory: Ríos Montt ordered the targeted killings.

All of this became part of the film GRANITO: How to Nail a Dictator, as well as the legal case. The prosecution actually projected parts of GRANITO on the walls of the courtroom during the evidentiary hearings. I was asked to testify in the case, show and verify the filmed material in court. It was important for me to testify to the fact that I had actually filmed all of the projected film and that the Judge see me there in the footage from 1982. I entered the DVDs of the outtakes and entire transcripts of interviews which had been typed on a manual typewriter in triplicate with carbon paper, as exhibits into evidence. I will never throw out anything ever again.

credit: Jean-Marie Simon


The search for forensic evidence was the genesis of GRANITO: How to Nail a Dictator.

I wanted to tell the story of the Guatemalan people who had never given up on the quest for justice to seek redress for the sole genocide in the Americas of the 20th century – the Guatemalan state’s attack on the Maya people – and include the role a documentary film played in that process. Because I was in every shot of the original footage, so that we could sync the image of me slapping the microphone with the 16mm film, we decided to include me in GRANITO, as a documentary filmmaker, as a witness. I wanted to relate not only the acts of genocide that occurred in Guatemala, but share my experiences over the years as a human rights filmmaker, for the next generation of documentarians.

The meaning of the word “granito” or tiny grain of sand, is a Mayan concept based in their communal values. It says that each of us has something to contribute to positive social change or in this case, justice. And that together we can make that change. The survivors, forensic anthropologists, archivists, and attorneys inside Guatemala and around the world have been tirelessly contributing their granitos.

In the past year the gathering of evidence and testimonies, plus the political will to prosecute in Guatemala have reached a justice tipping point. Last week, a Guatemalan judge cleared the way forward.

Ríos Montt’s trial begins.

This blog post first appeared on the WITNESS blog.