A few years ago, I traveled to Guatemala where I visited the community of Panabaj, a small Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlan. I was working for a humanitarian NGO that was carrying out a relief project in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan.
I was surprised to find that this tiny village was the site of a 1990 massacre of 13 villagers carried out by the Guatemalan military and it is now part of a “military free zone.” Due to popular outcry after the killing, the Guatemalan military was forced to vacate the area and the municipality, where Panabaj is located, was declared to be a military free zone. The military can never enter or set up base in this community.
Today, we pause to remember the victims of Guatemala’s civil war and genocide against the indigenous Mayan people. This violence killed more than 200,000 people in a brutal war between government forces and Maoist guerilla groups over a period of 36 years. The indigenous populations, who have faced repression since the days of Spanish colonialism, were systematically targeted to be killed, disappeared, tortured and displaced.
For its role, the United States supported the Guatemalan government as part of its anti-communist Cold War policy. The Central Intelligence Agency provided weapons and training to Guatemalan forces in its efforts to counter Maoist insurgents.
The tragedy in Guatemala is a case of misaligned U.S. national interest. The United States was singularly focused on “defeating communism” and ended up providing support to violent authoritarian regimes.
There was no Atrocities Prevention Board at the White House during the Guatemalan civil war. There was no staff trained and dedicated to the prevention of violent conflict and mass atrocities at the State Department or USAID or any of the other agencies of the U.S. government. In fact, American foreign policy itself was running counter to its stated goal of protecting freedom and human rights.
In spite of these challenges, we are making some progress as noted by Allyson Neville. President Obama declared in 2011 that “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” However, this statement can be fully realized only if Congress also acts to ensure that there are permanent structures, funding and training to prevent mass atrocities and genocide. It is time for Congress to pass the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, S.2551.
We remember the 200,000 killed during Guatemala’s war this April as part of Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. And we can act to ensure that U.S. policy will work to prevent genocide and mass atrocities.