Expert discusses Guatemalan genocide

World-renowned anthropologist and director of Lehman College’s Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies Victoria Sanford discussed her work in documenting the Guatemalan genocide at Doheny Library on Tuesday evening.

Hosted by the Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, Sanford’s lecture highlighted possible ways to prevent and end genocide. Sanford also showed examples proving its existence.

As an American anthropologist who navigated the complicated social, cultural and historical terrain of post-Civil War Guatemala in order to successfully expose the massive human rights violations faced by indigenous Guatemalans, Sanford offered a detailed account of the means and methods needed to overcome the systematic extermination of a people.

“I’ve been working in Guatemala since 1990, and the first exhumation I worked on was in 1994,” said Sanford, whose books include Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala and La Masacre de Panzós: Etnicidad, Tierra Y Violencia En Guatemala.

“I never imagined that all these years later I would still be talking about it, but that’s how these international human rights cases tend to work.”

The exhumations Sanford referred to consisted of widespread archaeological digs around areas in Guatemala that had known massacres. Sanford showed photos of the skeletons, bullets and remaining artifacts found at the exhumation sites, describing the labor-intensive process needed to prevent a genocide’s occurrence.

“The exhumation has a lot of different parts. It has the archaeological exhumation. It has antemortem interviews, analysis of skeletal remains, lab work and a very important collection of survivor testimonies,” Sanford said.

The exhumations were manned partly by Sanford and her team but also by locals in the village. They pioneered the discoveries and documentations of the Guatemalan genocide, as many occurrences of massacres were unknown due to a lack of survivors. Yet some indigenous Guatemalans traveled across multiple villages to watch Sanford’s exhumations. After days of watching, they finally told Sanford that, in fact, their respective villages had also been massacred.

In cases without survivors, some massacres may have never been discovered. Sanford reminded  the audience that the survivors of the Guatemalan genocide did not emerge unscathed.

“What’s missing from this photo?” Sanford asked the audience, showing a picture of an adult couple, an elderly woman and a few young children. “There are no teenagers. All the babies who would’ve been teenagers at the time died during the massacres because there was no food and all the mothers’ milk dried up.”

Despite the magnitude of the tragedy of the genocide, exposing the truth impelled and sustained the excavations.

“When you do an exhumation, you become a part of the community’s cultural processes, and in Mayan cosmology, if you disturb the bones of the dead, you disturb their spirits,” Stanford said. “Each time we opened a grave, [the locals] would ask the ancestors to support us and ask the spirits not to be angry with us because we were helping to expose the truth.”

Former president and dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was eventually convicted of committing genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013. Current president Otto Fernando Pérez Molina, who actively participated in the genocide as well, has also been arrested and charged with corruption.

Sanford acknowledged that the genocide’s effect remains extensive, and her work is far from over.

“Guatemala has one of the highest femicide rates in the world,” Sanford said. “Today, two women in Guatemala are killed everyday.”

Sanford remains optimistic in her pursuit of justice and human rights.

“At least we know that [Pérez Molina] is off the street and out of power, and we’re hoping that there will be someone good in office next year,” Sanford said. “And really we’re hoping that whoever becomes president next year will know that they will not be able to get away with the kinds of things that [others] have in the past.”