On January 24, 2013 CCIJ hosted a screening of Granito: How to Nail a Dictator as part of its ongoing outreach and awareness initiative. This showing at Osgoode followed other successful screenings at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University.
Granito follows the contemporary search for reconciliation and justice in Guatemala through the struggle by advocates and victims to bring charges against José Efrain Rios Montt, a government and military leader from 1982-1983.
During his reign, over 200,000 deaths contributed to the labelling of this period of Guatemala’s history as one of genocide. Charges have been brought against Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. It is this saga for justice through which Granito illuminates the decades-long legal battle that finally found footing during the first genocide case launched in a Spanish court in 1999.
Granito’s director, Pamela Yates, had filmed an earlier, classic documentary When the Mountains Tremble at the height of Rios Montt’s power. As a young documentary filmmaker, she had ranged far afield to film both the indigenous Mayan Guerrilla Army of the Poor, as well as the military that would eventually commit mass atrocities during “Operation Sofia,” a scorched earth campaign to extinguish all dissent in land disputes favouring the elite.
By coming under fire alongside Guatemalan combat troops, she “earned the right” to interview progressively senior officials, including Rios Montt himself. Decades later, we join Yates reviewing the original interview footage which now provides crucial evidence in legal proceedings. Rios Montt’s statements of impunity, first made at the height of his power, now help to prove his high command had established the two-way flow of information and orders from field units and operatives that underlies command responsibility perpetrating atrocities.
Rios Montt was formally charged in Guatemala in January 2012 for genocide, and is only now awaiting trial only after 3 decades of impunity. In tracing the struggle for justice, Granito shows the challenges of costs, time and politics that have forced human rights advocates to seek redress from The Netherlands to Spain and beyond. Even when a warrant had been issued by a Spanish judge, the Guatemalan government blocked any enforcement.
Granito also shows the story of the families of the disappeared. In 2005, thousands of government records were found in an abandoned police archive. Interviews with children of the disappeared and the volunteer forensic anthropologists unearth the decades-buried mechanisms of disappearances: dictatorship-era surveillance of visits to cemeteries of family seeking loved ones, and the deliberate burial of victims without identification.
One is struck by the sheer magnitude of how disappeared segments of society affect those of us that remain. Yates finds the children of the disappeared, who even now demand the truth as young advocates. Their voices belie the simplicity of childhood hopes to someday find their parents. We meet the witnesses to mass killings, waiting for decades for Rios Montt to stand trial, smiling at the dream of achieving closure even after years of living in abject poverty. And so Yates leaves us with the meaning of her title: that each granite, or grain of sand, represents the country and people of Guatemala. Granite de arena is the phrase for healing, an understanding that change cannot come from an individual, a victim or advocate alone, but only from the collective unity of Guatemalan society.
Following the film, CCIJ hosted a panel discussion featuring Prof. Carlota McAllister of the Department of Anthropology at York University and Deputy Director the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC); Caren Weisbart, who lived in Guatemala from 2001 to 2010 where she served as Director of the international human rights accompaniment project ACOGUATE, and who is presently a doctoral candidate in Environmental Studies at York University; and Omar Cano, a journalist who worked for two of the main Guatemalan newspapers Prensa Libre and Siglo Veintiuno until he was forced into exile by Guatemala’s Serrano government of the early 1990s. Cano subsequently founded the Guatemalan Canadian Association ASOGUATE, a cultural association that also supports social and educational projects in Guatemala.
The lively discussion covered various perspectives. Beginning with the calculated use of genocide to destroy hope, Professor McAllister emphasized the modern materiality of victims and families; the lived experiences of continuously exhuming and identifying bodies from mass graves or living day-to day, beside known perpetrators still escaping blame.
The discussion then posed the question of how a “wall of impunity” should be faced following mass violence. Where the very institutions of government that perpetrated the violence are now tasked with supporting reconciliation efforts, tensions between perpetrators, victims and the truth continue to be driven deeper underground. One speaker raised the point that it is not so simple a matter for a country or a people to lay down the “3 R’s” of transitional justice: reparation, responsibility and reframing without sacrificing the continuity of societal ascent. For the pre-1987 dictatorship-era cases, the Guatemalan court has already made a declaration to effectively refute all past and future proceedings, such that even IACHR jurisdiction is now in question. For the youngest generations and outsiders, this enforces the myth that all conflict has been resolved.
Finally, Mr. Cano drew on his personal experiences from working as a journalist covering the killing areas and military bases. He shared anecdotes of the pressure tactics and daily threats that coerced silence with the threat of very serious consequences.
The discussion concluded on a modern note: how modern mining projects and hydroelectric dams have elicited social movements of resistance which are being suppressed by the Guatemalan government in much the same way, and often on the same land, that dictatorship-era elites had once coveted for their plantations. The present criminalization of any resistance, the speakers warned, is much more relevant from a Canadian perspective as, quite often, Canadian mining companies have financial stakes in the outcomes.
The CCIJ Toronto Working Group would like to thank the panelists; the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Centre for Research on Latin American and the Caribbean (CERLAC) at York University for hosting the screening; and the CCIJ volunteers who organized the event and helped to make the evening a success.
By Eric Cheng, with notes from Eden Tefferi