As Guatemalan human rights activist Pedro Canil Gonzalez spoke of the horrors that befell his Mayan community of Santa Maria Tzerja, the crowd in Anabel Taylor Cafe grew eerily silent. Students, staff and community members filled the cafe last night to hear Gonzalez recount the events of the 1982 genocide of 200,000 indigenous Guatemalans.
According to Gonzalez, the Guatemalan government was comprised of “corruption, injustice, and human rights violations” stemming from an extremely unequal distribution of wealth. This system spurned widespread civilian discontent.
“As a response to the inequality, many activists were working to change the system of injustice,” Gonzalez said. “As a result the army began a campaign of persecution. The government and army began murdering and torturing everyone who rose up.”
The persecution eventually spread to Gonzalez’s village of Santa Maria Tzeja. On Feb. 15, 1982, an army patrol entered the community and massacred 15 people. Among these casualties were several of Gonzalez’s family members.
“In the massacre, my mother, one daughter, my brother-in-law and six cousins were killed, as well as other members of the community,” Gonzalez said.
Fearing for their lives, the survivors of the Santa Maria Tzeja massacre fled to Mexico. They spent the next 12 years living in camps alongside 46,000 other refugees, attempting to rebuild their broken community. It was not until May 3, 1999, that Gonzalez and his fellow survivors were able to return to their Guatemalan village.
“Thanks to the hard work of the entire community, we were able to rebuild much of what was there before,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez now seeks retribution from the Guatemalan government for the injustices against his people. Survivors from ten villages have formed the Association for Peace and Reconciliation, an organization dedicated to improving civil rights in Guatemala.
“We have filed a criminal complaint with the Ministry of Justice. Currently, the justice ministry is in the process of collecting eyewitness testimonies of the survivors,” Gonzalez said.
The charges filed by the Association for Peace and Reconciliation are directed at former military dictator Romeo Lucas Garcia. Garcia is charged with “genocide and crimes against humanity,” according to Gonzalez.
And while their chances for success are not good, the group of survivors refuses to cease their efforts.
“I am impressed that they are going ahead with the case knowing their chances of something coming of it are slim,” said Marcie Ley, coordinator for The Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations, who organized the event.
“They were willing to go through all that work because it’s so important to them,” Ley added.
Abby Benedict grad said, “I was left with the overall realization that these people didn’t have a choice, how desperate they were. They didn’t have police to go to and they couldn’t depend on their government.”
“It seems like the United States should be doing more, getting more involved in what is going on there,” Hsien-Kai Tan ’01 said.
Gonzalez hoped his talk would inspire students to get involved in the Guatemalan civil rights movement.
“I hope that the people that learn about this here at Cornell tell others, become involved, and support those of us in Guatemala that are fighting for justice,” Gonzalez said.
“Then this kind of thing will never happen again,” Gonzalez added.
Gonzalez is speaking today in Uris 153 at 12:15 p.m. as part of the Latin American studies luncheon series. This luncheon is free and open to the public.
Archived article by Abigail Conover