Rigoberta Menchú Tum


Guatemala is invaded and colonised by the Spanish early in the 16th Century. The country proclaims its independence in 1821, but real reform is not achieved until 1944 when a civilian is elected president. However, the reformist government is overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed coup d'état in June 1954.

An outbreak of protests against the now military-aligned government in March and April of 1962 marks the beginning a 34-year civil war between leftist guerrilla groups and the government for control of the country. The Mayan peasants are caught in the middle and suffer the brunt of the violence and killings. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 9 January 1959 near the township of Uspantan in the Quiché ethnic region of the western highlands of Guatemala, the area that will suffer the greatest proportion of human rights abuses and acts of violence during the civil war. Menchú's family is Quiché, a subgroup of the Mayan Indians, and hold title to almost 3,000 hectares of land.

1962 - A welter of guerilla groups emerge following the government's crackdown, including the Revolutionary Movement November 13 (MR-13), the Guatemala Workers Party PGT), the Rebel (Armed Forces (FAR), the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), and the Organisation of People in Arms (ORPA).

The civil war goes into full swing when the groups begin to engage in armed conflict.

The army doubles its troop numbers, establishes control over the police, and develops an intelligence network to gather information on the guerrilla groups and their supporters.

1965 - The first massacre of civilians by the army is reported in the eastern region of the country.

1966 - The army launches a major campaign against guerrillas operating in the countryside, forcing them to retreat to Guatemala City. Reorganisation and an uneasy consolidation of the guerrillas follows. Their subsequent kidnapping and assassination campaign claims many leading figures, including, in 1968, United States ambassador John Gordon Mein. The German ambassador, Karl von Spreti, is kidnapped and murdered in 1970.

The conflict takes another sinister turn when unofficial "death squads" begin to emerge. Using civilian informers and lists prepared by military intelligence, the squads target alleged "subversives" for elimination. Going under such names as 'National Organised Action Movement', 'New Anti-communist Organisation', 'Anti-communist Council of Guatemala', 'Eye for an Eye', and 'Jaguar of Justice', they are tolerated by the government and receive clandestine military support.

In Guatemala, City the 'Judicials', the National Police and the Treasury Police, become the principal agents of state terror, and will remain so for almost 20 years.

Between 1966 and 1970 a reported 10,000 civilians, most of whom are Mayans, are killed in the army campaigns.

In 1968, the then deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Guatemala, Viron Vaky, expresses his concerns about the human rights situation in the country.

In a report he presents to the US Department of State, Vaky states, "The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated. ...

"In the minds of many in Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we (the US) are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually encouraged them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in doubt. ...

"This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all - that we have not been honest with ourselves. We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalised away our qualms and uneasiness.

"This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as communists are being killed it is all right. Murder, torture and mutilation are all right if our side is doing it and the victims are communists. After all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people."

The terror continues into the 1970s, with guerrilla and political leaders, trade unionists and student activists being targeted for murder or "disappearance". It is estimated that the military campaigns result in a least 50,000 deaths during the decade.

Many guerrillas flee the country, some to Cuba to receive military training and support from Fidel Castro's communist regime.

1974 - In December the government sets up the Commando School (Escuela de Comandos) to train an elite counterinsurgency force. The school is renamed the Kaibil Centre for Training and Special Operations (Centro de Adiestramiento y Operaciones Especiales Kaibil) in March 1975. The centre's graduates, known as the 'Kaibiles', will be implicated in numerous human rights abuses over the coming years. Their motto is "the Kaibil is a killing machine."

1977 - The US suspends military aid to Guatemala following an upsurge in death squad activity against the guerrillas and Mayan peasants.

1978 - Military strongman General Fernando Romeo Lucas García becomes president. His period in office will be marked by an escalation of the civil war violence, especially between the months of October 1981 and March 1982.

The Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) is formed. Advocating land reform and respect for the human rights of the Mayans, the committee becomes the largest peasant organisation in the country.

1979 - On 29 April the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of the leftist groups operating in Guatemala, arrives in Uspantan, the township near Menchú's home. Menchú's father, Vicente, provides the guerillas with a meeting place and accompanies them on a protest. However, the guerillas are quickly chased from the area by the state forces, leaving the Mayans to suffer the brunt of the army's retribution.

Menchú is directly affected by the violence and will lose three members of her immediate family, including her 16-year-old brother, Petrocinio, who is arrested and executed by the army.

1980 - In January a small group of Mayan peasants, including Menchú's father, join with student activists and occupy the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City as a meeting is taking place between the ambassador and a group of prominent citizens. Vicente Menchú is appointed the peasant spokesman for the group. After government forces surround the site a fire breaks out within the embassy compound, killing all inside except the ambassador, who escapes but is badly injured. Menchú's father and 38 others die. Some reports suggest that the activists deliberately started the fire.

Menchú's mother is the next member of her family to become a casualty. She is kidnapped by state forces, abused then left to die.

Menchú joins and becomes increasingly active in the CUC. She later helps found the Revolutionary Christians.

1981 - The guerrillas widen their campaign across the country, occupying municipal capitals, sabotaging installations, blocking roads and conducting executions. Activity in the capital also intensifies, with police stations coming under attack and sabotage becoming widespread.

The army sets up and sponsors civilian vigilante groups, the 'Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil' (Civil Self-defence Patrols), throughout the country to keep so-called "subversives" in check. Between 600,000 and one million mostly Mayan peasants will be conscripted into the patrols.

The military and civilian patrols kill about 11,000 people in response to the growing antigovernment activity by the guerrillas.

The US begins to resupply the Guatemalan Army, claiming it is the leftist groups who are perpetuating the violence, aided and abetted by Cuba.

Menchú, meanwhile, is becoming more politicised. She participates in large demonstrations in Guatemala City and joins the radical 31st of January Popular Front. Fearing for her life, she goes into hiding in Guatemala and then into exile in neighbouring Mexico.

1982 - After a military coup on 23 March, Brigadier-general Efraín Ríos Montt takes control of the country, forming a three-member junta that annuls the constitution, dissolves parliament, suspends political parties and cancels the election law.

The various guerrilla factions, united under the banner of Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), denounce the Ríos Montt junta and step up the attacks.

On 8 June, Ríos Montt disbands the junta and assumes the presidency, ruling as a dictator.

An integrated strategy is now implemented to try to quell the insurgency. At first, insurgents are offered a 30-day amnesty. About 2,000 take up the offer. Then, in a television and radio announcement on the night of 30 June, Ríos Montt declares a one-month state of siege, to begin the following day. He attributes responsibility for the "chaos" wracking the country to the guerillas and announces the "final battle" and a "war without limits."

In the field, operation 'Victoria 82' (Victory 82) is launched. Victoria 82 is a "rifles and beans" military campaign designed to destroy the support base of the guerrillas. The mainly Mayan civilians who occupy the "areas of operation" are ordered to move to villages controlled by the army. There they are offered social welfare such as housing and food. A "scorched earth" policy is then applied to the surrounding area.

In October, Ríos Montt orders the 'Archivos' intelligence unit to apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they see fit.

The 14 months of Ríos Montt's rule will become the bloodiest in Guatemala's history since the invasion of the country by the Spanish some 400 years earlier. Mayans suspected of sympathising with the guerillas are killed en mass or subjected to atrocities. Women and girls are raped. The use of torture is widespread. Over 400 Mayan villages are razed. Crops and livestock are destroyed. The insurgency is contained but with a tragic human cost.

Meanwhile, Menchú helps found an umbrella opposition group, the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). During a trip to Paris she tells her life story to Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, a French leftist whose husband was involved with Che Guevara's ill-fated attempt to foment a revolution in Bolivia during the 1960s. The tape recording of the four-day interview will form the basis of Menchú's autobiography, which Burgos-Debray transcribes.

1983 - The state of siege in Guatemala is lifted, political activity is once again allowed and elections scheduled. The US reinstates military training assistance in January, authorising the sale of US$6 million of military hardware. However, on 8 August, Ríos Montt is ousted in another military coup.

It is estimated that during the 14 months of Montt's rule about 70,000 civilians have been killed or "disappeared". During the period 1981 to 1983 about 100,000 have been killed or "disappeared" and between 500,000 and 1.5 million displaced, fleeing to other regions within the country or seeking safety abroad.

1984 - Menchú's autobiography, 'I, Rigoberta Menchú - An Indian Woman in Guatemala', is published to wide acclaim and brings international attention to the plight of the Mayan Indians in Guatemala. Menchú begins to emerge as an internationally recognised spokeswoman for her people, speaking throughout the Americas and at the United Nations (UN) . She becomes one of the first Indian delegates to the UN.

Menchú is labelled a communist by the Guatemalan authorities and accused of being linked to the guerilla movement.

1986 - Menchú becomes a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the CUC. She will return to Guatemala to plead the cause of the Mayan peasants at least three times, but each time is forced back into exile by death threats.

1987- Guatemala begins to move towards peace when representatives of URNG and the government establish a dialogue during a meeting in Spain. The government also creates the National Reconciliation Commission. However, both sides continue to engage in armed actions.

1992 - Menchú is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples."

Speaking at the presentation ceremony held in Oslo, Norway, the chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "By maintaining a disarming humanity in a brutal world, Rigoberta Menchú Tum appeals to the best in all of us, wherever we live and whatever our background. She stands as a uniquely potent symbol of a just struggle. ...

"It is stupid to meet the world with too much trust, but even more stupid to meet it with too little. The goal of Rigoberta Menchú Tum's work, as she has said on many occasions; is reconciliation and peace. She knows, better than most, that the foundations for future reconciliation are laid in the manner in which one conducts one's struggle. Even in the most brutal situations, one must retain one's faith that there is a minimum of human feelings in all of us. Rigoberta Menchú Tum preserved that faith."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

Menchú is the first indigenous person and, at 33, the youngest ever to receive the award. She uses the US$1.2 million prize money to establish and direct the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation to fight for the rights of indigenous people around the world. The foundation receives further financial aid from development funding agencies around the world.

The granting of the award to Menchú is generally applauded, though critics state that she should have been disqualified because of her alleged participation in violent guerrilla actions against the Guatemalan Government.

Meanwhile, in October, the government and representatives of Guatemala's large exiled population sign an agreement defining the conditions for their collective return from Mexico. The first group of refugees returns on 20 January the following year.

The Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation aids their return, providing assistance with the acquisition of land. The foundation also develops projects aimed at improving the education, health care, and human rights of the Mayans. Menchú subsequently becomes recognised as a national figure within Guatemala.

1993 - The UN declares 1993 as the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples and 1994-2003 as the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples. Menchú is appointed as 'Goodwill Ambassador' for the year, then as the official spokeswoman for the decade. She is also appointed as personal adviser to the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

1994 - UN-moderated peace talks begin between the Guatemalan Government and the URNG. An early outcome is the signing of an accord to establish a Commission for Historical Clarification in order "to clarify with objectivity, equity and impartiality, the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people."

In May the Indigenous Initiative for Peace (IIP) is established at an assembly held in Mexico City. Directed by Menchú, who also played the leading role in its foundation, the IIP is a network of indigenous leaders committed to ensuring the complete acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous people around the world.

1995 - The URNG declares a cease-fire. In April the Guatemalan Government and the URNG sign the 'Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples' acknowledging that the issue "of identity and rights of the indigenous peoples constitutes a point of fundamental and historic importance for the present and future of Guatemala."

The indigenous peoples "have been particularly subjected to levels of factual discrimination, exploitation and injustice because of their origin, culture and language ... and suffer unequal and unjust treatment," the accord says.

The accord commits the government to act to end civil rights abuses against the indigenous population by recognising ethnic discrimination as a crime, publicising the rights of the indigenous peoples through education, the media and other means, and opening the legal system to indigenous communities.

The government will also sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples being developed by the UN and implement constitutional reforms to establish indigenous cultural and linguistic rights. Communities will be given the right to "change the name of places where they live, when it be so decided by the majority of its members."

However, the accord will not take effect until a final peace pact is signed. The accord also fails to meet Indian and URNG demands for ancestral territory, local political autonomy and measures to alleviate the extreme poverty of Indian groups.

The government and the URNG chart the road to lasting peace when they sign the 'Accord of Oslo' on 23 June. The accord outlines measures for widespread social reforms, including the drafting and approval of a national reconciliation law, and activates the Commission for Historical Clarification.

The commission has the backing of the UN as well as governments from around the world and international non-government organisations. It will spend four years interviewing survivors and identifying and examining grave sites. It will receive thousands of testimonies, speak to former heads of state and the high command of both the army and the guerrillas, and read thousands of pages of documents submitted by non-government organisations. It hopes that by establishing the truth of the violence committed during the civil war it will aid the process of reconciliation.

Meanwhile, in April, Menchú outlines initiatives proposed for the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples. Chief among these is the ratification of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN.

"We hope for support from the (UN) Human Rights Commission for this proposed declaration as one of its first measures during the International Decade," Menchú says.

"I resolutely believe that respect for diversity is a fundamental pillar in the eradication of racism, xenophobia and intolerance. There is no excuse for evading the responsibility of finding the most suitable path toward the elimination of any expression of discrimination against indigenous peoples."

1996 - Peace comes at last on 29 December when the URNG and government sign the 'Accord for Firm and Lasting Peace', ending the 34-year civil war, the longest in Latin America's modern history. The Civil Self-defence Patrols are disbanded.

1998 - Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera presents the Roman Catholic Church's Recovery of Historical Memory (Never Again) Report detailing the Guatemalan Army's involvement in the atrocities of the civil war. The report attributes about 90% of human rights violations committed during the conflict to the state forces. Two days later, on 26 April, the bishop is beaten to death.

In 2001 three army officers and a Roman Catholic priest are brought to trial for the murder. Despite intimidation of prosecutors, witnesses and judges involved in the case, the three are convicted. The officers are sentenced to 30 years jail each. The priest receives a 20-year sentence. The identities of those responsible for issuing the order to kill the bishop are never revealed.

On 29 December the president of Guatemala asks for forgiveness for the human rights violations committed by the military and its operatives during the civil war. The call follows a more limited appeal for forgiveness made by the URNG on 19 February.

During the year, Menchú's credibility is called into question when it is revealed that her autobiography, 'I, Rigoberta Menchú', contains numerous inconsistencies and exaggerations. On 15 December 'The New York Times' publishes an article corroborating the revelations and characterising Menchú as the "tarnished laureate." Critics subsequently label the autobiography, which in large part led to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Menchú, as a massive fraud.

While Menchú initially refuses to comment directly, a statement from the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation claims that the critics are seeking to restore a "paternalistic vision" and that the investigation that led to the revelations of the autobiography's inaccuracies was "of dubious seriousness."

The Nobel Committee dismisses calls to rescind Menchú's Peace Prize, and the autobiography remains on the curriculum for school students in the US.

At a later press conference Menchú states that her book was not an "autobiography" but a "testimony."

"It tells my personal testimony, but it also has parts of the testimony of the collectiveness of Guatemala," she says. "For common people such as myself, there is no difference between testimony, biography, and autobiography ... What we do is tell what we have lived, not just alone."

Menchú, meanwhile, publishes a second book, 'Crossing Frontiers'.

1999 - The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) hands down its report in May. Titled 'Memory of Silence', the report finds that the army and the Civil Self-defence Patrols were responsible for 93% of the human rights abuses documented by the CEH, including 92% of the arbitrary executions and 91% of the "forced disappearances." Eighty-five percent of all abuses were attributable to the army, and 18% to the patrols.

The guerrilla groups were responsible for 3% of the human rights abuses, including 5% of the arbitrary executions and 2% of the forced disappearances.

Of all the violations documented by the CEH, 91% were committed during the years 1978 to 1984.

"The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state," the report says.

"In consequence, the CEH concludes that agents of the state of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people which lived in the four regions analysed."

The report documents 42,275 victims of human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the civil war, including 23,671 victims of arbitrary execution and 6,159 victims of forced disappearance. Eighty-three percent of the identified victims are Mayan, and 17% are Ladino (people of European decent). According to the CEH, these figures "are only a sample of the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation."

"Combining this data with the results of other studies of political violence in Guatemala, the CEH estimates that the number of persons killed or disappeared as a result of the fratricidal confrontation reached a total of over 200,000," the report says.

"State terror was applied to make it clear that those who attempted to assert their rights, and even their relatives, ran the risk of death by the most hideous means. The objective was to intimidate and silence society as a whole, in order to destroy the will for transformation, both in the short and long term."

The report finds that the greatest proportional of human rights abuses and acts of violence (46%) occurred in the Quiché ethnic region in the country's west, the homeland of Menchú and her family.

The report's recommendations to encourage "peace and national harmony in Guatemala" include the prosecution of those responsible for human rights abuses and the introduction of new socially responsible codes to govern the behaviour of the army, the intelligence forces and the police.

Full copy of the report (PDF - English).

However, in a referendum held in May, the same month as the release of the CEH report, Guatemalans reject constitutional reforms granting rights to the Mayans and restricting the influence of the army.

Meanwhile, Menchú and Guatemalan human rights organisations petition the Spanish national court to hear a case charging Ríos Montt and seven other Guatemalan military and civilian officials with genocide, state terrorism and torture. The court decides not to proceed, arguing that while there was strong evidence against the accused there is no reason why the case could not be heard in Guatemalan courts.

2000 - Mayan organisations demand compliance with the peace accords of 1996, including the redistribution of land and prosecution of war criminals. Subsequently, a Mayan leader is shot dead and threats to journalists and human rights workers increase.

2001 - Intimidation of human rights organisations, judges, prosecutors and Mayan citizens continues. Menchú, who has received death threats on her return visits to Guatemala, now moves to Mexico City full-time.

2002 - An atmosphere of fear and intimidation remains in the country. In April an accountant working for the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation is shot dead shortly after his office receives four anonymous phone calls of taped funeral music.

Prior to a visit to Guatemala by the Pope John Paul II in July several members of the country's Catholic Church, including a bishop, receive death threats. Human rights organisers are subjected to similar intimidation.

On 3 September a trial commences of three former senior commanders of the presidential security and intelligence unit who are accused of instigating the 1990 murder of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, a vocal critic of the military's mistreatment of rural indigenous communities.

The trial is the first in which prison terms are being sought for high-ranking officers implicated in crimes committed by the military during the civil war and is seen as an important test of Guatemala's judicial system. One of the accused, the retired Colonel Juan Valencia, is subsequently found guilty of ordering the murder and is sentenced to 30 years in jail. The two other defendants are acquitted, although an attempt is launched to have their acquittals overturned in the court of appeal.

However, human rights activists receive a blow on 8 October when the convictions against the three army officers and a Roman Catholic priest found guilty of the 1998 murder or Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera are annulled by a Guatemalan appeals court.

The court orders a retrial, saying there were irregularities in the testimony of a key prosecution witness. All four of the accused will remain in jail until the retrial.

From her exile in Mexico, Menchú comments, "Genocide will not return, nor torture nor disappearances, but the situation is grave," she says. "True peace has become a myth."

2003 - Intimidation of human rights activists continues. On 9 April an alliance of social groups issue a statement accusing the government of organising a string of burglaries and attacks which "together provide evidence of continuous pressure and systematic policies." The attacks are thought to be a response to the creation of a state commission to investigate civil rights abuses.

On 7 May a Guatemalan appeals court overturns Juan Valencia's conviction, saying there was insufficient evidence to link him to the killing of Myrna Mack.

In a subsequent appeal heard by the Supreme Court in January 2004, Valencia's conviction is upheld and he is returned to jail to serve out his 30-year sentence. However, Valencia escapes from custody and eludes jail.

2004 - On 15 January the new president of Guatemala, Oscar Berger, invites Menchú to join his administration as "goodwill ambassador to the peace accords" in charge of monitoring the country's adherence to the agreement. According to President Berger's wife, Wendy Widmann de Berger, the new administration believes that Menchú "is the person who can show the world the changes we want to make."

Accepting the invitation, Menchú says she "would like to play this role and offer to Guatemala all the contacts of friendship that many communities have given me."

2005 - On 16 July, Reuters news agency reports that 30,000 police files confirming that human rights abuses took place in Guatemala during the 1980s have been discovered in the archives of the now disbanded National Police.

According to Sergio Morales, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, "This is one of the most important discoveries in recent times."

By the end of the year, 15-20 million more files have been uncovered. According to a report by the Reuters news agency, they will be warehoused with some 120 million other documents in the largest police archive of its kind in Latin America.

The archive is opened to the public in 2009.

In an unrelated development, the Guatemalan Government apologises on 18 July for a military-directed massacre of 226 people in the highland village of Plan de Sanchez on 18 July 1982.

The massacre, which took place during Ríos Montt's dictatorship, was conducted by soldiers aided by members of the Civil Self-defence Patrols.

The Guatemalan Government was ordered to make the apology by the Inter-American Human Rights Court. The court also ordered the government to pay survivors and relatives US$7.9 million in damages.

In December, Sergio Morales announces that documents from the National Police archives show that the office of the director of police ordered the murders and disappearances of leftists during the civil war.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Constitutional Court rules that courts in Spain can hear cases involving crimes against humanity, even if the crimes occurred outside Spain and no Spanish citizens were involved.

2006 - In June, Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz travels to Guatemala to investigate the genocide case brought before the Spanish courts by Menchú and Guatemalan human rights organisations in 1999.

On 7 July, after his return to Spain, Pedraz charges Ríos Montt, Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores and six others with genocide, torture, illegal arrest and terrorism and issues international warrants for their arrest.

"It is going to be very tortuous road, and it's a test of the Guatemalan justice system," Menchú says of the likelihood that the case will ever be heard. "We will see if we have advanced."

2007 - On 12 February, Menchú announces the formation of an Indian-led political movement designed to back her expected bid for the presidency at elections scheduled for 9 September.

"For 200 years of the Guatemalan republic we Indians have been voters but not elected officials and this is the moment to change that," Menchú tells a press conference.

The movement is called 'Winaq', a Mayan word meaning "the wholeness of the human being." Menchú will be supported by and stand as the candidate for the left-leaning 'Together for Guatemala' party. On 22 February she confirms her intention to run for the presidency.

However, when the election is held she polls poorly, finishing sixth in a field of 14 after receiving only 3% of the vote.

The presidency is won by Alvaro Colom, head of the centre-left National Unity for Hope party.

At the end of October Menchú, along with five other female Nobel Peace Prize laureates, signs a letter calling on the military junta in Burma to restore democracy.

"The Burmese regime must not be allowed to continue in its perpetration of gross violations of human rights," the letter says. "The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is the most visible manifestation of the regime's brutality but it is only the tip of the iceberg."

2009 - On 30 January, Guatemala's National Compensation Program files 3,350 criminal complaints accusing former soldiers, paramilitaries and others of human rights violations against more than 5,000 civilians during the civil war.

The National Compensation Program was founded by the Guatemalan Government in 2003 to identify and compensate victims of the war.

2011 - On 17 June, retired General Hector Mario Lopez is arrested on charges of genocide and forced disappearance arising from the civil war. Lopez was allegedly involved in about 200 massacres committed while he was chief-of-staff of the Guatemalan military between 1982 and 1983. He is the highest-ranking official to be detained for alleged crimes committed during the war. Retired General Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez is also charged with genocide for his role in the massacres.

According to a report in the 'New York Times', Ríos Montt says he would also be willing to face justice for crimes committed during his rule.

"It was a time of war, of guerrilla wars," he is reported to say. "If there is no justice, there can be no talk of peace."

In October, former president Oscar Mejia is charged with ordering massacres of indigenous Guatemalan's while he served as Ríos Montt's military chief in 1982-83. In November, Mejia, who ousted Ríos Montt in the 1983 coup, is found to be mentally and physically unfit to stand trial.

2012 - When Efraín Ríos Montt's term in parliament expires on 14 January, he loses his immunity from prosecution. On 26 January, he is ordered to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity related to the case against retired generals Lopez and Sanchez.

Ríos Montt is alleged to have been involved in 266 incidents that resulted in 1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.

He is placed under house arrest and ordered to pay a US$64,000 bond.

A second genocide charge is lodged against Ríos Montt on 22 May. Prosecutors allege Ríos Montt was responsible for a military operation that killed 201 farmers in the northern village of Dos Erres on 7 December 1982.

2013 - On 28 January, a Guatemalan judge confirms that there is enough evidence to try Ríos Montt and retired general Sánchez on the charges of genocide and war crimes. The trial begins on 19 March. Menchú attends the opening sessions.

The three-judge panel hearing the case will decide whether Ríos Montt should be found guilty and sentenced, whether he should be exonerated, or whether he should be ordered to face a public trial.

After some stumbles, the trial concludes on 10 May. Ríos Montt is found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison. General Sánchez is acquitted. Ríos Montt spends three nights in prison before being transferred to a military hospital after fainting.

Guatemala's Constitutional Court annuls the verdict on 20 May, citing procedural errors during the opening phases of the trial. The trail is ordered to be restarted from the evidentiary stage. Ríos Montt is returned to house arrest on 10 June.

2014 - In May Guatemala's Congress approves a non-binding resolution that denies there was any attempt to commit genocide during the civil war. The resolution was proposed by a member of Ríos Montt's FRG party.

2015 - At a court hearing in January the retrial of Ríos Montt and General Sánchez is further postponed. Its restart is now set for 23 July.

On 1 July the Guatemalan National Institute of Forensic Sciences reports that Ríos Montt is mentally incompetent and incapable of understanding the charges against him or participating in his defence. A subsequent court-ordered medical and psychological evaluation finds he is suffering from dementia.

A court rules that the trial of Ríos Montt and General Sánchez can, nevertheless, go ahead. The recommencement date is set for 11 January 2016. The trial will be held behind closed doors. A guilty or not guilty verdict can be reached, but Ríos Montt will not receive a sentence because of his health. He is not required to attend the trial.

2016 - The trial of Ríos Montt and General Sánchez is suspended once again. It finally reconvenes on 16 March.

Meanwhile, Menchú attends the trial of a retired army officer and a former paramilitary charged with the sexual enslavement of Mayan Quiché peasant women during the civil war, along with other serious crimes, including murder. The pair are found guilty and sentenced to 120 and 240 years in prison respectively. They are also ordered to pay about US$65,000 and US$32,500 respectively to each of the victims who participated in the trial.

Commenting on the judgement, Menchú says, "This is historic, it is a great step for women and above all for the victims."


The revelations in 1998 that Menchú's autobiography may not have been the whole truth and nothing but the truth caused a bit of controversy at the time and got pundits from both the left and the right up and riding on some rather high horses. It was as if the details in Menchú's story really mattered to what had unfolded in Guatemala. As if.

Menchú's recollections may have been unreliable - so what. She is a Mayan woman born and breed in the ethnic region that suffered the worst of the reign of terror orchestrated and carried out by the Guatemalan state forces. Of that there is no doubt. As a teenager and young woman living in Guatemala she witnessed and experienced the terror first hand. Again, little doubt there.

Menchú herself has described her book as a testimony of the experience of her whole people, and she has become something of an icon, not just for the experience of Guatemalan Indians, but for the experiences of indigenous peoples around the world. The genocide that took place in Guatemala may have been a particularly extreme current example of the discrimination suffered by indigenous populations, but it is far from a precedent.

Consider the history of all the Indian nations across the Americas, or of the Aborigines in Australia, or the Tibetans in their homeland, to name just a few. The stories are not edifying; and it often appears that they are something the rest of the world would rather forget. Menchú, and others like her, jolts that complacency. That is why she is represented here.