Heidi McKinnon

Heidi McKinnon (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí - ADIVIMA): Heidi holds a BA in anthropology and Spanish from the University of New Mexico and has worked with indigenous communities throughout Latin America since1997. Heidi worked at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in the late 1990s. Heidi researched human rights and sovereignty issues in every region of Latin America as she was developing content for the permanent exhibits at NMAI. Her research led her to ADIVIMA and the Chixoy Dam, which she recommended for inclusion at the Museum.

We Arrived Early in Salamá

04 Jul

We arrived early in Salamá thanks to Tomás. The sentencing was to begin at 3 PM, and we had twenty minutes to spare, which would normally have been a plus. However, I was with the prosecution team from ADIVIMA, and we were at the local tribunal for the reading of the final sentence against five Achí men from the village of Xococ who were found guilty of killing at least twenty-six people from Río Negro on March 13, 1982. One hundred seventy-seven died that day, but only two have officially been identified from their remains. During the trial, seventeen survivors identified the victims of twenty-four murders they witnessed.

Nearly sixty people were waiting outside the compound, all Achí families from Xococ, relatives of the accused. We were three women facing a ground swell of animosity from the moment we arrived. The previous week, over two hundred Río Negro survivors attended the last day of the trial when the verdict was read. That day these families stayed home. Unbeknownst to us, this was their day to bear witness and support their relatives.

P. was nervous when she realized who we were facing. She was one of the survivors who brought the case forward and plainly told me that she feared some of the younger men in the crowd might want to harm or kidnap her. They made menacing comments under their breath as we walked the gauntlet and entered the compound. It was safer there. As we waited inside, F., the ADIVIMA prosecutor, looked calm, but the bounce of her knee spoke loudly. She wanted this case to be over. ADIVIMA has a larger criminal case against the Guatemalan government that has been accepted to the court of the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights and she needed to focus on that.

As we waited in a corner of the compound, several of the accused men were escorted past us in handcuffs, neatly dressed. Most were old men with white hair. My reaction did not surprise me. These men committed horrible crimes out of a mixture of free will, revenge and obligation. The details of their atrocities I will not discuss here. Given their 30-year sentences, they will all most likely die in jail.

There is no disputing that some amount of justice is served by such a sentence. Even considering the heinous nature of their actions, they were pawns in a much larger campaign of displacement and intentional genocide that they themselves did not design. Watching each man shuffle past, we all probably thought about those men and women who were missing from the line up, the real architects of the Río Negro massacres who ran the Guatemalan government and army, and who worked for the international banks and the hydroelectric companies that built the Chixoy Dam. They may never hear their sentences read aloud in a courtroom at 9 PM on a Wednesday night in Salamá with their grandchildren watching. But this verdict was for each of them just as much as it was for the five men in the courtroom last week.

It is one thing to read about a criminal and objectively know that justice would be served if they were punished. I was in Chile the week before Pinochet died and in Indonesia the week before the death of Suharto. I saw and heard so much justified and palpable anger and frustration in both countries. To see someone literally get away with murder, to escape justice, is unsettling, maddening. But when you are seated a few feet away from a murderer who is over seventy, speaks no Spanish and has trouble even walking, it can make one pause and wonder whose definition of justice is being served by such a sentence. Who is more culpable, the man who pulled the trigger or the man who bought him the gun and told him who he should kill if he wanted to stay alive and keep his family safe?

The sentencing was delayed for five hours that afternoon. P., F., and I safely escaped the eye of the storm and spent several hours sitting in our car near the central plaza exchanging stories about life, love, family. It was meant to be a diversion. Although we did not make mention of our actions out loud, whenever a car passed, we paid close attention. Whomever walked by was scrutinized thoroughly. We were on alert for hours, until it was finally time to return to the tribunal and enter the courtroom.

We arrived first, followed by two armed police and the accused men from Xococ. Each one handcuffed, saying, “Buenas noches” or “Utzulaj xokaq´ ab´” to the prosecution in turn. We sat there together in silence and reflection for some time before the families and judges arrived. The police were exchanging gossip behind me. I took notes. F. reviewed her agenda as her knee bounced. P. sat with her head in her hands. Maybe she was praying; maybe she was thinking of the first night she slept in the mountains after escaping the killings in Río Negro. A snake brushed against her side while she slept and she awoke, taking it as a signal to keep moving up the mountain. Hours later she could hear the PAC patrol passing the spot where she and her son had slept.

When the families entered the courtroom, no one sat near me for obvious reasons. I will never be a welcome face in Xococ. Seats lined the wall outside the window to my immediate left near a chalk board with a grid. Down the left side were the names of the accused and across the top those of the witnesses. Some squares said things like, “la violó” or “lo ví en Río Negro.” “He raped her.” “I saw him in Río Negro.” Many of the youth present did not believe that this event ever occurred. Just as I heard in Xesiguan, there is a whole generation of children who may not believe that there was ever a war in this country, or that so many of their relatives died in it.

After the judges entered, the proceedings moved very quickly. We were expecting the sentence to be read, a process that was estimated to take four hours. Within twenty minutes, both sides received copies of the final sentence in Spanish or Achí, whether they could read it or not. Some of us were free to leave.

Aside from thoughts on the bittersweet nature of justice, what I witnessed was a historic event in Guatemala. For the second time, a tribunal acknowledged the massacres that took place in the hills above Río Negro at a now sacred site called Pacoxom. It was a victory for every survivor and will help support ADIVIMA´s case against the Guatemalan government before the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights.

A few days ago, my Achí professor and I were talking about the case. He is a survivor as well, and was for some reason surprised to hear me express what he had been thinking for some time. This case was an important step to take, but there are others far more culpable who may always remain free. We can only hope they have their day in Salamá as well.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Jul 4th, 2008


  • visitor

    June 11, 2008


    This was an incredibly moving post. It must be very hard to see those men who were told to carry these atrocities out be sentenced while those who were “more” responsible are free…but I always think about those who experienced the violence firsthand, …even if we feel that someone else is more blameworthy…I wonder how they feel about that thought process.

  • Margot

    June 11, 2008


    Despite the “bittersweet nature of justice,” it is so interesting and hope-inspiring to read this blog and compare it to Ash’s 6/9/08 blog about the difficulties which EPAF is facing in their search for some sort of justice.

  • Carlos Gomez

    June 17, 2008


    Yes, this incredibly moving post shows the irony of the civil war in Guatemala. Those men who carried out the atrocities were probably forced under threat to their lives and their family’s lives. The architecture of genocide in Guatemala follows a vicious cycle.

    Displaced people were moved to camps where they are denied proper sustenance. The young men without land to cultivate and under unlivable
    conditions have no other recourse than to join the very army that massacred and displaced their family members. They are trained to kill and sent to other parts of Guatemala to carry out the systematic genocide, put into motion by people at the highest levels of the Guatemalan army and government. It is they who are responsible.

    World Bank and IMF should be called out in any discussion for being in partnership with the army and complicit in their strategy of divide and conquer. Are the payoffs going to family members and communities, after the fact, any consolation? All Guatemalans deserve to know and reconcile with their history.

    I recently saw the President of Guatemala asking for the ceasing of right wing vigilantism and death squads, probably left over from the civil war. Do you know what the outcome has been (if any) of this public declaration?

  • Heidi

    June 17, 2008


    Hi Carlos,

    Thank you for the comments. I have seen nothing in the papers about reactions to his call for cease fires, but will dig a bit more and get back to you.

    I plan to write future posts on the army archives that are now being opened by Colom´s government and an exhibit on disappearances that just opened this week which was partially funded by his office. There is more open dialogue now, but what the concrete results will be, I can`t say.

    I encourage you to follow http://www.mimundo.org, James Rodriguez’ blog, as well, if you want to know what has been happening in the past few years in Guatemala. You will like his work.

    Thanks again for being in touch, HH

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