Guatemala confronts a dark chapter

Story highlights

  • Defense attorney: Ex-dictator "never gave an order ... to exterminate a single Ixil"
  • A historic genocide trial is under way in Guatemala
  • Former dictator Efrain Rios Montt is accused of atrocities against Mayans
  • U.N.: For the first time, an ex-head of state is tried for genocide by his own country's justice system
The soldiers killed Jacinto Lopez's teenage daughter Magdalena by repeatedly stabbing her in the neck.
Then they shot and killed his sons, 13-year-old Domingo and 10-year-old Pedro.
His in-laws were not spared. Barely anyone in the village was.
These atrocities, which took place in the remote Guatemalan town of Santa Maria Nebaj in July of 1982, have never been described in a courtroom.
Until now.
For the first time, Lopez has shared his terrifying story in the nation's highest court.
And for the first time "anywhere in the world," according to the United Nations, a former head of state is being tried for genocide by his own nation's justice system. That man is Efrain Rios Montt, an ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983.
"They killed my family and destroyed our crops," Lopez testified. "They took even my cows."
The attack against the Lopez family was just one of countless assaults in the early 1980s during the war between the Guatemalan government and leftist rebels.
The military used the rebel threat as a guise to exterminate rural Ixil Mayan villages accused of harboring insurgents, prosecutors say. According to prosecutors, the campaign led to the genocide of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayans.
Previous accusations of genocide, such as in Rwanda or against Serbia, have been presided over by international judges. The Guatemala attacks are considered by many experts as the only incident of genocide in the Western Hemisphere during the modern era.
The trial reignites debate over the United States' controversial pro-government policies in the region during the 1980s. It also offers a fascinating look in real time at how a nation is choosing to face its own demons. Painful public testimony could help heal the national betrayal reflected in the faces of many Mayan victims.