Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

Guggenheim Fellow Talks About Human Rights Violations in Guatemala

April 9, 2009

Lehman anthropology professor Victoria Sanford has received the 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Professor Sanford will use the award to work on her new book, The Land of Pale Hands, about post-conflict violence, social cleansing, and the murder of women in Guatemala.

10 Minutes 27 Seconds

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This is Sarah Sumler, a student at Lehman College. Lehman anthropology professor Victoria Sanford has received the 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Professor Sanford will use the award to work on her new book, The Land of Pale Hands, about post-conflict violence, social cleansing, and the murder of women in Guatemala. Professor Sanford has worked with Central American refugees since 1986. In this segment, she talks about the Fellowship and her new research about Guatemala.



I do research on human rights in Latin America in general. And this particular project is on human rights in Guatemala. And it looks at violence in post-conflict society in Guatemala.

I received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship to write this book, which is called The Land of Pale Hands: Feminist Side, Social Cleansing and Impunity in Guatemala. It looks at and seeks to understand why is it that Guatemala today-- some thirteen years after the signing of peace accords-- is experiencing as much violence as it experienced at the height of the genocide in the early 1980's. And so, I look at specific instances and phenomena, the feminist side of the killing of women.

The social cleansing, which is kill-- selective killing of young men or other people who are deemed unwanted in the society. And then also look at impunity in the judicial system. Because the genociders of the past have never been brought to justice. And I think that the structural impunity has everything to do with the violence that exists today.


There's a completely nonfunctioning judicial system. In 2005, there were more than three thousand murders. In 2006, there were eight convictions for murder. So, you know, in a in a certain way-- Jorge Velásquez, the father of Claudina Isabel Velásquez, which is a case that I look at in my book-- as he says, impunity was the invitation to my daughter's murderer because there's nothing to stay the hand of vengeance. Because anyone who commits a crime pretty much knows that the possibility of being caught is nil. And the probability of being prosecuted is nothing.

I've written a lot about Guatemala because I've been doing research there now since the early 1990s. And I've work with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation doing exhumations of clandestine cemeteries. Like the exhumations you might have seen in the former Yugoslavia or other places in the world.

Digging up the graves of massacre victims to analyze their remains to make forensic conclusions about what happened to the people who were killed. And I worked with the forensic team writing a report for the truth commission in Guatemala that was the Commission for Historical Clarification. And then I also wrote a book, Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala.


And I also have a book in Guatemala called Violencia y Genocidio en Guatemala that explains why what happened in Guatemala during the war was a genocide. Which is that the-- it was a strategic decision made by the military structure to eliminate indigenous people. And that's why of the 200,000 people who were killed in the genocide, more than 83 percent of them were indigenous because they were targeted by virtue of being indigenous.

Right now, I'm finishing a book on Colombia that looks at peace communities and the-- the forced recruitment of children into the guerilla and the paramilitaries. And youth responses and organizing for peace in Colombia, particularly in peace communities in northern Colombia.

We did an exhumation in 1994 of a massacre that happened in 1982, in July of 1982, when Ríos Montt was in power. And in fact, July is the height of the genocide. It starts when he-- he comes to power through military coup in March of 1982. And so twelve years later, we do the exhumation and then that forensic evidence and the historical reconstruction of what happened in the massacre that we put together was written up in a legal brief. And it went to the Inter-American Commission.


And then they reviewed it, and they investigated it, and they sent it to the court. And then finally it was heard by the court. And in 2004, the court ruled that, in fact, that massacre was committed by the government, committed by the military regime of Ríos Montt. But most importantly, the court concluded that it was part of a genocidal strategy that was developed under the national security ideology and the national security doctrine of General Efraín Ríos Montt and that he was responsible for that massacre and for crimes of genocide.

And they found in favor of the people, the survivors of that community. And they ordered the government to pay reparations to the community. And they also ordered the government to recognize what had happened publicly. And so, that-- but that-- the Inter-American Court doesn't have the power to jail or prosecute.

And it also doesn't have the-- the decisions aren't binding. Most countries follow what-- what the court recommends, but they're not bound. There's no sanction if they don't. They look bad, but there's no sanction if they don't. But the government of Guatemala did follow through and is providing reparations to the community of Plan de Sánchez.


But importantly, now you have a court ruling that genocide was committed. Then in 2006, the Spanish court-- Judge Pedraz in the Spanish court-- issued an international arrest warrant for seven different former military and police officers who had been heads of state, dictators in Guatemala, because they all came to power through military coup.

And found for crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, terrorism, kidnapping-- there were, like, seven different crimes that they were charged with. And so, there is an order of extradition. So, what that means is that if any of those seven leave Guatemala, any country that they enter into, like, if they go into El Salvador, by international protocols with the international police, with Interpol, they are bound to turn those people over to Interpol to go to Spain. So, although none of those people have been extradited from Guatemala, Guatemala is now their jail. They can't leave.

Guatemala's very close to the United States. Guatemala City is 2600 miles from San Francisco, and Boston, Massachusetts is 3100. So, Guatemala's closer to California than the East Coast is. And still, you know, you-- if you wanted to walk from Guatemala to-- to the US border, it would take you three months to get there. And a lot of people did walk. And the reason they walked is because it was their only way to escape. And what they were escaping was the genocide where the army came in and killed everyone.


And some of the people who survived would say they-- they killed everything that moved. They killed-- you know, children, elderly-- men, women, youth. They killed the dogs. They killed everything, and they burned the crops. And they burned the houses. They left nothing. And that was the-- they called it the Scorched Earth Campaign. That was the strategy of the army.

And Guatemala is also a beautiful country. It's mountainous and it has 23 different indigenous groups. There are 23 different ethno-linguistic groups in Guatemala. Which means that people had a lot of difficulty communicating as well. Because if they didn't speak Spanish, and they were monolingual, mono-language speakers, then it was really difficult for them to speak to the outside world about what had happened to them.

It's also the only country in the Americas that has a majority indigenous population. And I think that also has everything to do with the reason that Guatemala lives at this incredibly-- at this incredibly high level of violence. Because the minority in Guatemala, the non-indigenous minority, continues to hold the balance of wealth.


Less than one half of one percent own more than 50 percent of the wealth in that country. And the majority of people in that country own less than ten percent of the wealth. And that's why you end up with such high levels of poverty, such low levels of education, low levels of literacy. Low levels of access to health care.

And if you travel to Guatemala and you see an indigenous woman-- recent United Nations development program reports on social indicators tell us that the majority of indigenous women are hungry. They're suffering from malnutrition.

Meanwhile, you have a tremendous buildup of weapons. And you have more than 85 percent of the cocaine that travels from the Andes to the United States literally touches ground and travels across Guatemala.


And so, you-- you can see how all of these-- former military structures, clandestine groups, immense poverty, massive inequalities, how it all feeds into constructing what-- what's a very violent society today. But it's not a violent culture. It's not that the culture's violent. It's that structurally-- it-- it the juridical system isn't functioning there.

The Guggenheim Foundation is the pinnacle of-- of fellowships. So, I feel deeply, deeply honored. And I'm gonna do a really great book to show that they didn't make a mistake by giving me this honor.

You're named a fellow of the foundation and then they-- they give you a stipend that helps give you course release. Because the challenge for university professors is that in order to write a book, you really need to be able to write every day. But it's hard to write every day when you are teaching. And so, the importance of fellowships like the Guggenheim Fellowships and other fellowships that are available is that when you get the fellowship, it means that you can take time off from teaching to focus on writing.


And, you know, Lehman College, like the CUNY system as a whole, we have wonderful, wonderful scholars. I feel really honored to be with all my colleagues here at Lehman and with all of my colleagues at CUNY. Because we have excellent, top-flight scholars in our university system.



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