Protest, Urban Space, and Genocide: Taking Guatemala’s Memory Battles to the Streets

By Jo-Marie Burt.

After the verdict against former de facto president José Efraín Ríos Montt was vacated by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, the debate over whether or not there was genocide in Guatemala is playing out not only in the country’s courtrooms, but in its streets as well. Through public protests, marches, and urban art interventions, Guatemalan human rights activists and artists are using the language of street art, graffiti, and urban art interventions to convey their belief that there was indeed genocide in Guatemala.

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“SI HUBO GENOCIDIO” / “YES THERE WAS GENOCIDE” May 2013
Urban intervention by Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guilty as Charged, and then Not

On May 10, 2013, the former de facto president of Guatemala, José Efraín Ríos Montt, was convicted as the intellectual author of genocide and crimes against humanity of the Maya Ixil population during his 17 months in office between March 1982 and August 1983.

The trial court found that the prosecution had demonstrated that there had been an intentional state policy to exterminate at least part of the Maya Ixil group, who it viewed as naturally rebellious troublemakers who consorted with guerrillas. For this they convicted the 86-year-old Ríos Montt to 50 years in prison, with an extra 30 for crimes against humanity, and ordered him immediately to prison.

The verdict has been hailed as a victory for the Maya Ixil, who have fought for justice more than 30 years. It has also been hailed as a milestone in global justice efforts. Ríos Montt is the first head of state to be prosecuted and convicted for genocide.

However, ten days after the verdict, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court vacated the historic verdict and ordered the trial to hear some defense witnesses and closing arguments again before reissuing a sentence. However, experts note that the trial court that emitted the verdict will have to recuse itself since it had already emitted an opinion on the case, effectively forcing the proceedings to start from scratch. The civil parties are contesting the Constitutional Court’s ruling through legal motions and on the street.

Yes there was / No there was not… Genocide (pick one)

The larger question that echoed throughout Guatemala as the genocide proceedings unfolded was whether or not there had been genocide in Guatemala. As the trial unfolded, a debated unleashed on Twitter under the opposing hastags #sihubogenocidio and #nohubogenocidio (#yestherewasgenocide / #notherewasnogenocide).

Despite the May 10 verdict, powerful elites —including sitting Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, himself a military commander during the Rios Montt period— and CACIF, the powerful business association, have emphatically denied that genocide had taken place in Guatemala. In the aftermath of the verdict, CACIF launched a campaign decrying the verdict, telling Guatemalans that foreign investment would dry up now that their country was being associated with the Nazis and Rwanda, and urging judicial authorities to overturn it. They organized small protests and public interventions to show their disagreement with the genocide verdict, as captured by Xeni Jardin on her blog, Boing Boing.

Takin’ it to the Streets: Que si, hubo genocidio

As the Guatemalan courts struggle to sort out next steps in the genocide case, human rights activists, artists and others have sought to convey their message through peaceful street marches, sit-ins, and the deployment of street art. The website Prensa Comunitaria features a photojournalistic essay by Cristina Chiquin with powerful images of street art and citizen mobilization challenging the Constitutional Court decision vacating the verdict as well as elite narratives of denial by placing images of the disappeared in walls around the city and affirming that in Guatemala, “Yes, there was genocide.”

“The Constitutional Court Sentence: National Disgrace” May 2013“The Constitutional Court Sentence: National Disgrace” May 2013
Ixil women demonstrate in front of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court,
which last Monday vacated the genocide verdict against former dictator Ríos Montt.
Photograph by Cristina Chiquin

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“¿Dónde están?” / “Where are they?” April 2013. A building along a main thoroughfare in Guatemala City is covered with images of the disappeared. This photograph was taken by the author in April 2013. Upon return to Guatemala two weeks later to observe the last week of the proceedings, these images had been removed from the wall. Photograph by the author

 

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 Near the Public Ministry in Guatemala City, the words “Justice for Genocide” are spelled out using images of the disappeared. May 2013. Photograph by the author

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Altar before the Palace of Justice, May 2013. “No more injustice; #Yestherewas genocide.”  Photograph by the author.

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Graffiti near the Palace of Justice, May 2013. “Ríos Montt: Assassin.”

Photograph by the author.

Urban Space: Conveying Memory through Art
One of the most clever uses of urban space in this campaign has been Daniel Hernández-Salazar’s iconic shouting angel perched on the back of city buses, crying out for all to hear (or read): “Yes there was genocide!”

Years ago, photographer Daniel Hernández-Salazar prepared a series of urban interventions featuring the now famous image of three angels who cover their eyes, ears and mouths —they do see, hear, or speak of, evil. The angel’s wings were made from shoulder blades exhumed from a mass grave.

Daniel crafted the angels to symbolize the denial narratives and silence imposed by fear that prevailed in Guatemala. This combination of denial and silence persisted well after a UN-sponsored truth commission, the Historical Clarification Commission, documented that 200,000 had been killed and 45,000 forcibly disappeared during the country’s 36-year civil war.

Another truth commission, REHMI, organized by the Guatemalan Catholic Church, asked Daniel to create a new image for the cover of its report, in which the angel speaks of what happened. The iconic image Daniel created actually seems to be shouting at the top of his lungs, urging people to speak and himself conveying the truth that had been so long silenced in Guatemala. He placed this next to the other three angels, and called it “So That All Shall Know.”

Bishop Juan Gerardi, who asked Daniel to craft the image for the REHMI report, was bludgeoned to death a few days after the report was made public. After Gerardi’s murder, Daniel began a personal quest to make his fellow Guatemalans face the brutality of the country’s past. He staged urban interventions featuring his shouting angel in front of army barracks, churches, government buildings. As The New York Times wrote in article featuring Daniel’s images last June: “The image has since become part of the city’s activist landscape, gracing posters carried at demonstrations or in the background of events signaling the war’s end.”

Daniel once again deployed his image in Guatemala City as the genocide trial was unfolding. While in Guatemala, I saw his famous angels postered on walls and, ingeniously, on the backs of buses, conveying in a powerful and symbolic way that in Guatemala there was, indeed, genocide. Regardless of the outcome of the judicial proceedings involving Ríos Montt.

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“SI HUBO GENOCIDIO” / “YES THERE WAS GENOCIDE” May 2013.
A Mayan woman walks down a sidewalk near one of the urban interventions in Guatemala City affirming that there was indeed genocide in Guatemala by Daniel Hernández-Salazar
Photograph by Cristina Chiquin

A concluding thought. Genocide deniers also have urban art interventions, sort of.

JMB11The bumper sticker on the silver says: “We Guatemalans are not genocidaires.” May 2013.
Photograph by the author.

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The bumper sticker on the pick-up truck, seen the morning of the genocide verdict, reads: “In Guatemala there was no genocide.”
Photograph by Casey Cagley