Human Rights Media Activists And The Guatemalan Genocide

by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

November 20, 2014

As I watched footage from the trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt that will be featured in Pamela Yates’ new documentary “500 Years”, I was transported back to the courtroom where, for the first time in History, a conviction for genocide against indigenous people took place.

In May 2013, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison after he was found guilty of overseeing the murder of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayans during his 1982-1983 rule – the bloodiest phase of Guatemala’s 36-year-old civil war.

However, hope turned to dismay after Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, ruled that the proceedings should be voided based on a technicality and ordered a re-trial dating that is due to begin in 2015.

During my recent trip to New York, I attended the Human Rights Law and Documentary Film Making forum in which Yates, an American documentary filmmaker, producer Paco de Onís, producer/editor Peter Kinoy and Spanish human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu discussed the role played by the media in human rights struggles and the significance of the Ríos Montt trial in terms of shaping a new historical narrative that acknowledges the Mayan Holocaust.

Documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates speaks at Human Rights Law and Documentary Film Making Forum, New York 2014

Yates’ new documentary 500 years, will be the third part of trilogy about the Guatemalan civil war that includes When the Mountains Tremble and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. I had the opportunity to interview Yates for Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico when she traveled to Guatemala in 2012 for the premiere of Granito.

Yates decided to tell Guatemala’s story, she explains in the following clip, after she learnt that US foreign policy in Central America was responsible for ushering in decades of brutal dictatorship and was moved by a sense of outrage.



Key footage from When the Mountains Tremble, her first film about Guatemala, was used as evidence during the Rios Montt trial. When questioned by Yates about the massacres committed in the Guatemalan highlands, Rios Montt said that it was impossible for the army to act without his knowledge as it followed a strict “chain of command”. “If I can’t control the army, then what am I doing here?” he exclaimed emphatically. Little did he suspect that more than three decades later those words would come back to haunt him as the prosecution used the interview to prove that Rios Montt was fully aware of the atrocities that were been committed against the Ixil people.

Peter Kinoy explains that for many years, the truth about the war crimes perpetrated against innocent civilians during the armed conflict has been denied and suppressed. In this context, documenting the truth through documentary film making becomes an important tool for activism.

“As the years have gone on, our work has broadened and we consider ourselves as human rights media activists. We make films but we make sure they are integrated into the human right struggles that they’re about”, says Kinoy.

Since Rios Montt’s guilty verdict was overturned, the significance of the trial and the impact that it had as part of a battle for historical memory has been debated in Guatemala and abroad. During the forum, Paco de Onís explained that regarding the trial as a failure is “narrow and legalistic” as it fails to take into account the importance of bringing the truth to light in a courtroom.