Tierra arrasada means “scorched earth.” In nature, this comes after a wildfire, when the vegetation turns into a giant pyre and then into a gray cloud of ash, covering everything. Nothing is left of what was there before, and soon it is all forgotten. Some say fires are good for wildlife, allowing nature to come back even stronger and healthier than before. Some say fire is just an effective way to get rid of what is already there. But “scorched earth” is more than fire: it is an expression with its own meaning, as a symbolic concept and a statement of intent.
Scorched earth is also a military tactic. In Guatemala, General Efraín Ríos Montt paraphrased it as “cutting off the water to the fish.” In the context of an internal conflict which lasted for over 20 years, it meant annihilating every kind of logistical and ideological support for guerillas, in order to isolate them from the social base to which they turned for support. This policy led to many atrocities, of which some of the most notorious were the Creompaz clandestine extermination camp and the sexual violence perpetrated at Sepur Zarco.
Another happened on Dec. 6, 1982, when, under the pretext of wanting to recover 22 rifles seized by the rebels. Fifty-eight soldiers disguised as guerrillas invaded the community of Dos Erres in Petén, in northern Guatemala. They held the men prisoners in the school building, and the women and children in the two churches. The former were blindfolded, tortured and shot, while the women and children had an even worse fate: sexually violated and tortured until the next day, they were eventually murdered. Their bodies were thrown into a mass grave and covered with earth. Only in June 1994 would the bones of 178 people finally be recovered. Most of them were children under 12 years old.
During the rule of Rios Montt, who was in power between 1982 and 1983, “scorched earth” meant exterminating the guerrillas and the indigenous communities suspected of supporting them, the so-called “internal enemy.” It was nothing less than ethic, social and political cleansing, done so that there would be no trace left of them, even in memory. During those two years, the Guatemalan army killed 10,000 people and committed 669 massacres, of which almost half were against civilians of the indigenous Mayan Ixil population. Four hundred forty-eight communities were “eliminated,” first by gunfire, then set on fire and turned to ashes—tierra arrasada.
On May 10, 2013, 17 years after the signing of the peace agreements, the Tribunal A de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court A) found Ríos Montt guilty for the massacre of 1,771 victims, as well as guilty of genocide against the Ixil, sentencing him to 50 years in prison, to which were added 30 years for crimes against humanity: an 80-year sentence, with legal recognition of the genocide and the foundations laid for a process of transitional justice. Historical memory seemed to have been affirmed in the courtroom, and the families of the disappeared and murdered, as well as those who had been forced into exile in the mountains of the Mexican Chiapas region, finally saw the possibility of believing in something new: Truth and Justice. Unfortunately, it was a short flicker of remembrance in a fragile democracy—only 10 days later, the Constitutional Court threw out the sentence and postponed the reopening of the trial to an unspecified later date.
It was a familiar strategy in Guatemala, and it allowed the genocidal dictator to die unpunished on Easter Day this year, aged 91, never having paid the price for his terrible crimes.
On Sept. 26, 22 years after the peace agreements, part of what remains of the Ixil people held a quiet gathering in Human Rights Square in Guatemala City, where their ancestral leaders officiated a ceremony in memory of the victims of the genocide. They laid candles on the ground, many flowers and wrote the word “Justice” in red petals. Meanwhile, hundreds of people lined up outside a local courtroom, where the sentence in the trial of Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez was expected at 6:30 p.m. local time.
Sánchez, the accused, was Ríos Montt’s head of military intelligence: he was the brain behind the concept, the mastermind who implemented it, the architect of tierra arrasada. First tried five years ago together with Ríos Montt for the genocide of the Ixil population, crimes against humanity and the massacre of 1,771 people, he won a ruling that he should be tried separately from the ex-dictator and was later acquitted for a purported lack of evidence tying him to the extermination of a particular ethnic group. However, his case was re-opened on Oct. 13, 2017, and experts and eyewitnesses had been testifying every Friday since then.
Every Friday, Sánchez sat on the bench of the accused and a group of survivors of the genocide, supported by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), travelled for over 10 hours from the region of Quiché in central-northern Guatemala to the capital. They took seats on the prosecution side and in the gallery and recounted what they had seen and experienced, the torture and massacres—everything they had survived, and all that was left: memory. In almost a year of regular hearings, the Tribunal B de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court B) heard from around 141 witnesses and received 66 forensic anthropology expert reports.
Late on Wednesday, Sept. 26, they issued their verdict: there had indeed been a genocide, but Sánchez was innocent. It was a self-contradictory ruling issued by a majority of the three-judge panel (two judges in favor and one against), which clearly expressed the will to avoid any part of the historic burden that rested on the court’s shoulders. This ruling tore apart what people had at last begun to believe in: there was truth, but no justice.
The question of the genocide has been dividing Guatemalan civil society for years. The graffiti on the walls in the cities, the voices of the demonstrators, the indigenous peoples, the organizations of the families of the victims and the disappeared, the democratic forces and the Left have all been shouting loudly that there has been a genocide in Guatemala. They are all saying that “scorched earth” was a policy that showed the will to conduct ethnic, political and social cleansing: the will to exterminate. On the other side, those denying the genocide happened are the extreme right; the army; the association of military veterans; General Otto Perez Molina, who was president of Guatemala between 2012 and 2015; the economic lobbies; and the so-called Foundation Against Terrorism, whose very name is a contradiction in terms. And, of course, Sánchez, who claimed he was innocent.
The argument they are pushing is that what happened in Guatemala was a conflict between two opposing factions, not genocide. All this despite the findings of the Commission for Historical Clarification of the United Nations, which has shown that out of the more than 200,000 dead and disappeared, 83.3 percent were from indigenous ethnic groups and 93 percent of the cases of violence were perpetrated by the State.
Truth without justice: that was what the court delivered when it recognized the genocide but absolved Sánchez of responsibility in the massacres committed by the army he commanded. As if the head of military intelligence could be unaware of the actions of his own soldiers; as if he had not given any orders; as if it had been an unpremeditated genocide, the result of bad luck and chance events, or of differences in opinion. As if now was the time to forget all about the crimes and murders, the dead and the massacres. As if that was what “democracy” meant.
Scorched earth is still happening nowadays. It’s an everyday occurrence in a Guatemala that has become a paradise of impunity, one where the people responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity are left to walk free.
It’s happening everywhere in the industry built around extractivism—for instance, on Sept. 4, the Constitutional Court reinstated the exploitation license for the Canadian company Tahoe Resources, the third-largest silver mine in the world, which had been suspended pending trial for pollution and for trying to ignore the very existence of the Xinca indigenous population. And it happened again when 56 teenage girls were left to burn alive at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción on March 8, 2017. It’s still happening: scorched earth, fire and ashes, the ever-present shadows of a silent genocide.