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Genocide Trial Reopens Old Wounds in Guatemala

(CNN) — Juan Brito López was around 20 years old when soldiers invaded his home in the village of Pexla in the western highlands of Guatemala. He managed to escape, hiding in the forest, but tragically, he couldn’t save his wife and four daughters who were killed by the soldiers during the early morning raid on January 20, 1982.

This incident took place during the devastating civil war that lasted 36 years in Guatemala, where U.S.-backed military governments targeted leftist rebels with extreme brutality. The conflict led to the deaths of over 200,000 people, with 83% of the victims being indigenous Mayans, according to a United Nations-backed truth commission in 1999.

Decades later, the horrors of that period are being revisited in the high-profile trial of former Guatemalan army chief Manuel Benedicto Lucas García. The trial includes testimony from more than 150 witnesses, 30 survivors of sexual violence, and numerous forensic experts.

Witnesses like Brito López and others from the Quiché region describe how troops under Lucas García’s command committed atrocities, including killing men, women, and children, and forcibly displacing the indigenous Ixil Mayan population from their homes.

During the trial, Brito López emotionally recounted the events while facing a screen that displayed a remote appearance of the impassive Lucas García, who is currently held in a military hospital and faces charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, forced disappearances, and sexual violence against the Mayan people.

The Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), representing the victims, accuses Lucas García of ordering more than 30 massacres and destroying 23 villages in the Ixil region, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,771 people during his leadership of the army between 1981 and 1982.

The former general denies the charges, with one of his lawyers indicating that a request for immediate acquittal will be made. The slow path to justice in Guatemala has frustrated human rights organizations and Mayan victims as alleged perpetrators and victims from the conflict era age and pass away.

The ongoing trial is part of a series of war crimes proceedings aimed at addressing the atrocities of the civil war that ended in 1996. Despite some convictions, justice has been elusive. The delay in accountability has been compounded by the challenges within Guatemala’s judiciary system and political interference, raising concerns over the continuation of impunity.

After the conflict, efforts to strengthen Guatemala’s judicial system were initiated in the 2000s, including the establishment of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) with international support. However, the dissolution of CICIG in 2019 amid democratic setbacks highlighted lingering challenges in the pursuit of justice.

The current trial against Lucas García represents a critical moment for victims and advocates seeking acknowledgment of the past atrocities. As witnesses provide testimony and evidence is presented, the hope is to establish a historical record to prevent such tragedies from recurring.

Victims like Brito López and others who have suffered unspeakable losses during the war are looking to the trial for a sense of closure and accountability, highlighting the importance of remembering the past to ensure a more just and peaceful future.

CNN’s Tara John reported and wrote from New York and CNNE’s Ivonne Valdés reported from Mexico City

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