Guatemalan who helped build genocide case against ex-dictator was survivor, too

Legal advisor Edwin Canil helped find witnesses to testify in the landmark case against former dictator Ríos Montt. Canil escaped a massacre during Ríos Montt's reign.

By , Correspondent

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    Guatemala's ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt (C) arrives at the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City Thursday. A judge on Thursday suspended the genocide trial of Rios Montt, ordering the legal process to be set back to November 2011, before the retired general was charged with war crimes.
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An easy smile spreads over lawyer Edwin Canil’s face when he talks about the satisfaction of helping build the genocide and war crimes case against former Guatemalan strongman Efraín Ríos Montt over the past decade. But Mr. Canil’s eyes water just as quickly when he remembers witnessing the massacre of his own Mayan family at the hands of Guatemalan troops when he was just six years old.

Canil, a legal advisor with the Human Rights Legal Action Center (CALDH), is part of a team that helped find witnesses to testify in the landmark case against Mr. Ríos Montt, who ruled Guatemala in 1982 and 1983. That period has been called the most brutal in the country’s 36-year war, which ended in 1996.

But Thursday, just as the trial appeared to be coming to a close after a month of often wrenching testimony from survivors of brutal massacres, country experts, and former military officials, a judge pronounced the proceedings null and void due to procedural concerns. However, prosecutors challenged the judge's ruling and asked the Constitutional court to rule on the matter.  

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“It’s blow to humanity and a blow to the victims,” says Canil, referring not just to the specific victims named in the case, but to all those who suffered atrocities at the hands of security forces, including himself.

'What about us?'

Of the 200,000 estimated killed during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, the majority were indigenous Guatemalans. The case brought against Ríos Montt is focused on just one of the many indigenous communities believed to have been wiped out in the scorched earth campaign during his rule. This case focuses on the Ixil ethnic group, of which at least 1,771 were executed or disappeared during his 17-month reign.

Human rights lawyers seeking justice for crimes during the war chose to focus on the Ixil community case, Canil says, because it was the best documented and had all the hallmarks of genocide.  

The strategy to focus the legal battle on the Ixil worked. Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief Mauricio Sanchez Rodriguez were charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in January 2012.

Victims from other regions of Guatemala who also suffered often ask him “What about us?” he says. Canil asks them to support the Ixil people and to see themselves reflected in their story; as he does.

First hand experience

Canil was just six in February 1982, when the army came burning down villages in the region of Ixcan near the border with Mexico. Two people escaped the massacre in the town of La Trinitaria and warned people in the surrounding villages that the soldiers were on their way. Canil’s family and neighbors ran from their village and hid in the forest.

“We hid in a hut my father had built in the forest with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, my grandmother and three cousins,” he recalls. “When the soldiers arrived in the village they didn’t find anyone. They burned it down.”

 When they heard shots fired nearby, Canil’s father and older brother went off to check on the army's whereabouts. Just minutes later, the soldiers found young Canil and the members of his family who had stayed behind.

“I remember running, my parents had told us what to do if the soldiers came so I ran,” he says. “I turned and saw one of my sisters running behind me but when I turned again she was no longer there.”

Canil hid behind a tree trunk and peeked out once he heard no more gunfire. He says he saw that his mother had been struck in the face by a bullet. She had fallen with his eight-month-old sister in her arms. He watched from his hiding place as a soldier came, picked up the crying baby and cut her open with his knife.

When the soldiers left, he ventured from his hiding place and went to where the soldiers had placed the bodies of their victims in a circle. “At first I didn’t understand. I went there and said to my mother ‘Get up, let’s go” I told them all to get up,” he says. He began to understand what had happened when he saw one of his sisters with her head destroyed by bullets. 

It wasn’t until the following day that he was able to reunite with his father and the brother who had left before the soldiers came. “[My father] was so happy when he saw me and asked ‘Who else is alive?’ ‘No one,’ I said.

“Today I have a hard time understanding how I survived.”

A homecoming

Canil, his father, and brother spent the next seven months living in the mountains, on the run, with other survivors. They decided to cross the swamp that marked the border with Mexico, where Canil spent the next 12 years of his life. “That’s where I learned Spanish because before I didn’t speak Spanish,” he says, adding that his native language is K'iche, one of the more than two dozen indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala today.

He returned to Guatemala in 1994 and began studying law. A human rights organization documenting cases of atrocities invited him to give testimony about his case, and eventually he joined the effort to document cases of other human rights abuses.

While working in his home village he met his wife, a Massachusetts native who was working with local communities.

Canil has not sought the spotlight in the case; in fact he has maintained a low profile. He describes himself as “the person who lights the fire” but then stands back.

Despite the setback in the trial Thursday, Canil is confident that a conviction of Ríos Montt is still possible and is what Guatemala needs to begin to heal its wounds. “Any victim anywhere in the world, independent of his or her ideology, wants justice,” he says.

“But we still have a long way to go.”

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