What didn't happen on This American Life
May 28, 2012 8:53 AM   Subscribe

This weekend, TAL ran an episode on the massacre at Dos Erres. What they didn't mention was that this happened as part of the "Silent Holocaust" -- a "systematic campaign of genocide against the Mayan people." An estimated 83% of the massacred people were indigenous Maya. Throughout the period of the genocide, the USA continued to provide military support to the Guatemalan government, mainly in the form of arms and equipment, despite knowing that the Guatemala military was responsible for the killings. Horatio Castellanos Moya, an exiled Honduran writer, wrote Senselessness, his first book to be published in English, based on the testimonies taken by the Catholic Church's Recuperation of History project, which led to Bishop José Gerardi Conedera releasing the Guatemala: Never Again! report. Two days later, he was bludgeoned to death.
posted by Felicity Rilke (21 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Senselessness is an astonishing work of art in response to astonishing circumstances.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:06 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fwiw, they did mention that this event took place in the context of a genocide.
posted by mwhybark at 9:13 AM on May 28, 2012

Did they actually use the word? I listened to it twice over and heard no mention of the word genocide or any mention of the fact that it was the indigenous population that was being wiped out.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 9:19 AM on May 28, 2012

This is part of the Ronald Reagan legacy, fighting communism and making the world safe for democracyCocaCola.
posted by dougzilla at 9:23 AM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

And one of the men who killed Bishop Conedera was trained at the School of the Americas. Next up in This American Empire: why did those crazy cambodians like Pol Pot so much? We'll never know, but here's a short, touching vignette of one cambodian we found whose life intersects with America in a positive way
posted by crayz at 9:24 AM on May 28, 2012 [10 favorites]

Well, it is called This American Life, not That American Life.
posted by scruss at 9:35 AM on May 28, 2012

I can't recommend Senselessness enough. Reading it is like being punched in the heart by a very funny joke.
posted by Kattullus at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

TAL put the events in perspective and noted 180,000 were murdered by the regime.
posted by honestcoyote at 9:55 AM on May 28, 2012

I was half listening to this on the weekend and I can't recall whether they explicitly called it a genocide but they made it quite clear that it was part of a larger campaign in which an estimated 180,000 were killed. The way it seemed to be presented to me was that the killings were done with the goal of suppressing rebellion/agitation from the lower-class population, rather than explicitly the Mayan population, but I may not have been paying attention on that point, though that would seem to gel with the 83% figure, too. In any case, TAL certainly identified it as an atrocity on a larger scale. Anyway, debate over the particular word This American Life used is pretty much a derail, and I suspect that they may well have avoided it so as to avoid getting into a quagmire over what is/isn't a genocide vs atrocious and systematic repression (and don't ask me!). ANyway, this shouldn't really be about TAL; thanks for posting it. I'm horrified to think about similar situations that are happening around the world this very moment.
posted by bunyip at 9:59 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another recent article on this topic was linked from Longform: Finding Oscar.
posted by newg at 10:01 AM on May 28, 2012

They do use the word genocide at about 3 minutes in.

"Just this week the former president of the country was indicted for genocide in this case."
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 10:05 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this isn't an attack on TAL. I wish they had been more explicit about what was happening in Guatemala during that time, specifically that it was a genocide of the indigenous Mayan who were making land claims. (Dos Erres? Set up in the 1960s by brothers making a land claim.)

One of the reports I read (it may have made it into this post, I'm not sure) talks about one of the survivors of Dos Erres, a mother who had been visiting relatives, and who was not allowed to return to the village where her two daughters were killed. (Access to the village was barred.) When trying to get past the guard, this happened:

"The lieutenant took hold of the person's jaw and reportedly said, "What is happening there
is a purge; now, as the Bible says, those who turn out to be dirty will die and those who are clean
will live; the dirty ones in the fire."
posted by Felicity Rilke at 10:08 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

One comment note the Ronnie heritage. I would suggest that it the entire history of our nation, beginning within our borders and extending to large parts outside our borders.
posted by Postroad at 10:32 AM on May 28, 2012

Having finished the TAL episode, thank you for this post. The connection with the indigenous Maya population isn't really made explicit, and I'm glad it gave a convenient starting point for this post.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 11:18 AM on May 28, 2012

I'm a little confused, and have a few questions. In the TAL episode, they say that the soldiers raided the village at night in order to get the rifles. They didn't find the rifles and then a rogue lieutenant began raping women and killing civilians. The way it was cut together, it made it seem like what happened in Dos Erres was something that sort of went off the rails. But other links and other facts seem to prove the opposite. That they did the exact same thing in 626 villages. The same procedure, complete annihilation of structures and people, throughout Mayan communities. And the reason why Dos Erres is being investigated is not because it went beyond the pale of other massacres, but because of evidence that allows soldiers to be prosecuted. Is that right? But wouldn't the two soldiers who are cooperating also have been involved in the other massacres? Or there were many different groups of Kaibilis going around doing this?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:29 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Drain the sea [the general population] in which the fish [the suspected insurgents] swim," was the watchword of the Rios Montt regime. One documented incident involved the soldiers herding the villagers into a church, then tossing in a couple grenades. This was in order to save ammunition.
posted by Danf at 2:26 PM on May 28, 2012

On the Rio LacantĂșn
One hundred thousand wait
To fall down from starvation
Or some less humane fate
Cry for Guatemala
With a corpse in every gate
If I had a rocket launcher...

posted by Sys Rq at 3:52 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The way it was cut together, it made it seem like what happened in Dos Erres was something that sort of went off the rails. But other links and other facts seem to prove the opposite. That they did the exact same thing in 626 villages. The same procedure, complete annihilation of structures and people, throughout Mayan communities.

It's a bit like My Lai in that respect: the worst you can say about it which is politically acceptable is that it was a tragic accident and in no way related to wider US policies in Vietnam, uh huh. I'm sure the same sort of reflex will be operating in Guatamala, where it's impossible to deny this particular massacre, but still barely possible to contest the context in which it took place.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:36 AM on May 29, 2012

My parents took a road trip to Honduras in the mid 1980's to help a young priest move down there to work in a mission. At one point they stopped for lunch at a roadside pit-stop somewhere in the hinterlands of Guatemala. My dad asked where he could wash his hands and a waiter directed him to the small wash-shed beside the restaurant. My father assumed the attached building was a toilet and stepped inside only to find that it was instead a make-shift morgue/body storage facility that had stacks of bodies lined up on shelves, a couple of dozen at least. Needless to say he didn't feel like lunch after that.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:52 AM on May 29, 2012

The TAL episode totally did mention the context of the civil war, many times. At least that's what I took from it

I had a Spanish teacher in high school who escaped one of these massacres. He was a so-so Spanish teacher but an absolutely exemplary human being. He often interrupted class to tell stories of his life in Guatemala and his harrowing escape. Most of his family was murdered and he literally got on a plane with 15 minutes to spare. Amazing man.
posted by Cygnet at 12:39 PM on May 30, 2012

I really think they elided the fact that it was the indigenous population, not just "civilians" who were being massacred. Maybe that was too macro for the show they were doing, but I don't see how difficult it would have been to mention that the majority of people targeted in the massacres were indigenous. The solitary use of "genocide" was in reference to Rios Montt being formally indicted on charges. But there was really very little to no mention of who the genocide victims actually were.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 9:14 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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