For Sebastian Quinac the trial of Guatemala's former dictator accused of genocide will shed light on a very dark chapter in his country's past.

But he remains cautiously optimistic, said the Tucson resident who fled in 1983, after some of the most violent years of a civil war that left 200,000 dead.

Efraín Ríos Montt, 86, is the first former head of state ever to be tried for genocide in his own country and in the place where the crimes took place.

He is charged with being responsible for the death of 1,700 indigenous people killed during the 17-month period he ruled. His former military intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, is also accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The trial began March 19 in Guatemala City with the testimony of victims of massacres and experts. Elizabeth Oglesby, a University of Arizona associate professor at the Center for Latin American Studies, is one of about 50 expert witnesses and will testify in the upcoming weeks.


A United Nations-sponsored commission estimates that more than 80 percent of the victims during the 36-year-conflict that ended in 1996 were Mayan indigenous people.

There were more than 600 massacres in Guatemala between 1981 and 1983, Oglesby estimates, and more than half were concentrated in Quiché province.

She researched displaced populations in the northern Quiché region - where the genocide trial is focused - and the aftermath of the armed conflict.

Between 70 and 80 percent of the villages in the Maya Ixil region in El Quiché were destroyed, forcing about 30,000 people to flee to the mountains where they continued to be persecuted by the army, she said.

Quinac says he is lucky nothing happened to his family.

During those years, he did outreach and trained community leaders in the western highlands, including Quiché province.

Most of the 46 community leaders his team was working with were kidnapped, tortured and some even killed. Three of the workers were also kidnapped, and two of them didn't survive.

Thirty years later, he recalls each victim's first and last name. The exact dates they disappeared, when they were found - if they were found.

And he vividly remembers dismembered bodies, with the ears, nose, breasts cut off and thrown in the river. The images of soldiers grabbing children by the feet and smashing their heads against rocks. A woman burned alive on the side of the road.

"It's something that's on your mind constantly," he said.


In the 1980s, Tucson gained national attention for starting the Sanctuary Movement, where faith-based groups opened church doors to Central Americans fleeing civil wars backed by the United States.

In 1999 President Clinton apologized to Guatemalans for the role the United States played in backing the counterterrorism campaign, which included training officers and monetary aid.

But an apology is not enough, said Linda Green, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at UA.

"Accountability is absolutely crucial," said Green, who is married to Quinac.


How Guatemala - where most crimes go unsolved - now is putting a former leader on trial for genocide can be attributed to the fearless work of people on the ground, said Green.

"This is the fruit of the hard labor at great personal risk to people," she said.

There were many who were killed, including Oglesby's Guatemalan colleague who died in 1990.

But instead of discouraging her, Oglesby said, it left her with a commitment to continue the research.

"It's taken a long time for Guatemalan society to get to the point where this history can be aired openly," she said.

To those who lived it, there's not a high enough price the perpetrators can pay for what they did.

"What Ríos Montt did has no name," Quinac said. "We've been waiting and fighting for justice to be served for too long."

Regardless of what the verdict is, Oglesby said, it shows that nobody is above the law, and it provides an opportunity to the society to learn what happened."


• What: Impunity on Trial: Historical Memory, Human Rights, and the Genocide Trial of Efraín Ríos Montt roundtable discussion.

• When: Noon Monday

• Where: Ventana Room, Student Union Building, University of Arizona


• More than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared from 1960 to 1996.

• More than 80 percent of the victims were indigenous Mayans.

Source: UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission.

"Accountability is absolutely crucial."

Linda Green,

Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at UA

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo