Rigoberta Mench Tm is not on Nightline's short list of terrorism experts. It's their loss. A Guatemalan refugee who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, Mench Tm knows something of terror.
Touring Orange County college campuses this past week, she was accompanied by a team of burly Mexican bodyguards wearing loose-fitting double-breasted suits—the kind that hide handguns. The bodyguards are no luxury: ever since she fled her native country two decades ago for Mexico City, Mench Tm has lived under constant threat of assassination. An outspoken opponent of the military and business elites who still run Guatemala as a banana republic, the diminutive, broadly smiling woman now directs a foundation that has successfully arranged the return of thousands of Guatemalan refugees to their native land after decades of civil war.
On Oct. 17, she spoke for more than an hour to more than 500 Santa Ana College faculty and students. It was akin to the keynote address of a commencement ceremony. Her theme: have courage in the face of fear, and offer forgiveness in the face of evil.
"All violence is cowardice, whether it is at the hands of the police, the army, the national guard, or common people," she argued. "What happened on Sept. 11 unfolded a new page in our history. We don't know what the end will be. But liberties throughout the world are now in danger. Governments will use the concept of terrorism to hurt opposition groups. In Guatemala, they used the word 'terrorist' to define all opposition groups and brand them as mortal enemies."
In fact, Guatemala's war against "terrorists" almost killed Mench Tm. Born in 1959, she grew up in the village of Chimal in the mountainous northern department of El Quiche, scene of the most savage battles between guerrillas and U.S.-backed government soldiers. Like most rural peasants in Guatemala, her family was forced to work in the privately owned cotton and tobacco plantations of the fertile Pacific coast. Mench Tm says her childhood spent in hard labor under a racist and feudal regime spurred her to struggle for social change.
Her father, a prominent peasant organizer, was tortured and imprisoned, then released in the late 1970s. In 1980, he joined other activists occupying the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City in an effort to draw world attention to the extermination of dissidents by Guatemala's military-led government. Guatemalan police firebombed the building, and Mench Tm's father died along with 38 others, including several Spanish officials. Police and government officials denounced the group as "terrorists," a term that had been in use by government officials ever since a cabal of military leaders and paramilitary death squads took control of the country in a 1954 coup d'etat directed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
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After the coup, the U.S. government armed and trained the Guatemalan army in "counterterrorism," a concept that labeled as terrorists not just the various ragtag Marxist guerrillas operating in the countryside, but also anyone listed in the infamous CIA assassination manuals as a communist or subversive. Two hundred thousand noncombatants were massacred throughout the Guatemalan civil war—the longest such war in Latin America this century. Six hundred and forty-five indigenous villages were burned to the ground, while student activists, labor organizers, religious workers and others were plucked from the streets, never to be seen again. Many of the disappeared—desaparecidos, as they became known—were dropped from U.S.-made helicopters into active volcanoes or the Pacific Ocean. Others were buried in mass graves throughout the countryside, some of them conveniently located on military bases. As Mench Tm told Santa Ana College students, most of the bodies are still missing; many are only now being uncovered. Among those who perished were Mench Tm's mother and brother, both of whom died in 1980 during army raids on their village. According to Mench Tm, the army raped her mother, tortured her, and left her mutilated body tied to a tree for the animals to devour.
As a victim of U.S.- and Guatemalan-sponsored terrorism and as someone who has herself been branded a terrorist, Rigoberta Mench Tm is in an excellent position to teach Americans something about the meaning of the word. And while her life story must have seemed completely alien to the diverse, mostly young crowd of college students, her audience actually looked much the same as many victims of Guatemala's death squads. To see a declassified photo album of the victims that was compiled by the death squads, you can go to the National Security Archives' website at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/and click on the link to the Guatemala Documentation Project's Death Squad Dossier.
Although Mench Tm's message of caution may be unpopular in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it's not surprising that she doesn't like seeing the word "terrorist" applied too broadly—even to describe the people who carried out that particular carnage.
"'Terrorism' is a faddish word right now," she told the crowd. "In Latin America, many innocent people were accused of being subversives or terrorists. The people who made these accusations killed professors, students, analysts, technicians, people from all walks of life. We must never allow ourselves to stand by in silence and permit this to happen again."