Sí hubo genocidio
Posted June 17, 2013
Against the backdrop of the trial that found former dictator and U.S. Cold War ally, Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide, this singular photograph by Daniel Hernández-Salazar was emblazoned across sites in Guatemala City. “There was a genocide,” it proclaims. The trial, which concluded in May 2013, found Ríos Montt responsible for the massacre of 1,771 people of the Ixil Mayan community and the forced displacement of 29,000 during his short term of office between 1982 and 1983.
Hernández-Salazar’s Angel of Memory first took shape in the Guatemalan photographer’s mind in July 1997. He was working with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation, when a bullet-perforated shoulder blade emerged from one of the clandestine mass graves being exhumed at a site at which nine peasants had been murdered by the Guatemalan military. In 1997, the country was just emerging from the official end, a year previously, of a brutal civil war, with its roots in the U.S.–backed coup that toppled the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1954. Hernández-Salazar enlarged and printed the wounded wing-like shoulder blades on the body of a young mestizo man, creating a photo-montage of four angels that dramatize the proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
A year later, on 24 April 1998, the final report of the Recovery of Historical Memory, Guatemala: Nunca Más /Never Again was published, detailing 55,000 human rights violations that had taken place during the civil war. The Angels appeared on the front cover. Two days later, one of the report’s chief instigators, Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death. The thousands who took to the streets of Guatemala City in the silent demonstrations to mark Gerardi’s murder did so bearing posters of Hernández-Salazar’s photo-montage emblazoned with the words “Guatemala: Nunca Más”.
If the Angels took flight in 1998, their peregrinations have not ceased since. In April 1999, three dozen poster-size reproductions of the fourth angel that shouts out through cupped hands appeared across Guatemala’s capital, imploring the nation’s citizens to acknowledge and remember the injustices of the past: “Para que todos lo sepan” / “So that all shall know”. Nor has the flight been restricted to Guatemala. Hernández-Salazar has travelled with his angel to create photo-interventions that insert Guatemala’s violent past in key memory sites around the globe: from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, and elsewhere in Latin America, including the headquarters of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and Tlatelolco, the site of the student massacre of 1968 in Mexico City.
Hailed as a landmark case, one that could potentially open the door to further prosecutions, just ten days after the original ruling, on 20 May 2013 Guatemala’s top constitutional court overturned the Ríos Montt genocide conviction. It annulled everything that had happened in the trial since 19 April when Ríos Montt was briefly left without a defence lawyer. At the time of writing, the case continues. And Daniel Hernández-Salazar’s angel continues to travel, proclaiming “Sí hubo genocidio.”