When Sharon Hammel and Catherine De León signed up to participate in Seattle International Foundation’s (SIF) Women’s Delegation to Guatemala, they did not expect to get to see a piece of history unfold before their eyes.
In April, SIF hosted an eight-person women’s delegation trip to Guatemala. Over the course of a week, the women traveled across the country visiting rural communities and non-profits that work to promote women’s equality and support women’s leaders. They also met with the former president of the Supreme Court and the country’s Attorney General, as well as US officials and local human rights leaders.
But for Cathy and Sharon the highlight would come the last day of their visit. That morning, they would put on nametags, pack their cameras and pass security checkpoints in order to finally make their way into the courtroom. The 350-seat auditorium was filled with international observers, activists, journalists, and indigenous Guatemalans. Sitting on the left-hand side, was former dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
The 86-year old retired general is on trial along with his former head of intelligence. Prosecutors say he is responsible for the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he led from March 23, 1982 to Aug. 8, 1983, followed by a U.S.-backed counterinsurgency against guerrillas.
A woman seated in front of us was protesting the disappearance of her brother, a university veterinary professor who was last seen in Matamorros in 1982. He took groups of students to the Ixhil triangle area to provide education on animal husbandry; ‘that was his crime,’ according to his sister,” stated Cathy.
Cathy and Sharon were witnesses to the first genocide trial in the history of Latin America.
“On the flight home I can’t help but be impressed–by the judges that keep the trial moving, and by the lawyers asking relevant questions about the atrocities committed against indigenous communities,” said Sharon.
They also had the opportunity to meet Rigoberta Menchu, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was sitting in the audience.
“It is difficult to sit and hear the atrocities committed day in and day out of court, Menchu expressed to members of SIF women’s delegation to Guatemala. “I cannot thank you enough for caring about us and for coming from Seattle to support something so important to us.”