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Pursuing Justice for Victims of the Guatemalan Genocide

Roderico Y. Díaz


It has been called the "Silent Holocaust," but its survivors are unafraid to speak out.

More than 20 years after Guatemala’s civil war ended in 1996, civilians are still advocating for justice after the genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of Maya people. Guatemala’s military launched a campaign targeting Maya, claiming they were allies to guerrilla forces known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.

Guatemalan photojournalist Roderico Díaz was 6 years old when the war uprooted his life. In 1982, Díaz and his family fled the coffee plantation where they worked to escape being killed.

“Of course that had a really strong impact on our family. We had to leave our house, we had to leave all our possessions behind and we were violently displaced," Díaz said. "It also meant that members of my family were forcibly disappeared, and we’re still looking for those people. Five years ago, we were actually able to find a nephew of mine and luckily he was still alive. We thought that he was dead and he thought that we were dead, but five years ago we found him.”

Thousands of other Guatemalans weren’t as fortunate. During the genocide, the Guatemalan military destroyed more than 600 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an estimated 1.5 million others.

At the Branigan Cultural Center, Díaz with the help of translator Emily Rhyne, showcased his photographs of civilians affected by the massacres. His work is filled with images of families holding pictures of lost loved ones. Díaz said the search for justice is what initially inspired him to begin his career as a photojournalist.

“I was involved with that before, but then it was also learning about the other realities that are occurring in Guatemala: inequality, poverty, and it reminds me of how I grew up,” Díaz said.

Díaz said after the civil war ended with the signing of Peace Accords in 1996, he saw indigenous communities violently evicted from their lands.

“And I wanted to be able find proof, or show proof of what was happening, to be able to show what was happening from my own perspective, literally from my own eyes through the camera," Díaz said. "The lives of people are not respected even though the lives of these people represent thousands of years of indigenous culture, so I wanted to be able to document what was happening in Guatemala.”

One of the most impactful stories Díaz said he covered was the 2013 trial of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, the country’s president during the height of the killings in the early 1980s.

“I was there for more than two months every day documenting the trial, and it was what made me even more committed to the work as a documentarian," Díaz said. "It was just the opportunity to be there, to hear the testimonies, and to see that there was a little bit of justice being achieved in Guatemala. To be part of that event, to be part of documenting the images and archives that can serve future generations. It was a very inspiring time and it’s made me even more committed to this work."

Although Ríos Montt was found guilty on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, the conviction was annulled and the trial reset. Ríos Montt was diagnosed with senile dementia in 2015 and declared mentally incompetent for the retrial in 2017. Díaz said he hopes people will remember the victims of the massacres through his work.

“What I want people to know is that behind each of these difficult stories there’s a human being working to build a more just society whether that’s through asking for justice or working towards justice or defending their natural resources, defending their land. Behind each of these stories there’s a human being fighting every day for justice, and I want people to understand that more human part of the stories,” Díaz said.

Díaz’ photography is featured in the exhibit, “Defending Truth and Memory: The Path Towards Justice in Guatemala.” It is on display through June at the New Mexico State University Museum in Kent Hall. His work is also online at rodediaz.com.

Michael Hernandez was a multimedia reporter for KRWG Public Media from late 2017 through early 2020. He continues to appear on KRWG-TV from time to time on our popular "EnviroMinute" segments, which feature conservation and citizen science issues in the region.