Although Mench’s lawsuit is due in part to developments in the international legal community, the roots of her case stretch back to 1954, the year that Guatemala’s progressive president Jacobo Arbenz was toppled by a U.S.- backed coup. Low-level fighting ensued between Marxist guerrilla groups and the newly installed conservative government, which brutally suppressed the guerrillas to maintain the status quo.
Mench came of age in the late seventies just as the Guatemalan army launched its offensive against the guerrillas. The early eighties were marked by a series of violent military governments. Under the guise of cleaning out subversive elements, the Guatemalan army began a campaign of intimidation and terror against the Maya; whole villages were razed, entire communities were massacred, and their lands were appropriated by the ruling establishment.
After her own family members were murdered, Mench fled Guatemala in 1981 and began working as an activist. While campaigning for foreign aid, she met and spoke with anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, who helped her turn a week’s worth of private conversations into the acclaimed I, Rigoberta Mench. The book told of growing up in the shadow of Guatemala’s civil war. It was touted worldwide as representing the experience of the country’s indigenous people.
Several of the most poignant and compelling sections focused on the deaths of Rigoberta’s brother Petrocinio, her mother, and her father. Although the book initially served Rigoberta well, helping her gain the international support needed to bring about a peace agreement in 1996, it later came back to haunt her. In January 1999, U.S. anthropologist David Stoll published his own version of Mench’s life, claiming that some of the facts in her personal history couldn’t possibly be true. Although Stoll’s book was not highly critical of Mench herself, conservative enemies both in the United States and Guatemala immediately jumped on Stoll’s findings, hoping to destroy Mench’s reputation. Stoll now says he regrets the “archaic” reaction to his book. “Her book sprang out of a political need to stop the army from killing, and she simplified many details about the country’s history,” he explains. “I never would say that she lied or that human rights abuses didn’t occur.”
Yet Stoll’s book played into the hands of Mench’s detractors—and it will probably surface in Spain. “Her suit has angered a sector of Guatemala that thought they were untouchable,” explains Amnesty’s Snodgrass. “You can bet they’ll use Stoll’s book to denounce her case.” But if it’s written proof the Spanish courts want, it’s written proof they will get, she adds. “Many reports corroborate Mench’s claims. These include one by Amnesty International, one by the Catholic Church, and one sponsored by the United Nations.” The U.N.-backed report found the Guatemalan army to be responsible for approximately 95 percent of the atrocities of the civil war. Of the roughly 200,000 deaths, disappearances, and cases of torture listed in the report, more than 80 percent of the victims were Mayan. Another 17 percent were of mixed indigenous origin.
It’s numbers like these that drive Mench. “When people began to say I lied,” she says heatedly, “what they meant was that all indigenous people could be lying—we invented these atrocities, the murders, the clandestine cemeteries scattered around the countryside.” When Mench realized how Stoll’s book was being used to distort the story of Guatemala’s indigenous people, she became even more determined to secure justice for the Maya. “In Guatemala, my enemies say that I’m obstructing the peace movement. They say that the ones demanding restitution and recognition of the crimes are against progress, against the future, against healing.” Mench pauses for an instant and then adds, “They are trying to criminalize the victims of the war–they are trying to criminalize me. I will not per