No Victory In Violence


“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” Gandhi

Today is the 65th anniversary of Gandhi’s death. Today I reflect on his wisdom, his compassion, his faithfulness, and the mighty works he accomplished through nonviolence.

Sixty-five years and a hemisphere away in Guatemala, violence is all around. I usually use this space on my blog to point out hope and to look for the good.

But there are some realities that I just can’t call good.

Guatemala boasts one of the highest murder rates in the world. The daily newspaper reports gang murders, domestic violence, a disturbingly, heartbreakingly high rate of sexual abuse, child abuse, theft, and corruption. The translation app on my phone is riddled with the Spanish equivalents for kidnapping, embezzlement, armored cars, trial, conviction, and even dereliction of duty—all words I never learned in my college Spanish classes.

The newest word in my collection: genocidio, genocide.

Just this week, it was announced that “Rios Montt, the former dictator, and his intelligence chief [will] stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with the massacres of villagers in remote highlands three decades ago.” (read the full article here)

The reaction to this news from my Guatemalan and expat friends has been surprisingly mixed. A woman in my friend’s Bible study stated that maybe God will save Rios Montt because he’s a Christian and because he kept Guatemala out of the hands of communists. Then I have friends who cheer the trial as a victory for justice.  And then there are those who think the trial is too little, too late, a weak attempt at justice, an affront to those who suffered unspeakable violence.

I wasn’t in the States for the most recent presidential election, but my Facebook feed provided enough dogma from all political sides to make my head spin. It’s strange to find myself caught in the middle of opposing ideologies in a foreign culture, as an outsider. My head’s still spinning, and my heart still hurts for the people caught in the middle of the arguments, the ideology, and the violence—both structural and physical—that is employed in the name of these ideals.

I’m learning more and more how much I disagree with using violence as a means to an end, even if I agree with the end. Here in Guatemala it’s easy to see the damage that violence has caused and continues to cause, the evil that perpetuates and permeates.

Gandhi wrote, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

A couple of months ago I visited the Maya Ixil (ee-sheel) area, where many of the acts of genocide Rios Montt is being charged with occurred. Throughout the late 70s and early 80s they lost an estimated one fifth of their population. They found themselves caught between the military fighting a war on communism and the guerrillas waging a revolution against an oppressive regime.

Guzaro COMP 3.inddAs I think of the homes that burned down. The fathers and brothers and sons that were disappeared. The land that was destroyed. The families divided. The children that grew up fatherless, with even less opportunities to thrive than their ancestors, and the single mothers left to raise them. As I think of all these people caught in the violence, the lyrics of a Mason Jennings song echoes in my mind, echoes Gandhi’s sentiments:

“I don’t want no victory, I just want you back.” Mason Jennings, The Field.

This isn’t meant to be a political post or commentary, but a place to process. A space to grieve the pain and loss of my Guatemalan friends, spoken and unspoken, often buried way down deep. A moment to place my heart with them, knowing full well that I can’t ever really understand what they went through or even begin to sort through my own country’s complicity in the physical and structural violence, both during the war and now.

Today, 65 years after his death, I want to celebrate the wisdom of Gandhi’s assessment that “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind” and to mourn the parts of this beautiful culture that are crippled and blinded by the legacy of violence.


If you’re interested in learning more about Guatemalan history and the armed conflict, I highly recommend Tomas Guzaro and Terri Jacob McCombs book, Escaping the Fire.

For up-to-date Guatemalan news and tidbits, I recommend the Roots and Wings International blog. They highlight innovative and inspiring projects throughout Guatemala, as well as discuss pertinent development and justice issues.

To read more hopeful or entertaining posts on Guatemalan culture, check out these past posts:

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4 thoughts on “No Victory In Violence

  1. Steve says:

    SO, the alternative is to look for ‘3rd ways’ that don’t participate in the violence ~ on EITHER side . . .

    • That’s a great approach to have. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to not align yourself with either side during the conflict. But it seems you found ways to be present and respond to people’s needs without participating in the violence.

  2. I think the decision by the judge to move forward with the trial of Rios Montt is a huge step forward, but from what I can tell, things are far from over. I continue to wonder whether the current president will see to it that the process disintegrates when he starts feeling the heat for his own involvement in the war.

    Part of what makes Guatemala a place of such violence so many years after the war ended is that there is such impunity for those who committed the worst atrocities. Seeing Rios Montt stand trial will send a powerful message that the times of getting away with murder may be coming to an end, and that’s very good for Guatemala.

    I don’t celebrate this trial the way I celebrate other good things in life, because this is tainted with so much tragedy and sin all around. The 200,000 killed during the war can’t be brought back to life with a Rios Montt “guilty” verdict, and that’s a terrible, enduring tragedy. But it would only make the tragedy worse for the dictator to continue to go free.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tim. There’s a lot of wisdom to what you say.

      Impunity plays a major role in continuing crime and violence–from local to national levels. I agree that Rios Montt’s trial will send a powerful message to the country regarding crime and justice. Yet no of amount of justice can erase the pain or suffering endured by families who lost loved ones and had their lives turned upside down.

      It will sure be interesting to see how this all unfolds.

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