Edwin Canil and the Case Against a Former Dictator Head of State

        What happens to a child when, as a six year-old, he witnesses the massacre of his mother, his grandmother and four of his siblings? What could develop from such a trauma?  We can easily imagine he would be so traumatized that he couldn’t deal with life.  Inevitably the searing experience would weave through his life at some level, with flashback nightmares from time to time.  But he was fortunate to have a father and older brother, along with caring extended family members with whom he could Image 2heal and grow with purpose and determination.  In the photo Edwin is the youngest in front of his father.
        His father and brother had been off looking for a safer place for the family to hide when the military found the rest of his family and other relatives and massacred all of them with the exception of Edwin who escaped to hide behind a bush from which he witnessed the killing.  The next morning his father found him.  On the basis of the foundation of the love of his extended family he  went on to become, as a young man,  the head of a team shaping the legal case under which a former dictator would be convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.  Therein lies a story of human resilience and courage but much more, given the racist framework in which this drama played out.

        Edwin Canil, the child survivor of a massacre, was born in 1975 to indigenous parents of  Maya K’iche’ heritage, the son of a former slave.  The Maya in Guatemala, were despised for centuries following the Spanish invasion and seen as a lower form of human, fit mainly for hard manual labor.  Education, it was argued, would be wasted on these lesser humans.  While not held in absolute bondage, hundreds of thousands of indigenous Maya people saw their only survival option as work on the cotton, cane and coffee plantations under slave-like conditions.
        At the time of the massacre the chaos for Edwin and his family was created by a civil war that pitted an armed insurgency against a vicious government intent on wiping out the insurgency by killing the population of Maya they saw as the support base of the guerrilla fighters. What amounted to genocide against the Maya–and later judged to be exactly that–was acceptable to this government.  The storm of violence hit Santa María in February of 1982. The army destroyed the village, slaughtered its animals and massacred seventeen people, including the six members of Edwin’s family.  He joined his remaining family members and thousands of others in fleeing to refuge in Mexico.
        While in Mexico he went to primary school and middle school, from which he graduated shortly before returning to Guatemala with others from Santa María Tzejá to rejoin the SMT villagers who had stayed in Guatemala.  Once back in his home village he helped his father and brother rebuild their lives and rejuvenate their farming parcel.  But he and the others who had finished middle school in Mexico hungered for more education.  Six of them found a progressive high school program and necessary scholarships to continue their studies.  There they debated controversial topics on the way to developing critical thinking skills.
        By the time that Edwin was in law school at the state university, the blatant racism of the Maya had changed its racist tone.  The Maya indigenous, referred to pejoratively as “Indians,” were divided into two camps, identified in the research of Charles Hale, as “permitted (acceptable) Indians” and “insurrectionary Indians”—those who would rise up to seek vengeance on their PA280044former oppressors.  So Edwin could finish his legal studies in relative peace.  But that such a person as he could rise
through a legal education to lead a successful effort to convict the former military dictator, the most powerful man in the country, was the ultimate insult that shook the political system to its core.  Edwin and the legal team he headed worked 18 hour days for three months to shape the legal arguments used by the prosecutor on behalf of the massacre-survivor plaintiffs, who won the case before a courageous judge against Efraín Rios Montt, the former dictator.  The political earthquake that brought the legal house down on the currently corrupt powerful leaders stirred them to find a compliant top court that would vacate the verdict on procedural grounds.  The substantive case, based on the wrenching testimony of one hundred survivors, remained brilliantly clear for the world to see and judge for itself.
        Edwin Canil, a despised Maya slave’s son, and his legal team were David to Guatemala’s Goliath.

One response to this post.

  1. Very inspiring indeed, Clark. Here in Turkey, there are many who suffered imprisonment and torture in the wake of the 1980 military coup who today are playing an important role in shaping the future of the country. I would add that the tireless work that you and K have done over the years on behalf of SMT and its young people is an important part of the background of Edwin’s story.


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