In Guatemala City’s military hospital, retired General Héctor Mario López Fuentes languishes, awaiting trial for genocide. Former dictator General Oscar Mejía Víctores, until recently also detained at the military hospital, has been released to house arrest, and Guatemala’s Attorney Generals’ office has announced that it will not pursue charges against him due to his failing health. These are the Generals who, as members of the High Military Command of the Ríos Montt dictatorship in the early 1980s, masterminded and oversaw the “scorched earth” counterinsurgency in the indigenous communities of the Guatemalan highlands. Today their lawyers claim that their elderly defendants are senile, infirm, and medically unfit to be tried, while the survivors of genocide persist in a decades-long struggle to achieve justice for their monstrous crimes.
This poem was written in 2008, when this goal seemed almost beyond reach. The poem’s immediate inspiration was found in two untimely deaths: that of Col. Chupina Barrios, former head of the infamous National Police, who had only months earlier been released from house arrest following the Guatemalan courts’ refusal to allow his extradition to Spain on charges of crimes against humanity; and that of a Maya-Q’eqchi’ massacre survivor whom I never met, and who had passed away in a tragic accident weeks before I began work as a volunteer human rights accompanier in Guatemala.
This poem’s dedication, then, implicitly addresses both parties in the ongoing campaign for justice: those who seek to avoid judgment behind the iron veils of forgetting and impunity, and those whose shining examples of dignity and memory light the path towards a more just future.
“On June 20, 2011, retired General Héctor Mario López Fuentes was indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity and forced disappearance.” Photo by Graham Hunt
Interment (For those who have not lived to see justice)
The General’s sickroom is a cell—
through drapes a glimpse
of bloody bougainvillea,
an elegant spiral of razor wire.
Withering fingers grip the stock of a rifle,
shove home a bayonet to its depths,
grasping at satin sheets.
The voice that severed the raw will of conscripts,
exhorting conquest of coward morality,
is silenced in fevered gasps.
Somatic provinces in open revolt,
its body becomes shadow
of the blood-slicked torture chamber.
His will be an honorable death,
unstained by official infamy.
Military-school comrades will send their condolences,
bouquets stinking with hollow awareness
of their creeping fates.
The General will be congratulated in state
by high society, by the economists,
for a life spent crushing the dreams
of peoples whose dreams mean nothing to their world,
except as things to be crushed,
The General yet sleeps fitfully,
suffocating on a goose-down pillow.
Silent men and women come to his bedside,
dressed brightly, as for a carnival procession.
The celebrants carry heavy sacks anchored to their foreheads,
small wooden boxes balanced like crowns.
The lids are lifted with an echo
of laughter disinterred.
A sudden cry—
the notes of laughter crystallize their air,
falling in a rain of shattered bones.
With a sighing of machetes the sacks are slit open—
in the dream of the celebrants
the General drowns
in a torrent of ashes.