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“Granito: How to Nail a Dictator”: New Film Tracks Struggle for Justice After Guatemalan Genocide

StorySeptember 15, 2011
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A new documentary links Guatemala’s turbulent past with those who are active players in its present. The film, “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,” which is part political thriller and part memoir, spans four decades, following several people as they search for the details that can be used to hold accountable those responsible for the genocide in which Guatemalan military and paramilitary soldiers killed more than 200,000 people. The film documents the movement by Mayans to seek justice, featuring Nobel Prize winner and indigenous Guatemalan activist, Rigoberta Menchú, who is challenging Pérez in the presidential election. We’re joined by the film’s director, Pamela Yates, and by Fredy Peccerelli, director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation. The film documents his team’s work to unearth mass graves in a search for those killed by the military, even as he faces threats from clandestine groups that want the truth to stay buried. [Transcript to come. Check back soon.]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A new documentary about Guatemala links the country’s turbulent past with those, like General Otto Pérez Molina, who are active players in its present. Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, part political thriller, part memoir, spans four decades. It follows several people, including the film’s director, Pamela Yates, as they search for the details that can be used to hold accountable those responsible for genocide. This is a portion of the film’s trailer.

PAMELA YATES: Ever since I filmed these generals in 1982, I’ve wanted to see them pay for their crimes.

KATE DOYLE: It is so hard to nail senior military officers who ordered this. When you want to indict a dictator, you need evidence.

PAMELA YATES: Witnessing is the essence of being a documentary filmmaker, capturing moments in time, never knowing how history will judge them.

FREDY PECCERELLI: People have it in their minds that anyone can be killed in Guatemala for nothing.

ALMUDENA BERNABEU: When I think about defendants, I get really angry. You know, I get really pissed.

FREDY PECCERELLI: It came in addressed to me. So it says, “Freddie sic, [translated] we’re watching your kids’ schools and where you work. We’ll scatter your parts throughout the city.”

ANTONIO CABA CABA: [translated] We’ll never remain silent. Ríos Montt wants to silent us, but he can’t. My name has a meaning. Antonio is the one who confronts the enemy.

RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] If we Maya people don’t unite, we won’t survive.

FREDY PECCERELLI: So when we come along and do this kind of work, they’re afraid. They’re afraid. And they should be afraid, because we’re coming after them.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. Opened here in New York at the IFC last night. For more, we’re joined by the director, Pamela Yates. She narrates the film’s central story about the search for evidence of Guatemala’s genocide, much of it drawn from footage she filmed in 1982 for her award-winning documentary When the Mountains Tremble. At least 200,000 Guatemalans died during the genocide.

We’re also joined by Fredy Peccerelli, director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation. In the film, he leads teams to unearth mass graves in a search for those killed by the military, all the while facing threats himself from clandestine groups that want the truth to stay buried. He’s who you just heard in that trailer.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

PAMELA YATES: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam, this latest film, talk about its significance in light of the presidential elections that are taking place right now.

PAMELA YATES: Well, Granito is really about the importance of human rights documentation, not just as a filmmaker and going into all of my filmic outtakes from 1982 to find additional evidence for the case in Spain and the cases in Guatemala, but also the other human rights defenders—Fredy Peccerelli, who’s been finding and looking for scientific, forensic evidence, Kate Doyle, who is going through secret military and police documents to find evidence, including evidence against Otto Pérez Molina, who is part of Plan Sofía, one of the documents that was leaked to her and which you see in Granito. So the big idea of the film is when—how important it is to continue to document and how important this documentation is for evidence in the cases.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Pamela, in the film, you talk about how difficult it has been to prove that former president and general, Efraín Ríos Montt, knew what the Guatamalan military was doing, when the government denied any knowledge of the genocide and said there were no army records. I want to play a clip from Granito, when forensic scientist Kate Doyle explains how she was approached by someone in Guatemala with a package that contained information that would prove especially useful in documenting the counterinsurgency sweep.

KATE DOYLE: Plan Sofía is a collection of documents that were created in July and August of 1982, documenting a counterinsurgency sweep that took place in central Quiché. It describes the mission of the operation as the extermination of subversive elements in the area. It’s very much a product of the Ríos Montt army. This patrol report was created in order to show the commander that they did what they were told. This is exactly the kind of communication that we need to prove that there was a two-way flow of information and that the high command was not ignorant of what the patrols on the ground were doing. From the perspective of a prosecutor or an investigator, it is so hard to nail the intellectual authors of these crimes. It is so hard to nail the senior military officers who ordered this. So Plan Sofía is a very significant, explosive document.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Kate Doyle, senior analyst with the National Security Archive, in the film Granito. Pam Yates, why do the film now, following up, what, how many decades after you did your first film?

PAMELA YATES: I think it was really because the international attorneys in the genocide case being heard in the Spanish national court asked me to go into all of my filmic outtakes. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain that more, the Spain case.

PAMELA YATES: The Spain case is a case under the principle of universal jurisdiction, where some crimes are so horrible, like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, that if they’re not being prosecuted in the country of origin, that any country in the world that signed the Genocide Convention should be able to take on and prosecute those criminals.

But one of the effects that the Spanish national court case has had is that it has emboldened judges and prosecutors in Guatemala to pursue their own cases for genocide. And in fact, the first army officer in the history of Latin America has just been arrested in June for genocide. So we’re beginning to see a tipping point for justice, one of the things that Jennifer said would stop if Otto Pérez Molina were elected.

But I believe, and I think the sense of granito, which is that we all have a tiny grain of sand to contribute to this judicial process or positive social change, means that we really have to support this tipping point for justice in Guatemala, both inside the country and from outside the country. And we hope that Granito, the film, will contribute to this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Fredy Peccerelli, you’ve been involved in this now for quite some time in terms of digging up the scientific evidence of how the genocide occurred and who were the victims. Could you talk about how you got involved? And, of course, these days, the wars are forgotten in Central America, and now everyone assumes that it’s a new day. But the threats that you’ve been facing, if you could talk about that, as well?

FREDY PECCERELLI: Well, I got involved—and I used to live in New York, and I—my family fled here in 1980 because of death threats to my father. And eventually, when I was in Brooklyn College, I sort of wanted to reconnect with Guatemala and found Dr. Clyde Snow, who invited me to go to Guatemala and take a course with the team. And eventually I stayed there for 16-and-a-half years. During that time, we’ve exhumed over 1,400 different communities where these massacres or extrajudicial executions occurred. And as a result, we have been getting death threats for the last 10 years. The most recent ones come immediately after the sentencing of the four military personnel, ex-Kaibiles, in the Dos Erres massacre. About four days later, we got a death threat written in—handwritten in red ink, telling us—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip that has you reading one of these death threats. You talk about this threatening letter that was sent to your workplace. This is from Granito. It’s Fredy.

FREDY PECCERELLI: It came addressed to me. So it says, “Freddie sic, [translated] now we have what we wanted, all the information in our hands. Today you will all pay, sons of [bleep]. We have pictures and information of your family. We know your kids’ schools and where you work. Your days are numbered. The Forensic Anthropologists Foundation won’t ever be able to do anything. Two or three armored cars won’t save you. Your family will pay for everything. Damned revolutionary sons of [bleep]. Your bodies will land in graves. We’ll scatter you in pieces throughout the city. Your family, sons, nephews, sister and parents, will pay for everything, son of a [bleep]. The forensic anthropologists will pay.” And it finishes by saying, “Death.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Fredy Peccerelli in Granito, the forensic anthropologist who will not stop. Fredy, who is threatening you?

FREDY PECCERELLI: Well, in reality, we don’t know. But the truth is that we believe it’s the military personnel that are afraid of the evidence that we’re presenting and that is being used against them in court trials. In this last death threat, we know it’s people that are linked to the military personnel that were found guilty and were sentenced to 6,060 years in jail each, 30 years for each one of the deaths and 30 years for crimes of lesser humanity. So it’s the people who committed the crimes that are threatening us, and they have let us know this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to ask you, because we had in headlines the report about developments in Colombia, where the former head of Colombia’s secret police, the DAS, was sentenced to 25 years for his involvement in working with the death squads to supervise the killings, especially of a sociologist who was involved in investigating the death squads there. I wanted to ask you, as you’ve spent now 16 years, you say, doing this work in Guatemala, why, even in a country like Colombia, are some people being brought to justice for what’s happening, but yet in Guatemala, where the genocide was so much more extensive, it’s been so difficult to hold those who were the intellectual authors and the people supervising the killing responsible?

FREDY PECCERELLI: Well, in Guatemala, what has happened is pretty much blanket impunity after the signing of the peace accords. And people are afraid. The prosecutor’s office has not been moving forward with these cases 'til now that we have Claudia Paz y Paz, the new attorney general. And although there's evidence of the crimes, not only physical evidence but testimonial evidence, the prosecutors have been very afraid and have not gotten support. Most of the people who participated at a high level are also still in positions of power. General Efraín Ríos Montt still today is in congress. So that has contributed to a lack of justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam, the footage you have of Fredy and his team digging up these bodies—Fredy, if you can explain what exactly you’re doing, where are you finding these mass graves, and how are you identifying them?

FREDY PECCERELLI: Well, most of the mass graves that we’ve dug up during the last 19 years are in the communities in the highlands. These are the victims of massacres. But recently, we’ve also found that a lot of the bodies of the people that were forcibly disappeared, after they were tortured—interrogated, tortured, they were executed and thrown in the streets of cities, Guatemala City being one of these cities. And then the bodies would be autopsied in some cases and taken to cemeteries, like La Verbena cemetery. What we’re doing now is we’re looking for the bodies of the people that were disappeared and buried as John or Jane Does or unidentified bodies. In La Verbena, what happened is, after they were buried in individual graves, after some time, because of lack of space, they take the bodies out, and they throw them in these huge bone wells. There’s four of them. So, so far, we’ve exhumed over 12,500 bodies. And we believe at least a thousand of those bodies are bodies of victims of forced disappearance.

AMY GOODMAN: And the connections to September 11th every which way, the election that led to the—well, this runoff election was September 11th, that elected Pérez Molina, though he has to go through another election, and the scientific—the tools you’re using come from 9/11.

FREDY PECCERELLI: That is correct. We are using M-FISys. It’s a software developed by the company Gene Codes. It was developed for the identification of the victims of 9/11. This software was donated to the foundation so we can compare the genetic profiles from the victims, the skeletons, to the genetic profiles of the families. So, now the fact that I grew up in New York and I saw the effort put in to identify the victims on 9/11, I thought was important in my decision of looking for the victims of forced disappearance in Guatemala. And we’ve taken the technology and also the spirit of New York into Guatemala to look for the lost Guatemalans or the disappeared Guatemalans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this issue that some of the press reports here in the New York Times and other publications are talking about how support for Pérez Molina is coming largely from young people who have no knowledge of the situation that happened and the genocide of 30 years ago, but the violence that’s occurring now in the streets of Guatemala City, in Salvador and these other places, the impact of this and the connection to the wars and the genocide of the ’80s?

FREDY PECCERELLI: Well, the connection is clear, because of the lack of justice in the crimes of the war in Guatemala. It has let people know that they can pretty much do anything and get away with anything in Guatemala. And that has propagated, you know, the drug cartels to become stronger, as well as the gangs and the Maras, who also become stronger and become tools in a political game to make it seem like there is no hope other than to elect a former general.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the connection of the politicians with the drug cartels? Because apparently not just Pérez Molina has been implicated, but several other candidates who were running for president, as well.

FREDY PECCERELLI: Yes, according to the press, there’s connections to the drug cartels everywhere in Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: And are you afraid, if Pérez Molina is elected, of it making your identification of these bodies and digging more difficult, more death threats coming?

FREDY PECCERELLI: Of course. Of course we’re afraid. Because of his direct ties to the conflict, it would only seem logical that he is not interested in us doing this work. Nonetheless, I do have to say that we have been able to work even when the FRG, which is Efraín Ríos Montt’s party, was in power. So, I think the work is too powerful to be shut down, but individually, yes, we’re afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. The film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is playing at the IFC here in New York. It just premiered last night. These days that it is here in New York determine whether it will be seen in cinemas around the country. It is a remarkable film. It is called Granito, which means grain of sand, How to Nail a Dictator. Fredy Peccerelli, thanks so much for being with us, and Pam Yates, for doing this film and all the work that you have done.

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