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How a documentary changed Guatemala's history

May 31st, 2013
04:26 PM ET

By Samuel Burke, CNN

Most documentaries record and preserve history – only a few change the arc of history.

In Guatemala in the early 1980s, a young American documentary filmmaker named Pamela Yates bore witness to massive crimes and atrocities at great personal risk to make her film.

This year, a quarter-century later, her footage became critical evidence used to convict a military dictator of genocide. 

The Central American country had been torn apart by decades of U.S. funded civil war when General Efrain Rios Montt seized power in 1982 and launched a scorched earth campaign against the Mayans and leftist guerillas.

All of these years later, a piece of tape left on the cutting room floor of Yates' documentary, "How to Nail a Dictator," became key evidence in a genocide trial against the general.

In this piece of footage, Ríos Montt clearly claims command responsibility, which is one of the most difficult burdens to prove in a court of law.

“Our strength is in our capacity to make command decisions,” he said in front of the camera at the time. “The army is ready and able to act because if I can’t control the army, then what am I doing here?”

Earlier this month, Rios Montt was convicted of genocide in a case that has deeply polarized Guatemala.

When human rights attorney Almudena Bernabeu originally saw the film she didn’t see anything important. But Yates returned to her warehouse in the swamplands of New Jersey and searched through old pieces of the tape.

“I knew when I saw it. And I immediately called Almudena,” the filmmaker told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about the key piece of evidence that was later used in the trial.

“It was all so new in a way, to introduce footage like this as a piece of evidence,” Bernabeu said. She believes it has now pushed the envelope for future human rights cases.

On May 20, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court threw out the conviction of General Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity – that decision was upheld on Tuesday.

“I think what's important to know is that, first of all, it's on historical record that Efraim Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison,” the filmmaker said. “That verdict has been vacated, but the historical memory of Guatemala will now have a different narrative as it moves forward.”

In the video above you can see Christiane Amanpour’s interview with the both the attorney and the filmmaker.

CNN’s Meredith Milstein produced this piece for television.

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode
soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Stuart

    If you,d lived hear, you,d know there are over 23 ethnic groups, with their own dialects and cultures, on the Guatemalan Highlands, and you would know that even though there was sensless killings, attrocities, human rights violations, you know, a war, financed by USA government and Cubas Castro and the former USSR, over political ideologies; both army and guerrilla were conformed by men from all of this 23 ethnic groups, and not just "mayans" as you lazily and mistakenly write down. The hundreds of thousand of victims during this 36 year long war, where not killed by their ethnicity, or religious beliefs. They were brought down by the interference of those two superpowers on the minds and needs of this small but great country of mine that is Guatemala.

    May 31, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Reply
    • Daniel Hernandez.

      It's not so simple Stuart. To those "super powers" that of course had interfered here (way much more the USA than the others) you have to add Guatemala's oligarchy and army who promoted, financed and executed the Genocide and other crimes against Humanity within a profoundly divided society with very unequal living conditions. Around 3% of the population owns around 75% of the arable land. Talking about responsability we have to remember Guatemalan State forces were responsible for more than 90% of the crimes and guerrillas responsible for 3% of the crimes acording to the oficial Truth Comission Report. You are right In one thing: it was not just the Mayans even if they were the group who payed the highest toll. Hundreds of non indigenous intelectuals, students, artists and all the people who tought Guatemala should change from an almost medieval society to a modern Democracy were targeted and disapeared. It really was NOT as simple as you say. I was born here in the 1950's so I have lived through it.

      May 31, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Reply
    • Miguela Sandoval

      Stuart, you need to study a little more deeply this subject of genocide. I give you a link to have an idea, but better if you look further into international penal law, and, actually, guatemalan law. Also, if you dare, go this country, Guatemala, and see in reality what racism and discrimination continue to do to the mayan and the poor...

      June 1, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  2. Jonathan Birchall

    Under international law, genocide can occur even if the elmination of all or part of an ethnic group is not the primary objective of the perpetrators, i.e. if it can be proved that members of a group were being killed purely on the basis of their ethnicity. This would still amount to genocide even if other Mayan Ixil were being deployed to kill them.

    So if the army command under Rios Montt told the army to kill the inhabitants of Ixil Mayan villages because they believed this group was supporting the insurgents, that may amount to genocide, even if the army used Ixil Mayan militia to carry out the killings.

    Rios Montt's defence team did not however engage with this argument in any substantive way during the trial, but focused on procedural challenges.

    For more information, I would recommend reading the summaries of the six week trial produced by the Open Society Justice Initiative and partners at

    Thanks, Jonathan Birchall, Open Society Justice Initiative

    May 31, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Reply
    • Ana Lucia Cuevas

      Thank you Jonathan and Daniel for given us a more comprehensive comment of the war in Guatemala.
      For those who lived during the worse years of the guatemalan war (and lost many family members to it) is very sad to see today members of the army (principally) and their allies to try to 're interpret' what happen during the conflict in Guatemala as a 'war between two powers'.
      The war in Guatemala WAS a war of a terrorist state against its people. The international reports, the mass graves exhumations and the survivors testimonies confirm it.

      June 1, 2013 at 8:37 am | Reply
  3. uche nweze

    my take on this,is whatever one does while in power,you will face the music at anytime.

    June 2, 2013 at 4:35 am | Reply
  4. Enrique

    So after being asked the same question several times a chief of state finally said ¿or perhaps complained?: ¿If I cannot control the Army, what am I doing here? That is not news and much less proof of anything. ¿What else could someone in that position say, publicly to a reporter, without losing face and/or damaging his political position? That this nonsense is hailed as “evidence” of the real chain of command that existed inside the Guatemalan army at that particular, special, evolving and short (500 days) point in time just proves the prejudice that pervaded this interview, Rios Mont´s shameful trial, and the international one sided coverage that Guatemala has received since the 1960´s. As the interviewed “reporters” basically admitted, all this is not about justice for the victims (had it been, they would have charged the perpetrators with murder) but about changing history and “proving” that Guatemala is a country full of racial hatred and discrimination, and that thus, the guerrillas armed fight for power was justified. Regretfully if you repeat a lie often enough, something will always stick.

    June 10, 2013 at 1:07 am | Reply
  5. Jannette Searl

    Hi folks really love the site keep up the top work guys!

    June 1, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  6. John Carnegie

    Arrived in Guatemala in early 1979, left in 1985. What a tragic history for such a beautiful place and amazing people descendants of the Maya. The US has much to answer for also Israel who armed and trained the army and its death squads on behalf of the Americans.

    November 5, 2016 at 6:06 pm | Reply
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