Human Rights, Photography, and the Guatemalan Dirty War

Nathan Crites-Herrer
The Paw Print

Out of all the countries that make up Latin America, Guatemala is rarely ever mentioned in international news and many people know little to nothing about its people and turbulent past.
Political violence and state sponsored terror are common themes in Guatemala, which contains a majority population of Indigenous peoples at 66.2 percent.
Indigenous Mayans make up the bulk of the population percentage and despite their majority have experienced tremendous injustices throughout their history up to the present day.
Shedding light on the people of Guatemala and its rich history, human rights activist and professional photographer Jonathan ‘Jonás’ Moller visited the ASU campus and presented his experience working in Guatemala documenting the horrific genocide of the 1981 dirty war.
Using pictures of excavated graves and stoic images of Mayan peoples, Moller took the audience into the world of the Mayans who have seen their people oppressed and murdered for centuries but still continue to maintain a sense of dignity as they continue their struggle for justice.
Understanding the Guatemalan dirty war requires knowledge of the close relationship between American business interests and the United States Government.  Historically, American business defend their interests in Latin America by using government agencies like the CIA who usually impose a military dictator or puppet regime in a particular country that will abide by US business interests.
Guatemala is no different; in 1960 massive reforms took place in Guatemala bringing more rights to workers, indigenous peoples and women.
A main part of these reforms was the distribution of land to the peasants and indigenous peoples who before were unable to own land.
These reforms caught the eye of United Fruit Company who had owned a large portion of lands in Guatemala and wanted to keep it that way.  With the help of the CIA the United Fruit Company was able to oust the liberal Guatemalan government and impose a military dictatorship.
What followed was a series of rebellions and continued indigenous resistance to the oppressive imposed regime, setting the stage for the dirty war of 1981.
In 1981, with training from the US military, the Guatemalan military and government carried out a brutal campaign of genocide against the indigenous Mayans of Guatemala murdering close to 300,000 people in a two year period.
Nearly twenty years later Moller and other Guatemalan colleagues took part in an excavation project of burial sites that were dug during the war, either by the military death squads to hide the dead or by family members of the victims trying to bring some respect to their unjust death.
Acting as both a human rights activist and a photographer, Moller documented these burial sites, taking photos of the skeletal remains of each victim that they uncovered.
“The photos that I took are proof of the terror and injustice committed by the Guatemalan and U.S. government,” added Moller.
With the end of the dirty war in 1983, most Mayans were able to return to their native lands but still faced the daily threat of disappearance and death if they voiced their dissention about the 300,000 dead which the government and military continues to ignore.
In order to make sure that history does not overlook what happened during that war, Moller is has successfully distributed 29,000 copies of his books Our Culture is Our Resistance and Recovering Our Memory to Guatemalan school children free of charge.
The books, which are in Spanish and English, include detailed historical accounts of the dirty war in Guatemala along with many of his photos.
“There is a real danger in allowing this genocidal act to go unnoticed…this is why it is important for not only Mayans but all Guatemalans to understand the real history of what happened during the war,” said Moller.
Moller’s photographs can be seen throughout the months of September and October for free in the Clyde Snook art gallery located in the art building. is powered by WordPress µ | Spam prevention powered by Akismet