Translated justice? The Ixil Maya and the 2013 trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in Guatemala

Document Type


Publication Date



Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology

Publication Title

American Anthropologist


This article takes an ethnographically engaged, discourse-centered approach to questions of representation and cultural difference in democratic process in postwar Guatemala. When José Efraín Ríos Montt became the first former head of state convicted of genocide within his own country, in 2013, Ixil Maya witnesses who testified against him became international human rights icons. However, the trial was marked by difficulties in communication between Ixil witnesses and non-Ixil lawyers, judges, and observers. “Miscommunications” resulted from diverging forms of speech that are deeply connected to different identities and ways of experiencing and understanding history. Discursive expectations within the courtroom limited recognition of Ixil ways of speaking and, consequently, of Ixil subjects. These expectations also obscured Ixil contestations to systems of power both inside and outside the courtroom. This analysis calls attention to the central role of language in processes of justice and political activism in solidarity with marginalized populations. [discourse-centered approach, genocide trial, Ixil, Maya, Guatemala].

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