In a remarkable development from the Americas, former Guatemalan president José Efraín Ríos Montt was ordered to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out during his seventeen month dictatorship between 1982 and 1983. Rios Montt is the first former head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide in a national court. While he has not yet been convicted of anything, Monday’s legal outcome is a victory for his victims, domestic and international human rights organisations, and the Guatemalan people.
During Guatemala’s thirty-six year conflict between 1960 and 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and another 45,000 disappeared at the hands of the state’s security forces. Over one-hundred thousand are believed to have perished during the scorched earth campaign carried out in the early 1980s when Rios Montt and, prior to him, Romeo Lucas García served as de facto heads of state.
Rios Montt lost his immunity which he had held as a sitting member of congress last January. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested. At the time, I had hoped that he simply would have stood before the court and accepted responsibility for the violence that he ordered thirty years ago. If he believed what he ordered was necessary to save the country from the threat posed by the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, he should have said so. In no way would that excuse him for the crimes that he committed.
Instead, he and his lawyers presented 75 legal challenges to have the charges dismissed. His defence lawyer Danilo Rodriguez, ironically enough a former guerrilla of twenty-two years, and others speaking for the general argued, at various points, that Rios Montt was unaware of what was going on in the Ixil Triangle, was not really in control of what his subordinates were doing, could not be prosecuted because of an amnesty law, he was not physically there so he could not be responsible, and the killings took place in the heat of battle. In effect, Rios Montt has done everything possible to avoid responsibility.
Evidence of atrocities
Following three days of testimony, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez ruled that there was sufficient evidence to try Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for ordering fifteen massacres involving the killing of 1,771 indigenous Ixiles in the department of Quiché between March 1982 and August 1983. The judgelistened to witness testimony, historical, military and psychological reports, forensic reports from numerous exhumations, military plans, ballistic evidence, and death certificates. During these massacres, women and young girls were raped and killed. Young children and elders were executed. Men, women, and children were tortured. After having their homes and crops burned to the ground, twenty-nine thousand Ixil survivors then fled to the mountains where they were then harassed and persecuted by the Guatemalan armed forces while living in “subhuman conditions“. In addition to Rios Montt, the court found sufficient evidence to send former Director of Military Intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez to trial for having been an intellectual author of Plan Victoria 82, Plan Sofia and Plan Firmeza 83 authorising attacks against the civilian population.
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Guatemala: Struggling for justice
While they do not appear to have been close during or after the war, Guatemala’s current President Otto Pérez Molina served as a regional commander in the Ixil region during the period that the massacres took place. In the past, the president has denied that any massacres took place during the conflict at the hands of the government’s security forces. However, President Molina has remained quiet during the current hearings and has conveniently been out of the country attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where he is promoting an alternative to the current war on drugs.
There is real uncertainty as to how Molina will respond to these new developments and to the potential for guilty verdicts that recognise the military in which he served having committed genocide and crimes against humanity. He was a regional commander in Nebaj who oversaw population control during the military’s counterinsurgency operations during the time in question, but the evidence is inconclusive as to where he was during the massacres in question.
Rios Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez’s trial will once again shine light on the United States’ role in Guatemala’s civil war. On the one hand, it’s rather simple. The US supported a Guatemalan government that was responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations carried out during the country’s thirty-six year conflict. The US provided military, economic, and political assistance to the Guatemalan government and military during this period. The conflict might not even have occurred had the US not been the driving force behind the 1954 coup organised by its Central Intelligence Agency to unseat the democratically-elected reformist government of Jacobo Árbenz.
While the US was primarily involved in Guatemala because of Cold War fears, that does not excuse its support for the Guatemalan government. However, the Guatemalan leaders did not take orders from the US government. In fact, when the US said that it would link security assistance to improvements in its human rights performance the Guatemalan government said that it did not need the US’s help especially after it had just lost a counterinsurgency war to the Vietnamese. And at least one time when the US invited Guatemala to send its soldiers for training at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, the Guatemalan government responded that they would only send their soldiers as instructors, not as students.
Coming to terms
Since the war ended in 1996, President Bill Clinton has apologized for the support that the US provided to the Guatemalan government. Although imperfect, it has released thousands of documents that shed light on what happened during the conflict, several of which have been used in trials here in Guatemala. The US has moved to arrest and deport Guatemalan military officers involved in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre. And, finally, former Ambassador Stephen McFarland attended legal hearings in support of victims of the armed conflict in 2009 and 2010.
While Guatemalan military and government officials are primarily responsible for the violence perpetrated against its citizens, that should not make Americans feel any better. At a minimum, the US should recognise its complicity in the violence against Mayan civilians in Guatemala especially, but not limited to, the Reagan administration. It should declare its support for the victims of the armed conflict to pursue legal actions against those responsible for gross human rights violations, including genocide and crimes against humanity. It should release all relevant documents that shed light on the terror including those that implicate US citizens. The US should also work with the Guatemalan government and people to implement development projects aimed at assisting those communities who suffered at the hands of state violence during the 1980s and continue to do so today. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a start.
In the last few years, though small in number, Guatemalan courts have successfully prosecuted members of the country’s self-defence patrols, military commissioners, military officers, Kaibiles, and police for a variety of crimes committed during the armed conflict, an armed conflict in which the Guatemalan government purposefully targeted civilians in a campaign of genocide. On Monday, they moved one step closer to holding accountable those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.