Guatemala: Rios Montt genocide trial ends with historic verdict

Efrain Rios Montt becomes the first head of state tried and convicted of genocide in a domestic court.

Former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt speaks with media at end of session of his genocide trial, at Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City
A Guatemalan court has determined that former dictator Efrian Rios Montt directed a campaign of genocide against the Ixil between 1982 and 1983 [Reuters]

A Guatemalan court found former dictator and US Cold War ally, Efrain Rios Montt, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. His intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was found not guilty on all charges. The two had been accused of being responsible for the massacre of 1,771, the forced displacement of 29,000, and the subjecting of the Mayan Ixil to conditions designed to destroy it.

In speaking for the three-judge panel, Judge Yasmin Barrios said, “We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethic group.” The guilty verdict was historic for the people of Guatemala, and all those who struggle against gross human rights violators, as Rios Montt becomes the first head of state tried and convicted of genocide in a domestic court.

Approximately 250,000 Guatemalans were killed during a conflict that pitted several different guerrilla groups against the Guatemalan state. However, the vast majority of those killed were civilians from amongst the country’s indigenous population. They were killed, in often horrific ways, by the state’s official and unofficial security forces. Several victims spoke of the trauma perpetrated by soldiers, including rape and other forms of torture.

Now, a court has finally brought the man most responsible for the genocide of the early 1980s to justice. However, while there is praise for the verdict, more work remains both to secure the verdict and to ensure that its findings are disseminated and accepted.

The trial and verdict

First, the prosecution still has to secure the final verdict. The trial itself has been full of intrigue with two different judges claiming they should be overseeing the trial. Pre-trial judge, Patricia Carol Flores, who was responsible for evidentiary and other matters of the case, held a hearing on the morning of Friday’s verdict during which she tried to annul the trial, once again, and send it back to November 2011.

The Constitutional Court (CC) already ruled that Flores had overstepped her authority and had interpreted its ruling too broadly. It seems the CC only wanted her to incorporate new evidence that previously had been excluded and then send the case back to Judge Barrios. However, Flores’ latest decision to re-annul the trial remains pending.

Following Friday afternoon’s verdict, Rios Montt’s attorney argued that the defence had already lodged four constitutional challenges and eight amparoswhich had not yet been ruled upon. Those legal challenges could threaten the conviction. Guatemalan lawyers have a history of using excessive, often frivolous, legal challenges to delay or deny justice so it is possible that all are resolved in favour of the prosecution. In this trial alone, the defence lodged over 100 legal challenges. 

Former Guatemala leader convicted of genocide

Judge Barrios and her two colleagues must have decided that the best strategy to reach a verdict was to push the trial through to the end without waiting to resolve all the outstanding legal challenges rather than let the trial get bogged down.

Rejecting genocide charges

Second, while a Guatemalan court has determined that Rios Montt directed a campaign of genocide against the Ixil between 1982 and 1983, it is going to take a significant effort to convince many Guatemalans to accept the judges’ ruling.

During the trial, the reactionary Foundation Against Terrorism paid for several advertisements published in leading periodicals denouncing the trial, the judges, witnesses, prosecution, human rights activists, the Catholic Church, the media and foreign governments, including Norway, Sweden and the US, for supporting the trial.

The Foundation was also responsible for transporting hundreds of supporters from the Ixil area to Guatemala City to protest the trial. Many protesters were former military, indigenous people who had been forced to participate in government-directed self-defence patrols, and poor Ixil who were promised fertiliser in return for their participation.

Perhaps the country’s most powerful institution, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), paid for several advertisements criticising the trial and the charges of genocide.

CACIF’s director of communications was removed from the courtroom for taking photos of journalists, witnesses and human rights activists attending the proceedings. His actions were perceived as threatening, as judges and the prosecutors received death threats during the trial and promotional materials that looked like hit lists were widely distributed.

Even after the verdict, President Otto Perez Molina insists that there was no genocide in Guatemala even though, to his credit, his administration issued a statement respecting the court’s ruling and the independence of the judicial system.

For the Right, the verdict came from a court presided over by a judge sympathetic to the Left, a public prosecutor’s office filled with former guerrillas, and a courtroom packed with more foreigners than Guatemalans.

Rios Montt’s supporters will point to evidence disallowed by the judges, the trial date moving up five months, and his defence counsel initially having been thrown off the case. For them, there has been no justice, only revenge. For the Right, the national and regional contexts were excluded from the trial’s proceedings. The Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution occurred in July 1979.

The FMLN was threatening to take power in El Salvador in 1981. And the Guatemalan guerrillas had tens of thousands of full-time guerrillas and militia under arms with the support of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Guatemalans. Groups sympathetic to the Soviet Union were strengthening in Central America and around the world.

I am not sure if it is possible but I do wonder if there are former military, government officials and businessmen, who can reconcile their support for having militarily defeated the guerrillas and preventing the country from becoming another Cuba with an understanding that how they did so, involved acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. They can perhaps be proud of the first, but must be held accountable for the second.

However, it is not just the reactionary Right that rejects the charges of genocide. An influential group of Guatemalan officials deeply involved in peace negotiations with the guerrillas published a paid advertisement rejecting and warning that a guilty verdict could betray the peace and destabilise the country. These individuals had been considered rather moderate and well-respected by Guatemalans across the political spectrum.

And even in the hard hit Ixil region following the trial, some disagree that genocide was committed. Instead, they remember the crimes committed by the guerrillas and the protection offered by the military.

The trial was important to educate Guatemalans and the world about what happened here in the early 1980s. However, it is just part of a long process to have people recognise that genocide was committed. Many of those who today reject the judges’ ruling are the same people who rejected similar findings from the Guatemalan Catholic Church’s REMHI project in 1998 and the UN’s CEH in 1999.

Hopefully, however, the trial’s proceedings will have convinced a few more people, especially the country’s youth who were not even born at the time, to better understand the country’s past and to pursue a future that ensures it never happens again. 

Crimes against humanity

Third, Judge Barrios said the attorney general’s office has the responsibility to pursue justice against others involved in perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity. For many, that seems to mean going after President Perez Molina who was tied to the genocide during witness testimony

Inside Story Americas – Efrain Rios Montt – Justice in limbo

A witness who was an army engineer stationed in Nebaj said that he saw Perez Molina command soldiers ordered to burn down homes and kill civilians. The president cannot be brought before a court right now as he has immunity in office. However, much of the legal case against Rios Montt was gathered while he held immunity as a member of congress.

The attorney general’s office could decide to pursue charges against former guerrillas who were involved in war crimes as well. While nowhere near as responsible for the human rights violations committed during the war as the state, the guerrillas are believed to have carried out several dozen massacres.

A former ORPA guerrilla was arrested earlier this month for massacring 22 campesinos. However, the Right continues to insist that the attorney general go after higher-ranking officials such as surviving guerrilla commanders. If the prosecutor’s office pursues the same strategy as it did against the military, however, it will prosecute lower-ranking officials while building its case against commanders.  

Role of the US

Finally, there is the role of the US. This trial was about Rios Montt and his intelligence chief who designed and executed state policy in Guatemala between 1982 and 1983. However, the US played an important role at that time as well as it delivered millions of dollars’ worth of military assistance in spite of a Congressional ban.

But perhaps it was Ronald Reagan’s political support for the regime that was more harmful than anything else. At a time when the government in Guatemala was an international pariah, Reagan called Rios Montt “a man of great integrity” who he was inclined to believe had been getting a “bum rap”.

In his closing remarks, however, Rios Montt minimised the role of the US and said that he did not ask Reagan for weapons, they could not get any loans, and the country was broke. The relationship between the US and Guatemalan governments was obviously more complicated than people wish to admit.

The US helped convince elements of the military to accept a negotiated peace with the guerrillas in 1996. President Bill Clinton apologised on behalf of the US to the people of Guatemala in 1999 when he said, “Support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report [CEH] was wrong.”

Current and former US ambassadors to Guatemala have accompanied victims during the uncovering of clandestine cemeteries and in court. The US has also been one of the strongest proponents of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was responsible for the creation of the high-risk court that heard the case, and attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, who was responsible for pursuing the case.

The US supported the strengthening of the country’s judicial system through the prosecution of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez. US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J Rapp travelled to Guatemala to support the proceedings in April when it was unclear whether the trial would continue.

And following the verdict, a spokesman from the US State Department said that, “We see an opportunity for progress toward a true reconciliation in Guatemala, an essential step for the Guatemalan people to continue moving forward as everyone hopes”, and “At this time, it is important to remember that Guatemala, as a country, was not on trial.” The US’ support for the trial was indeed important.

Unfortunately, the US did not take the opportunity to weigh in on whether it agreed with the guilty verdict, how it now views its earlier support for Rios Montt, or how the verdict affects its relationship with the current president. The spokesperson said: “We note the decision of the Guatemalan court and reaffirm the importance of a strong and transparent justice system as an essential component of democracy.”

Neither did the US take the opportunity to reaffirm or go beyond President Clinton’s 1999 apology. Like some political and economic elite in Guatemala, the US has a hard time accepting that the manner in which it fought communism, or now terrorism for that matter, was often illegal and involved war crimes, crimes against humanity and perhaps, even genocide.   

For this week, however, it is important to recognise the Maya-Ixil and other indigenous people who suffered so much at the hands of the Guatemalan military during its war against the guerrillas and who continue to suffer so much today. They have finally achieved a bit of justice and that is something we should all celebrate and build upon so as to ensure that it never happens again.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

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