Inside Story America

Guatemala: Struggling for justice

Former military leader Rios Montt is facing trial for crimes against humanity committed during the civil war.

Guatemala’s former military ruler has requested for amnesty from genocide charges for the second time since appearing before a judge last January.   
General Efrain Rios Montt is accused of murdering more than 1,000 people during the country’s civil war.

Justice is important for us so that what happened is never repeated. And it’s also important to show respect for our dignity and to show respect for human life.

– Manuel Tay, the leader of a local Guatemalan survivor’s group

His 17 months in power from 1982 to 83 are believed to be one of the most brutal periods of the war. Many Maya villages were targeted and their residents massacred during government efforts to defeat leftist rebels.

Prosecutors argue that Guatemala’s National Reconciliation Law does not guarantee amnesty for those accused of human rights abuses. But many in the army defend the tactics of the 1980s as a necessary evil.

Otto Perez Molina, Guatemala’s current president, is a former general who served under Rios Montt.

Earlier this month, the Guatemalan government announced that it would stop recognising rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987.

Rights activists accuse Molina of trying to prevent any legal challenge – if Guatemalan courts rule in favour of Rios Montt and other former military officers facing trials.

The government is now promising to withdraw the decree, following opposition from human rights activists.

Presenter Kimberly Halkett talks to Rafael Espada, the former Guatemalan vice president about the recent government decree and Guatemala’s human rights issues.

Inside Story Americas is also joined by guests: Annie Bird, the co-director of Rights Action, who has worked for 17 years documenting human rights abuses with community-based organisations in Central America; and Kate Doyle, a senior analyst of US policy in Latin America for the research and advocacy organisation National Security Archive. 

“The government and the lawyers for Rios Montt have done everything in their power to try to slow or delay this trial. He was charged with genocide. And every single international rights organisation … has firmly stated that amnesty cannot be applicable in crimes against humanity …. Impunity is a way of life in Guatemala.”

Kate Doyle, a senior analyst of US policy in Latin America National Security Archive


  • El Salvador’s 1993 amnesty law protects all those responsible for killings and disappearances during the country’s 12-year civil war; but last month, the Inter American Court of Human Rights ruled that the law does not cover war crimes Aand ordered the government to investigate the worst massacre of the conflict.
  • In Argentina, the Supreme Court overturned amnesty laws in 2005. Hundreds of convictions have been secured since then. That includes two former military rulers.
  • In Brazil, amnesty laws were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2010; President Dilma Rouseff – who was detained and tortured during military rule – has created a truth commission to investigate rights abuses.