A partial retrial for 86-year-old ex-President Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity now seems likely after Guatemala's top court this week overturned his historic May 10 conviction on a technicality. Regardless of whether he is convicted again, other former military officers, who were even closer to the carnage against Ixil-speaking and other ethnic Mayans in Guatemala’s highland regions, remain at large.
One of them is Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general who, according to an ex-soldier testifying in Ríos Montt’s trial, ordered soldiers to burn and loot villages and “execute people.” But President Pérez Molina was not on trial and no corroborating evidence against him was heard. (Pérez Molina denies any wrongdoing, or even that genocide in Guatemala ever took place.)
Such evidence exists, however. And there is more evidence still against other officers, particularly the tight-knit group who filled the chains of command during the genocide in the early 1980s, between then-Major Pérez Molina and then-President and General Ríos Montt.
Ríos Montt may yet become the first former head-of-state successfully prosecuted in his own nation for genocide. But this story doesn’t end with one facing an odd genocide trial and another president implicated in war crimes from thirty-odd years ago. A third Guatemalan president, Alfonso Portillo, faces trial in Manhattan on US money laundering charges, which were filed in 2010. Although they each served decades apart, and only two of them are former military officers, these three presidents have stories that are tightly interwoven. Much like the threads of an olive green military dress uniform, pulling too hard, now, at any one loose string, could start unraveling the fabric to eventually bare what lies beneath. This would also include the role of the United States in the violence in Guatemala.
If he were ever brought here for trial, ex-President Portillo would become the first former head of state from any nation to be extradited to the United States. (Former Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega was brought in 1990 as a de facto prisoner of US military forces who captured him following an American invasion.) Portillo has denied charges that he embezzled tens of millions of dollars of Guatemalan funds, “converting the office of the Guatemalan presidency into his personal ATM,” as the indictment from the US Southern District Court of New York charges. He allegedly stole funds from Guatemala’s school libraries, defense ministry and a national bank, laundering the money through banks in the United States and Europe.
An elite group of former military intelligence officers are implicated in the same crimes. Back when General Ríos Montt assumed the presidency through a 1982 coup, these officers bonded and rose as an informal but powerful force. The same club of officers exists today—the place where genocide and organized crime meet.
A Defense Intelligence Agency cable from 1991 identifies this “intelligence club,” whose members called themselves the “Cofradía…the name given to the powerful organizations of village-church elders that exist today in the Indian highlands of Guatemala.” According to the once-classified cable, “This vertical column of intelligence officers, from captains to generals, represents the strongest internal network of loyalties within the institution.”