Victims and human rights activists cheered when, on January 26, a Guatemalan court charged Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity. The decision to bring the 85-year-old former dictator to trial is the latest stage in a long odyssey, stretching back to the early 1980s, when Guatemala experienced the bloodiest repression of its thirty-six-year civil war. During Ríos Montt’s rule (1982–83), soldiers under his command—many of them US-trained and -equipped—applied a scorched-earth policy to annihilate indigenous villages in the Mayan highlands where guerrilla insurgents were based.
The day the indictment was handed down, I was heading to Guatemala as part of a fact-finding mission organized by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and Just Associates to report on rising gender violence in Mexico and Central America. Two hundred thousand men, women and children were killed in Guatemala’s war, 83 percent of them Mayan, according to a 1999 report by the Commission for Historical Clarification. Some 100,000 women were raped as part of a strategy to destroy or suppress entire regions and cultures.
After arriving in Guatemala, we met some of them in a special forum. “I’m not afraid or ashamed to tell you this, because what happened to me happened to many women in this country,” one woman began. As a young girl in the highlands, she was held in sexual slavery by the armed forces. “I was a victim of kidnapping and torture,” she told us. “Many soldiers passed over my body—and not just me.” Several other women dressed in the traditional embroidered huipil nodded; despite the horror of reliving the pain, ending their silence is a source of strength and relief.
This is not the first attempt to bring Ríos Montt to justice. Guatemalan victims’ organizations filed a war crimes case against the general in 2001, but it got stuck in the country’s legal system. Years later, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, the Spanish Constitutional Court accepted a case that had been brought by Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú charging Ríos Montt and seven other commanders with genocide, terrorism and torture. A tenacious lawyer named Almudena Bernabeu began the investigation. In 2006 a Spanish court issued arrest orders for the general and others, but the Guatemalan government denied extradition. When Ríos Montt was later elected to Congress, he gained immunity from prosecution. Then another extraordinarily brave woman stepped in. After Claudia Paz y Paz became Guatemala’s attorney general in 2010, she filed a case against Ríos Montt and two other military commanders on charges of genocide, torture and terrorism. “If these crimes are not sanctioned, what message are we sending about justice?” she said. “This case is a symbol to society of what can and cannot be done.” It was only after his term ran out in January that Ríos Montt could be formally charged.
The day after listening to Mayan women describe the slaughter, rape and torture they witnessed firsthand, five of us met with President Otto Perez Molina, a former army general who was elected on a law-and-order platform in November. Promises of an “iron fist” against Guatemala’s soaring crime rate carried Perez Molina into office, and the redeployment of army units throughout the country—especially in indigenous zones—stands at the center of his security plan. “There was no genocide,” he told Nobel laureate Jody Williams categorically. Silver-haired and impeccably dressed, the president of fourteen days appeared unruffled. Considering that the 1999 truth commission concluded that regional genocide took place and that Perez Molina’s own justice department has brought several genocide cases to court, the baldness of his assertion momentarily stunned us. The Ríos Montt case must be a little too close for comfort. As an army major in the early 1980s, Perez Molina was assigned to the Ixil region, where the worst crimes took place and where the charges against Ríos Montt are centered.
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The Ríos Montt case is also making the US government a little nervous. WikiLeaks cables and unclassified documents indicate that the US government had information on the abuses taking place yet still supported the regime (in 1982 President Ronald Reagan famously complained that the dictator was “getting a bum rap”). Current US Ambassador Arnold Chacon brushed off the case, telling our delegation that most people he’s spoken with would prefer to look forward. The State Department would like to see restrictions on military aid lifted as it promotes the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a counternarcotics aid plan that would significantly increase the US presence in the region.
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The legal definition of genocide and questions of “who knew what, when” are at the center of the Ríos Montt prosecution, explained Frank LaRue, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression and a longtime Guatemalan human rights defender. “All crimes are solved from the bottom up—who shot who. But when you’re dealing with genocide, which is called a subjective crime, you’re dealing with intent.” No matter how much physical evidence accumulates—and forensic archeologists have dug up nearly 6,000 bodies from unmarked graves—if you can’t prove knowledge and intent, there’s no case.
Ríos Montt’s lawyer argued in court that the general “did not determine the level of force that the army used,” but several key pieces of evidence belie his claim. In a 1982 interview with filmmaker Pamela Yates, Ríos Montt stated proudly, “Our strength is in our ability to respond to the chain of command, the army’s capacity to react. Because if I can’t control the army, what am I doing here?” And a military document called Plan Sofia, mysteriously delivered during the recent investigation to Kate Doyle of the Washington-based National Security Archive, reveals an official policy decision that condoned the elimination of all suspected insurgents and defined entire Mayan villages as suspected insurgents. The equation was simple and deadly.
Throughout Latin America, the dictatorships of the 1980s are being forced to account for their crimes. On February 23 a US immigration judge cleared the way for the deportation of former Salvadoran Defense Minister Eugenio Vides Casanova for torture and murder, including the notorious killing of four American churchwomen in 1980. The decision sent a message that Latin American war criminals would not find refuge in the United States.
Ríos Montt’s trial will not begin for months. When the court decided to press charges, at first he agreed to stand trial, but now he has requested amnesty under a decree issued by former President Oscar Mejia, also indicted for genocide but deemed unfit to stand trial for health reasons. On February 21 the judge who admitted the case stepped down after the defense claimed she was biased. The next hearing is scheduled for March.
For the victims and bereaved, these trials are absolutely necessary. Paul Menchú, associate director of the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, explained, “I think that when someone identified as part of the policy of genocide finally stands trial—after so many years of seeking justice—it’s a healing event for thousands and thousands of victims.”