Guatemala’s Genocide on Trial

Guatemala’s Genocide on Trial

The Constitutional Court may have vacated Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction, but the struggle for justice will continue. And nothing can annul the survivors’ testimony and courage.


People celebrate the judge's guilty verdict for Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt during his genocide trial in Guatemala City, Friday, May 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Moises Castilo)

When Judge Yassmín Barrios read aloud the genocide conviction of Guatemala’s former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt before a packed courtroom on May 10, hundreds of people leapt to their feet in surprise and jubilation, chanting “Justice! Justice! Justice!” The trial was the culmination of years of work and waiting, yet when the sentence finally arrived, it felt almost incomprehensible. Guatemala had just made history—the first country in the world to condemn its own former head of state for genocide and crimes against humanity in a national tribunal.

Ten days later the forces of impunity struck back. On May 20, the Constitutional Court vacated the sentence, ordering the proceedings to rewind to April 19, the day a lower court judge called for the trial’s suspension due to unresolved appeals by the ex-dictator’s defense attorneys. The ruling was the latest blow in what had been a sustained dirty war waged by Ríos Montt’s supporters since his indictment in 2012 to delay, obstruct, divert and otherwise sabotage the genocide case. It was also evidence of the persistent and grievous weaknesses in Guatemala’s justice system.

The road to justice has been long and tortuous; it just got a little longer. The court’s judgment makes the genocide verdict vulnerable in unforeseeable ways, potentially opening it to a new wave of procedural challenges by the defense. The prosecutors are gearing up for a fight to protect the outcome of their case, combining their legal strategy with political will, public pressure and judicial independence. Whatever happens, the witnesses’ powerful survivor tales from the trial can never be annulled, and the genocide sentence stands as a testament to what they achieved.

The charges against Ríos Montt, now 86, stemmed from his seventeen-month rule from 1982 to 1983, after he grabbed power in a coup and then unleashed a bloody counterinsurgency against a guerrilla uprising and its alleged civilian supporters in the rural highlands. Although the conflict engulfed huge swaths of the country, the case focused on human rights crimes committed by Ríos Montt’s army in the Ixil region of the department of Quiché, where 1,771 indigenous Mayans were killed and some 29,000 displaced in a scorched-earth strategy designed to destroy the Ixil communities once and for all.

As the prosecution made evident during the trial, the army’s tactics were planned, coordinated and carried out according to a set of strategic and operational documents issued by the Ríos Montt regime. “Plan Victoria 82,” for example, issued internally by the high command in June 1982, called for the “annihilation” not only of armed guerrillas but of the Mayan people who aided them with food, shelter and information. In the context of the regime’s extreme anti-communist ideology, the Mayan population was identified as an “internal enemy” and therefore a legitimate target for military attack. Judge Barrios described the consequences of that strategy when she read the verdict: the Ixiles were subjected to massacre and forced disappearance; systematic rape; the killing of children, women and the elderly; the burning of their homes; the slaughter of their animals; the destruction of their crops; massive displacement; and death by hunger, sickness and bombing when they sought refuge in the mountains.

But the May 10 verdict was more than a rejection of the army’s extreme cruelty. It was also an acknowledgment that the systematic destruction of Mayan communities was the most radical expression possible of the racism, social exclusion and abuse that Guatemala’s indigenous people had endured for hundreds of years. In that sense, the trial sought to restore a measure of dignity to the victims and survivors by recognizing the totality of their historical experience instead of simply the death, pain and loss that each person suffered.

Ríos Montt’s lawyers tried to defend their client by emphasizing his distance from the battlefield. They admitted that there were massacres but claimed that Ríos Montt did not control the operations. In rejecting their argument, the three-judge panel identified the general as the “intellectual author” of the crimes, the mastermind behind a system of discrimination and destruction. By convicting the former head of state and commander in chief rather than his subordinates, the judges confirmed the genocidal intent not of one material perpetrator but of the state as a whole: the government ministries that defended Ríos Montt’s project, the business elites who profited from the land abandoned by fleeing Ixiles, a national press willing to deny genocide, the education system’s continuing refusal to include an account of the regime’s brutality in school curriculums.

Although the prosecution focused on Ríos Montt’s criminal responsibility, the historical role and influence of the United States lurked implicitly throughout the proceedings. The 1954 US-backed coup against President Jacobo Árbenz and his replacement with a series of brutal military dictators propelled the country into a spiral of violence that lasted for more than three decades. The United States poured money, weapons and equipment into the Guatemalan armed forces and intelligence services, and exported the national security doctrine that defined the logic of the counterinsurgency campaign. When the Guatemalan government rejected US military assistance in 1977 rather than submit to Washington’s human rights conditions, the CIA continued funneling millions of covert dollars into army coffers.

When Ríos Montt and a group of young military officers seized power in 1982, the Reagan administration was fighting its secret war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and in urgent need of Central American allies to support the Contras. Reagan officials were eager to embrace Guatemala’s new leader; in a memo to President Reagan shortly before Reagan met the new dictator for the first time, Secretary of State George Shultz wrote that the coup “presents us with an opportunity to break the long freeze in our relations with Guatemala and to help prevent an extremist takeover.” Reagan famously considered the dictator to be “totally dedicated to democracy” and called him “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.”

For the duration of Ríos Montt’s rule, Reagan officials strenuously flacked for the general, from Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders, who protested in a September 1982 letter to Amnesty International that Ríos Montt’s government had made “significant progress” in improving human rights, to Elliott Abrams, Reagan’s top human rights official in the State Department, who not only peddled the administration’s position that Ríos Montt was a reformer bent on improving Guatemala’s human rights record but helped sell the government’s plan to lift the US embargo on military aid.

It remains to be seen whether or how any of these men will be held accountable for their role in covering up the atrocities of the Ríos Montt regime. It is also unclear to what extent Guatemala can investigate current President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired military officer and former commander who served in the Ixil region under Ríos Montt. Pérez and many of his generation of midlevel officers from that era indisputably have “blood stains on their hands,” as a declassified Pentagon cable aptly stated. But Guatemala’s ability and political will to bring to trial hundreds of military perpetrators—including a sitting president who enjoys immunity—is doubtful.

While the crowd lingered in the courtroom on May 10 to witness the removal of Ríos Montt to prison, the Ixil men, women and children who had sat in a bloc together for the duration of the six-week trial suddenly stirred and stood. Facing the judges, they called out in unison “¡Tantiuxh!” (“Thank you!”) and bowed their heads. When the trial reconvenes under the Constitutional Court’s new order, the Mayan Ixil will be there again: watching, listening, waiting for justice.

Elliott Abrams helped whitewash Central American massacres during his tenure in the Reagan White House; now he’s trying to rehabilitate his image, as Eric Alterman reported earlier this year.

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