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.