By Robert Valencia
Witness accounts say that between 1981-1982, José Efraín Ríos Montt presided over a genocide in Guatemala. The army allegedly maimed children, beheaded toddlers, and burned pregnant women alive. Ríos Montt’s subordinates are accused of at least 472 massacres killing nearly 1,700 indigenous citizens, many of them children under the age of 12.
Thirty years later, Ríos Montt is on trial and the eyes of the world are on Guatemala. In the past several years, Guatemala has led the region in its restoration of faith in the rule of law. This trial is a crucial test of that faith. After a peace accord in the 1990s that ended a 36-year-long civil war, the Ríos Montt trial can strengthen a once-deteriorated judicial system that now needs to tackle issues as troublesome as illicit drug trade and gang activities.
Former strongmen Ríos Montt and José Rodriguez Sánchez are facing a trial on charges of genocide during Ríos Montt’s 17-month regime between 1981 and 1982. During the prosecution, indigenous people, who were Ríos Montt’s main targets, gave gruesome testimony with the help of Ixil Maya language translators. Guatemala’s indigenous population, which makes up about 40.5 percent of the whole population, is comprised of Mayan groups such as the K’iche, Kaqchikel, Mam, and Q’eqchi. An additional trial for the murder of 250 farmers in the Petén region, adds to the ever-increasing list of criminal complaints against the former regime.
Guatemala has witnessed a struggle of military dictatorships and merciless treatment of indigenous communities since its inception. Ríos Montt is considered one of the toughest dictators in Central America’s history and embodies the bloodiest parts of Guatemalan history. Trained by the notorious U.S.-backed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (also known as the School of the Americas), Ríos Montt also received help from the CIA to overthrow Fernando Romeo Lucas-García on March 23, 1982. During this training at the School of the Americas, he was indoctrinated to persecute Marxist-leaning groups in Guatemala. Ríos Montt considered farmers and indigenous people to be aligned with communist-oriented guerrillas.
After the military coup against García in 1982, Ríos Montt was named president and all-powerful strongman. With his authority, he freely committed other atrocities against the Mayan population through a campaign known as Frijoles y Fusiles (beans and guns). Ríos Montt used scorched earth tactics to seize food crops and transportation resources from the people of the Quiché and Huehuetenango departments, resulting in the annihilation of nearly 600 villages according to the United Nations truth commission. Amnesty International also estimates that more than 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and farmers were murdered from March to July 1982 and 100,000 peasants were displaced from their land properties. On August 8, 1983, then-Defense Minister Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores overthrew Ríos Montt by virtue of another military coup.
The status of human rights worsened at the hands of Ríos Montt, but gruesome human rights violations atrocities also predated his tenure. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter withdrew military aid to Guatemala after international publicity showed Guatemalan military’s pattern of torture and killing, but it didn’t curb the flow of money and guns into President García’s hands in 1978 thanks to the CIA, and the military continued receiving army expertise from Chile, Argentina, and Israel. According to a United Nations commission, the three-decade-long civil war between the guerrilla movement and thirteen Guatemalan administrations (including that of Ríos Montt) between 1960 and 1966 left a death toll of 200,000 people who suffered horrific methods of torture, such as crashing small kids to the ground or throwing them alive to water wells, stoning of victims, and forced abortions.
This is not the first attempt in taking Ríos Montt to higher courts. In 1999, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, a lead witness for the trial, pressed charges in a Spanish court pressed charges of genocide and state-sponsored terrorism against Ríos Montt and other military officials. Fifteen appeals by defense attorneys helped Rios Montt avoid a prosecution. Then, to avoid prosecution through legislative immunity, Ríos Montt ran for Congress and became a senator in 2007. Once his tenure ended in 2012, however, so did his immunity, which led to his first court appearance on January 26, 2012. He was indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity, released on bail, but put him under house arrest. On March 2012, a Guatemalan judge rejected Ríos Montt’s amnesty from genocide accusations, which in turn brought him to trial this year.
The case may still have loopholes. Legal experts believe that as staggering as the testimonials may be, the case is still weak as Ríos Montt was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial because Chief Justice Jazmín Barrios left him without a defense for several hours on the first hearing. This led Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez to press charges against Justice Barrios to leave her office. Further, defense lawyers are arguing that indigenous witnesses are not innocent victims but rather members of Communist factions and that Ríos Montt was indeed fighting an insurgent threat against his regime.
Whether Ríos Montt goes to jail or not, such trial is unprecedented in Latin America. Though countries like Chile, Argentina, and Brazil have established truth commissions to investigate crimes against humanities during their military regimes, not one single strongmen has been punished for his crimes; Chilean Augusto Pinochet died of natural causes before he was indicted. So far, only civilian officials have faced justice. Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, for instance, is serving 25 years for human rights abuses and corruption.
If the judicial system proves reliable, it will help build faith in the institutions, potentially helping them curb other social problems such as the illicit drug trade and gang violence. Courts with teeth will bring other drug-related criminal cases to Guatemalan courts, which in the past have left cases unresolved because intimidated witnesses won’t testify. Most important, however, is the sense of closure the trial provides. Ríos Montt’s trial visibly demonstrates a new chapter for Guatemala where human rights of all citizens, including indigenous communities, are respected and guaranteed.
Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.
[Photo courtesy of Surizar]