By Jordan Katz
Sighs of relief filled the courtroom on May 10 at the trial against former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt in Guatemala City. They were not just celebrating retribution for past injustices but an era to come. Ríos Montt was the first person to be tried and convicted of genocide in the courts of the country where his crimes were perpetrated. His conviction signaled the beginning of the end of long-held, deep-seated impunity in Guatemala.
That optimism did not last long. The Constitutional Court annulled the genocide conviction on Monday, May 20th. The ruling is a sad affirmation of the long and winding road toward transparency and justice for Guatemala’s courts system. A historic opportunity for justice hangs in the balance, and the international community—the United States, in particular—has become an accomplice in Guatemala’s tragic legacy of abuse by ignoring and sometimes even encouraging it.
Ríos Montt has spent just one day at Matamoros Prison where he was to carry out his 80-year sentence since the May 10 conviction. The courts nullified the decision and all testimony heard after April 19th supposedly because Montt was left that day for a number of hours with a defense council whose authority in the courtroom was dubious. But Grahame Russel, co-director of Rights Action, an organization that aims to promote human rights in Guatemala, says the dubious legal justifications for retracting weeks of testimony and closing arguments are unfortunately routine. “The case itself is an exception to the rule of impunity,” Russel says. “This latest step by the Constitutional Court should not surprise anyone at all, whatsoever. There is no way they were going to take this lying down.”
For the relatives and descendants of the estimated 200,000 people killed and 45,000 people disappeared during Ríos Montt’s 17 months of power, these last days have been something of an anticlimax.
The case itself has been grueling, with witnesses being called to give testimony on the massacres that occurred mostly in the northern region of Guatemala between March 1982 and August 1983, during Rios Montt’s de facto presidency, which resulted from a coup d’état supported by the Reagan Administration as the United States fought proxy wars against leftist regimes throughout the Americas. Rios Montt’s tenure saw some of the worst atrocities of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. Victims, largely indigenous Ixil Mayan, were targeted as part of the government’s scorched earth campaign. The campaign was an attempt to quash any sympathy with rebel forces. Land was destroyed. Torture of unimaginable creativity was commonplace. Rape was used as a weapon of war, and murder was an afterthought.
One of the most infamous massacres took place in December of 1982 at Dos Erres, in the northern Petén department of Guatemala, when 58 members of the elite special forces of the Guatemalan army called Los Kaibiles carried out an attack against the local indigenous community. According to a report by the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Kaibiles “separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children's heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with hammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women.”
The conviction of Rios Montt for overseeing these incidents, defined as acts of genocide and crimes against humanity, was landmark. Russel puts it in perspective: “Everyone in Guatemala who works on these issues of human rights and justice knows fully well that most cases are never going to make it through the courts, by definition. You fight them anyway for a whole bunch of reasons, but you know that you are fighting a losing battle in the narrow legal sense. This case was the case that, for a bunch of political reasons, pushed its way through. There have been obstacles at every single step of the way.”
A 3-2 panel of judges decided to overturn the conviction and revert back, but the two dissenting voices capture the Guatemalan government’s propensity for obstruction and backwardness. One of the dissenters, Judge Mauricio Chacon, argued that the court’s reaction to the supposedly corrupted defense council was disproportionate, that nullifying the trial back to April 19—particularly as there had already been a conviction—was obstructionist. Focused in on this small legal matter, this opinion distills the problem that human rights groups have faced time and time again and what they will continue to face as the trial continues and throughout the inevitable trials of other officials (including, with just the right political circumstances, that of President Otto Perez Molina): that any obstacle available will be leveraged to deflect pressure away from the top.
The second dissenter, Judge Gloria Porras, condemned the majority for “leaving the victims’ constitutional right of access to justice unprotected.” She had argued that the courts had already remedied any problematic period of the trial and against overturning the initial acceptance of that remedy. The courts had already reviewed the problem and agreed upon a solution, but now that the solution has resulted in the conviction of Ríos Montt, they’ve decided to back track.
The only silver lining in this development seems to be that all of the prosecution’s witnesses had been called before April 19, so the victims’ relatives won’t have to relive the traumas that they endured first under Rios Montt, and again this spring.
With defense witnesses, closing arguments, and most importantly, conviction and sentencing back up for grabs, Guatemala revisits the question of who is allowed to prosecute whom. The international community played a positive role briefly: It applied pressure for a trial, but it has now largely moved on. That’s just how it’s gone in the past. Now, it’s dark enough for the Guatemalan elite to confuse and misdirect its opposition until the whole thing just goes away.
If the international community wants to ensure that justice is served, it must continue to apply pressure on the Guatemalan courts alongside human rights groups. It should be characterized by the media as the moment when state courts became subject to international standards for cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, not just as a Guatemalan case. World leaders should condemn the misuse of the law to obstruct justice and assure the victims and their relatives that the world is watching to see this conviction through.
Jordan Katz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo Courtesy of jakobmv]