The Ríos Montt trial was a historic milestone
Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide on May 10.
Days later, the Constitutionality Court threw out the conviction
and annulled everything that had been heard after a certain date.
Whatever happens to this trial legally from here on out,
it was a transcendental milestone in Guatemala’s history.
The Ixil people showed the world how they had suffered,
we were introduced to three brave and honest judges
and the country’s shameless, structural
racism was demonstrated yet again.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
On May 10, a lower court sentenced retired General José Efraín Ríos Montt to 50 years in prison for the deaths—categorized as genocide—of 1,771 Ixil indigenous people and another 30 years for crimes against humanity—which includes crimes such as torture and forced disappearance—during his period as Head of State (1982-83). These particular crimes have no statute of limitations in either national law or the international treaties of which Guatemala is a signatory. Retired General Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, Army Intelligence Chief at that time, was found not guilty on grounds of reasonable doubt.
Judge Jazmín Barrios, who presided over the court (First Court A of Greater Risk, which deals with penal suits, drug activity and crimes against the environment), was accompanied by Judges Pablo Xitumul and Patricia Escobar. All three are courageous and honest judges who have received various death threats at different times in their career. Barrios sat on the court that convicted two military officers from the Presidential Chiefs of Staff (a colonel and his son, a captain) and two civilians (including Father Mario Orantes, vicar of the San Sebastián parish) of complicity in the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1999.
The sentence’s main points The sentence against Ríos Montt was published in the digital editions of the national media and could also be heard live on Internet. The following are its main points: “The violent actions against the Ixils were not spontaneous; they were the concertation of prepared plans…. We consider that the accused, José Efraín Ríos Montt, knew what was happening and did not stop it…. It is illogical that Head of State José Efraín Ríos Montt would be unaware of what was taking place in the Quiché villages, as the witnesses indicated that planes were flying over the area…. We the judges consider the behavior of the accused, Ríos Montt, to fit as author of the crime of genocide, for which reason the corresponding sentence must be imposed…. We sentence him to 50 years, not commutable…. With respect to the crimes against humanity, we rule that Ríos Montt permitted inhuman treatment of the population…. We sentence him to 30 years in prison, not commutable.”
In total, then, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison, although the court made clear that, as he is now 86 years old, the sentence simply amounts to life imprisonment.
A historic milestone It is nothing short of amazing that this trial could have taken place in a country like Guatemala and ended with this sentence. It is a major milestone in the history of justice in Guatemala.
Sixteen years have passed since the suit against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez was first filed in the Guatemalan courts by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, made up of relatives of the victims. It was also filed with the courts of Spain three years later, in 1999. It was supported by the Guatemalan Human Rights Legal Action Center, at the time directed by distinguished lawyer Frank La Rue. During the armed conflict La Rue was on the International Commission of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and in 2004 was appointed by Guatemala’s then-President Óscar Berger to head up the Presidential Human Rights Commission. He is currently the special United Nations rapporteur for freedom of expression.
Is the conviction in effect? The paradigmatic conviction was promptly appealed in Guatemala’s Constitutionality Court, alleging that the constitutional rights of the accused had been violated by failures to comply with due process, even though the Appeals Court had already handed down a provisional decision on a separate appeal, assuring that the lower court had fulfilled its mandates to ensure those rights.
In a politically foregone decision on May 20, the Constitutionality Court ruled by a 3-2 majority that the Appeals Court must annul the 80-year prison sentence handed down ten days earlier. Constitutionality Court resolutions cannot be appealed and permit only the use of procedural remedies, for example requesting the expanding and/or clarification of aspects either unresolved or insufficiently clear. One such request for clarification was in fact resolved by a majority decision of the Constitutionality Court.
Does this mean that the first court’s sentence was annulled? In one expert opinion, it is invalidated because the Constitutionality Court ordered the Appeals Court to throw out everything presented in the trial after April 19, the date the first court did not respond to a challenge by Ríos Montt’s defense lawyers against two of the judges trying him, demanding their recusal. In another informed opinion, however, the May 10 sentence is still in effect because the Appeals Court has not yet definitively resolved a separate appeal presented by Ríos Montt’s lawyer alleging partiality by the judges.
The defense argumentsThe difficulty a layperson encounters in trying to understand the Constitutionality Court’s judicial language suggests very clearly, if you’ll pardon the paradox, that the sentence of annulation was not issued honestly, in conformity with the law.
A number of lawyers have commented to me that Francisco García Gudiel, the trusted lawyer Ríos Montt chose to head up his defense team, should have recused himself on the same grounds he used to try to recuse the two judges. In his challenge Garcia Gudiel alleged that he had friendly relations with one of those judges and hostile relations with the other. If true, his profession’s ethical code should have preventing him from agreeing to defend Ríos Montt. A number of lawyers, including the two dissenting Constitutional Court justices, argue that Ríos Montt’s defense lawyer knew who the trial judges would be ahead of time, but waited with his challenge until the trial was already well underway with the aim of “obstructing” it.
As was to be expected, none of the defense lawyers’ behavior in this trial has been honest. They never tried to deny
their client’s responsibility in the horrendous crimes he was accused of. They grasped that doing so would have been tantamount to presenting the then-Head of State as a mere puppet during the period of the events, totally outside the line of command of the political-military strategy followed by the Army and Security Corps chiefs.
The only thing the defense lawyers did was try to interrupt the process repeatedly, including walking out in contempt of court and trying to argue that the accused was protected by an amnesty law promulgated in 1985 by General Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, also Head of State due to a coup. They ignored the fact that International Criminal Law qualifies genocide and crimes against humanity imprescriptible. thus not covered by amnesties, a concept ratified in Guatemala’s 1996 Reconciliation Law.
Ríos Montt failed to follow his own lawyers’ strategy. The final day of the oral debate, once the prosecuting attorneys exhausted their questioning of him, he declared his innocence of the crimes he was accused of and claimed field officers were responsible for them, thus effectively declaring himself a “straw man” Head of State. It was an incredible declaration from someone who instituted courts with faceless judges; refused a request by Pope John Paul II to pardon those convicted in such courts, instead ordering that they all be executed before the papal visit to Guatemala; then sent his representative Harris Whitbeck to the indigenous villages to present the coercive “Guns and Beans” strategy, and tthe “Roof, Tortilla and Work” one.
The victims are left unprotectedThe Constitutionality Court’s decision to order much of the trial annulled, including its conclusion, has been denounced by the two justices who voted against it: Gloria Porras Escobar and Mauro Chacón Corado.
Justice Porras Escobar insists that the lower court’s conviction of Ríos Montt is congruent with Article 2 of the Constitution, which guarantees Guatemala’s citizens justice and security. She concludes that the Constitutional Court’s ruling annulling that sentence has “a devastating effect on the ordinary system of justice, but even more so on the victims who have trusted in that system, provoking the possibility of annulling, for no reason whatever, actions resulting from a legal process after having repaired injustices as intended in the suit.”
How to obstruct the trial Justice Chacón Corado called the filing of an appeal with the Constitutionality Court “just one more” of the numerous appeals issued against a sentence already handed down. Without explicitly calling it “malicious litigation,” he explained that this term is used for attempts to obstruct the course of a trial with often unjustified procedural complaints. Over the course of the trial the defense filed more than 150 procedural complaints and appeals, ignoring the real essence of the case: justice for the victims.
The most dramatic example of this form of obstruction was the moment in which all of Ríos Montt’s defense lawyers walked out of the courtroom when the judges refused to hear their recusal challenge. In so doing, they ignored the court president’s prohibition of that contemptuous maneuver and left the accused without defense. Their aim was simply to prevent the trial from moving on before the Constitutionality Court ruled on one of the many other complaints they had presented to declare a mistrial.
Justices Chacón and Porras argue that the appeal should have been filed with an appellate court and not the Constitutionality Court. Moreover, García Gudiel didn’t base his demand on any lack of impartiality but on personal relations, yet more proof that it was all about “malicious litigation.”
There was indeed On May 27, a week after ordering Ríos Montt’s conviction annulled, the Court issued an explanatory decision in which it rejected the Public Ministry’s request to present its arguments regarding the annulment sentence in public session. It basically rejected the request because the lower court judges refused to consider García Gudiel’s recusal request, thus demonstrating their partiality.
The Constitutional Court also refused to consider the argument that this trial had international repercussions, claiming to know nothing about “any State or Association of States having alleged being harmed” by its ruling. That wasn’t quite true: three days earlier the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concern about annulling Ríos Montt’s conviction due to the effect it could have on the victims. One of the most insistent claims by Guatemala’s extreme Right has been precisely that it would accept no “foreign meddling” in the trial.
Justices Porras Escobar and Chacón Corado also dissented from this explanatory decision by the Court. Chacón reminded it that the Judicial Organism Law establishes that on penal issues, “recusal must be resolved before [oral] debate is initiated,” not in the middle of it.
Shockwaves in the courtroomWhat happened behind the scenes to make the Constitutionality Court act as it did on May 20, with such a politically biased decision?
On April 5, the video-conference testimony of a 47-year-old protected witness named Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes had caused shockwaves in the trial process. As El Periódico described it that day: “Hugo hid his face with a cap, but his voice was clear and resonated throughout the courtroom…. The protected witness declared that the soldiers who conducted the massacres in the detachment of Nebaj, Quiché, received their orders from Commander Tito Aria, nom de guerre of Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemala’s current President. The witness, identified by the prosecuting attorney as Hugo, worked as a mechanic for the Nebaj, Quiché, military detachment’s corps of engineers, where he witnessed the Army’s extrajudicial executions during the period between July 1982 and March 1983, when Commander “Tito,” then 32 years old, was head of that military detachment. According to Hugo’s testimony, ‘they, the military officers, the soldiers, on orders of Major Tito Arias, known to be Otto Pérez Molina, General Quilo Ayuso and commanders of the Company of Engineers, coordinated the burning and pillaging of the people, to then execute them.’”
Otto Pérez Molina’s memoirs On Tuesday April 17, 2001, while still an Army general, Otto Pérez Molina published a column in the editorial section of Prensa Libre titled “Memoirs: Quiché, 1982,” which can be read today in the National Periodicals Library.
He wrote that on July 2, 1982, he was assigned to the Gumarcaj Task Force in Quiché, that his final destination was Nebaj, one of the three municipalities of the Ixil zone, and that his work was “to command the troops assigned to that area of operations.” He says he “remained there for over a year. It was only part of the cruel and sad reality we Guatemalans went through during the years of armed internal conflict.” He admits that “the guerrilla forces were very strong… and were still convinced that the ‘prolonged popular war’ was the way to take power and to that end it was necessary to destroy the Army, as it was the obstacle that stood in the way of its goals. It also considered the involvement of the civilian population as a basic task.” Today, however, Pérez Molina denies that his nom de guerre was Tito Aria, and while he admits he was in Nebaj in 1982, he insists his job was to “rescue” people and that there were no killings while he was in charge.
Is Ríos Montt just a scapegoat? It’s likely that the upper echelons of the current government; the military veterans themselves, who were never fond of Ríos Montt; and the oligarchy, whose huge fortunes suffered under the government of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) between 2000 and 2004, when Ríos Montt was both party leader and president of Guatemala’s Congress, would have accepted the aged general’s conviction as an “opportunity cost.”
Most of those veterans, today members of the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala (AVEMILGUA), were low-ranking military officers just out of the academy when the Army fraudulently prevented Ríos Montt, at that time still a Catholic, from taking office as President of the country in 1974, even though he won the elections. Then as superior officers, they dealt him another blow in 1983. After installing him via a coup in 1982, they ousted him by the same method a little over a year later because many of them were disgusted by his use of his role as Head of State as a pulpit for moralizing bible-thumping as a member of the Pentecostal Church of the Word. Ríos Montt “preached” at prime time hours on television every Sunday night.
In sum, Ríos Montt could well be the definitive scapegoat, tried and convicted, after which everything goes back to business as usual. Naturally, while this hypothetical scenario is possible, it is not necessarily the real one. Only history will eventually unveil what happened backstage…
The watershed of the process On April 5, when the name of the country’s current President came up in the trial, it changed the foreseen course of the scenario and all alarms went off. That’s the moment that could be described as the watershed of the process. Sociologist Gustavo Porras Castejón, former combatant with the URNG’s Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), then in 1996 President Álvaro Arzú’s private secretary and co-negotiator of the Peace Accords, and now a witness for the defense in the Ríos Montt trial, was the first to sign a manifesto titled “Betray the Peace and Divide Guatemala” on April 16. He was joined by other brilliant and well known officials of that same government: Eduardo Stein, its foreign minister; Raquel Zelaya, head of its Peace Commission; Rodolfo Mendoza, its government minister; Richard Aitkenhead, its finance minister, and so on for a total of 12, some of them also co-negotiators and signatories of the Peace Accords and all of them politicians at some point. The group modestly called itself “the 12 Apostles.”
The manifesto, which was published in the media, warns that “the accusation of genocide against officers of the Army of Guatemala constitutes an accusation not just against the Army officers, but against the Guatemalan State as a whole, which if realized implies serious dangers for our country, including a worsening of the social and political polarization that will reverse the peace achieved so far.”
They are extremely serious statements. Nonetheless, the genocide accusation is not new. The Report of the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), titled “Guatemala Memoria del Silencio Tz’inil Na ’Tab’al,” already defined the peoples and territories involved in what it defines as genocide that took place between 1981 and 1983. They were the Maya-Q’anjob’al and Maya-Chuj in Barillas, Nentón and San Mateo Ixtatán in northern Huehuetenango; the Maya-Ixil in Nebaj, Cotzal and Chajul, in Quiché; the Maya-K’iche’ in Joyabaj, Zacualpa and Chiché, also in Quiché; and the Maya-Achí in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz.
The CEH report states that: “Inspired by the National Security Doctrine, the Army defined a concept of internal enemy that went beyond the combatants and militant members or even sympathizers of the guerrilla forces, to include the civilians of certain ethnic groups. Considering all of the criminal acts and human rights violations corresponding to the regions and periods noted, analyzed for the purpose of determining whether they constituted the crime of genocide, the CEH concludes that the repetition of destructive acts systematically directed against groups of the Maya population, including the elimination of leaders and criminal acts against minors who could not constitute a military objective, reveals that the only factor common to all victims was that they belonged to a given ethnic group and that the acts were committed ‘with the intention of partially or totally destroying’ said groups (Article II, first paragraph of the Convention for the Prevention and Sanction of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948, and ratified by the State of Guatemala in Decree 704 on November 30, 1949).” The CEH adds that “the most notable case is that of the Ixil region, where between 70% and 90% of the villages were razed.”
Thus the fears expressed in the manifesto by the “12 Apostles” were already triggered in 1999 with the publication of the CEH report, which reached this conclusion: “The majority of the human rights violations were produced with the knowledge of or on the order of the highest state authorities …. The responsibilities for a large part of these violations reach the highest ranks of the Army and of the successive governments in the military line of command and of political and military responsibility.”
“I couldn’t understand At the end of the conflict the URNG and the State accepted “the establishment of a commission for the historical clarification of the human right violations and acts of violence that have caused suffering to the Guatemalan population” and entrusted that task to the peace negotiations moderator appointed by the UN Secretary General and two others. It makes no sense for them to have done that only to later refuse to recognize in practice the scope of the report that commission prepared.
why it acted that way”
In his book Las huellas de Guatemala (Guatemala’s footprints), published in 2008, Gustavo Porras himself states that in late 1981, in the middle of the massive indigenous insurrection in the central region of Guatemala’s highlands, when the Augusto César Sandino Guerrilla Front (FGACS) in which he was fighting was totally defeated in his judgment, “the Army basically had control of the situation; it had already achieved its basic objectives, in that it had taken the water away from the fish. Nonetheless, it went on killing and killing, scorching the earth in an increasingly disproportionate manner, and at that moment I couldn’t understand its reason for acting that way. One day in December we went to the capital. The general concern in the EGP… was to see what could be done to stop the Army from continuing to crush the population.”
An “inopportune” document The prestigious Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres Rivas responded to the 12 Apostles’ communiqué with a text picked up by the digital daily Plaza Pública titled “Confuse, divide, betray.” We translate it here in its entirety given its importance: “The first problem of the document by the twelve is its inopportuneness. They don’t realize that the criminal trial of two high-ranking military chiefs accused of genocide is the most important thing at this moment in Guatemala’s history. That fact is extremely serious given the nature of the crime: genocide is the magna expression of planned death; it is human evil led by the hand of reason. The act of genocide is an emotional outpouring of hatred; it is a tradition of contempt and antipathy that justifies the destruction of the other. No high-ranking military officer had ever been judged in the sphere of criminal responsibilities in Guatemala. Dozens of soldiers have been sentenced as if the massacres had been planned and authorized by them alone. The document of the former Arzú officials does not see reality clearly, or perhaps because there are 12, they have a Judas among them who drafted a brief text full of errors and misconceptions.”
Unfortunately, Torres Rivas’ own document contains an inaccurate statement: that “no high-ranking military officer has ever been judged.” In fact, in 1994 Sergeant Noel de Jesús Beteta of the Presidential Chiefs of Staff (EMP) was sentenced to 25 years for the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and nine years later Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, the EMP’s intelligence chief, still a fugitive from justice, was sentenced on appeal by the Supreme Court to 30 years as the intellectual author of that same murder. Military officers were also convicted in the murder of Bishop Gerardi, as were some of those responsible for the Rabinal massacre in Baja Verapaz and the Dos Erres massacre in the Petén. More serious is the inaccuracy in stating that only genocide was exempted from “extinction of criminal responsibility” in the Reconciliation Law, because crimes against humanity—torture, forced disappearance, etc.—were as well.
“The path is not one of silence” Torres Rivas goes on to say that “The Peace Accords were not a pact between military officers and guerrillas, but between the latter and the State. The signing of the Agreement of Firm and Lasting Peace did not seek to reconcile military officers with guerrillas, but to accommodate all Guatemalans. Why does the document “Betray the Peace” forget such an important need? The Agreement’s purpose was to proclaim the end to the conflict and to staunch rather than open wounds in the environment of peace. Some days earlier, in a reproachable accommodation, both military officers and guerrillas agreed to propose an extremely wide-ranging amnesty to Congress to avoid being judged for their multiple criminal acts. Only genocide and crimes against humanity remained outside. So they did reconcile. Confusing amnesty with reconciliation is either ignorance or malice.
“The civic conscience of the average citizen has been affected in these days, in trying to comprehend why two generals are being judged and testimonies against them by humble people are being listened to. This is the start of a process that must put an end to the hatred and rancor that divides us. This takes time as the guilt is punished. Thousands of women and children were subjected to enormous ferocity. The officers committed or authorized unbearable excesses in the exercise of their functions. The path to reconciliation is not silence, but rather learning the truth to be able to pardon or forget. Everyone knows this, or if not everyone, at least educated and well informed people like the dozen citizens who signed the document with the glib name ‘Betray the peace and divide Guatemala.’
“We remind them that on Sunday, April 14, the Foundation against Terrorism [the veterans] distributed a 20-page document full of lies in both paragraphs and photos. There has been no reaction by the Right to something so full of hate, so threatening in recent times as this text against peace and reconciliation. It was also ignored by the dozen citizens who signed ‘Betray the Peace and Civide Guatemala.’ It is not clear who they are accusing in such a contrived title. The Left is being threatened by the veterans, political violence is coming through there and the 12 figures—of the political center?—don’t even notice.
“The debate has been intense but misdirected. Was there genocide in Guatemala? No there wasn’t, says the Right, without offering any proof so far. How do the war veterans explain the 280 cadavers dug up so far in the old military bases? We state that if genocide cannot be proved, the testimony of thousands of murdered, tortured, and disappeared will remain. The leftist forces say that there was, sometimes confusing this with the cruelty of the military against civilians.
“Ferocity doesn’t qualify as genocide, but the rationality of the hate or rancor against racial, religious or ethnic human groups does. In that regard, there were acts of genocide in the areas of Ixcán and Ixil. Why don’t those 12 former officials take a position with respect to those deeds? Do they believe the debate about genocide is what betrays the peace and divides Guatemala? If they do, as it appears, the 12 Apostles will soon be in the ranks of the Right, holding the veterans’ bloodied hands.”
Was there genocide or not? Days after Torres Rivas’s text appeared, the 12 former officials of the Arzú government issued yet another communiqué. During a TV interview, Eduardo Stein stressed what he called the essence of the new text, which appeared at the end of the first communiqué and was now moved to the top of the second. It firmly states the need to prosecute and condemn the crimes against humanity committed by Army and Security Forces during Guatemala’s armed conflict, mainly against the indigenous populations, but maintains that there was no genocide in the country, understanding it as a criminal intent to exterminate one or more ethnic groups as a whole.
Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla, an anthropologist who accompanied the indigenous peoples targeted during the early eighties, has explained to various audiences (including in the May 2013 issue of envío) the definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations. In addition to involving the intention to exterminate an entire group, the UN definition also covers various other crimes, some of which apply in Guatemala’s case.
Trying the razing of numerous Ixil villages as genocide brings to mind a similar case during World War II. Based on intelligence falsely linking the Czech town of Lidice to the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, by a British-trained team of Czech and Slovak soldiers, the Nazis flattened the town, executed all its adult males and deported almost all its women and children to Nazi concentration camps, where they were exterminated. The Nuremburg Trials considered that act genocide even though the intention was not to exterminate the entire Czech people.
The racism was clearly revealed…The trial against Ríos Montt is currently suspended. The three judges who sentenced him are recused from the case should it be reopened. They would no longer be impartial as their unanimous verdict is now known. If, on the other hand, the Appeals Court finds in favor of Rios Montt’s appeal for legal protection, a decision that Justices Porras and Chacon believe would profoundly violate the law, a different court altogether will continue to hear the case. Whatever the outcome of these tactics, they will take us into 2014.
The Constitutionality Court’s ruling to annul has various implications. In the first place, it demonstrates the enormous importance of this trial. For that reason, appeals for protection will very probably continue to be introduced to defer Ríos Montt’s conviction or to annul it should he be convicted again. Furthermore, Hugo’s declarations now open the possibility of prosecuting Guatemala’s current President as well, once he is out of office and therefore not shielded by immunity.
Above all, the annulment ruling reveals the racism deeply imbedded in the culture of Guatemala’s wealthy and powerful, including veteran army officers and also of part of the middle class. In practice that racism is undeniable, although it is routinely denied verbally by those accused of it. Accusing Rios Montt of genocide implicates many other individuals and groups whose express or diffuse racism made his crimes, including genocide, possible. The gravity of this reality makes it necessary to deny it in today’s Guatemala. It is unacceptable in a world that increasingly rejects racism as one of the worst stains on a society’s prestige.
…as were the double standards Nonetheless, that racism is implicitly but unequivocally expressed in the AVEMILGUA members’ reaction. They never admitt responsibility for the horrendous crimes committed and state that by convicting General Ríos Montt they are convicting all those who fought to defend the country from communism and what Reagan termed the “Evil Empire.”
And in that war all’s fair. They consider it fair to reject “foreign meddling” even though they received support from the Taiwanese and Argentine militaries and from the State of Israel—clandestinely of course—to compensate for the withdrawal of financial support by the US Congress. It’s also fair in their view to slander as “despicable” citizens who were always on the victims’ side due to their convictions regarding respect for human rights and the need for a Guatemala with justice. For these military people, “despicable” is an appropriate label for anyone who wants to see genocide and crimes against humanity convicted in court, but not those who perpetrated those crimes and forced part of the population to join the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PACs) and accompany the Army in its scorched earth tasks. Truly a double moral standard.
It is still more serious, although not surprising, to see the representatives of big private enterprise grouped in the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) adopt the same attitude and call on the Constitutionality Court to annul the trial. “Guatemala Memoria de Silencio” concluded that “linked to the armed confrontation, individual citizens also committed acts of violence in defense of their own interests, instigating these actions or participating directly in them. Commonly the authors were economically powerful people in the national or local sphere.
“Large agricultural landowners participated in numerous cases of human rights violations committed in rural zones. Some of these violations were jointly perpetrated with state agents to resolve conflicts with peasants through the use of violence. On other occasions, although state agents or hit men were responsible for the direct execution, the motive was to protect those landowners. In the urban sphere, union members and labor advisers were affected by a variety of human rights violations physically implemented by agents of the State or people acting under their protection or with their tolerance or acquiescence. These violations grew out of the close collaboration between the security forces and powerful business people and were committed to protect their business interests in concordance with openly anti-union government policies.”
The world learned Whatever happens juridically, the trial against Ríos Montt already accomplished the most important and valuable thing: the world has learned from direct testimonies about the immense suffering inflicted on the victims of that racism during the armed conflict. This included forced disappearances, entire villages burned to the ground with their inhabitants locked in their houses or in communal buildings, the bellies of pregnant women opened to extract their fetuses, children anywhere from months to a couple of years old dashed against walls or trees to kill “the seed” of the Ixil people and other indigenous peoples, thus saving future ammunition… and other horrors equally unacceptable in human beings.
The world has also learned about a Guatemalan prosecutor attorney general named Claudia Paz y Paz who has promoted the process; several honest attorneys who took on the accusation; and three judges who ignored threats and public insults, remaining firm until the end and handing down a transcendental verdict.
For all these reasons, it now doesn’t matter so much if it is all annulled, obstructed and ultimately not ratified by the appeals courts or in the end by the Supreme Court’s Annulment Bench, or whether it is blocked again and again with fallacious arguments by the Constitutionality Court.
What made this possible? The origin of the path that made the trial and conviction of Ríos Montt possible lies in the 1996 Peace Accords, in which a reconciliation agreement was reached that granted immunity for ordinary crimes connected with the conflict and for some political crimes, but excluded genocide and other crimes against humanity. That agreement became the Law of National Reconciliation (Decree 145/1996), which was not conceived as a law to end the armed conflict but to judicially try those responsible. It is still in effect and in fact, all the Peace Accords have been law since 2005, during the government of Óscar Berger. That institutionality has served as the starting point for this to become possible.
Whatever fails to proceed in conformity with true justice from here on out, or falls victim to threats, bribes, an inability to acknowledge racism or other causes is not nearly as historically important as what has already been achieved: the victims have been able to express themselves publicly and judicially and one of the people with maximum responsibility for those crimes has been accused and convicted, even if only in the lower court so far.
Given its transcendence, this trial and this conviction should herald the dawn of a rejuvenated country, one that is multicultural, plurilingual, multiethnic and anti-racist, one that complies with the Peace Accords, renounces violence, fills the abysses of inequality and points to a future in which there is quality education and decently paid work for all, helping the majority shake off the plague of hunger and begin to be able to create sources of wealth. Guatemala’s rich can and must do a lot more to make such a country a reality.
But will they? As long as they continue treating the country like their private property and most of its inhabitants as
if they were their old colonial hacienda hands, or people must emigrate in search of a better future, life won’t flourish in our soil and our people won’t harvest the fruits of peace. And that is what would truly betray the peace and continue dividing Guatemala.
Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is envío’s correspondent in Guatemala.