Genocide and the Trial of the Century in Guatemala: Guatemala Genocide Conviction Overturned

Update 5/21/2013: Guatemala genocide conviction overturned.


When former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison this month, it was not expected to be the end of story.

Observers knew that an appeal was coming, but it was a separate action — a ruling by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court — that provided the latest twist in the case.

The Constitutional Court on Monday overturned Rios Montt’s conviction and sentence, and ordered the proceedings to return to the trial phase.

The ruling does not annul the entire trial, but everything that happened after April 19, notably the closing arguments and conviction.

Read more about the overturning of the conviction on CNN.

Genocide and the Trial of the Century in Guatemala: But Where Will It End?

This guest post was written by human rights activist and lawyer, Jennifer K. Harbury, whose husband was disappeared by the Guatemalan government in 1992. Her book, Searching for Everardo, revealed the CIA’s complicity in the fate of her husband and thousands of others. Jennifer was the Director of Human Rights at Global Exchange in the 1990s.

On May 10, 2013 Judge Jazmin Barrios declared former President and General Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide in Guatemala, and sentenced him to eighty years in prison. The case sets a historic precedent: this is the first time a President has been tried and sentenced for such war crimes by a domestic court in Latin America. Many hail this as a death knell for the blanket impunity long enjoyed by military leaders throughout the hemisphere for the war crimes they commanded during the “Dirty Wars”.

Even more was at stake in this trial, however, as evidenced by the extraordinary reaction of the audience as the sentencia was read aloud. People erupted into cheers and applause, weeping openly for their own long lost loved ones. Bells rang and cars honked throughout the streets. The Mayan survivors, dressed in their hand- woven traditional clothing, stood and cried out “Tantiq! Tantiq!”, or “Thank You, Thank You!” to the Judge in their ancestral language. As journalists swarmed the stunned General Rios Montt, the audience began to sing the words of Otto Renee Castillo, a young and gifted Guatemalan poet assassinated by army death squads long ago.

Justice is long overdue. Guatemala is much like the old South Africa, with a tiny and wealthy upper class composed of the Conquistador and other European descendents. The indigenous Mayans comprise eighty percent of the population but have long been stripped of their lands and treated as serfs in their own nation, suffering extreme poverty, malnutrition and racism. For nearly 500 years, every attempt at rebellion or dissent has been crushed by a brutal army created to protect the interests of the landowners. Reform efforts of President Arbenz came to an abrupt end in 1954, when the CIA backed a violent military coup. A blood bath ensued, and the army carried out a forty year “counter insurgency” campaign that earned them the title of worst human rights violator in the hemisphere, no small feat given the competition. When the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the U.N. Truth Commission found that army had systematically engaged in torture, murder and forced disappearances, and bore responsibility for 94% of the 200,000 deaths and 640 massacres that had occurred. The great majority of the victims were Mayan men women and children. Accordingly the Commission also held the army responsible for genocide.

General Rios Montt was the President in 1982, and had commanded some of most frightening campaigns against the Mayan civilian population, declaring entire regions to be insurgents or supporters. One of the worst-hit areas was the Ixil triangle in Quiche highlands. Pursuant to the military “Plan Sofia” the army marched village to village, burning small farms and torturing and killing every Mayan man woman or child encountered. As one soldier testified, it was a matter of “Indio visto, Indio muerto”. The mass cemeteries are still being unearthed.

The genocide trial was based on the 1982 massacres in the Ixil triangle. Despite the constant death threats , nearly 100 survivors, most of them Mayan women, travelled to the Capital and gave their horrific testimonies. One, after recounting her own long torture and rape, and the loss of her family and friends, said simply, “ This happened 31 years ago. For 31 years I have waited to tell the truth. Now I have spoken.”

The case began more than a decade ago but like all of the other war crimes cases, it had long been obstructed in Guatemala. As the trial date approached, the right wing forced a de facto amnesty through Congress. The bill was passed by President and General Otto Perez Molina, who also participated in the 1982 Ixil massacres. (Although the press declared him popularly elected a year ago, in fact nearly half of the Mayans cannot vote.) International uproar forced the cancellation of the bill. Next, as reported by Allan Nairn, a key official involved in the case was told that he had a choice. Accept one million dollars, to be placed in an offshore account, or, as the visitor explained as he placed a gun on the table, they knew where to find his children. Precisely the same offer had shut down an investigation of President Otto Perez Molina’s involvement in the Bamaca case earlier. For the first time, however, there was an extraordinary team consisting of the Attorney General Claudia Paz, a solid prosecutor under her command, a brilliant and idealistic young private attorney representing the Ixiles, and Judge Jazmin Barrios herself. No one gave in to the firestorm.

Reaction in the court room to the guilty verdict. Photo credit: AP

Reaction in the court room to the guilty verdict. Photo credit: AP

As the case advanced, the Defense attorneys openly threatened and insulted the Judge, filed endless bad faith appeals for delay purposes, and at one point simply walked out of the court room and refused to answer the Judge’s demands that they return at once. When a soldier testified that Otto Perez Molina was also involved in the Ixil atrocities, a judge in a different court ordered the entire case annulled, spinning it off schedule for weeks. In the end however, the trial reached its conclusion and the General received his verdict. Guilty.

The battle for justice is far from over however. President Otto Perez Molina has long declared that genocide never occurred in Guatemala and that the UN Truth Commission was simply mistaken. He is now urging everyone to remember that the ruling is not final, and that numerous issues remain on appeal. Unfortunately this is true. Traditionally, many human rights rulings have been overturned on appeal months later, once all the internationals have gone home and the public scrutiny has died down. Meanwhile a state of siege has been declared in a number of Indigenous regions and once again there is a massive military presence there. Judge Jazmin Barrio is under a wave of attacks and demands that she be put on trial herself for the abuse of power and corruption. CACIF, the coffee growers association, has publicly demanded that the trial be annulled.

The Ixil survivors have returned home in the highlands. They have spoken and thus honored their dead. But will they survive this time?