In Guatemala, Long-Awaited Step towards Accountability as Former Dictator Faces Genocide Charges
On January 14, 2012, Efraín Ríos Montt lost the immunity against prosecution that he had enjoyed as a member of the national legislature (diputado al Congreso) since 2008, and previously from 1994-95 and 1999-2004. [PrensaLibre] After taking office through a coup d’état, Rios Montt presided over what is considered the bloodiest period in Guatemala’s thirty-six year internal conflict. As the commander-in-chief and alleged intellectual author of a military campaign that largely targeted civilians, Ríos Montt’s prosecution has long been sought by human rights organizations in Guatemala and elsewhere. [NYT; CALDH] Ríos Montt has said he is innocent and that his role was to direct “a political strategy to bring about law and order in Guatemala.” His attorney is quoted as saying, “We are confident that responsibility cannot be shown, since he was never in the battlefield.”
Now, he has been called to appear before the Juzgado Primero de Mayor Riesgo (first court for high risk cases) on January 26, accused by the attorney general for human rights (Fiscalía de Derechos Humanos) of responsibility for more than a dozen killings committed by the armed forces. [EFE] The court had given the prosecution eight days to present its report on the investigation; prosecutors say their evidence is strong. [AFP] After the hearing on January 26, the court will decide whether to include Ríos Montt as a defendant in the ongoing case and whether he will be held in preventive detention. [AFP]
Other military leaders have already been charged in the same case. Prosecutions against Héctor Mario López Fuentes, Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores (both part of the high command during Montt’s rule) and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez (intelligence chief) are underway, and accused Luís Enrique Mendoza García, Pedro García Arredondo (police) and former Minister of Governance Donaldo Álvarez have absconded. [EFE; CALDH]
The trial of Rios Montt’s successor, retired General Oscar Humberto Mejia was indefinitely suspended earlier this month when the court determined he is, for now, mentally and physically unfit to stand trial. [Washington Post; AFP] Others, including soldiers and a paramilitary, have been prosecuted for their role in specific massacres, as well. [Amnesty International; Jurist]
General Efraín Ríos Montt was the de facto Guatemalan head of state from March 1982 to August 1983, at the peak of the lopsided armed conflict between, on the one hand, guerrillas, students and leftists and, on the other, the country’s armed forces, its civilian militias (patrullas de autodefensa civiles) and police. The country’s rural, indigenous population was caught in the middle and the target of the Ríos Montt government’s scorched earth campaign of massacres and forced disappearances, making up over 80% of the over 200,000 lives lost between 1960 and 1996. See Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification: Memory of Silence; Center for Justice and Accountability. The former dictator’s political party Frente Repúblicano Guatemalteco and Ríos Montt himself are also seen as behind election-related violence that erupted in July 2003, in events known as “black Thursday” and “Friday of mourning”.
The organizations Asociación por la Justicia y Reconciliación, together with the Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), FAMDEGUA, the Fundacion Rigoberta Menchu Tum, and California-based Center for Justice and Accountability have spearheaded efforts to bring the general to justice in Guatemala and Spain. These and other organizations, such as CEJIL, Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, and the group Comunidades Etnicas ‘Runujel Junam’, have pursued justice before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The Commission and Inter-American Court have considered many cases dating to the internal conflict, and have found the Guatemalan government responsible, inter alia, for massacres committed in the communities of Dos Erres and Plan de Sánchez, the extrajudicial execution of anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang, and disappearances.
More recently, advocates and indigenous communities have turned to the Inter-American system and to the United Nations for protection against mining and other projects that impact their health and livelihood, and regarding the rampant crime (and impunity) affecting citizen security, in addition to attacks against human rights defenders. [IACHR; IJRC]
Current President Otto Pérez Molina, who took office in 2012, was a general during the armed conflict and has also been accused of participation or complicity in abuses. [National Security Archive; DemocracyNow!]
Brief, but detailed English language accounts of the Guatemalan conflict and of the atrocities perpetrated under Ríos Montt, include this essay Don’t Let Ríos Montt Get Away the Pinochet Way by Timothy Lange (aka Meteor Blades) and the documentary Bringing Rios Montt to Justice.