The General on trial

The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala has published a reflection piece I wrote following the recent hearing in which Efraín Ríos Montt was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity:

The General on trial

A cold evening fog had fallen over the Plaza of Human Rights outside Guatemala City’s Court Tower, where two hundred survivors of massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan Army waited, exhausted and anxious, for Judge Patricia Flores to deliver the court’s verdict—would former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt be charged with genocide? As Judge Flores called the courtroom to session in the tower above, techie activists in the plaza struggled to provide a clear audio and video feed for the crowd below. Though the nuances of her verdict were lost in echo and feedback, the fragments of words and phrases we did hear raised waves of hope; incomprehensible, almost unbelieving hope.

First, Judge Flores methodically affirmed key principles of humanitarian law drawn from the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Genocide Convention, asserting Guatemala’s constitutional obligation to abide by international law. Then, a series of firm, direct accusations, punctuated by the repeated emphasis of the formal direct address, “Usted”: “You, Señor Efraín Ríos Montt, had knowledge of military plans which had the objective of exterminating the civilian population.” “You, Señor Efraín Ríos Montt, were the Commander in Chief of the military and had knowledge of the execution of these plans.”

Efraín Ríos Montt in court on charges of genocide. Judge Carol Patricia Flores is reflected in the glass behind Ríos Montt. (Photo: Roderico Yool Diaz)

Efraín Ríos Montt in court on charges of genocide. Judge Carol Patricia Flores is reflected in the glass behind Ríos Montt. (Photo: Roderico Yool Diaz)

The Judge described testimony of rape, forced labor, torture, and assassinations. “We can establish,” she said, “that these are acts so degrading, so humiliating, that there is no justification.” “You, Señor Efraín Ríos Montt, could have prevented these crimes.” And, finally, Judge Flores stated that in the Maya-Ixil region of central Guatemala, during the years 1982 to 1983, the State had systematically ordered genocide. “We agree with the prosecutor’s judgment that you, Señor Efraín Ríos Montt, probably participated in these acts of genocide and crimes against humanity.” With that, history was made: Efraín Ríos Montt will be tried for the Guatemalan genocide.

The expectant silence of the plaza below erupted in applause and shouts of “¡Asesino! ¡A la carcel!”, tension erased from faces that now shone with exuberant smiles, hugs and handshakes exchanged as a bandolier of firecrackers exploded, scattering the pine needles and carnations of a large ceremonial carpet that spelled out “Impunity: Neither yesterday nor today.” I watched as members of the survivors’ group Association for Justice and Reconciliation reacted to the culmination of their decades long campaign for justice. Don Emilio, a former president of the Association, gripped the hand of current president Don Benjamin, saying, “Tomorrow we will celebrate this historic event. Our struggle has become reality. It has all been worth it.”

The Guatemalan genocide trials begin

The charges against Rios Montt are but the most recent in a series of important advances for what have long been referred to as the “genocide cases”, a term which refers to the legal processes initiated in 1999, 2000, and 2001 against the military high commands of the Lucas Garcia (1978-1982) and Rios Montt (1982-1983) regimes. The Rigoberta Menchu Foundation first brought complaints to the Spanish courts, which began investigations acting under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity and genocide. Soon after, similar complaints were presented to the Guatemalan justice system by the survivors’ organization Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and legal advocates with the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH). While the national cases remained stalled for years due to legal obstacles imposed mostly by Rios Montt’s defense lawyers, the Spanish courts collected witness and expert testimony, leading to the first public testimony by genocide survivors to a court in Guatemala in 2009, and the publication of classified military plans submitted as evidence in Spain. The Spanish case also led to international arrest warrants for Rios Montt and other accused military officials.

In late 2010 lawyers with the AJR and CALDH finally defeated the last of Rios Montt’s legal obstructions, and with the naming of human rights jurist Claudia Paz as Attorney General in December of 2010, it can be said that the Guatemalan genocide trials truly began. In June Rios Montt’s Army Chief of Staff, Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, was arrested in Guatemala and charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. Next, an important precedent was set in August in a separate case for crimes of the past, when four members of the Guatemalan military were given maximum sentences for their participation in the 1982 massacre of the community of Las Dos Erres. In October three more high-ranking officials of the Rios Montt regime were sought on genocide charges, with the arrests of Military Intelligence Director Rodriguez Sanchez and Defense Minister Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores (later head of state following a coup against Montt). Another military official charged for the same crimes remains a fugitive from justice.

Surely feeling the net tighten around him, Rios Montt declared in mid-December that he would voluntarily present himself to the courts at any time following January 14, 2012, when he stepped down from his long-held position in the Guatemalan Congress and officially lost his political immunity. It seems likely that he hoped to use a cooperative strategy to control the rhythm of legal proceedings against him, and to hopefully garner sympathy that would not be won by an arrest. At the same time, his military compatriots facing charges have used various legal strategies to impede the advance of trials against them. Most notably, in late December Mejia Victores was declared unfit to stand trial due to the effects of a stroke, which has reportedly left him unable to speak (both state-appointed and independent medical experts agreed on his condition). Lopez Fuentes’ lawyers have also argued that he is medically unfit to stand trial, though the courts have thus far found him competent. (See NISGUA’s blog for more analysis.)

The case against Efrain Rios Montt

So, on January 14th the courts gave Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s office 8 working days to prepare the case against Rios Montt. The sophisticated, extensive case presented by State Prosecutor Manuel Vasquez on January 26th, however, shows the signs of years of careful development and collaboration between the Public Prosecutor and the plaintiffs, the AJR and CALDH. Vasquez enumerated and described more than 70 cases of specific massacres, rapes, and instances of torture, all of which occurred in the Ixil-Maya territory of central Guatemala during Rios Montt’s short but bloody rule, which AJR lawyer Edgar Perez characterized as the “darkest period” in Guatemala’s history.

Rios Montt was accused of responsibility for more than 1000 deaths, with some 250 victims individually identified by forensic anthropological studies. The prosecutor went on to describe the contents of the military plans Operation Ixil, Plan Sofia, Victoria ’82, and Firmeza ’83, which outline both the detailed information communicated between field units and commanders during operations, as well as a counterinsurgency strategy that specifically identified the indigenous Maya-Ixil civilian population as an “internal enemy” completely allied with the leftist guerrilla forces whose “annihilation” was the military’s ultimate goal. The prosecutor used video of contemporary statements by General Rios Montt claiming his total control over the military’s operations, and further described post-massacre strategies of “population control” such as the use of concentration camps, forced labor, para-militarization, re-education, prohibition of indigenous languages, and the persecution of internally displaced populations, all factors integral to the project of genocide.

Defending the indefensible

While Rios Montt himself declined to offer any statement–a friend who was in court said that he spent most of the day with a smile on his face, until Judge Flores began delivering her verdict–his defense team presented an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to divert responsibility for the abuses carried out under his regime. Instead of denying that massacres and human rights violations occurred, Rios Montt’s defense argued that the systematic implementation of a policy of massacres had begun before he assumed power, even citing as evidence the Catholic Church’s Recovery of Historical Memory Report (the publication of which resulted in the assassination, by Guatemalan military intelligence officials, of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998, as described in Francisco Goldman’s book The Art of Political Murder).

Though Judge Flores repeatedly admonished Rios Montt’s lawyers to restrict their arguments to the time contemplated by the accusation (Montt’s regime lasted from March 1982 through August 1983), the defense claimed that the policy of massacres was implemented by a “parallel structure” implemented within the military by General Gramajo, Army Chief of Staff under the Lucas Garcia regime, which was deposed by the coup which led to the installment of Rios Montt (both Garcia and Gramajo are deceased). They challenged the prosecution to establish clear intent to commit genocide, instead of basing its case on witness testimony. Rios Montt’s regime, they argued, inherited a destabilized and violent country, and used military measures to restore stability.

I’ve already described the results of the hearing above, with an important exception. Judge Flores permitted Rios Montt to be sentenced to house arrest upon paying a bail of half a million quetzales, despite the express prohibition in Guatemalan law on such allowances for those accused of crimes against humanity or genocide. Although this was not enough to dampen the joy of the genocide survivors and their allies who celebrated the court’s ruling in the Plaza of Human Rights, it has raised criticism and doubts among human rights advocates, though the prosecution has decided not to appeal this decision in order not to further prolong what is sure to be a drawn out trial. On its face, the decision to allow Rios Montt to serve house arrest reinforces the principle that privileges can be won in the courts by those with economic and political power. While it may be true that Rios Montt is unlikely to flee justice (given that pesky INTERPOL warrant), the fact that he will be serving time in the comfort of home, rather than even a VIP jail cell, makes it much more likely that his defense will use dilatory and obstructive legal proceedings to stall his trial.

Genocide: A “challenge” for President Perez Molina

The trial of Rios Montt has been described in the international press as a “challenge” for the administration of retired General Otto Perez Molina’s Patriot Party, which won in national elections last November and official assumed power on January 14th. On a surface level this is true, as the advance of cases for crimes of the past will allow Perez Molina to attest to his government’s stated commitment to human rights. This desire to show support for mainstream conceptions of human rights is probably also at play in the new government’s push for ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which was approved on the same day as Rios Montt’s hearing. The genocide cases could also present a more fundamental challenge for President Perez Molina, however, which may be reflected in the defense strategy that Montt’s lawyers advanced on January 26th. Activists following the cases have already speculated that the defense’s arguments attempted to highlight Perez Molina’s own vulnerability to accusations of complicity with genocide.

The argument that local commanders were responsible for the actions of their troops under a decentralized chain of command would implicate President Perez Molina, who during Rios Montt’s regime served as a Major in the Ixil region, known by the nom de guerre “Tito Arias”. That the defense named General Gramajo as responsible for implementing the politics of scorched earth would also implicate Otto Perez Molina, who as a young officer was closely identified with a tendency within the army that was led by Gramajo. Finally, the prosecution’s argument that population control policies, as well as outright massacres, are integral to the project of genocide, implicates Perez Molina further still, as his own explanations of his time in the Ixil emphasize his role in “recuperating” the internally displaced population and pacifying the region. Even though evidence linking Perez Molina to the wave of scorched earth massacres in the Ixil region in early 1982 has not been presented in a court of law, neither is it contested that he oversaw key aspects of military policy in the area from at least July 1982 to March 1983. (See a translation of a Guatemalan news article published days before Perez Molina’s election.)

President Perez Molina reaffirmed the day after Rios Montt was charged that he believes that no genocide occurred in Guatemala during the internal armed conflict. While there is little likelihood that formal charges of genocide will be leveled at Perez Molina during his term as President, Rios Montt–who has never been a political ally of Perez Molina’s–may be sending the message that the current president could be next. The unspoken message could act as a form of pressure on the Perez Molina government to protect Rios Montt, a pressure that would be keenly felt due to Perez Molina’s Patriot Party’s virtual takeover during the 2011 elections of the national political structures previously controlled by Rios Montt’s FRG political party.

Why try crimes of the past?

Given the contemporary social problems that Guatemala faces, why is it so important to try an 84-year-old strongman in the late twilight of his power? This is a question that has gotten quite a bit of play in the Guatemalan press, particularly from opinion-makers friendly to authoritarian approaches to justice. First, one might note that pursuing justice for crimes of the past or present injustices are hardly dichotomous alternatives. Human rights cases for crimes of the past, while high profile, are but a small percentage of cases being pursued by the Guatemalan justice system. Moreover, it can be hoped that the complexity of research and legal logistics required to carry out cases for genocide against former military officials will lead to a general strengthening of practice within the justice system.

The cases also serve to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law, which offers principles that restrict the power of sovereign states to justify abuses of human rights in times of war. The claim that prosecution of crimes of the past will prevent their repetition in the future is more than a rhetorical flourish; academic studies have identified a quantifiable effect leading to greater accountability in countries that have prosecuted crimes against human rights (see an interview with Kathryn Sikkink, author of The Justice Cascade). This becomes more clear when considering the argument advanced by scholars, as well as lawyer Edgar Perez during the Rios Montt hearing, that contemporary abuses such as lynchings and extrajudicial killings like those which occurred in the Ixil region town of Cotzal in 2009 are a result of patterns of violence and impunity established during the internal armed conflict (see Angelina Snodgrass Godoy’s Popular Injustice on the sociology of lynchings, and a Spanish-language news article on the Cotzal incident).

Above all, though, is the human justification for trying these crimes. As AJR president Benjamin told me while waiting for Judge Flores to deliver her verdict, “We hope that Rios Montt will be jailed for his responsibility for the massacres of our families. …We intend to achieve justice so that our children will never experience massacres.” Validating the historical memory of survivors and victims through a serious attempt to hold perpetrators and intellectual authors responsible is both just in itself and an important step towards social reconciliation.

About cascadiasolidaria

Human rights and solidarity activist from Cascadia, North America, writing about issues of justice and security in Guatemala and Central America from a perspective of solidarity with human rights and social movements.
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One Response to The General on trial

  1. Pingback: GuateSec: Impunity, or justice for crimes of the past? | Cascadia Solidaria

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