Justice for genocide in Guatemala?

Gen. Efrain Rios Montt goes on trial, charged with genocide, in a search for healing from Guatemala's bloody past.
(Illustration by Jonathan Twingley / For The Times)
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GUATEMALA CITY — When a judge ruled to admit all the prosecution documents and expert witnesses in the genocide trial here of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt last week — ensuring that Guatemala will be the first country in history to try one of its own heads of state for the most egregious crime against humanity — no triumphal smiles crossed the faces of courtroom observers. Some had been working toward this moment for years: two elderly women who between them lost a brother and a son among the 200,000 dead and disappeared over 36 years of guerrilla warfare and military dictatorship; indigenous Maya survivors from the highlands, where the army by its own account erased entire villages; those who spent their young adulthood in exile, then returned before it was safe to do so, throwing themselves into the tedious labor of collecting the evidence now being used against the general.

The audience had indeed applauded in January when a judge determined there was cause to hold the trial, and firecrackers sounded outside the courthouse. But defense attorneys, including a former guerrilla leader, Danilo Rodriguez, had strenuously objected to virtually everything prosecutors wanted to introduce, from the army’s counterinsurgency plans (a “secret of state”) to the credentials of the members of the national forensic team that exhumed remains of thousands of slain civilians. After some days of suspense, Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez’s positive ruling on the admissibility of some 900 elements of evidence was cause for relief for families and rights activists; nevertheless, it seems to have sunk in that the outcome of the trial is not at all clear.

One reason is the standard of proof required for genocide, rather than, for instance, the equally reprehensible but legally distinct charge of crimes against humanity. Genocide is the targeted killing of noncombatants with the intent of wiping out a particular group, in whole or in part, based on nationality, race, religion or ethnicity. The charge is pointed and deliberate, underscoring the racism behind the killing, said Kate Doyle, director of the Guatemala Documentation Project at the National Security Archives, a nongovernmental research institute at George Washington University. Guatemalan prosecutors draw on documents uncovered by the archives.


From 1954, when a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, until 1986, the military ran Guatemala, supported by the United States. Ríos Montt ruled from March 1982 to August 1983, an especially frenzied period of killing.

According to public prosecutor Orlando López, more than 33% of highland Ixil Maya, one of 22 ethnic Guatemala Maya groups, were exterminated in those years. The Ixil live in remote highland towns where left-leaning guerrillas had a strong presence, and the government is naming massacres there in its case against Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt called the Ixil “the internal enemy,” López said in court, citing documents that will be presented as evidence. The general has denied ordering mass killings, let alone as part of a policy to exterminate Maya Indians, who make up more than half the population of Guatemala.

Some survivors who traveled more than a day to the proceedings never thought they would stand so close to the now-86-year-old man they consider monstrous. They used the word “emocionado”; they said they felt deeply moved to witness him charged as a criminal. They watched Ríos Montt striding unbent into the courtroom, his full head of hair only partly gray, conferring with his attorneys and taking notes on an unlined white pad.

“He’s stronger and more lucid than we are,” one longtime activist ruefully whispered to another.

There is no popular groundswell, 30 years after the violence, against Ríos Montt in Guatemala. His image as a God-fearing, strong-fisted, charismatic leader persists among those who have any memory of him at all — most of the current population was born after his 18 months as head of state.

Many Guatemalans believe the army saved the country from a threatening insurrection. In the 1980s, I saw the general’s photo hung prominently in dirt-floor huts of Maya families whose neighbors had been killed in government violence. Ríos Montt offered “Frijoles y Fusiles,” or “Beans and Bullets,” a program bringing food to those who declared allegiance to the government, annihilation for those who did not.


In Guatemala City, “special” courts tried the dictatorship’s enemies in secret, without defense; they were found guilty and hanged, invisible to the public. Cities experienced sudden welcome calm, a time also called “the peace of the graveyard.” President Ronald Reagan met with the fiercely anti-communist Ríos Montt in Guatemala in 1982 and pronounced him “ a man of great personal integrity,” suggesting he had received “a bum rap.”

Despite what may be seen as difficult odds for a guilty verdict, those who long pursued cases against the dictatorship appear heartened. “This is only the beginning,” said Aura Elena Farfán, a founder of Famdegua, Guatemala Families of the Disappeared. “There should be compensation for families, not necessarily from him [Ríos Montt] but the state. Other intellectual authors [of the killings] should appear in the docket,” she said, naming former President Óscar Humberto Mejia Victores, Héctor Mario López Fuentes, Ríos Montt’s military chief of staff, and Gen. Benedicto Lucas Garcia, brother of the dictator who immediately preceded Ríos Montt and considered the architect of the army’s counterinsurgency policy.

Farfán did much of the investigation that led to the incarceration of special forces officers who took part in the massacre of more than 300 people at a settlement called Dos Erres during Ríos Montt’s time. Some of the slain were dumped into an unfinished well. Forensic investigators who exhumed the well first found a child’s red T-shirt, with decorative patterns at the shoulders. “A boy’s,” said a villager. For a child of what age, she was asked? “Six.” The well produced remains of babies, women and old men.

Guatemalan officers, including Ríos Montt, received training at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga., now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, mandated in the run-up to U.N.-brokered 1996 Guatemalan peace accords, stated that counterinsurgency training taught there identified all opponents, even the unarmed, as adversaries, spreading “techniques of persecution ... within a growing atmosphere of state terror.”

When Judge Gálvez made his ruling last week, he read aloud a long and astonishing litany: the number and name on each of 300 death certificates he is accepting into evidence in the Ríos Montt case. No matter how the proceedings turn out, some will press on for justice. “We still do not know where our loved ones are,” said Blanca Hernandez, a member of Famdegua, speaking of 45,000 who remain disappeared.

Oral arguments are scheduled to begin Aug. 14.

Mary Jo McConahay reported on the Guatemalan civil war and its aftermath for numerous publications. She is the author of “Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest.”