A man lifts a poster demanding justice for genocide. Credit: Surizar.
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A Guatemalan court has convicted former military ruler José Efrain Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against Mayan communities during the fiercest fighting in the country’s long civil war.
Judge Yasmin Barrios sentenced the 86-year-old former general to 80 years in prison, prompting shouts of “Justicia, Justicia” in the crowded courtroom. The court acquitted Ríos Montt’s former director of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, of the same charges, finding that he did not have command responsibility.
The case made history as the first time a former head of state was indicted by a national, rather than international, court on genocide charges. Many prosecution witnesses were survivors of massacres and testified in gory detail about the brutal rape and murder of their families, the burning of their villages and crops, and their struggle to survive after fleeing to the mountains.
The key question in the trial was whether Ríos Montt intentionally targeted Mayan Ixil communities during his 17-month rule in 1982-83 during a counterinsurgency campaign waged against guerrillas operating in the Ixil region. Judge Barrios said in announcing the verdict that the three-judge panel found Ríos Montt planned and ordered the campaign, knew about the massacres, and did nothing to stop them.
“We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group,” the judge told the courtroom in an hour-long summary of the finding. She said the Ixils “were considered public enemies of the state and were also victims of racism, considered an inferior race.” Violence against them, she added, was not spontaneous but planned.
Ríos Montt was formally charged with the killing of 1,771 Mayans during one of the bloodiest periods in a civil war between a succession of governments and insurgents. A United Nations-backed truth commission estimated more than 200,000 people were killed during the 36 years of fighting that ended in 1996, about 83 percent of them Mayans.
Ríos Montt was part of a three-member military dictatorship that seized power in a 1982 coup. Two months later, he disbanded the junta and became the sole leader. He avoided a trial for years by serving in the Guatemalan legislature, which gave him immunity from prosecution until his most recent term ended early in 2012. At the end of the trial, he spoke to the court and denied ever targeting the Mayans. Defense lawyers said they would appeal, and several challenges filed with other Guatemalan courts are awaiting rulings.
The US government has been supportive of efforts to bring Ríos Montt to justice. A recent statement from the US Embassy in Guatemala noted that justice is essential for reconciliation, and applauded Guatemala’s efforts to strengthen the justice sector and to bring those responsible for crimes during the civil war before the courts. The statement called upon all Guatemalans to respect the legitimacy and integrity of the trial.
Here is more background about the trial.
A parade of Mayan victims and prosecution experts testified not only about the brutality of the military but also about the destruction of the Mayan culture and forced conscription into paramilitary forces. Francisco Cobo Raimundo testified that his mother was killed by a blow to the head with a rock, his brother was strangled and hacked to pieces, and his father and grandfather also were killed. Magdalena Bernal described the military drowning her brother and two women in a river. Juan Raimundo Matón testified that his brother-in-law was shot to death trying to escape, while the soldiers smashed his uncle’s head and stabbed others to death. Women described being raped at military installations. One witness, identified by her initials, said that when she was 16 years old, she and other women from her town were taken by soldiers to the local Catholic church, where she was blindfolded and raped repeatedly over a two-hour period, during which she could hear “so many others screaming.” Nicolas Toma Matom testified that he was required to participate in a paramilitary unit following the killing by soldiers of his mother, father, 10-year-old brother, and approximately 30 others, and the disappearance of his two 4- and 5-year-old daughters. Key documents were military plans entitled “Victoria 82” and “Sofía,” which prosecutors contended targeted the Mayans. Prosecutors also said that Ríos Montt had total control over the army, and therefore was responsible for the slaughter.
With closing arguments underway, Ríos Montt — silent until then — stunned those in court by asking to speak, and did so for about a half-hour. He said when he became the leader, “The country was dying,” facing massive political, economic and military problems. Raising his voice, the former dictator declared, “I never authorized, I never proposed, I never ordered acts against any ethnic or religious group.” He told the court there was “no evidence of my participation,” and that “there was never an intention or purpose of destroying any ethnic group.” Ríos Montt disputed testimony that he was solely in charge of military operations, saying local commanders made the decisions in their regions. He argued that zone commanders operated with autonomy, and as president, he could not be connected with the crimes and abuses that happened within a particular region. He said operational plans such as Victoria 82 and Sofía were only general outlines. Defense witness Harris Howell Whitbeck, a Guatemalan businessman and an architect of Ríos Montt’s civil action programs, testified that Ríos Montt wanted to provide food and humanitarian assistance to civilians. He told the court, “Never, never was there a single program or idea to damage anyone in the Ixil region.”
WHY THE MAYANS?
Dr. Héctor Rosada Granados, a social scientist who had been a peace negotiator for Guatemala, was an expert witness who analyzed why the Ríos Montt regime believed it could justify actions against the Ixils. He explained that the government believed that the Ixil people were the enemy, allied with the insurgents. He described the Ixil as rebellious, assertive and courageous against demands of landowners and not always willing to provide cheap labor to large plantations. As a result, he said the elites told the military to watch the Ixil. The UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification report, “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,”
said in 1999 that racism was a factor. Informally called the “Truth Commission,” the report concluded that the Mayans occasionally supported guerrilla groups, but this support was “intentionally exaggerated” by the government. The report said the army’s perception of the Mayans “contributed to increasing and aggravating the human rights violations perpetrated against them, demonstrating an aggressive racist component of extreme cruelty....” A separate report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, using data from the International Center for Human Rights, said the government strategy was to stop the insurgency by terrorizing the civilian population. It said Mayans were killed in large groups, including high percentages of women and children. The National Security Archive’s Kate Doyle said on the organization’s website that Victoria 82 made clear that “the armed forces regarded the indigenous communities as fatally intertwined with the insurgency. In order to eradicate the base, Victoria 82 promoted a scorched earth strategy, ordering the destruction of homes, local crops, animals and other potential sources of guerrilla supplies.” Prosecutors, in closing arguments, presented a manual that showed a doctrine defining Mayan groups as part of the internal enemy.
Get more information about the trial.
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To read the museum's statement on the verdict, click here.