When the 1996 peace accords between the Guatemalan government and the Marxist guerilla movement URNG marked the end of the country’s 36-year internal conflict,it was with a longing for truth and justice.

Last year, the former dictator Efraín Rios Montt was finally brought to trial under the accusation of genocide and crimes against humanity, making Guatemala the first Latin American country to charge a former head of state with genocide.

- We can establish that these are acts so degrading, so humiliating that there is no justification. You were the general commander of the military and you knew about the execution of these plans,

echoed on the third floor of the supreme court building in Guatemala City, 26 of January 2012. By that statement, prosecutor Patricia Flores discounted the argument posed by Rios Montt’s lawyers, that the hundreds of massacres that took place in the Guatemalan highlands during the 17 months he stood office, was not a result of his government’s policy. She also dismissed the claims that because he was never present on the battle field, he could not be held responsible for the atrocities committed by his field commanders, and that his ultimate ambition only was the well-being of the Maya population by fighting the guerilla.

Relatives of the victims from the massacres in the Ixil area

The now retired army general himself, remained silent.

Dismantling impunity

The trial was an important step in dismantling the impunity that had dominated Guatemalan politics throughout the conflict and after. War criminals had managed to escape facing charges for years due to lack of will and knowledge on part of the courts, lost evidence, and harassment of witnesses and lawyers. Rios Montt has spent the last 14 years in congress, which in Guatemala guarantees immunity from prosecution.

A previous attempt to bring Rios Montt to trial was led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who in 1999, filed suit against him and another sevensenior officials responsible for war crimes. That time, the attempt to seek justice took place not in Guatemala but in Spain. It was possible by using the principle of universal jurisdiction which permits any country to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses, no matter where the crimes were committed. Earlier that year, a truth commission report had established that the Rios Montt regime’s scorched-earth operations against Maya communities, directed towards their entire population as they were, constituted genocide.

Rios Montt was never extradited to Spain and the lawsuit never led to a verdict. Nevertheless, it led to a discussion in Guatemala on the possibilities of charging war crimes inside the country.

Until then, that had been impossible, says Edwin Canil, a lawyer at the human rights organization CALDH. But after the lawsuits in Spain, we started to ask ourselves, why don’t we do this in Guatemala? We have our own courts, our own judges – and now, the judicial system is starting to function well enough for us to use them.

CALDH, along with a number of like-minded organizations, started to collect testimonies from victims of the massacres. Other non-governmental organizations began to localize and excavate clandestine mass graves from the war, which provided the testimonies with physical evidence. In 2001, a group of witnesses from 20 different communities, with CALDH as their legal arm, charged Rios Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity.

Civil society and international institutions in cooperation 

But it would take more than a decade before Guatemala’s judicial system proved fully ready to confront its former leaders, prosecuting rather than protecting. According to Edwin, much was thanks to the work of civil society and international institutions. First, with the invitation of the United Nations to establish a unit of foreign prosecutors known as CICIG (the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala) working to promote witness protection, train Guatemalan prosecutors and take part in investigations. It was the CICIG that revealed that 98% of the reported crimes never lead to a verdict. That, explains Edwin, hurt the government’s image and brought international pressure for institutional reforms, “on Guatemala to become a more just country”.

Perhaps most significantly, CICIG and the civil society went together and managed to actualize the appointment of general attorney Claudia Paz y Paz. A former human rights activist and named one of the world’s bravest women in 2012 by the magazine Newsweek, she immediately started to prosecute senior officials and their commanders in chief. And so, when Rios Montt lost his seat in Congress last year, he was indicted within a week.

Eduardo Stein Barillas (left), former Vice President of Guatemala, adresses a press conference on the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Still, in a country where only 2 % of the committed crimes lead to a sentence, there remains a lot of work for Claudia, Edwin and their colleagues before they will be able to see Rios Montt behind bars.

Genocide is a very complicated crime to prosecute, explains Edwin. Those who filled the military bases belonged to the Maya population. They were ordered to attack the civil Mayans. The conclusion would be that the ethnic group attacked its own people  can that be called genocide? This is a dilemma that characterizes the Guatemalan case and continues to be a divisive issue.

Ongoing process

Since the trials began, Rios Montt’s lawyers have done their best to slow up the judicial processes. Their delay tactics have included cancelling of trials, soliciting a removal of the judge, demanding the case to be transferred to a military tribunal, claiming amnesty and, when denied it, appealing the decision. Meanwhile, witnesses and victim’s organizations have reported intimidations and racist treatment.

Despite this, Edwin is positive: ”The most important thing is that we’ve entered into the processes to address historical injustices. Now we know that everyone is embraced by the laws, no matter if you are rich or poor, powerful or not. Before, we never thought we would come this far.”

Rios Montt is currently under house arrest. The collection of testimonies, excavations of mass graves, as well as the legal proceedings, are still ongoing.


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