On January 28, 2013, Guatemalan judge Miguel Gálvez ruled that former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt must stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during his 1982-1983 regime. The court’s decision to proceed with the trial is a crucial step toward ensuring justice for victims of human rights violations committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.
Ríos Montt stands accused of genocide for the massacre of more than 1,750 indigenous Ixil Mayans in the northern Guatemalan department of Quiché. (Also standing trial is former general José Mauricio Rodríguez.) Ríos Montt oversaw a scorched-earth campaign that resulted in the deaths of thousands. His 17 months in power were among the most brutal of Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, which left 200,000 dead and 40,000 to 50,000 disappeared. The road to this week’s ruling began in January 2012, when Ríos Montt lost the immunity to prosecution that he had enjoyed as a member of the Guatemalan Congress and was subsequently indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. In March 2012, a judge further paved the way for a trial by denying Ríos Montt’s request for amnesty.
The January 28 ruling is historic for a number of reasons, most notably because Ríos Montt’s trial will be the first for genocide related to the Guatemalan internal armed conflict and the first case against a former head of state. While Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has brought an increasing number of former members of the military to trial for human rights violations committed during the civil war (such as the 1982 Dos Erres massacre), it is significant that Ríos Montt is being prosecuted as intellectual author of the crimes in question. And as WOLA has previously noted, given Guatemala’s high levels of impunity, it is noteworthy that the judicial process against Ríos Montt was initiated at all. WOLA hopes that the case will serve as a precedent for bringing other high-ranking members of the military to trial for human rights violations.
WOLA supports the January 28 ruling as an important achievement for justice, accountability, and the rule of law in Guatemala. Current Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina should publicly support this landmark decision and continue to provide the Attorney General’s office with the independence, autonomy, and support necessary to carry out this judicial process. The U.S. government should support this process while maintaining the ban on military aid to Guatemala until it becomes clear that the Guatemalan Armed Forces are committed to respecting human rights and rule of law, including cooperating in the investigation and prosecution of members of the military accused of human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict.