WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
14 May 2013 | Commentary | News

After the Verdict: What Ríos Montt’s Conviction Means for Guatemala

By Geoff Thale and Jo-Marie Burt, with contributions from Ana Goerdt

On the afternoon of Friday, May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan court found General José Efraín Ríos Montt, former de facto head of state, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Presiding Judge Jazmín Barrios read an hour-long summary of the tribunal’s ruling to a packed courtroom. The full judgment will be read in court on May 17.

The 86-year-old Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison—50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. His house arrest was revoked and he was immediately transported to Matamoros Prison. His co-accused, Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, the head of military intelligence during Ríos Montt’s regime, was acquitted of both crimes.

The verdict came 30 years after the crimes were committed and 13 years after the complaint was brought by survivors to the Public Ministry. The trial started on March 19, 2013, in an environment that grew increasingly polarized. The three-judge panel overcame several attempts to derail the process—including one on the day of the verdict—before a sentence was finally handed down.

The trial and conviction of Ríos Montt is due in large part to the resilience of the survivors and relatives of victims who persisted in their demands for truth and justice over the course of the last three decades, especially the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (Asociación para la Justicia y Reconciliación, AJR), and the human rights organizations that supported their struggle, especially the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos, CALDH). It is also due to the determination of a new generation of prosecutors and judges in Guatemala who believe in the rule of law and who have courageously upheld their duty to investigate both past and present criminality, often in the face of threats and intimidation.

The Ríos Montt verdict is historic; he is the first former head of state to be convicted of genocide by a national court. His trial and conviction in the face of numerous attempts to interfere with the process means that there were two victories in Guatemala last week.

Truth and Justice for Victims of Human Rights Abuses

The first victory is the conviction itself, which provides some measure of justice for the victims of systematic human rights abuses during Ríos Montt’s regime. As head of the Guatemalan military and de facto head of state for an 17-month period in 1982 and 1983, Ríos Montt has long been identified by human rights activists in Guatemala and internationally as the man in charge during the period of the most notorious human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s civil war; massacres and targeted attacks on indigenous Mayan communities were widespread during his regime. Ríos Montt’s trial and conviction are a vindication for the victims and their families, as well as a re-assertion of the principle that indiscriminate attacks on civilian communities during wartime can never be justified.

As Guatemalan human rights defender Helen Mack noted after the verdict was handed down, the trial marks a watershed for Guatemala—it was the first time Guatemala’s indigenous population has had an opportunity to make their voices heard in a court of law, and it was a demonstration that truth and justice for the victims can be achieved through peaceful, democratic means.

A Triumph for the Rule of Law

The second victory is a victory for the rule of law in Guatemala at large. Throughout the judicial process, the trial’s conclusion—much less Ríos Montt’s conviction—seemed far from certain. The long-anticipated conclusion of the trial came following various procedural delays that threatened on more than one occasion not only to slow down the process, but also to derail it altogether. Several observers noted that the defense lawyers were not engaged in a technical legal defense of the accused, but rather were using procedural tactics, some of dubitable legality, to disrupt the trial and prevent it from reaching a conclusion. In addition, the trial faced opposition from some sectors of Guatemalan society, who complained that the trial and conviction smeared the country by vindicating former guerrillas and their allies, wrongly painted the government as abusing human rights, and undermined investor confidence in the country. In fact, though, the successful conclusion of the trial is a sign that the rule of law in Guatemala, though vulnerable and still subject to corruption and influence-peddling, triumphed. Procedural delay tactics and political pressures notwithstanding, the legal proceedings continued, and the trial ended with a guilty verdict for Ríos Montt. Few imagined that this would ever be possible in Guatemala.

There’s no question that the trial upset many people in Guatemala and was a polarizing event in some circles. Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, himself a former general, continues to insist publicly that there was no genocide in Guatemala. A handful of shadowy right-wing groups ran a series of public announcements defending the conduct of the military during the civil war that many perceived to be thinly veiled threats against the prosecuting lawyers and judges in the case, human rights defenders, and other public officials. A number of those involved in the case worried about their safety and continue to do so post-trial.

On Sunday, two days after the judgment was handed down, a small group of military families marched in front of the Matamoros military base in support of Ríos Montt, and the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras, CACIF)—a powerful business association—held a press conference challenging the verdict. In its press release, CACIF condemned the court’s decision and questioned some legal and procedural issues.

CACIF’s members certainly have a right to do so. But what CACIF fails to see is that the actions of the judicial system—the attorney general, prosecutors, judges, and appeals official—showed that the rule of law in Guatemala is taking hold in the country. There is certainly more work to be done; no one would mistake Guatemala’s judicial system for that of Switzerland.  But business leaders ought to be reminding their friends at home and abroad that Guatemala is showing itself to be a country where the judiciary can operate impartially, and that influence and insider contacts, or denunciations and threats, don’t derail the process of justice.

That’s a victory for Guatemala.

Geoff Thale is WOLA’s Program Director. Jo-Marie Burt is a WOLA Senior Fellow. Ana Goerdt is WOLA’s Program Assistant for Mexico and Central America, Citizen Security, and Regional Security Policy.

For in-depth reporting and analysis of the final day of the trial, see WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt’s blog post for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s trial monitoring blog.