Former Guatemalan military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt will appear in court this Thursday, January 26, to face genocide charges relating to his 1982-1983 regime. During the 36-year civil war, there were 626 separate massacres and over 200,000 murdered or disappeared, and the 17 months of Ríos Montt’s rule were among the most brutal. Until recently, very few high-level officials had been held responsible for their roles in ordering the atrocities. But since the appointment of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz in late 2010, an increasing number of former military members have been brought to trial for brutal human rights violations committed during the civil war. Calling on Ríos Montt to finally appear in court is historic, and this trial could bring about justice for those who suffered during his regime.
Last August, four former members of the Guatemalan Special Forces unit known as the Kaibiles were sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison for their role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre of more than 200 people. The verdict paved the way for other high-level officials, like Ríos Montt, to be tried for their involvement in the genocide. Until this month, Ríos Montt was immune from prosecution because he was a member of the Guatemalan Congress, despite strong evidence provided in Guatemalan and international courts demonstrating that he played a role in the massacres, human rights violations, and forceful displacement of thousands of people. Because Ríos Montt lost his immunity on January 17, the Guatemalan justice system can move the case against him forward. The first step in the process will be his appearance in court this Thursday in order to decide if there is enough evidence against him to warrant a trial. Other high ranking members of the military who are accused of genocide along with Ríos Montt, like General Héctor Mario López Fuentes and General Oscar Humberto Mejía, have had their cases suspended or they have been declared unable to stand trial for health reasons, and this may also be examined in Ríos Montt’s case. His lawyer has claimed that he cannot be judged responsible for war crimes or genocide because he was never present on the battlefield, but these claims should have little validity in court.
It is significant that the Guatemalan justice system has initiated a judicial process against Ríos Montt, especially in the context of nearly total impunity in Guatemala for past and current crimes and human rights violations. However, there is a troubling lack of transparency within the Defense Ministry and unwillingness to provide still-classified information from the military archives that could be relevant to these trials. In 2009, then-President Álvaro Colom called for the declassification of military documents from 1960-1996, and in 2011 the Declassification Commission released its decision regarding which documents could be declassified. Although over 11,000 documents were declassified, the process is incomplete, as there were almost no documents presented from the years 1980-1985, because according to the government these files were lost.
Since 1990, the United States has maintained restrictions on military aid to Guatemala due to strong concerns over impunity and lack of transparency in the Guatemalan military. The Declassification Commission has been a focal point in the discussions on proving transparency in the Guatemalan military, but many concerns remain about how the Commission determined which documents to declassify or not. The absence of documents from 1980-1985, in particular, needs more explanation, as these are the years that the Truth Commission marked as the time during which the majority of the human rights violations by the Army took place. Information from these years could be crucial in genocide cases like that of Ríos Montt. In the meantime, U.S. restrictions on military aid should be maintained until it is evident that the Guatemalan Armed Forces are committed to respecting human rights and rule of law.
It will be critical to monitor the Guatemalan government’s reaction to this process in the coming days. Current president Otto Pérez Molina, who was a general during the civil war, should publicly support and encourage the decision of the Attorney General’s office to move forward with this important and historic case. The Attorney General should continue to be granted the independence and autonomy necessary to conduct her job effectively on this and other cases.