In this op-ed, Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada present an “alternative” obituary for Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Rios Montt, who died on April 1. Presenting a unique view based on Burt’s role as an international monitor to the dictator’s genocide trial, the article brings to the forefront the experience of survivors and families of victims of the Rios Montt regime who have fought valiantly to bring him and other perpetrators of grave human rights violations to justice.
Guatemala’s most notorious dictator, retired army general José Efraín Ríos Montt, died last Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 91. Ríos Montt came to power in a military coup d’état on March 23, 1982 and was deposed on August 7, 1983 in a military coup orchestrated by his minister of defense.
These 17 months of Ríos Montt’s rule were the most brutal of the country’s 36-year civil war. Human rights organizations estimate that some 10,000 people were killed during the first three months of his government. On average, Guatemala registered 19 massacres per month between March and December 1982. More than 400 indigenous communities were completely destroyed during this time.
According to a United Nation commission created to document atrocities committed during the war, Ríos Montt doubled down on the scorched-earth policy designed and implemented by his predecessor, Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982). Allegedly designed to destroy insurgent groups, these repressive policies were used to systematically clamp down on Guatemalan social movements that were advocating for change or challenging the military government. These efforts to “annihilate” Guatemala’s “internal enemy” meant that the civilian population based in Mayan indigenous communities with a strong guerrilla presence suffered extreme abuses at the hands of the state.
By the time Guatemala signed a peace agreement in 1996, the conflict left an estimated 200,000 dead, 45,000 forcibly disappeared, countless victims of torture and sexual violence, and tens of thousands forcibly displaced or exiled. According to the United Nations commission, 83 percent of the victims of the conflict were indigenous. Based on these and other indicators, the commission determined that the counterinsurgency strategy deployed during the Ríos Montt years constituted “acts of genocide” against the indigenous population in five regions of the country.
After avoiding justice for decades, Ríos Montt was prosecuted in an open, public trial that started on March 19, 2013 and culminated in a guilty verdict on May 10, 2013. This was the first time that a former head of state was prosecuted for genocide in a national court, setting a key precedent for international justice. Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison: 50 for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil people. Over 100 survivors and relatives of victims testified in the trial, recounting publicly for the first time the horrors they endured, including massacres, torture, mass rape, and forced displacement. Those who fled into the mountains told harrowing stories of trying to survive amidst relentless military persecution. Many died of starvation, while others said that because of their desperate conditions, they ultimately turned themselves in and were forcibly resettled in villages set up by the army to control the rural population.
Just ten days after the verdict, and under intense pressure from business elites and sectors of the military, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that the last few weeks of the trial were invalid based on a technicality and ordered a partial retrial. This in effect nullified the verdict. Ríos Montt was released from military prison and placed under house arrest. His intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who had been acquitted, was also returned to house arrest. National and international human rights organizations argued that the Constitutional Court ruling was illegal and should be overturned.
Both Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez eventually faced a retrial, which has been marked by one delay after another. At one point, Ríos Montt’s defense team argued that he had been diagnosed with dementia, leading the court to rule that the trial would continue but would not be open to the public, nor would Ríos Montt be required to be present, and even if found guilty, no punishment would be handed down against him.
After dozens of survivors testified in closed-door sessions for the second time, those proceedings were also suspended after an appeals court determined that Rodríguez Sánchez had the right to an open, public trial. When the retrial eventually started up again in late 2017, the court ruled that it would prosecute Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez separately and concurrently. In October, the court began to convene hearings one day a week: on Friday mornings, it heard the Ríos Montt trial behind closed doors, and on Friday afternoons, it held public hearings in the trial against Rodríguez Sánchez. A verdict was expected in July. With Ríos Montt’s death, the case against him will most likely be dismissed, though the case against Rodríguez Sánchez will continue.
The delays that characterized the genocide trial illustrate the backroom influence that Guatemalan military elites continue to wield over the country’s judicial and political institutions. Guatemala has been trying to dismantle these kinds of parallel power structures via organisms like the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a U.N.-backed body that works closely with the Attorney General’s Office in investigating high-level corruption cases. Still, given the power that shadowy special interest groups made up of ex-military and intelligence officers continue to wield in Guatemala, the fact that Ríos Montt was put on trial at all was an incredible accomplishment.
For the survivors, who were able to testify publicly about the atrocities they suffered and to confront for the first time their tormentor in a court of law, the trial had meaning far beyond the legal realm.
“We approach the struggle for justice on many levels,” Edwin Canil, president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, which unites survivors of state-sponsored violence from five indigenous regions of the country, and himself a genocide survivor, told me after the news of Ríos Montt’s death broke. “The verdict is just one part of our struggle. We are also engaged in a struggle to rewrite the history of Guatemala and to make visible the historic violence that has been exercised against indigenous people.”
In Canil’s view, the 2013 verdict is still valid, and affirms what elements of the Guatemalan state have long tried to deny: the Maya Ixil people suffered a genocide during the civil war. However, demanding justice for Ríos Montt was also about the individual survivors and families of those who perished, Canil said.
“The pursuit of justice is above all an effort to reclaim the dignity of the victims,” he told me. “Each of the survivors feels pain, indignation, and impotence in the face of the state-sponsored crimes we suffered. This propelled us to initiate the proceedings against Ríos Montt.”
Ríos Montt will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators. Even though the 2013 sentence that convicted him of genocide was technically invalidated by Guatemala’s highest court, the case showed that it is possible for national courts to successfully prosecute and convict heads of state for crimes against humanity. Rios Montt will be remembered not as a great political leader or military strategist, but as a man who deployed legions of lawyers to delay, obstruct, and avoid justice, and who ultimately died not a free man, but under house arrest and on trial for the second time for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“Ríos Montt is now dead, but there are many others who bear responsibility for what happened,” Canil said. “We hope that the Attorney General’s Office will move forward on criminal trials against those individuals.”
Jo-Marie Burt is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in Latin America. She specializes in state violence, human rights and transitional justice, with a focus on Peru and Guatemala. She writes about war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala for International Justice Monitor, and is an associate professor of political science at George Mason University.
Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist and an archaeology student at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. He was a civil party in a case involving forced disappearances by the Guatemalan state, heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012.