GUATEMALA CITY – Fireworks exploded and music blared in a plaza outside a packed courtroom in Guatemala City last week. Hundreds of Guatemalans, many in colorful Mayan dress, had come from all over the country to hear words they had almost given up would ever be said. They waited all day and into the night, glued to a crackly live video projected onto a concrete wall. Finally, after 11 hours – and a 30-year wait – they were rewarded.
Fifteen floors above them, 85-year-old José Efraín Ríos Montt, surrounded by security, looked crumpled. He had just been ordered to face trial for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, and members of his family were frantically paying $65,000 in bail to the court.
During the long day’s hearing Jan. 26, nervous Mayan eyes watched as prosecutors read out testimonies of torture, murder and massacres suffered at the hands of former Gen. Ríos Montt’s army.
The 36-year civil conflict here was the bloodiest and longest in Latin America. The army’s fight against leftist guerrillas left 200,000 people dead, 100,000 women raped and countless people displaced. So many were made to disappear that much of the country became an unmarked grave.
Although the war ended almost two decades ago in 1996, Guatemala’s population of 14 million is still deeply scarred and unable to move on from its sordid past. A determined lack of political will and blatant impunity mean that, until now, no senior military officer has faced charges for the crimes committed by the army. After the war, top military men like Ríos Montt did anything but retreat into the shadows, and many went on to high-powered political careers. Ríos Montt’s seat in Congress gave him immunity from prosecution until his term ended three weeks ago.
Now, exposed to a team of prosecutors with over a decade’s preparation under their belt, Ríos Montt will be the first senior officer to face war-crimes charges. An icon of the conflict’s most vicious period, Ríos Montt oversaw the army’s counterinsurgency strategy as de facto president for 17 months between 1982 and 1983. During that time, a “scorched-earth” plan was carried out in Guatemala’s northwest highlands to wipe out suspected insurgents and collaborators.
While the war affected all of Guatemala, the key target region when Ríos Montt was in charge was specific: the Ixil Triangle. This mountainous area is home to one of Guatemala’s 21 Mayan groups, the Ixil, who are known for their maroon dress and colorful head scarves.
Felipe Brito, a 34-year-old Ixil Mayan, was 5 when his highland town of Nebaj became a killing ground. Like 30,000 other Ixiles, when the army started murdering neighbors, Brito fled with his family to the mountains. They returned two years later to find villages razed and survivors traumatized.
“What didn’t the army do here?” Brito said. “We’d find mass graves. … [Soldiers] murdered women, butchered their breasts, [and] sometimes killed their children in front of them.”
He said the Ixiles knew they had been fatally labeled as “subversives” for arguing for their rights. He said he blames Ríos Montt for the attacks: “Under Ríos Montt’s government, the army had plans to destroy all the Ixiles. … This was a war against the Ixiles.”
Thirty years later, the prosecution finally has hundreds of pages of original military documents to prove such plans existed. Kate Doyle, director of the National Security Archive’s Guatemala Project at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., outlines key military strategies named Plan Victoria and Operation Sofía. The latter, which was leaked to her in 2009 and has since become key evidence, contains the most explicit military planning behind the scorched-earth sweeps carried out in the Ixil region in July and August 1982.
Ríos Montt’s defense team holds that although the massacres took place, he did not orchestrate them.
Having spent years tracking the evidence, Doyle insists that is impossible: “[Operation] Sofía reflects the military chain of command beginning in Guatemala City, with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Ríos Montt, … and the way in which that order went out to [local] commanders to create this plan and carry it out.”
“Pretending now they didn’t know,” Brito said, “is like playing the fool, because they don’t know how to deal with the damage they did here.”
The prosecution argued that the military sweeps during that period resulted in at least 1,771 deaths of unarmed civilians and 30,000 Ixiles being displaced.
Chain-of-command cases are hard to prove, but a video of Ríos Montt boasting of his total control over the army was entered as evidence.
Wincing at grisly testimonies, Judge Patricia Flores decided there is enough evidence to order Ríos Montt to stand trial for crimes against humanity and genocide. A trial could begin in two months. If convicted, Ríos Montt could face up to 80 years in prison, essentially a life sentence.
The case has worrying implications for the new president, Otto Pérez Molina, who entered office three weeks ago with a “mano dura” (iron-fist) promise against crime. He said after the hearing that he stands by an earlier statement that there had been no genocide in Guatemala. He added that he would respect the judge’s ruling.
His seemingly contradictory statements on the case are strategic, experts said. By admitting that genocide happened, Pérez Molina, who was a local military commander in the Ixil region during the conflict, could face accusations himself. Brito said he knew Pérez Molina as the bearded General Tito.
The Guatemalan president is seeking U.S military funding this year to deliver on a campaign promise to fight drug-fueled violence that dominates Guatemala. U.S. military support was officially withdrawn in 1978 because of human rights concerns. The United States is pressuring Guatemala to improve its human rights record and slash its 98 percent impunity rate for violent crimes.
For Guatemalans to see a former commander-in-chief brought to justice in their own court would be a good start, Brito said. “They’re finally showing the world that the Ixil and people in Guatemala will stick to the law, and make Ríos Montt answer for what he did here.”