On Thursday, January 26, Guatemala's former dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, became the first head of state in Latin America to be charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.
The charges identify Montt as the intellectual author of the crimes committed by armed forces in 1982 and 1983 in Guatemala's Ixil Triangle (San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajúl and Santa María Nebaj) in the department of El Q'iché: the forced displacement of 29,000 individuals, the deaths of 1,771 individuals in 11 massacres, as well as acts of torture and 1,485 acts of sexual violence against women. Judge Patricia Flores's decision to charge Montt and proceed to a full trial is a historic step in a decade-long quest for justice for the egregious crimes against humanity that were committed in the early 1980s. Montt, who took power in a military coup in March 1982, oversaw a brutal scorched earth policy in Guatemala's indigenous highland regions. His 17 months in power have become widely recognized as the most violent period in all of Guatemala's 36-year conflict.
It took over two hours for the government's prosecutor to list the charges against Montt. The legal justification for the case is based on Montt's command responsibility: as leader of the military high command, he "authorized, created, designed and supervised" the military's counterinsurgency strategy, which targeted the civilian population in the indigenous highlands. Montt was in the direct chain of command of all military units with authority over those who carried out the crimes. He was constantly informed about what happened in the field, and he did nothing to avoid the crimes, to prevent future abuses, or to hold the perpetrators accountable. Furthermore, the state policy of violence was carried out against a specific ethnic group, the Ixil Maya, declaring them internal enemies that needed to be "destroyed," which constituted genocide.
Evidence for Guatemala's strict chain of command and the participation of top government officials in military activity has been repeatedly demonstrated by declassified Guatemalan and US documents. In Thursday's hearing, the prosecution was able to use as evidence military strategy plans such as Operación Sofía [PDF], Plan Victoria '82 and Plan Firmenza '83, an option made possible only after years of advocacy by national and international organizations to gain access to evidence of the military's strategy and patterns of abuse.
The others charged in the genocide case, Montt's Army Chief of Staff Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes and Defense Minister Oscar Humberto Mejia Víctores, were ordered to appear in court last year but their evidentiary hearings were both postponed due to health issues.
This process began 13 years ago, when Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum first brought charges of genocide, terrorism and torture against eight former political and military officials including Ríos Montt to the Spanish National Court, based on Spain's recognition of universal jurisdiction. Victim organizations in Guatemala, such as the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), with the legal support of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), also brought a case against Montt and his military high command in 2001 in Guatemalan courts. While there was little advancement in the Guatemalan case, a Spanish judge issued international arrest warrants for all eight accused there in 2006. Montt was elected to Congress in 2007, avoiding any possibility of being charged in Guatemala. Organizations continued to build a case against him and pushed for legal action. When his immunity came to an end on January 14, 2012, he was promptly subpoenaed.
Strengthening Guatemala's judiciary has been an important focus for institutional reforms that began with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. Yet there has been little justice for the vast majority of abuses from the internal conflict, during which 200,000 people were killed, including almost 50,000 cases of forced disappearance, and thousands of documented cases of sexual violence. Even today, 98 percent of crimes are committed with impunity.
In 2011, Guatemalan courts did make important advances in the investigation of both the material and intellectual authors of torture, forced disappearance and other crimes against humanity committed during the war. These emblematic cases reveal the deep, vested interests at the highest levels of government to deny responsibility for past crimes. Furthermore, they provide an important barometer for the capacity of Guatemala's judiciary to hold human rights violators accountable.
Political pressure continues to impede many of these cases and there have been efforts to pass an amnesty law for crimes committed during the conflict. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court has also repeatedly refused to accept international rulings that, according to the Guatemalan Constitution, are legally binding. Furthermore, doubts have been raised about the current administration's political will to move key cases forward. A recently elected president and former general, Otto Pérez Molina, was a Major during Montt's regime and was in a command position in the Ixil Triangle where the genocide was carried out. While he has not been charged in connection to the crimes committed there, he has been named in a separate case [PDF] as the intellectual author in the torture and forced disappearance of indigenous guerrilla leader Everardo Bámaca.
Considering these historic and political barriers, many saw the judge's ruling as an act of bravery and a cause for celebration. It will be important for the Public Prosecutor's Office to follow through with the genocide case and the charges against Montt, and for the president to provide strong support for a transparent and independent judicial process.
For communities who were victims of the genocide, this case is an important step in their search for truth, historical memory, and to guarantee that these acts are never repeated. Justice, for many communities, is a first and necessary step to begin to heal from the past.
Kelsey Alford-Jones is the Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that monitors, documents and reports on the human rights situation in Guatemala, advocates for survivors of human rights abuses, and works toward positive systemic change. Prior to her time at GHRC, Kelsey was a History and Language Arts teacher at a bilingual alternative school for Latino students in Portland, Oregon. She also coordinated and developed an Environmental Education Program at the Sarapiquí Conservation Learning Center in Costa Rica.
Suggested citation: Kelsey Alford-Jones, Rios Montt Prosecution is Important to Victims and Judiciary, JURIST - Hotline, Feb. 1, 2012, http://jurist.org/hotline/2012/02/kelsey-alford-jones-montt.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Brandy Ringer, an associate editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org