Luis Moreno Ocampo: the Meaning of the Rios Montt Trial

Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, made the following remarks today as the trial of former generals Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez began in Guatemala City:

The judges, public prosecutors, and defense attorneys of Guatemala have an enormous responsibility to guarantee a fair trial: fair for the victims and fair for the accused. A fair trial is a necessary condition of, but not alone sufficient for a successful experience: the impact of the trial on Guatemala and on the world will depend on the actions of others. Journalists, politicians, movie directors, writers, and concerned citizens are the ones who can make this trial a turning point in history.

The trial can help us understand the impact of the Cold War, a difficult period in Latin American history, when the massacre of civilians became a political tool for obtaining or maintaining power. Trained guerrilla fighters hid among the civilian populations while military and political forces developed plans for control that included the torture and murder of Guatemalan citizens.

In 1985 I had the privilege of serving as an assistant prosecutor in the trial of the military juntas that had governed Argentina. We had proof that intelligence officials from our army, educated by French and American officials, had trained Guatemalan officials in the use of torture and extrajudicial executions. Both in Argentina and in Guatemala, these murders were not isolated or spontaneous actions by members of security and armed forces. These crimes were the result of carrying out plans and orders. For this reason it is so important that the trial concentrates on those who gave the orders. In an army, the commander is responsible for the actions of his troops. If the commanding officers order and cover up the crimes, then they are responsible. This is the kind of conduct that must be avoided in future.

In the 21 st century, Latin America has liberated itself from political violence. Colombia is battling with the last active guerrilla group, but the violence of organized crime is the scourge of our time.

The trial of Ríos Montt should serve to clarify and overcome both the political violence of the past and this new violence of organized crime. It can serve to create a just and peaceful future for Guatemala, Latin America, and the world.

Luis Moreno Ocampo
Former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (2003-2012)
Former Assistant Prosecutor in the Trial of the Juntas in Argentina (1985)



  1. In 1976, I was in Guatemala visiting archeological sites for research I was doing on the Mayan heritage, when I had to go to a little-known site a day and a half’s walk north of Nebaj in the North. As the road ended in Nebaj, I set out walking first thing in the morning and before sundown I found a tiny hamlet, where the inhabitants, although they spoke very little Spanish, were kind and hositable to me, gave me a bowl of maize soup, and let me sleep in a hut where they kept firewood, which I was very grateful for. The next day, I set off early and went to the ruins, where I spent another night, and the following day retraced my tracks, but when I came to the place where the tiny hamlet was, I couldn’t find it, and all I could find was some burnt and scorched ground and a big heap of earth like a barrow.
    I was perplexed, and sat down under a tree to puzzle it over, when I realized that in the undergrowth behind the tree there was a tiny wizened old lady, sobbing with heart-rending sadness. I gave her some water and a handkerchief to wipe her tears, and she stuttered out in Mam or Quiché and signs which was all I could understand, that the military had come, murdered all the men of the hamlet, burnt all the houses, and after burying the corpses in a rough mound of a grave, and left with all the women and children, having razed the hamlet to nothing.
    The little old lady was incapable of walking more than a few paces; so I left her water and biscuits, and walked back to Nebaj, where I sought out the local curandero, and told hime of the fate of the little old lady, to get them to go and get her. I then went to the no-star hotel to rest, and was disturbed late at night by the curandero’s son, who told me to get onto the bus out to Guate City at 5am, as the military would be looking for me.
    It transpired that the reason why the military had murdered all and razed the village was because they had given shelter to a “subversive”, i.e. ME, a young bearded British anthropology student, and the fact that I had discovered their crime, put me in danger of being murdered too.
    I skidaddled fast, and left Guatemala several weeks later without mentionning to anybody this tragedy, feeling absolutely dreadful, and now 36 years later, I still am hauted with the bad conscience. I have only just learnt they have managed to process Rios-Montt, the top of a very evil military pyramid.

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