On the afternoon of Friday, May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan trial court (High Impact Court “A”) found General Efrain Rios Montt, former de facto head of state, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The conviction was for crimes committed against Guatemala’s Maya Ixil indigenous population during Rios Montt’s 17-month rule in 1982 and 1983. The judge presiding over the trial court read out an hour-long summary version of the tribunal’s ruling to a packed courtroom, with the full judgment to follow.
Rios Montt, 86 years old, was sentenced to 80 years in prison – 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity, served consecutively. His house arrest was revoked and the judge ordered his immediate transfer to Matamoros Prison. His co-accused, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, former head of military intelligence, was acquitted of both charges.
Verdicts and sentencing. Video from Skylight Pictures.
The verdict came 30 years after the crimes and 13 years after the complaint was brought by survivors to the Public Ministry. The trial started on March 19, 2013 in an increasingly polarized environment. The three-judge panel of presiding judge Yassmin Barrios and her associates, Patricia Bustamante Garcia and Pablo Xitumul de Paz, overcame several attempts by the defense to derail the process—including one on the day of the verdict—before a sentence was finally handed down.
In issuing its conviction of Rios Montt on genocide and crimes against humanity charges, the court found that witness and expert testimony proved beyond a reasonable doubt that, under Rios Montt’s command, the Guatemalan armed forces elaborated and implemented a series of plans designed to eliminate the Maya Ixil population as a group, since they considered that the Ixil supported the guerrillas.
The summary of the judgment relied on testimony and other evidence presented to the court over the course of the 27 hearings since the trial’s opening. Judge Barrios identified, with specificity, the testimony of expert and fact witnesses that formed the foundation of the court’s judgment. This includes the testimony of more than 90 Ixiles who were direct survivors of violence or relatives of victims and who testified before the court, as well as experts from a variety of disciplines and specialties—forensic anthropologists and archeologists, military experts, academic experts in racism and state discrimination, forced displacement, and sexual violence in armed conflict, among others.
The court found that Rios Montt had command responsibility. According to Judge Barrios, Rios Montt had “full knowledge of what was happening and did nothing to stop it—having the knowledge of the events, and the power and the capacity to do so.” To support the finding that Rios Montt had knowledge of the crimes, the tribunal noted, for instance, that there were regular reporting requirements (every fifteen days) up the chain of command to the president, evidenced in the annexes of one of the military operational plans entered into evidence in the case.
The court also relied on the military expert witnesses—including the defense’s military expert, General Quilo Ayuso—to find that Rios Montt, as de facto head of state, knew or should have known about the actions identified in the indictment. (“[C]onsideramos que el acusado, José Efraín Ríos Montt, tuvo conocimiento de todo lo que estaba ocurriendo y no lo detuvo a pesar de tener el poder para evitar su perpetración.”)
The court further relied on these experts to find that Rios Montt authorized the military operational plans. The court found that Rios Montt actively developed the national security plan. It also found that he ordered the development of Plan Victoria 82, knew of it and authorized its enactment.
The court ruled that the prosecution and civil parties had proved the concrete crimes identified in the indictment—the murder of 1,771 Ixiles, the forcible displacement of 29,000, and at least 9 cases of sexual violence, and various cases of torture. The court described the nature of the violence deployed against the Maya Ixil as including indiscriminate massacres, rape and sexual violence against women, infanticide, the destruction of crops to induce starvation, the abduction of children, and the forcible displacement and relocation of surviving populations into militarized “model villages.”
The court also described the forced participation of the population into self-defense patrols (patrullas de auto-defensa civil, or PACs) as a method of destroying modes of self-governance and undermining local indigenous authorities—who implemented and enforced the obligation that men join the patrols.
Drawing on the evidence presented, the court was “totally convinced” that there was an intention on the part of the Guatemalan army to eliminate the Maya Ixil as an ethnic group, and that the elements of the crime of genocide were met. (“[E]stamos totalmente convencidos de la intención de producir la destrucción física del grupo ixil.”) The court found that the crimes were committed as part of a systematic plan to destroy the Maya Ixil as a group, and not spontaneous acts. The court found that there was sufficient evidence presented of planning by the military high command, including in the aerial bombing campaigns in the mountains which affected the most vulnerable.
Racism, the tribunal found, was one of the causes of the genocide.
In reading a summary of the judgment, Judge Barrios highlighted that the military documents themselves demonstrated that, among the objectives of the armed forces was the destruction, at least in part, of the Maya Ixil, who it considered to be the enemy. Some of the military operational plans of the time—Plan Victoria 82, Plan Firmeza 83, and Plan Operacion Sofía—outlined efforts to systematically attack the Maya Ixil who were perceived to be rebellious, difficult to control and the social base of the guerrilla.
The court described Victoria 82 and Firmeza 83 as outlines of the military objectives, and Operacion Sofia as the concrete operationalization of these objectives. For instance, telegrams annexed to Plan Operacion Sofia establish that children were captured and detained in military installations, and that the military had control of the population.
The court found that the Army, under Rios Montt, did not distinguish between unarmed civilians and people who were armed. The court also noted the killing by soldiers of fetuses—“the seed that has to be eliminated”—as support for the finding of sufficient intent to commit genocide.
Women were raped, Judge Barrios said, not only as the “spoils of war,” but as part of the systematic and intentional plan to destroy the Ixil ethnic group by exercising violence on women’s bodies as a way to destroy the social fabric and thereby ensure the destruction of the Ixil population. Judge Barrios made specific reference to the testimony of one woman, who narrated how she was raped by more than 20 soldiers while she was held prisoner in a military base. The tribunal noted that sexual violence results in pain and suffering that is still experienced by many of the women, and that the violence has an inter-generational effect, noting that women reproduce life as well as culture.
The tribunal made reference to the forensic evidence presented in court, as well as statistical evidence presented by Patrick Ball showing that 5.5% of the Ixil population had been killed during the period in question—with the Ixil killed at a rate eight times higher than that of the ladino population.
Rodriguez Sanchez was acquitted of all charges. The court found that, as director of intelligence, Rodriguez Sanchez did not have command responsibility, and that his responsibility for and involvement in the crimes had not been sufficiently established.
The court relied in part on the prosecution’s military expert, Robles Espinoza, who stated that the military intelligence unit (D2) was not involved in operations and could not authorize any actions. (“D2 no tiene injerencia en el campo de operaciones y no se le puede responsabilizar de ninguna acción.”) The court did recognize that Rodriguez Sanchez, in his role as director of military intelligence, elaborated the military operational plans.
Despite Rodriguez Sanchez’ acquittal, the court ordered him to remain detained (in a military hospital), as he has been, until the sentence is final (firme). According to his lawyer, the sentence should be entered on Friday, May 17, but it could take up to four months before the sentence is considered final.
In her concluding remarks, Judge Barrios stated, “without justice, there will be no peace.” She affirmed that the implementation of justice helps with the recognition of the truth and the assurance that these types of crimes will not be repeated. She further ordered the Public Ministry to continue its investigations of others who may have responsibility for these crimes.
The tribunal scheduled two further hearings—on Monday, May 13 at 8:30 am to hear the court’s ruling on reparations for the victims; and on Friday, May 17 at 3 pm for the reading of the full judgment.
The Courtroom: Before and After the Verdict
The mood was tense in the hours leading up to the sentencing. Witnesses, observers, and the press filed into the courtroom for the 8 am hearing. That final hearing of the trial included only Rodriguez Sanchez’s final statement and a call for the parties to reconvene at 4 pm for the verdict. Many observers, fearful that they would not be able to get back into the building, or that there would be no more space in the courtroom, remained until the sentencing in the afternoon.
Early in the day, Judge Carol Patricia Flores, a pre-trial judge who handles evidentiary and other matters in connection with the case, generated uncertainty when she emitted a ruling re-affirming her April 18 annulment of the trial and its regression to November 2011—a time before the indictment of either Rios Montt or Rodriguez Sanchez. Some legal experts assured those present that once the oral phase of the trial was completed, no further injunctions could prevent the sentence from being handed down, but the uncertainty remained until the judges returned to issue the verdict just after 4 pm.
By the afternoon, the courtroom was packed to standing room only, and many struggled to enter. At the end of a turbulent week, expectations were high.
Supporters of the former head of state applauded Rios Montt’s entry into the courtroom before the verdict was read, and strongly criticized the verdict afterwards. Family members of the two defendants were in the courtroom, including Rios Montt’s daughter, Congresswoman Zury Rios Montt, as well as members of the Guatemalan Association of Military Veterans (AVEMILGUA) and the Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundacion Contra el Terrorismo), who have staunchly opposed the trial.
They were far outnumbered, however, by survivors, relatives of victims, and their supporters, who cheered in elation in response to the tribunal’s verdict. Among those in attendance were Rigoberta Menchú, who brought the first genocide case against Rios Montt before a Spanish court (La Audiencia Nacional), and Helen Mack Chang, sister of Myrna Mack, who was killed in 1990 by members of the Presidential High Guard (Estado Mayor Presidencial) due to her work researching violence and its aftermath among Ixil and other Mayan communities.
Immediately after the pronouncement of the verdict, chaos broke out as it seemed that Rios Montt, with his attorney, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, was perhaps trying to leave the courtroom through a side door. Judge Barrios shouted that Rios Montt could not be permitted to leave without police escorts transporting him directly to prison.
“The sentence is condemnatory, and it must be implemented,” Judge Barrios called out, her voice trembling. She ordered security to protect the two exits while she sought the support of the police and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuradoria de Derechos Humanos).
Judge Barrios also shouted to Rios Montt’s attorneys: “As lawyers you must not obstruct the application of justice!” Judge Barrios told the lawyers that they could leave, but that the accused was prohibited from leaving. She restated that the panel of judges would remain in the courtroom until the police arrived to escort Rios Montt to prison. Judge Barrios urged the people in the gallery to begin filing out in an orderly fashion, though most remained until after Rios Montt was transported to prison.
Judge Barrios struggled to maintain order in the courtroom, and it took at least 30 minutes for the police escorts to arrive even though it had been anticipated that a verdict would be announced at that time. Security arrangements seemed improvised at best.
The press corps contributed to the chaos. Journalists and photographers swarmed around Rios Montt to register his reaction to the verdict. The press ignored the judge’s repeated and strident demands that they step back from Rios Montt, instead continuing to register his declarations. At one point, the defense table collapsed under the weight of all the press leaning or sitting on it to get a shot of the now condemned general.
Eventually the National Police arrived, and the chaotic situation dissipated.
As calm returned to the courtroom, the crowd began to sing a poem by Otto Rene Castillo: “Here, no one cried / Here, we only want to be human / Eat, laugh, fall in love, live / Live life, not die.” The song and its haunting words evoked the memory of those who died in Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.
At around 6 pm, Rios Montt was escorted out of the courtroom to a cell at the Matamoros military base. As he left the room, more applause and chanting ensued: “Justice! Justice! Justice!” “This is what a real judge looks like!” And, simply, “Yassmin! Yassmin!,” recognizing the tribunal’s presiding judge. Some of the Maya Ixiles stood up and called out “Tantixh!”—thank you!—to the three judges, bowing their heads. Judge Barrios replied with appreciation of the recognition, but with insistence that “we are only doing our duty.”
In the minutes between the verdict and Rios Montt’s departure to Matamoros Prison, Rios Montt spoke willingly to the assembled press. According to media reports, he claimed that the tribunal was “an international show trial that will affect the heart and soul of the Guatemalan people.” He affirmed that he was at peace, despite the court’s verdict, as he believed he had obeyed the law and not caused bloodshed of his “brothers.” (“Es un show político internacional que va a afectar el alma y el corazón del pueblo guatemalteco, pero nosotros tenemos paz porque nunca derramamos o no nos manchamos las manos de sangre de nuestros hermanos.”)
In contrast to the statements of his most ardent defenders, who have asserted that the country needs to avoid prosecutions to prevent destabilization, Rios Montt said “the only way to have peace is through justice.” However, he insisted that justice was lacking in the court’s sentence. (“La única manera de tener paz es haciendo justicia y precisamente de eso adolecemos hoy.”)
Rios Montt further stated that the judgment was not grounded in law and would be overturned, and that the judges ruled based on “institutional or personal” interests rather than the interests of the country.
Rios Montt’s attorney, Garcia Gudiel, said that there were 12 pending legal challenges, and also asserted with confidence that the judgment would fall on appeal.
Reactions to the Verdict
The impact of the Rios Montt judgment has been hailed as historic. For the first time, a domestic court has proven capable of investigating, prosecuting and sentencing an accused former head of state for genocide. The Rios Montt trial and verdict are being discussed as an example of justice for Latin America and the world.
At the same time, due to the fact that the process unfolded in a context of massive and recurring legal and political challenges, many observers questioned at various stages whether this demonstrated that the obstacles to such a prosecution were too monumental for the Guatemalan justice system. The numerous legal challenges lodged at different judicial authorities stymied the trial for several weeks, and left even some of the lawyers confused. The prosecution and civil parties repeatedly identified their perception that the defense used these amparos, or constitutional challenges, as a way to threaten the continuation of the trial, rather than as legitimate efforts to protect the rights of the accused.
Further, at some critical instances, some highlighted that the trial demonstrated the risks of political interference and corruption. At the start of the trial, President Otto Perez Molina stated that, in his view and based on personal knowledge, he did not believe that there was genocide in Guatemala. After the temporary suspension of the trial, high-profile former government officials identified that the charges and the trial threaten to destabilize the country; soon after, President Perez Molina strongly endorsed this view. By this point, a witness had already implicated the president in controversial testimony.
President Perez Molina’s position shifted markedly as the trial progressed. After the judgment, President Perez Molina insisted that he respected the independence of the judiciary and the trial’s judgment in this case. He highlighted the verdict as an “opportunity” for reconciliation. However, he also noted that the sentence against Rios Montt had not yet been ratified. Moreover, he repeated his long-stated assertion that in Guatemala “there was no genocide”—qualifying this that it was “based on [his] experience.” In an extended interview with CNN En Español after the conclusion of the trial, the president was forced again to confront the fact that a witness in the case had explicitly implicated him in related crimes.
The environment around the trial became increasingly polarized as it progressed, and that did not dissipate after the verdict. Throughout the trial, high-profile voices in Guatemala vociferously challenged criminal prosecutions of military officers for human rights violations. They contested that a genocide ever occurred and viewed the prosecution as undermining the role of the military in saving the country from falling into the hands of communist rule.
After the verdict, on Sunday, military families marched in front of the Matamoros military base in support of Rios Montt. Also on Sunday, the powerful business association CACIF (the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations) called for the verdict to be overturned. CACIF rejected the tribunal’s legal reasoning, saying the intention to commit genocide had not been adequately demonstrated; charged the tribunal with violating due process and other procedural guarantees; and insisted that the sentence was politically motivated, fuelled polarization and undermined the rule of law in Guatemala.
In the end, the recognition of the significance of the judgment was hailed by domestic and international actors. The Center for Legal Action for Human Rights (CALDH), one of the civil parties to the genocide trial, applauded the verdict, affirming that the judgment “confirms what has been claimed over the past 30 years, and acknowledges that crimes against humanity should be punished in order to ensure that they never again occur.”
Sebastian Elgueta, representing Amnesty International, stated: “With this conviction, Guatemala leads by example in a region where entrenched impunity for past crimes sadly remains the norm.” James Goldstone, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, identified that this verdict demonstrates that accountability “for the gravest international crimes” is possible “despite the considerable political challenges that such prosecutions can face.”
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala also issued a statement on Sunday recognizing the verdict as important for the rule of law in Guatemala and an opportunity for “true reconciliation” and progress forward. In its statement, the Embassy highlighted that “it was not Guatemala, as a country, that was on trial, but two individuals, one of whom was acquitted and the other convicted.”
For Helen Mack, a Guatemalan human rights defender, the trial marks a watershed for Guatemala—the first time Guatemala’s indigenous population have had an opportunity to make their voices heard in a court of law, and a demonstration that truth and justice for the victims can be achieved through peaceful, democratic means.
Benjamin Geronimo, on behalf of the survivors’ group Justice and Reconciliation Association, the civil party which initiated the case, recognized that this conviction is important but only part of a larger struggle. There will be certain appeals, and according to Geronimo, there should also be further prosecutions.
Emi MacLean, Legal Officer of the Open Society Justice Initiative, contributed to the research and writing of this blog.