Rios Montt Trial Moves to Closing Arguments: Public Ministry Seeks 75 Years in Prison for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

Wednesday’s hearing in the Guatemalan genocide trial of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez saw a dramatic turn of events when, after a tense morning of vitriolic outbursts and veiled threats by defense attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel, the trial court moved in the afternoon to hear closing arguments.

Representing the Public Ministry, prosecutor Orlando Lopez gave a two and a half hour presentation outlining the case against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, who stand accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges refer specifically to the murder of 1,771 Maya Ixils from Quiche department during the 17 months of Rios Montt’s de facto government between March 1982 and August 1983. In his concluding remarks, Lopez asked the court to sentence each of the defendants to 75 years in prison.

It was a remarkable turn from a morning session bogged down in defense lawyers’ efforts to obstruct continuation of the trial, to an afternoon session in which the Public Ministry delivered a comprehensive and crafted presentation outlining military plans, strategies, and command structures, as well as concrete details about the victims, many of whom testified in open court about massacres in their communities, forced displacement, the burning of their homes, the destruction of their crops, and in the case of several women, their rape by soldiers.

Prosecuting attorney Orlando Lopez recapitulated the case against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, outlining the precise role of each in ordering and implementing military campaign plans whose chief stated purpose was the destruction of the Maya Ixil population.

In the morning session, presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios faced vitriolic defense lawyer attacks on her integrity as a judge and on the legitimacy of her court, yet guided the process to its current critical moment.

The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday at 8:30 am. The civil parties are due to offer their closing arguments, followed by closing arguments by the defense. Each of the defendants will then be allowed to address the court personally before the close of the trial. In Guatemala, a sentence is normally handed down very quickly after the closing of the trial.

Defense Attorney Launches Tirade Against Decision to Deny Recusal

The trial resumed Tuesday after a five-day recess, but was suspended due to the absence of Rios Montt’s lawyer, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, on account of illness. At the start of the hearing Wednesday morning, Cesar Calderon, defense lawyer for Rodriguez Sanchez who has not been seen in the courtroom since he and the entire defense team walked out of the courtroom in protest on April 18, asked to assist public defender Otto Ramirez. The tribunal noted that he had illegally abandoned the courtroom, but that – given that he was the lawyer of Rodriguez Sanchez’s choosing (de confianza) – it would allow his reinstatement. Adolfo Ramirez Vasquez also requested, and was granted, reinstatement as legal defense for Rodriguez Sanchez.

Otto Ramirez, who had been assigned as a public defender for Rodriguez Sanchez after the entire defense team walked out, asked to be released from the case. His motion was denied, in order to guarantee that the defendant has legal representation should his lawyers again abandon the courtroom.

In response to a ruling handed down on Monday, May 6 by an appeals court (Sala Tercera de la Corte de Apelaciones) that restored Garcia Gudiel as Rios Montt’s defense attorney and ordered the suspension of the trial until the motion to recuse the trial court had been resolved, the tribunal invited Garcia Gudiel to present again his motion to recuse. (On the day the trial began on March 19, Garcia Gudiel motioned for the recusal of presiding Judge Barrios due to a purported enmity between the two, and Judge Pablo Xitumul, with whom he claimed to have amity that imperiled the judge’s impartiality in the case. He was expelled the same day and recently reinstated.)

Garcia Gudiel complained that he had felt compelled under threat of a new expulsion to assist the court today despite the illness that had prohibited his presence in court the day before. Public prosecutor Orlando Lopez asked to intervene. Lopez first noted that Garcia Gudiel had not submitted a medical certificate for his absence on Tuesday. He went on to announce that he had a video showing Garcia Gudiel at the Public Ministry on Tuesday, contradicting claims he was ill. The footage, culled from security cameras and presented publicly to the court with time stamps, showed Garcia Gudiel entering the Public Ministry, walking through its corridors, and subsequently exiting. Garcia Gudiel claimed the videos had been manipulated by the Public Ministry.

Garcia Gudiel renewed his motion to recuse two of the trial court’s judges—briefly asserting that pre-existing relationships should compel the disqualification of Judges Barrios and Xitumul. He cited one case in which he represented someone convicted of fraud and money laundering, but did not elaborate further and, indeed, insisted that it was not necessary to do so in open court.

He exhorted the court to comply with the appellate court’s ruling, which he claimed that the court was not doing, insisting that the May 6 ruling obligated the tribunal to suspend the trial until a “firm” ruling on the recusal is handed down.

The tribunal deliberated and denied the recusal motion, concluding that Garcia Gudiel had not presented sufficient justification to support his motion to recuse either Barrios or Xitumul. Having given Garcia Gudiel the opportunity to present his recusal motion, and rejecting it in turn, the court insisted that it was in compliance with Monday’s appeals court ruling, and called for the continuation of the hearing.

Following their ruling, Garcia Gudiel chastised the trial court, saying that the judges were failing to uphold the appeals court judgment: “You don’t get to discuss the sentence; you have to carry it out.” He accused the trial court of violating the rule of law, and as he spoke, he became increasingly aggressive and agitated.

In his caustic remarks, Garcia Gudiel called into question the personal integrity of the judges: “What class of professionals are you! You don’t deserve to be in your positions.” He then intoned: “I warn you…I will not rest until I see you behind bars.”

Judge Barrios replied calmly, reminding all parties of the lawyer’s professional code of ethics, which she had read in open court on May 2, in response to earlier actions of Garcia Gudiel. She added, “All human beings deserve respect. Lawyers have to respect these norms and ethics.” After another round of consultations, the trial court dismissed Garcia Gudiel’s motion on the same grounds and decided to continue the trial. Judge Barrios concluded, “It’s important to state that we won’t accept threats of any kind.”

The vitriol and personal animosity on display by Garcia Gudiel was matched only by the graceful persistence of Judge Barrios, who guided the trial through nearly a dozen motions and requests from the defense, to initiate the trial’s closing arguments.

Closing Arguments Begin with Prosecution

After a lunch break, the hearing resumed.

The defense was given a fifth opportunity to present their witnesses, after having repeatedly failed to bring their named witnesses to court. (A court officer who had searched for the defense’s remaining named witnesses had reported back that at least one had not lived in the address provided to the court for at least three years.)

Previously, the defense asserted that their witnesses were not present and impossible to locate. This time, they asserted that had not planned to present any witnesses today because, in their view, the May 6 appellate court ruling ordered the suspension of Wednesday’s hearing; they again requested additional time to present their witnesses. The tribunal determined that the defense had been given adequate opportunity to present their witnesses, and had not done so.

After finding that neither party had any further witnesses or evidence to present, the court proceeded to closing arguments. The energy in the room was electric, and as closing arguments began, the room became more and more full.

Prosecutor Orlando Lopez began presenting the closing argument on behalf of the Public Ministry at approximately 3 pm. The prosecution alleges that Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez were responsible for the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Ixils, the displacement of 29,000 and their subjection to sub-human conditions, torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment, and the rape and sexual abuse of women, which amount to acts of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Accompanied by a detailed PowerPoint presentation, Lopez  stated that after the coup d’état that brought him to power in March 1982 and August 1983 (when he himself was deposed in a coup), Rios Montt exercised absolute power as (de facto) President of the Republic, commander in chief of the Army (Comandante General del Ejército), an affirmation confirmed in the declarations of General Luis Quilo Ayuso, who presented expert testimony on military matters for the defense which was relied on by the prosecution in its closing statement.

The Public Ministry also concluded that Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez had a system of communication and of hierarchy that confirmed their full knowledge of the operations carried out by the army, describing the required regular report-backs and radio communication in real-time.  Lopez identified the laws and decrees under Rios Montt which consolidated state power.

The Public Ministry presented documentation, including the Manual of Counter-subversive Warfare, that outlined the political-military doctrine that defines the indigenous Mayan groups as the internal enemy who it believed to be the “bases of support” for insurgent combatants, as well as detailed documentation of the training and the systemized procedure of eliminating suspected sympathizers. This was confirmed in Quilo Ayuso’s testimony, who affirmed, “support bases are the campesino organizations in the Ixil triangle.”

The Public Ministry also went to great lengths to demonstrate the total control Rios Montt had over the armed forces throughout his 17 months as de facto president and presented evidence establishing the consistent communication among and between all levels of the armed forces on matters relating to operations in the Ixil area—an important element in demonstrating intent, a required element to prove genocide.

Key to the prosecution’s case against the accused are two military counterinsurgency plans—Plan Victoria 82 and Plan Sofia—as well as a political-military strategy document called the National Plan for Security and Development (Plan Nacional de Seguridad y Desarrollo). This document outlined the overarching framework for defeating the counterinsurgency in Guatemala. Central to this was promoting and fomenting “nationalism,” and ensuring the “indoctrination and education of the rural population” as a way to counter subversive activity in the country.

The Public Ministry displayed a video of Rios Montt saying that he seeks to create nationalism to overcome the fact that Guatemala had not yet integrated as a nation. “We have a problem—we are an amalgam of nations with their own languages and customs.” His program to create a Guatemalan national identity —“Guatemaldad”— was integral to this vision.

Plan Victoria provided an analysis of the state of enemy forces in Guatemala, which according to the strategy document, “tends to involve the large majority of the indigenous population in the area,” and outlined a strategy to destroy the guerilla bases of operations through annihilation and scorched earth tactics.

Plan Sofia contains details of counterinsurgency operations carried out by the Army in the areas in question during Rios Montt’s tenure as head of state, and was delivered by an anonymous source to Kate Doyle of the National Security Archives in 2009. According to Lopez, this document was especially helpful in demonstrating that, through a highly structured system of communications, Rios Montt “was involved in all that was happening in the Ixil area.”

Lopez then directed his closing statements to the effects on the indigenous populations of the government’s implementation of strategies outlined in Plan Victoria and Plan Sofia.

Lopez provided a summation of the witness testimony during the trial as well. During the trial, nearly one hundred witnesses provided testimony. Ninety-four of the witnesses said at least one family member died at the hands of the army. Eighty-three referred to instances in which the Army burned their houses. Fifty-four complained of the robbery or slaughter of animals, and 16 identified that they were victims of sexual violence. Seven spoke of torture at the hands of the military.

The court also heard testimony from forensic anthropologists, who certified that of the 114 exhumed bodies identified in reports presented to the court in connection with the case and in the timeframe covered by the indictment, 29 percent were under the age of 12 when they died, and an additional 9 percent were over the age of 51. Children and the elderly then, made up nearly 40 percent of the victims exhumed in the region during that time period.

The statements of the witnesses also referenced a high number of children and elderly victims of state violence: of 198 victims mentioned in the oral phase of the trial, 88 (or 45%) were 0-8 years old and 12% were 51 or older.

Further, Lopez remarked, according to combat studies and ballistics analysis, the vast majority of victims died from wounds more common in execution-style killings than in combat situations. Lopez recalled the statistical evidence presented by expert witness Patrick Ball: the rate of death at the hands of the military during this time period was eight times higher for indigenous populations than for ladinos.

In summary, the Public Ministry argued that the evidence demonstrated that the accused were guilty of the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity beyond a reasonable doubt. Lopez reiterated that the evidence had shown that the acts committed by the army, commanded by the defendants against the Maya Ixil population, were planned, repetitive, and indiscriminate. Based on the evidence presented, the Public Ministry asked the court to sentence Jose Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez to 75 years in prison for the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Final Arguments Expected Thursday

Each of the civil parties representing victims will have an opportunity to provide closing arguments, as will attorneys for each of the accused. In addition, both Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez will have a final opportunity to address the court. A sentence could come as soon as late Thursday or early Friday.

Casey Cagley, Research Associate at the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University, contributed to the research and writing of this blog.