A judge has determined that there is sufficient evidence to send former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to trial for the case of the Las Dos Erres massacre. This is the second trial Ríos Montt will face in which he is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.
According to Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission, the Dos Erres massacre took place over three days in early December 1982 and was carried out by a counterinsurgency unit known as the Kaibiles. At the time, Rios Montt was de facto president and commander-in-chief of the army.
Over 200 residents of Las Dos Erres, a newly settled community in Peten, were killed in the massacre. Soldiers raped girls and women before killing them. They bludgeoned villagers, including children, to death and tossed many into a community well.
Forensic investigators exhumed 162 bodies from Las Dos Erres. Of these, 67 were children under the age of 12.
In 2011, four soldiers were sentenced to 6,060 years each in this case; another was sentenced the following year as well.
The pre-trial hearing was held on Friday, March 31, before Presiding Judge Claudette Domínguez of High Risk Court A. Before a packed courtroom, public prosecutor Erick de León outlined the charges and evidence against Ríos Montt, including official military documents, eyewitness testimony, and expert reports.
According to de León, Ríos Montt continued the pre-existing scorched-earth counterinsurgency strategy developed under the previous military government of Romeo Lucas García (1978-82). De León asserted that as de facto head of state, Ríos Montt had absolute control over the Guatemalan army and authorized operations throughout the country, including the massacre at Las Dos Erres.
De León referred to military documents showing that the commanding officer of Military Zone No. 23 in Peten requested permission from the army High Command to mobilize Kaibil special forces to assist in the counterinsurgency operation in Las Dos Erres. The request followed an attack on a military convoy in which 19 rifles were stolen, presumably by guerrilla forces. At the time of the massacre, the members of the army High Command were Ríos Montt, Minister of Defense Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, and Chief of the High Command, Héctor Mario López Fuentes.
Mejía Víctores and López Fuentes both died before they could be prosecuted for this or other alleged crimes. Ríos Montt’s lawyers argued that their client was never in Las Dos Erres and cannot therefore be considered responsible for deaths that occurred there.
Special Provisions for the Mentally Unfit Ríos Montt
Judge Domínguez determined that, given the aging Ríos Montt’s state of health, special provisions would be adopted in these proceedings. As in the Maya Ixil genocide case — whose retrial start date remains pending — under these special provisions, Ríos Montt would not be compelled to be present at the proceedings and would be represented in court by a guardian. The hearings would be closed to the public and the press, and, even if found guilty, no criminal sanction would be applied.
The case against Ríos Montt in the Las Dos Erres massacre case had remained dormant until August 2016, when the United States deported Santos López Alonzo, a former Kaibil agent, to Guatemala, where he was charged with homicide and crimes against humanity. Ríos Montt’s lawyers sought to have the pending charges against him dropped, but the judge rejected the motion and, after reviewing the evidence, instead ruled to send Ríos Montt to trial.
Judge Domínguez assigned the case to High Risk Tribunal B, the same tribunal that presides over the stalled Maya Ixil genocide case against Ríos Montt. After the 2013 conviction of Ríos Montt in that case was effectively overturned by the Constitutional Court, under intense pressure from conservative business elites and retired military officers, numerous efforts to launch a retrial have collapsed.
The court is scheduled to hold a hearing to review evidence from the different parties in the Dos Erres massacre case on May 18, 2017.
Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.