In a tense and packed courtroom, Guatemalan High Risk Court “B” delivered its verdict on Wednesday evening in the retrial of José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez for the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population.
The court unanimously found that the State of Guatemala, and more specifically the Guatemalan army, committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population during the de facto government of Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983). The court determined that the evidence presented by the Attorney General’s Office and by the co-plaintiffs, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation and the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), proved that the Guatemalan army devised a plan to exterminate the Maya Ixil. The army defined the ethnic group as coterminous with armed guerrilla organizations.
Evidence included testimony from some 100 survivors and families of victims, official documents, and expert witnesses. The atrocities included the destruction of at least 50 villages in the Ixil region, massacres, the widespread use of torture and sexual violence, especially against women, and search and destroy operations against the displaced population who, fleeing army violence, went to live in the mountains. The court affirmed that the structural racism and discrimination against the indigenous population that has characterized Guatemalan history was the underlying factor pushing the army’s counterinsurgency strategy towards acts of genocide.
However, the court divided over the criminal responsibility of Rodríguez Sánchez. In a split 2-1 ruling, the majority opinion of presiding judge María Eugenia Castellanos and Judge Jaime González Marín acquitted Rodríguez Sánchez of all charges, while Judge Sarah Yoc Yoc delivered an impassioned, dissenting opinion affirming his culpability for the atrocities. According to the majority opinion, the Attorney General’s Office failed to produce a document demonstrating that Rodríguez Sánchez gave the orders to commit these atrocities. In their view, Rodríguez Sánchez was merely an advisor to the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army, and did not have command responsibility.
Judge Yoc challenged that view in her dissenting opinion, finding that Rodríguez Sánchez was not just an advisor but the chief of military intelligence and a member of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army. As such, he was responsible for collecting intelligence, through a vast network of informers, to determine who the enemy was. He was also responsible for the design, implementation and supervision of military plans and operations.
“Because of his position in the military hierarchy, he may not have given direct orders, but he collected, analyzed, and drew conclusions based on the information he collected and transmitted those conclusions to his superior officers, and they decided what actions to take,” she stated. “If he had not transmitted that information, much of it obtained illegally, we would not have so many dead…. I believe that the evidence demonstrates his culpability and that he should be sentenced to 30 years for each of the crimes (genocide and crimes against humanity).”
This is the second time Rodríguez Sánchez was acquitted of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil. In the 2013, High Risk Court “B” also found that the army had committed genocide against the Maya Ixil, and acquitted Rodríguez Sánchez while finding his co-plaintiff, Ríos Montt, guilty and sentencing him to 80 years in prison. However, following pressure from business and military elites challenging the notion that there was genocide in Guatemala, the Constitutional Court issued a controversial ruling that partially suspended the 2013 proceedings and vacated the judgment. After several failed attempts to initiate the retrial, it finally began in October 2017, with each of the accused prosecuted under separate proceedings. Ríos Montt died in April and the court closed the case against him.
Despite the court’s determination of the State of Guatemala was responsible for genocide and other atrocities, it did not order it to provide the victims with reparations of any kind. Instead, the court told the victims that they could pursue damages in civil court. Lawyers for the victims told IJ Monitor that they will study the full verdict once the court makes it available to determine whether to appeal the decision.
Human rights organizations representing the victims lamented the court’s decision to acquit Rodríguez Sánchez. Edgar Pérez, of the Human Rights Law Firm and lawyer for the AJR, said that he believed the plaintiffs had provided ample evidence, including military documents, expert testimony about the role of military intelligence in the design, implementation, and supervision of military plans and operations, and witness testimony, to convict Rodríguez Sánchez. He said despite his disagreement with this aspect of the court’s ruling, he saw the ruling as a victory because it acknowledged what the victims have been saying for more than 30 years: that the army committed genocide.
Juan Francisco Soto, director of the CALDH, also a co-plaintiff to the case, told IJ Monitor that he was satisfied at the court’s findings that there was genocide against the Maya Ixil in 1982 and 1983. “We proved that there was genocide in 2013, and we proved it again in these proceedings,” he stated. “And if Ríos Montt were alive today, he would have been convicted of genocide for a second time.”
Business elites and conservative politicians sharply criticized the court’s determination of genocide. Álvaro Arzú, the son of former president of the same name (1996-2000) and currently president of the Guatemalan Congress, wrote on Twitter: “The only reason to continue saying that Guatemala is a genocidal country is so that the NGOs and their owners can continue receiving millions of dollars in reparations and grants. It is time to end this perverse business that has done so much damage to the country.”
IJ Monitor had the opportunity to meet with members of the AJR the day after the verdict was handed down. Several members expressed their frustration over the court’s split decision.
“In Guatemala today, acknowledging the genocide is permitted, but holding the senior military officials responsible for the genocide is not permitted,” said one AJR member. Another remarked that despite this, it was an important step in the struggle of the indigenous people of Guatemala for equality and an end to racial discrimination.
“We indigenous people have long been mistreated. But we are all born with the same humanity, we are all equal,” they said.
Pérez remarked that despite these limitations, the court’s acknowledgment of genocide marks a watershed. “This sentence will be studied 20 or 30 years from now as a decisive moment in Guatemalan history,” he said. “A national court acknowledged past atrocities, which the state and the army have long denied.”
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.