In 2013, Jose Efrain Rios Montt (now deceased), who ruled Guatemala for nearly seventeen months during 1982 and 1983, and his then chief of military intelligence, faced trial in Guatemala City for genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges arose from systematic massacres of the country’s indigenous population carried out by Guatemalan troops and paramilitary forces during this phase of the country’s long and brutal civil war, and the related mass forced displacement.
This was the first time a former head of state had been prosecuted for genocide in a national, as opposed to an international, court. The trial was an important milestone in holding political and military leaders accountable for international crimes. For Guatemalans, it contributed to an accurate historical account of the gross human rights violations committed during the civil war, in a process that helped to reinforce the country’s young democracy.
A United Nations sponsored truth commission established under the peace agreement that ended the civil war in 1996 estimated that more than 200,000 died or were subjected to forced disappearance during the 36-year conflict, over 80 percent from Mayan indigenous populations. The commission found that state security personnel and paramilitaries were responsible for 93 percent of the violations. The commission identified over 600 massacres, and found that the state was responsible for systematic violence – including extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, sexual violence, death squads, the denial of justice, and other crimes and violations, with the victims largely from indigenous and rural communities. The three-year period between 1981 and 1983 accounts for 81 percent of the violations reported by the truth commission related to the 36 year conflict—with nearly half (48 percent) of all reported violations occurring during 1982.
The commission specifically found that the state was responsible for acts of genocide in four designated regions between 1981 and 1983. The commission stated that the Army identified Mayans as an “internal enemy” as a base of guerrilla support and committed massacres with the objective of killing the greatest number of people possible, with strategic planning and in response to state policy. In the Ixil region, between 70 and 90 percent of the communities were wiped out during this period.
Until recently, no one had been held accountable for these crimes. In 2009, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights noted that Guatemala’s impunity index for current and past crimes was 98 percent. It identified the impunity for the crimes against humanity connected to the internal armed conflict as near-total. Investigations and prosecutions either never started, or remained perpetually stalled. Even when warrants were issued for the arrest of alleged perpetrators, they were never executed.
In recent years, however, significant steps have been taken towards prosecutions for the gravest crimes, which began under the leadership of Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s former Attorney General. Significant reforms were undertaken during her term, including the creation of specialized courts and the designation of judges focused on “high-risk” cases (including El Tribunal de sentencia de Mayor Riesgo A where this trial took place). Before 2013, prosecutions were limited, with the majority targeting low-level soldiers or paramilitaries, rather than their commanders. This trial marked a significant turning point.
The Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro Para la Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos, or CALDH), a leading Guatemalan NGO, and human rights lawyer Edgar Pérez, of the Bufete Juridico de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala, representing the Association of Justice and Reconciliation (Asociación Para Justícia y Reconciliación, or AJR), initiated a complaint with the Public Ministry in 2001 seeking the investigation and prosecution of the commanders responsible for the violations committed in 1982 and 1983, the most brutal years of Guatemala’s civil war. Various groups brought a similar case in the Spanish National Court in late 1999 charging eight high-ranking officials with international crimes—torture, genocide, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism. (A 1985 Spanish law allows prosecution for certain crimes, including genocide.)
The domestic prosecution charged Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez with genocide and crimes against humanity. Former head of state Rios Montt was included as a defendant on January 26, 2012 after losing his immunity as a member of Congress in 2012.
The first genocide charge against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez was in relation to 15 massacres against the Ixil population living in the Quiche region during his rule as head of state between March 1982 and August 1983. These charges alleged that Rios Montt was the intellectual author of 1,771 deaths, the forced displacement of 29,000 people, sexual violence against at least 8 women, and torture of at least 14 people. They alleged that Rodriguez Sanchez implemented military plans responsible for the killing of civilians in the Ixil Triangle of Nebaj, Chajul and San Juan Cotzal, in Quiche.
In a second genocide charge, introduced in May 2012, Rios Montt was charged in relation to the deaths of 201 people in Dos Erres (Peten) in December 1982.
The trial, which opened on March 19, 2013, related only to the first set of charges—the killings, forcible displacement, sexual violations and torture of the Ixil population in the Quiche region. The Dos Erres charges will be heard separately; no date has been set yet.
Rios Montt asserted his innocence throughout the process. Among the defense arguments were that Rios Montt did not have command responsibility over the officers directly responsible for the violations, or did not directly order or participate in the alleged acts. He also asserted that a 1986 amnesty law, introduced by then President Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, prohibits the prosecution. An appeal (amparo) concerning the amnesty law was rejected as baseless by the Constitutional Court in March 2013.
Related charges have been brought against former generals Mejia Victores (Rios Montt’s successor as president and his former defense minister) and Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, Army Chief of Staff under Rios Montt. Both were captured in 2011, but the charges against them have been suspended on account of their state of health.
On April 2, 2018, while facing a retrial on the original genocide charges, Rios Montt passed away. He was 91 years old.
Court and Legal Documents
Other Domestic International Crimes Prosecutions
The Public Ministry has succeeded in bringing other prosecutions related to the internal armed conflict, though most have been against low-level officials. In the past five years, the Public Ministry in Guatemala has achieved historic convictions for forced disappearances. In addition, various (at least 28) soldiers have been convicted for their involvement in murders or massacres during the civil war. At least 18 of these have been convicted of crimes against humanity in addition to various counts of murder.
Some more senior security officials have been convicted, though their numbers are limited. In December 2009, Guatemalan courts convicted Colonel Marco Antonio Sanchez Samayoa for the enforced disappearance of eight family members in the El Jute massacre of October 1981, and on August 22, 2012 a Guatemalan court convicted former Police Chief Pedro Garcia Arredondo of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity (torture). Other related cases are ongoing or pending.
The Spanish Case
A case introduced in the Spanish National Court in December 1999 by a group of Guatemalans, led by Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu, charges eight high-ranking officials, including Rios Montt, with international crimes—torture, genocide, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism. A 1985 Spanish law allows prosecution for certain listed crimes (including genocide, terrorism, piracy) and “any other [criminal act] which, according to international covenants and treaties, should be prosecuted in Spain.” The US-based Center for Justice and Accountability has been lead counsel since 2006.
In 2006, a Judge of the Spanish National Court issued arrest warrants, including a warrant for the arrest of Rios Montt, and an order to freeze assets. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court initially accepted the warrants and arrested two defendants (Guevara Rodriguez and Garcia Arredondo). However, in December 2007, the Constitutional Court declared the warrants invalid, refused to order extradition and instead ordered the release of the two detained defendants.
In 2008 and 2009, the Spanish National Court heard the testimony of victims and experts. In April 2011, the Spanish National Court issued an arrest warrant and requested the extradition of Jorge Sosa Orantes, for his role in the massacre at Dos Erres. Canadian authorities arrested him because of a warrant issued in the United States in connection with immigration-related charges, and extradited him in 2012. He is due to go on trial in California on charges of naturalization fraud in August, 2013.
Significant Names and Events
Army Intelligence Section, or Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the National Defense (D-2 or G-2)
D-2 or G-2 was the Intelligence Unit of the Army.
Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (Comité de Asociaciones Comerciales Industriales y Financieras, or CACIF)
CACIF is a coalition of Guatemalan business interests.
Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, or FAFG)
FAFG is a non-governmental forensic non-profit organization based in Guatemala which works in coordination with the Public Ministry to conduct exhumations, provide expert testimony and perform scientific investigations.
Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, or EGP)
The EGP was a left-wing guerrilla organization which joined with ORPA, PGT and FAR in 1982 to form the URNG.
“High-risk” or “High-impact” Courts (Tribunales de “alto riesgo” o “alto impacto”)
“High-risk” or “high-impact” courts are specialized courts overseen by “high-risk” or “high-impact” judges to handle more complicated or sensitive cases.
Historical Archive of the National Police (Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, or AHPN)
The Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive is the largest of its kind in Latin America. It holds approximately 80 million pages of records from over 100 years. The mandate of the AHPN is to preserve and make available publicly the records of the disbanded Guatemalan National Police. The AHPN was discovered by accident in 2005.
Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, or CEH)
The CEH operated February 1997 to February 1999 pursuant to the June 1994 Agreement on the establishment of the Commission to clarify past human rights violations. The Commission was chaired by Christian Tomuschat, appointed by the United Nations Secretary General. It produced a final report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence.
The Ixil Triangle is the name given by the military to three communities in the northwest Guatemalan highlands, in the department of El Quiche. The communities are Santa Maria Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal, and San Gaspar Chajul. The population of these communities is predominantly Mayan Ixil, the population and the communities most severely affected by the internal armed conflict and the military’s counter-insurgency strategy and scorched earth campaign, particularly in the early 1980s.
The Kaibiles (or the Patrulla Especial Kaibil, or PEK) are an Army Special Forces Unit in Guatemala. It is an elite specially trained squad. During the internal armed conflict, the kaibiles were engaged in counter-insurgency operations.
National Security Doctrine
The National Security Doctrine describes the ideology of Latin American military regimes during the Cold War particularly focused on the internal threat of subversive activity and class war, with the support of the anti-communist U.S. government policy of the time. According to the UN truth commission report: “This definition of the population as a potential threat founded in the National Security Doctrine was the departure point for the annihilation of social organizations as well as the massacres and razing of hundreds of communities throughout the country.” Intrinsic to the National Security Doctrine was the notion of the “internal enemy” (“enemigo interno”).
PACs (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil)
PACs were civilian militias conscripted from the rural civilian population under the de facto presidency of Rios Montt, beginning in 1981.
Presidential Security Department (“La Regional” or the “Archivo”)
“El Archivo” was the President’s Intelligence Unit.
Rebel Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, or FAR)
The FAR was a left-wing guerrilla organization which joined with ORPA, EGP and PGT in 1982 to form the URNG.
The REMHI Report is the report of the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica. Titled Nunca Más, or Never Again, the REMHI Report is the first of two truth commission reports related to the Guatemalan internal armed conflict. The report concludes that the military was responsible for 87% of the approximately 200,000 civilian deaths and disappearances. The report’s lead author, Bishop Juan José Gerardi, was beaten to death two days after the report’s release. Three army officers and one priest who served as an accomplice were eventually convicted for their roles in the murder.
Revolutionary National Unity of Guatemala (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, or URNG)
The URNG resulted from the 1982 coalition of four left-wing guerrilla groups – the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the Guatemalan Party of Labour (PGT). The URNG participated in peace negotiations to end the internal armed conflict.
Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas, or ORPA)
The ORPA was a left-wing guerrilla organization which joined with EGP, PGT and FAR in 1982 to form the URNG.
Guatemalan Party of Labour (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo, or PGT)
The PGT was a left-wing guerrilla organization which joined with ORPA, EGP and FAR in 1982 to form the URNG.
Trial Monitoring Partners
The Open Society Justice Initiative is grateful for the significant contributions of the following partner organizations and experts. Their help in monitoring and reporting on every day of the trial made this website possible, and their continued support serves to expand awareness of ongoing accountability efforts in Guatemala.