Genocide and Justice in Guatemala: The Case for Sentencing Efraín Ríos Montt

In 1999, the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) estimated that over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the country’s brutal civil war, and that eighty-three percent of victims were indigenous Maya. Fourteen years after the report’s publication, impunity in Guatemala has decreased from over ninety percent to an estimated seventy percent in 2012 while members of Congress and the Executive Branch enjoy parliamentary immunity. Efraín Ríos Montt, who held power in Guatemala between 1982 and 1983, was the first leader in Latin America charged with genocide and sentenced to eighty years in prison. However, the decision by the Constitutional Court to overturn their 2013 ruling and suspend Ríos Montt’s retrial, as well as the government’s policy to deny the genocide, demonstrates a miscarriage of justice for those who still remember the massacre of indigenous people.

Ríos Montt seized power during the Guatemalan civil war and intentionally targeted indigenous people to be killed by the Guatemalan military. Ríos Montt ordered military squadrons into the countryside to combat the insurgent Guatemala Revolutionary National Unity movement which was believed to recruit indigenous people and use their land to conduct their operations. However, the CEH findings revealed that the “identification of Mayan communities with the insurgency was intentionally exaggerated by the State.” Not only were Ríos Montt’s policies “based on traditional racist prejudices,” as the CEH report elucidates, but resulted in “massacres, scorched earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Mayan authorities, leaders and spiritual guides […] to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in Mayan communities.” Ríos Montt’s actions are some of the few in international law that clearly demonstrate genocidal intent, as well as consequential mass-killings, which are the two legal requirements for genocide.

The recent tendency of Guatemala’s government to deny the genocide fosters a legal culture that makes Ríos Montt’s renewed sentence far less plausible and obstructs justice for thousands of Guatemalans that remember the reality of Ríos Montt’s brutality. Current president Otto Pérez Molina has conveniently denied that the genocide occurred. Coincidentally, Pérez Molina served as a major under Ríos Montt, having carried out many of the scorched earth operations and genocidal rapes. Pérez also put pressure on the Constitutional Court to rule in favor of Ríos Montt, publicly stating that Guatemala would descend into violence if Ríos Montt were convicted. Additionally, Guatemala’s legislature refuses to recognize genocide in a sharply criticized resolution that states that it is “legally impossible” to believe that genocide occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. The Constitutional Court operates in a governmental culture that clearly opposes recognizing that genocide occurred, suggesting that justice will continue to be denied to both survivors and the victims of genocide.

Aside from the governmental objections to genocide, the defense continues to delay legal proceedings by exploiting procedural technicalities in favor of Ríos Montt’s case. Ríos Montt’s conviction was overturned because of a separate ruling by Judge Gloria Patricia Flores, who recused herself two years before the original ruling. Flores’ ruling was based on a due process challenge brought by the defense, who argued that, because Ríos Montt dismissed his appointed defense attorney, the defendant lacked proper legal representation. At the outset of Ríos Montt’s retrial, the defendant was absent due to sickness, delaying the trial even further. That Ríos Montt has recently been declared “mentally unfit” to defend himself against his charges does not absolve his culpability. The official record, concluded by the CEH, determined his role in the genocide, and his sentencing would go a long way for the history of genocide prosecution in the Americas and retributive justice more generally. Finally, during the retrial process, Ríos Montt’s defense challenged the impartiality of Judge Irma Jeannette Valdéz based on her 2004 Master’s thesis on legal mechanisms to improve genocide sentencing. In the face of a historic conviction and retrial, Ríos’ defense consistently exploits legal and procedural loopholes to delay the trial and deny justice to thousands of Guatemala’s indigenous population.

Guatemala’s judiciary faces an enormous uphill struggle to claim its independence and recognize the legal realities of the genocide and Ríos Montt’s involvement. Because of procedural exploitations and official refusal to recognize Guatemala’s genocide, Ríos Montt remains technically innocent. However, Ríos Montt’s innocence flies in the face of the CEH findings and widespread acceptance that the Guatemalan genocide happened. Justice for thousands of indigenous people should not hinge upon the legal technicalities that the dictator who orchestrated the genocide may exploit.


Kakenmaster is a student in the School of International Service at American University. His interests include international affairs, Latin American politics, human rights, and peace and conflict resolution.
Twitter: @billkakenmaster


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