On Dictators and Delays

Most of the time, I love living in Guatemala.  I love the abundant sunshine, the lush and rugged landscapes, the friendly and generous people.  I love being overwhelmed by the piles of produce and products at the local market.  I love catching snippets of conversations among the old men who sit in the Parque Central during the early morning hours and visit with one another while having their shoes shined.  I even secretly love the fact that fireworks aren’t reserved for any particular special occasion here, but can be set off in full force anywhere, any time, for any reason.

I’ve gotten more accustomed to the slower pace of life, the unpredictability of supposed “business hours,” and the total disregard for safety in everything from changing a light bulb to driving a passenger van.  Most of the problems I encounter here are simply annoyances.  They range from major to minor inconveniences, such the official letter with four signatures that is required every time I want to look at a new box of artifacts for my dissertation research (major) or, now that it’s the height of “summer,” the freshly hatched crop of ravenous mosquitoes that left me with over 20 new bites from last night alone (right now this one feels pretty major also), but are generally forgiven and forgotten with a volcano-framed sunset or two.

Recently, however, I’ve lost a little love for Guatemala that I don’t think scenic vistas can replace.  The reason?  The ongoing spectacle of the trial of Guatemala’s former dictator, Jose Efrain Ríos Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, for genocide and crimes against humanity during Guatemala’s civil war.  Although the conflict spanned 36 years, the trial is limited to a period of 17 months between 1982 and 1983, when Rios Montt was in charge and over 81% of the gross human rights violations committed during the entire war were carried out (resulting in more than 200,000 dead or forcibly disappeared, over 80% of whom were from indigenous Maya communities). The case is not only a major event in Guatemala’s history, but is also the first time that a former head of state has been prosecuted for war crimes in the country where the atrocities occurred (as opposed to an international court).  It represents a rare instance in which Guatemala’s young democracy and judicial system have been the focus of international attention for something other than their notorious corruption and futility in the face of rampant violent crime.  Within Guatemala, it is one of few prosecutions related to the murders or massacres that occurred during the civil war (all of which have been brought in the past five years and included only two senior officials among the 30 or so cases).  Unfortunately, the trial has devolved into something of a circus, with political maneuvering and theatricality taking center stage and pushing justice aside.



Jose Efrain Rios Montt:  Above, in a press conference in Guatemala City on March 23, 1982, shortly after overthrowing the government in a military coup.  Below, during his trial in Guatemala City, just after his defense team left the courtroom in protest (the top is an AP photo, the bottom from a blogger named Xeni Jardin).

To start off the grandstanding and legal machinations that took place this week, a group of 12 former officials (including two former vice-presidents and a number of negotiators from the 1996 peace agreement that ended the war) released a statement on Tuesday saying that if the trial resulted in charges of genocide against Rios Montt, the conviction would implicate the State of Guatemala in its entirety and risk creating serious dangers for the country, which the current president supported and offered to add his signature to as well.  On Thursday, Rios Montt’s lawyers requested that the trial be postponed due to pending decisions that still needed to be made by the Constitutional Court (the Guatemalan version of the Supreme Court), which relate to the preliminary proceedings that took place before the trial even began.  When their request was denied, the defendants’ entire legal team got up, made a dramatic statement about the legality of the trial, and walked out of the courtroom in a show of “peaceful resistance.”  Not long afterward, a judge who had initially been recused from the case by the Constitutional Court and recently reinstated, basically ruled that all actions taken since her stepping down (which took place during the preliminary proceedings) were null, rolling the case back to the pre-trial phase before Rios Montt was officially charged, where it stood in November of 2011 (at this point in the proceedings, a large group of Ixil Maya women silently got up and left the room).  This was immediately followed by the Attorney General’s declaration that the first judge’s annulment of the case was an “illegal ruling” and that her office would act immediately to reverse the ruling.  Another judge also rejected the ruling to annul the proceedings, but they have now been officially suspended and await a review by the Constitutional Court, which is supposed to reach a decision on the matter by May 3.



Photos from Alain Keler (top) and the AP (bottom) show scenes from massacres between 1982-1983, the period when Rios Montt intensified military operations against indigenous Maya communities in northern and western Guatemala.

Complications and delays are typical, if not expected, in Guatemala, particularly when it comes to legal or bureaucratic matters.  What makes these particularly infuriating and unacceptable, however, is that this trial has already been a long time coming and an uphill battle, to say the very least, for the prosecution, international legal and human rights groups, and, most importantly, the survivors and other witnesses.  This case was originally brought against Rios Montt in the Spanish National Court (which allows for prosecution of international crimes such as piracy and terrorism, in addition to genocide) in 1999, but Guatemala’s Constitutional Court rejected the arrest warrant and extradition order from Spain, leaving the case still pending.  The case against Rios Montt within Guatemala was brought forth in 2001, but the former dictator had slid into a position as a Congressman after the war and was granted impunity until he resigned from Congress in January of last year.  Even now, with the proceedings finally underway, the trial’s coverage is restricted to events that occurred between 1982-1983 (some witnesses have already had their testimonies edited to remove described atrocities that occurred in either 1981 or 1984).  It is further limited to 15 massacres against the Ixil Maya populations in the highlands of Guatemala during that time, which resulted in 1,771 deaths, the forced displacement of 29,000 people, sexual violence against at least 8 women, and the torture of at least 14 people.  A second case will be heard separately in relation to a massacre at a town called Dos Erres in the Peten region, where an entire town and its 201 inhabitants were obliterated as part of the Guatemalan Army’s scorched earth campaigns under Rios Montt during the 1982-1983 period (if anyone’s interested, the NPR program This American Life did an entire episode about the massacre at Dos Erres, which you can listen to here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/465/what-happened-at-dos-erres).


Another AP photo showing a woman and her child in a refugee camp in Mexico in November of 1982.

Aside from the legal setbacks to the trial, bringing the case has involved great risks for those associated – witnesses, prosecutors, and judges have all been threatened.  In December of last year, one of the prosecutors from the Attorney General’s team was murdered.  Ex-military witnesses have had to testify via video-conference from undisclosed locations, wearing hats with brims and sunglasses to hide their faces. 


An Ixil Maya woman helps another adjust a set of headphones that provide instant translation, allowing the mainly Ixil-speaking attendants to follow the Spanish-language trial (photo by Xeni Jardin).

Perhaps most importantly, however, over 100 indigenous Ixil survivors have come forward to tell their stories publicly, some for the first time in thirty years.  With the aid of interpreters, men and women have described not only the horrific acts their entire families murdered in front of them, their houses burned, their crops destroyed, and their animals slaughtered, but the subsequent years spent hiding from the military in the mountains, where many more members of their communities died from starvation or sickness, in refugee camps in Mexico, or as forced members of civilian patrols responsible for offering up remaining members of their community to the military as scapegoats.  Women covered their faces with shawls and tried to avoid providing their names as they recounted seeing their husbands and children killed, being raped alongside daughters and nieces as young as twelve years old, and afterward being forced to cook a meal for the soldiers.  Younger men and women, who were small children during the conflict, told of being taken by soldiers in forced adoptions and given new identities by Spanish-speaking people.  One man related the story of how he and his two brothers were later reunited with aunts and uncles who had survived the attacks on their community, though in the twenty-two years since they were taken they had lost their ability to speak Ixil and no longer knew the customs of their family.  On cross-examination, the main defense attorney asked him: “But your life has been successful, no?”  The defense lawyers have repeatedly implied that the Ixil witnesses are lying in their testimonies, even asking outright whether they were paid to give their statements.  The main defense lawyer claims that the testimonies of the massacre survivors are too similar to be true, even though part of the evidence that distinguishes these events as genocide is the consistent pattern to the violence and the use of the same techniques, over and over again, which make it clear that the massacres are not individual groups of soldiers getting out of hand, but troops following orders.  When one woman said during her testimony that people should pay for the deaths of her husband, her family, and her community, one of the defense lawyers asked her during cross-examination how much she thought the blood of her husband was worth.  Many reporters and bloggers present during the trial have noted that a few people shed tears during their testimonies, but most wait until they are finished before breaking down in the hallway outside the courtroom.  If the trial is annulled, the men and women who have been brave enough to recount their horrors in public for the first time will have to stand up and do it all again.

Although the trial is a long-awaited opportunity for many to come forward with their stories and evidence, it is as much about the future as it is about what happened in the past.  Many young Guatemalans have been covering and commenting on the trial through social media websites, using the Twitter hashtag #sihubogenocidio (“#yesitwasgenocide”).  Young Ixil protesters chant and sing outside the courtroom, calling Rios Montt a murderer and demanding justice and truth. The trial is a rare chance for Guatemala to gain back a fraction of the faith that its people have lost in their government through years of persecution, violence, and corruption, but it is one that it looks like it’s about to be wasted.


Ixil youth protesters outside the courtroom.  Their signs read: “We young people have a right to know the truth” and “So that history never repeats itself” (another photo by Xeni Jardin).


8 thoughts on “On Dictators and Delays

  1. I have been following the case and what a disgraceful show of politicking it is. I only hope than since so many have told their story and the whole world has heard them, that Guatemala must go on with the prosecution. And by the way for a girl who says she doesn’t follow politics – you are doing ok. I see run for congress in your future

    Date: Sat, 20 Apr 2013 22:17:55 +0000 To: rainindogs@hotmail.com

    • Thanks, Jeanne. We’ll see what happens this week, but it really is disgraceful the way that all this grandstanding on behalf of the lawyers and judges is drawing attention away from some of the real triumphs of the trial: the fact that it is happening; that it is happening in this country, where Rios Montt has enjoyed immunity for so long; the fact that the Ixil have been given an international stage from which to make their voices and stories heard; the fact that they are able to testify in their native languages in the national court; and the fact that so many young Guatemalans (both Maya and Ladinos) are engaged and active in the process. It’s such a shame that all that gets overlooked with dramatically staged walkouts and ridiculous rulings. Keep your fingers crossed that the Constitutional Court will show some sense (and respect)!

    • Be careful with that episode, Chuck! I usually listen to “This American Life” as I’m falling asleep and the descriptions from Dos Erres keep me up at night. It’s a pretty amazing story though – you’ll have to let me know what you think of it.

  2. Well, I listened to the “This American Life” episode on Dos Erres. It’s a sobering reminder that even after many thousands of years of “civilization” of the human race, we still can find many examples of abhorrent behavior by some human beings unto others. The satisfaction that we can feel about all the advances in technology, medicine and education, is tainted by these kinds of reminders that there is a very thin veneer that separates that aspect of humankind from the primitive “survive by crushing and dominating the competition” roots from which we come. Thankfully, there are also acts of heroism and kindness that occur every day that give us some hope that we as a species are making progress.

  3. If you get a chance, I’d love to read you revisit this soon and hear about what the response is like over the next few days. Hope you’re doing well.

  4. A while back I read that there was a conviction in this case and thought perhaps it was drawing to a conclusion. I just did some catching up however and see that there is a lot of obfuscation and many twists and turns still going on.

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