Michael Busch

In Guatemala today, the trial of the former general and dictator, José Efraín Rios Montt, is scheduled to begin again after nearly six months of delay. Rios Montt is being retried on charges that he directed a campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity against Guatemala’s Maya Ixels in the early 1980s, after he took power in a coup in 1982. Specifically, Rios Montt has been accused of overseeing the murders of nearly 1,800 indigenous peoples in Guatemala’s northern highlands. The details are hideous, even by the standards of twentieth century attrocities. 

In 1999, the United Nations Commission for Historical Findings (CEH, in Spanish) published the findings of its investigations of atrocities committed during Guatemala’s civil war, singling out the period in which Rios Montt rose to power as the most brutal of the conflict. “Sixty four percent of the massacres documented by the CEH occurred between June 1981 and December 1982," the report notes, “in addition to the 76 percent of arbitrary executions.” In all, these eighteen months witnessed, according to the CEH, “the most death, destruction, and pain in the nation’s contemporary history.”

The horrors recounted in the report are difficult to fathom. In one massacre of Ixil people, in the tiny village of Chisís, a survivor told the commission that “the soldiers would enter a house and round up the whole family…they would tie up the men and kill the children while the men were already tied up. They would make them watch as they were burning their children alive.” The inhuman cruelties perpetrated in Chisís were not unusual, but “figured repeatedly in massacres” during Rios Montt’s rule.

Despite the CEH’s thorough investigation, prosecutors have been repeatedly frustrated in their attempts at exacting justice. Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, and sentenced to eighty years in prison for his crimes. Widespread jubilation at news of the verdict was short lived, however. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on technical grounds, and ordered that a new trial be scheduled. 

Of instrumental importance to the verdict’s annulment was then-judge Alejandro Maldonado. Maldonado would later be named interim acting president of Guatemala following the exit of disgraced President Otto Perez Molina. Perez Molina stepped down from office early last fall in the face of numerous corruption scandals and a swelling tide of public protests that forced Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, from their posts.  

Since then, things have hardly proceeded smoothly. Just over a year ago, another trial commenced, but was cut short almost immediately. Rios Montt was a no-show, and court papers were discovered to be missing, as well. A recess was called until both the documents and the dictator could be produced. A few hours later, Rios Montt appeared in court strapped to a gurney and looking utterly incapacitated. But any shock value these theatrics may have held was overshadowed by the court’s decision to remove one of its own judges from the case, citing bias. The trial was pushed back another six months, accordingly. 

The trial was scheduled to reconvene in late July, but it never really got off the ground. Rios Montt’s attorneys had petitioned the court to consider the fact that their client was mentally unfit to stand trial. Specifically, the defense argued that Rios Montt suffered from intellectual deterioration that rendered him unable to understand the charges being brought against him. The judges relented, and ordered that Rios Montt undergo medical assessment before the trial continued. He was later diagnosed with dementia. 

The latest attempt to hold Rios Montt accountable for his crimes will not feature the sort of public spectacle that hamstrung last year’s proceedings. According to TeleSUR English, the aging dictator “will be tried in absentia,” and “the process will be closed-door…with only judges, defendants, plaintiffs and victims” present. “Media will not be allowed.” Though the proceedings will take place outside of public view, there is cause for optimism.

These are heady days for the region, offering a renewed sense of possibility that justice for Rios Montt—long delayed—may finally be at hand. In neighboring El Salvador, a group of seventeen retired military leaders are facing likely arrest for the gruesome murder in 1989 of six Jesuit priests—five of them Spanish citizens—and two women at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Warrants for the officers’ arrest have been requested by a Spanish court, which has sought to have them extradited to Europe to stand trial.

Then, on the same day in Guatemala, seventeen retired military officers were arrested in connection with civil war crimes. Speaking to the media about the charges, Guatemala’s Attorney General told reporters that “The detainees are alleged to have participated in eighty-eight events related to massacres carried out between 1981-1986…It is one of the biggest cases of forced disappearances in Latin America.” Do these developments portend impending justice for the victims of Rios Montt’s slaughter, and possible closure for their families, in the coming trial? 

Fingers crossed.

Update: Local media is reporting that the trial has been suspended yet again, due to procedural matters related to a separate, though related, case against Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. More updates will follow as information becomes available.

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.

Image via Peace Brigades.