Michael Busch

What appeared to be some good news out of Guatemala today took a disappointing turn this afternoon. The retrial of former army general and dictator José Efraín Rios Montt, who has long been accused of overseeing genocide and crimes against humanity during his rule, was supposed to kick off this morning in Guatemala City. By the end of the day, however, not only had the trial failed to move forward, it had noticeably taken a few steps back.   

Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala for a brief period in the 1980s, was responsible for directing the most violent campaign of state-sponsored murder and destruction in the history of the country’s three-decades-long civil war. He’s also widely believed to guilty of the premeditated annihilation of the Mayan Ixil people as part of larger counterinsurgency operations in the country’s western highlands. In all, thousands of indigenous Mayans were murdered, and tens of thousands more were displaced and terrorized by government forces. Of those who were lucky to survive with their lives, some were systematically raped and tortured.  

In addition to being a murderous strongman, Rios Montt was also a particular favorite of Washington. Indeed, in Empire's Workshop, Greg Grandin writes that then-President Ronald Reagan "took every opportunity he could to laud the Guatemalan regime, even though his administration had full knowledge that troops had orders to 'eliminate all sources of resistance' and were engaged in 'large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children.'" 

In fact, Grandin writes, “just a day before the Guatemalan army committed a particularly gruesome massacre (over the course of three days soldiers in a small village called Dos Erres killed more than 160 people, including 65 children who were swung by their feet so their heads were smashed on rocks), Reagan met with Efrain Rios Montt...complain[ing] to the press that his Central American counterpart, an evangelical Christian with strong ties to the fundamentalist movement in the United States, was getting a 'bad deal' from his critics and assured reporters that Rios Montt was 'totally committed to democracy.'"

Efforts at bringing Rios Montt to justice have been subject to a maddening array of roadblocks, intimidation tactics, and delays. Jo-Marie Burt, a close and reliable observer of the Rios Montt affair, has a good overview of the original trial, and the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) has a thorough timeline of events leading up to the retrial scheduled to begin today, both of which you should read. In short, though, the Guatemalan high court found Rios Montt guilty last May of both genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to eighty years in prison. The elation of survivors, their families, and human rights defenders proved short-lived, however. Just over a week later, the ruling was overturned by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, citing motions by the defense that procedural errors had been committed during the course of the trial, and a retrial was ordered. There was a clear sense in the country that justice had been deferred. 

Today was no different. Almost immediately, the retrial proceedings were suspended when it was discovered that case files had not been delivered to the court. At the same time, Rios Montt’s lawyer announced that his client would not be appearing on doctor’s orders due to his deteriorating health. The presiding judge ordered that court be adjourned until the missing records arrived, and demanded that Rios Montt appear in person later that day or be held in contempt. A couple of hours later, court reconvened in high dramatic fashion, as Rios Montt was wheeled into the courthouse on gurney, dressed in his pajamas and covered with a heavy blanket. 

No sooner had the proceedings started again than they came to a screeching halt. The court considered the defense’s motion, filed late last week, that one of the presiding judges, Jeanette Valdez, recuse herself from the case. The defense argued that Valdez demonstrated bias against their client based on a master’s thesis she had written years ago on genocide. While Valdez rejected the claim, the other two judges concurred with the defense attorneys, and suspended the trial indefinitely until another tribunal can be established.  

It seemed at the start of the day that, despite its best efforts at derailing the proceedings, the defense has failed to stall the retrial from moving forward. By midafternoon, however, the tribunal had taken on the same unsettling features as the one that came before it. There’s no telling when, if ever, the trial will resume, or whether Rios Montt will be alive to see it.  

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

Image via The National Security Archive.