Jose Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala for nearly seventeen months during 1982 and 1983, and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, his then chief of military intelligence, are on trial in Guatemala City for genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges arise 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 is the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in a national, as opposed to an international, court. The trial is an important milestone in holding political and military leaders accountable for international crimes. For Guatemalans, it is hoped it will also contribute to an accurate historical account of the gross human rights violations committed during the civil war, in a process that will 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% 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%) 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%. 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, particularly under the leadership of Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s Attorney General. Significant reforms have been 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 is taking place). Yet thus far, prosecutions have been limited, with the majority targeting low-level soldiers or paramilitaries, rather than their commanders. This trial marks 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 charges 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 is 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 allege 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 allege 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 relates 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 has continued to assert his innocence. Among the defense arguments are 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.
Court and Legal Documents
Other Domestic Prosecutions for International Crimes
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.