Efraín Ríos Montt at Trial. Photo by  J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org
Efraín Ríos Montt at Trial. Photo by J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org

Just prior to his stunning conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity, former Guatemalan dictator Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt protested in open court: “I was not a company commander, I was not a zone commander, I was not a patrol commander — I was chief of state! I never authorized any plan to exterminate the Ixiles. And there is no evidence to prove that. I declare myself innocent. I never had the intention to destroy any ethnicity.”

For those able to read between the lines, Ríos Montt, conspicuously, if indirectly, suggested that further investigation could reveal those who did commit the atrocities — those company commanders, zone commanders and patrol commanders — one of whom is the current holder of the highest office in the land.

Whatever the former de facto president of Guatemala intended by his claim of innocence, the trial and conviction of Ríos Montt is epoch-making in multiple regards: it is the first time a country’s former president faced genocide charges; the first time a country’s president faced these charges in a national court; the first time a court found such a person guilty; and the first time a nation’s courts stated for the legal record that genocide was committed within its borders. Guatemala’s idiosyncratic public mechanisms have struggled long and fitfully towards something resembling civil society, but, in a shot read from the First High-Risk Tribunal A (Tribunal Primero “A” de Mayor Riesgo), Judge Jazmín Barrios on May 10, 2013, declared Ríos Montt guilty, sentencing him to 80 years in prison.

This verdict represents a significant quest to rediscover — or to establish — something like a national soul, even 30 years after the crimes in question. And it happened, one must understand, in the Land of Eternal Impunity; a land where generations of Maya have been decimated; a land where prosecutions for crimes committed during wartime — and in the bloody peace that followed — have been few and far between. It also happened while Guatemala’s reputation has again been marred by charges of repression, and even murder, in cases involving civil protest against multinational mining and hydroelectric projects in the same indigenous communities that have suffered since the end of the Guatemala Spring in 1954.

The conviction is disquieting for some here. Guatemala remains a fragile state engaged in an ideological war over the meaning of modern history. Yet, Ríos Montt’s 80-year sentence itself sends a message that this generation of Guatemalans is prepared to confront and address their ugly past in order to sow something resembling a civil future.

Few with any remote knowledge of the nation’s bloody decades since the U.S.-sponsored coup d’etat in 1954 doubt Ríos Montt’s knowledge of the events of his reign. On March 23, 1982, a military coup overthrew hardman General Fernando Romeo Lucas García. Ríos Montt, while ostensibly not a direct actor in the initial coup against Lucas Garcia, soon joined the ensuing military junta and later purged it of the original plotters. What followed was the most intensively bloody period of Guatemala’s “internal conflict,” known to the less propaganda-inclined as a civil war. According to two research projects — one penned by the United Nations’ Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), and one, the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI), by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric of Guatemala — concluded that out of the 200,000 estimated deaths from 1960-1996, at least 60,000 of them were committed from March 23, 1982, until August 8, 1983, when Ríos Montt was himself deposed in a coup by his defense minister Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores.

A testament to the country’s unrelenting continuum of violence, Mejía Víctores was initially himself a defendant in the trial that ultimately found Ríos Montt guilty on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, but shortly after indictment, Judge Carol Patricia Flores ruled him mentally and physically unable to stand trial.

Whatever one thinks of the conviction — or the protestations of innocence — of Efraín Ríos Mont, it is not easy to dismiss his other contention: that other leaders up and down the chain of military and governmental command during the worst years of the “internal conflict” remain, thus far, hidden in the veil of impunity that has enveloped this nation for decades.


Agente del Gringo

The term “caudillo” describes many Latin American heads of state. It means “strong man,” more or less, but it also carries a cultural currency bespeaking a populistic élan, someone who has risen from humble origins and who wields his power in tandem with a charisma hewn by worldly struggles to attain it. Ríos Montt’s ascent from little to unquestioned rule fits the pattern.

He was born June 16, 1926, in the departamento of Huehuetenango, which borders Mexico in Guatemala’s western Highlands, a largely rural area once home to the Mayan city of Zaculeu, adjacent the eponymous regional capital, and now renowned in U.S. and European cafés for its coffee. Once, in 1946, in an effort to win hearts and minds, the United Fruit Company underwrote initial restoration of Zaculeu to bolster tourism in the region, a hamfisted job highlighted by the embellishment of the ancient ruins with concrete and plaster.

Ríos Montt shared the hardscrabble existence of the great majority of the region, but his parents worked hard and encouraged his education. He performed well enough in school to enter upon one of the few paths to a better life available: the Guatemalan Military Academy. He entered the school in 1946 and, in 1950, graduated to an infantry course at the infamous School of the Americas in Panama. Few readers in Latin America are unfamiliar with the SOA’s catalytic role in molding future military strongmen throughout Latin America. It indoctrinated would-be caudillos in zealous anticommunism and, in no uncertain terms, the skills of repression and torture.

An instructor at the school during the 1980s, former U.S. Army Maj. Joseph Blair, made some waves when he candidly described the SOA’s modus operandum to filmmaker John Pilger in his 2007 documentary “The War on Democracy.” “The doctrine that was taught was that if you want information you use physical abuse, you use false imprisonment, you use threats to family members, you use virtually any method necessary to get what you want . . . including torture,” Blair said. “If you can’t get the information you want, if you can’t get that person to shut up or to stop what they’re doing, you simply assassinate them, and you assassinate them with one of your death squads.”

Efrain Rios Montt, 1970s
Efrain Rios Montt, 1970s

As an interesting aside, it appears that this training was put to good use during the coup that ultimately brought Ríos Montt to power. According to a secret U.S. Defense Department communiqué — unearthed and published by the National Security Archive — the de facto president, General Fernando Romeo Lucas García could have easily withstood the plotters’ efforts militarily. What convinced him to resign was the discovery that his 90-year-old mother and 60-year-old sister had been taken hostage by the rebellious junior officers. Lucas García was led to a tunnel that ran between the Presidential Palace and the Presidential Residence where he found his sister cradling his mother in her lap. A soldier held a rifle to their heads. It was at this point that the General agreed to cede power to the coup plotters.

But all of that was in the distant future for Guatemala and Ríos Montt. In 1952, shortly after Ríos Montt’s graduation from the SOA, the second democratically elected president in the country’s history, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, implemented Decree 900, a modest land-reform program through which the government redistributed fallow plots on large estates, including those owned by the nation’s ladino oligarchs and the United Fruit Company, to be farmed by campesinos. Two years later, Ríos Montt made the inexorable decision to forsake compatriot countrymen of humble origins and follow his stringent conditioning as a defender of institutional power, at any price.

He joined Col. Carlos Castillo Armas and mutinous army cadres recruited for the United Fruit-sponsored, CIA-engineered coup that overthrew Arbenz and effectively suspended the Guatemalan republic for forty years. Armas cancelled Decree 900, banned trade unions and left-wing political parties and formed the National Committee of Defense Against Communism, widely considered Latin America’s first modern-day agency of state terror — by way of death squads.

Armas and his norteamericano handlers employed such “counterinsurgency” measures notably because his violent, illegitimate government necessarily fomented insurgency. The coup radicalized impoverished Mayans abruptly kicked off lands given them by Decree 900 and union workers abruptly declared communist. Armas’ assassination in 1958 saw him succeeded by despot Gen. Ydígoras Fuentes. Fuentes in 1960 survived a counter-coup by left-leaning junior officers at the Escuela Politécnica, who would escape to the country’s Eastern highlands to gird the ranks of the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (Guatemalan Labor Party), one of four guerilla insurgencies that would take up arms against the state in the ensuing years. With the abortive coup, the long “internal conflict,” by official metrics, had begun.

Ríos Montt followed the shifts in tactical winds blowing from the U.S.’s obsessively anti-communist foreign policy. In 1961, he was tasked for dedicated counterinsurgency training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, as Cold Warriors increasingly proselytized “low-intensity” warfare against any indigenous groups — liberal, religious, media — deemed inconvenient by U.S.-friendly, pro-corporate oligarchs in Third World countries. His training would see ample application in the bloody state repression of Guatemalan dissidents through the 1960s. In 1963, Ríos Montt joined the command staff of the elite Mariscal Zavala Brigade. He graduated to a position on the Army General Staff in 1967 and continued to rise, attaining a brigadier general’s star in 1970 and being named Army Chief of Staff in 1972 under the administration of Gen. Carlos Arana.

Ríos Montt assumed an operational helm during a zealous phase of the civil war continuum, in which Arana infamously vowed, “If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.”

Three months in the United States as director of studies of the Inter-American Defense College in 1973 bolstered Ríos Montt’s political ambitions. As of the 1974 general elections — by this point in the country’s history, a contest of right-wing parties and further-right-wing parties — he returned to Guatemala as the presidential candidate for the National Opposition Front (Frente Nacional Oposición), an alliance of mainly right/center-right parties challenging General Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García. Laugerud won in an election marred by charges of chicanery and, either as a consolation prize or tactical removal of a rival from the playing field, appointed Ríos Montt military attaché to Guatemala’s mission in Spain. The job came with a handsome salary.

Laugerud’s stint proved a troubled one. With the 1975 political murder of Luis Arenas, a notorious landowner in Quiche, a new guerrilla force came to the fore. The EGP (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres). The Guerrilla Army of the Poor were a mainly Mayan force with its core in the wooded region of northern Quiche, around Ixcan. Then, in 1976, an earthquake rocked Guatemala, killed over 23,000 people and ultimately showed the ineffectiveness of the “small government/firm hand” doctrine imposed upon Latin America by the so-called Washington Consensus. Where the government proved impotent at meeting the crisis, neighborhood groups, foreign-aid organizations and church volunteers — including those from a California-based evangelical outfit called Gospel Outreach — stepped into the void, and a new chorus grew in the country demanding reform.

Compounding matters, U.S. sponsorship of the unending string of tinpot Guatemalan dictators finally hit a choke point when a rare civil-rights-minded president, Jimmy Carter, won the presidency. Carter in 1977 tied U.S. aid, military and monetary, to audits of human rights in recipient countries. Guatemala came up severely wanting.

In 1977, Ríos Montt returned to a country deeply in need of reconciliation, help and dialogue on multiple fronts. He chose another path. To his indoctrinated mind, Guatemala’s woes portended a crisis of order. The Mayan problem broke down not as one of poor treatment of economically-marginalized indigenous peoples, but of those people rebelling against their proper place — and of Catholic priests bringing their plight to public light. Priests, to his mind, became leftist agents, to such an extent that in 1978 — though his brother Mario Enrique Ríos Montt had entered the priesthood and would become a Catholic bishop — he left the Catholic Church and through his Christian affiliation to some new gringo friends he had made, joined Gospel Outreach. He resigned his commission and went so far as to become an ordained minister with its convert-the-heathen subsidiary, The Church of the Word.

This girding of Ríos Montt’s righteous disposition, and resulting sociopathic behavior, cannot be understated. It brought him into the orbit of two of the U.S.’s most influential (and hate-shilling) clergymen, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Both, as of 1981, would be able to boast a hotline to a new, evangelical, Old School communist-obsessed president, Ronald Reagan.

The 1978 ascent of a new general/president, Lucas García, eager to escalate the dirty war proved enough to re-ignite guerrilla violence and civil protests. By the next election in 1982, his administration faced opposition on all sides. Lucas García handpicked Ángel Aníbal Guevara, his Defense Minister, to succeed him, and, though Guevara won the election (amid charges of outright fraud), the victory proved short-lived. Guevara never took office.

Maldonado Schaad, Left; Rios Montt, Center,  Francisco Gordillo, Right, Photo by Jean-Marie Simon
Maldonado Schaad, Left; Rios Montt, Center,
Francisco Gordillo, Right. Photo by Jean-Marie Simon

Gen. Horacio Maldonado Schaad and Col. Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez led another coup, this one dubbed that of the Oficiales jóvenes (young officers), on March 23, 1982. Some versions of the event suggest the evangelical cleric Ríos Montt playing puppet master. Others suggested he was the puppet. However and whenever his involvement began, he was soon invited to head up the new ruling junta and redonned his military uniform.

The junta suspended the constitution, abolished political parties and disbanded Congress. Yet, in the beginning, the junta’s revolt against Lucas García’s repressive reign prompted wishful thinking of a less corrupt and more humane government. Speaking to that hope, one unnamed campesino, quoted in Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efraín Ríos Montt by Virginia Garrad-Burnett, said, “Under Lucas, people were getting killed for no apparent reason. When Ríos Montt took over you knew what you needed to do to stay alive.”

Ríos Montt promised a Nueva Guatemala. In his mind, this was not just a political promise, it was religious. He showcased his evangelism in his own nationwide television broadcasts, Discursos del Domingo, a mixture of apocalyptic preaching and disciplinarian moralism that equated “subversion” with one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Meanwhile, the junta continued kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial assassinations apace. It ostensibly validated these practices with the veneer of military tribunals imposing summary judgments. According to a compendium of databases compiled by the International Center for Human Rights Research (or CIIDH in its Spanish acronym), in the first 100 days of the junta’s rule, at least 69 massacres took place across Guatemala. Ríos Montt, it seemed, served Jesus by culling His flock of transgressors.

In April 1982, the junta launched the Plan Nacional de Seguridad y Desarrollo (the National Plan for Security and Development). The stated goal of the policy was to bolster nationalism and improve literacy among indigenous people so that they would not be seduced by the forces of international communism. In fact, it served as a front for Operation Victoria 82, a scorched-earth campaign straight out of the U.S. counterinsurgency playbook, designed to choke off the guerrillas’ support in the countryside by destroying the crops and livestock of rural villagers. As with previous such campaigns in other U.S.-sponsored and -waged “low-intensity” wars, the operation paid little attention to who might or might not be sympathetic to the guerrillas and did not limit its lethal force to livestock.

After forcing Maldonado and Gordillo Martinez out of the junta in June 1982, Ríos Montt consolidated power and garnered the good graces of the longtime sponsor of caudillos in Washington. He met with President Ronald Reagan in Honduras in December 1982. In the wake of the meeting, Reagan made a public statement to reporters, praising Ríos Montt’s “efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”

Two days later, Kaibiles (the special forces of the Guatemalan Military) exterminated the population of the village of Las Dos Erres in the northern departamento of Péten. Reagan claimed that Ríos Montt got a “bum rap” from liberal-leaning human rights watchdogs, but little could camouflage the fact that 67 of the dead were children whose heads had been smashed open. Incomprehensibly, historical consensus and forensic investigation show this not to be anomaly but a pattern. Soldiers routinely ripped fetuses from their mothers’ wombs, bashed the heads of children against concrete and threw entire villages down wells.

“[A]ccording to soldiers who I interviewed at the time, as they were carrying out the sweeps, they would go into villages, surround them, pull people out of their homes, line them up [and] execute them.” Allan Nairn, an investigative journalist, told host Amy Goodman on the April 19, 2013, edition of Democracy Now. “A forensic witness testified in the trial [of Ríos Montt] that 80 percent of the remains they have recovered had gunshot wounds to the head. Witnesses have — witnesses and survivors have described Ríos Montt’s troops beheading people. One talked about an old woman who was beheaded, and then they kicked her head around the floor. They ripped the hearts out of children as their bodies were still warm, and they piled them on a table for their parents to see.”

Enabling the campaigns, the Reagan administration reopened the spigots of military aid to Guatemala in 1982 and ’83, citing improvement in its human rights record.

According to Guatemala: Memory of Silence, the 1999 report by the UN’s Historical Clarification Commission, over 600 villages were wiped off the map in the summer of 1982 alone. By 1983, Ríos Montt claimed “mission accomplished” in his war against the guerrillas, even though it continued. It should be noted that one of Ríos Montt’s field commanders in the Ixil Triangle during the ’82-’83 bloodbath was a fellow SOA grad and Inter-American Defense College alum, Otto Pérez Molina, operating under the nom de guerre of Comandante Tito Arias. He would go on to become the country’s chief of military intelligence and, today, its president.

Despite claims of victory, in 1983 Ríos Montt survived three abortive coups, declared a state of nationwide emergency and attempted to assuage heightening tensions by calling for elections in 1984. Factions within the military could not wait that long. For reasons far closer to Guatemala City than the military campaigns of the Western Highlands, many wanted Ríos Montt out of power. His administration was notorious for corruption even in a country with a high tolerance for the same. Further, he angered Old Guard Catholics by funneling illicit resources to organizations supportive of an evangelical “Nueva Guatemala.” On August 8, 1983, defense minister Mejía Víctores, a man wholly complicit in Guatemala’s dirty war, overthrew Ríos Montt.

Ríos Montt’s brief reign witnessed an estimated 60,000 civilians killed/disappeared and around one million displaced. In 1985, Guatemala passed a new constitution specifically banning former coup leaders and dictators from running for president. It did not, however, put the period on Ríos Montt’s political career that many hoped it would.


guatemala-nunca-masThe Puppet Master and The Bishop

In 1989, the ex-dictator laid the foundation of a new path to power, that of a political boss. He founded the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front, or FRG). Under its rubric, he successfully ran for a seat in the Guatemalan Congress. He held the office until 2004. Its most valuable perk, he would discover, was immunity from prosecution.

The FRG, meanwhile, continued to pick up seats until it controlled Congress. As a yield, in 1999, Ríos Montt was elected the president of Congress, his daughter, Zury, vice-president. Another offspring, Enrique, served as the head of finances of the army until 2003, when he was charged with embezzling $3.75 million. In late 1999, Alfonso Portillo, the FRG candidate for the presidency, won the election and in 2000 was sworn in as the head of state. As head of the party, Ríos Montt, by his own admission, took control of the country once again.

Contemporary newspaper reports claim that Ríos Montt said of his new reality, “I make the laws of Congress, I approve the budget of Congress, so I already am [de facto] president.”

Though the civil war officially ended in 1996, Ríos Montt continued to game the barely functional systems of, and cast a long shadow across, the Land of Impunity.

Interestingly, shortly before Ríos Montt’s reascension to power, a church-affiliated research agency called the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) project issued a report on the atrocities during the early 1980s. “Guatemala: Nunca más,” released on Apr. 24, 1998, was a godsend to the human rights movement in Guatemala, but it sent chills up the spines of many in power. The 1,400-page document held thousands of witness testimonies from the internal conflict and concluded that the Guatemalan army committed 87 percent of the 200,000 non-combatant deaths and disappearances.

Then, two days later, on the evening of Apr. 26, Catholic bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, who played a key role in the REMHI and the report, was murdered. A number of assailants attacked Gerardi in his garage and caved his head in with a concrete slab. He was so disfigured in the attack that he had to be identified by his episcopal ring.

Gerardi was more than a vestigial voice from the country’s violent past. Not only had he preached against the army’s dirty war in Quiche during Ríos Montt’s reign and after, he went on to serve on the National Reconciliation Commission, Guatemala’s post-conflict truth commission. That organization later became the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado [ODHA]). It was the ODHA that began work on the REMHI.

Salacious rumors as to how Gerardi died found their way to the press. Reports circulated that the bishop had discovered a priest in his administration, Father Mario Orantes, was having a homosexual relationship. Thus, Father Orantes, with the aid of a street thug (and an aggressive Alsatian guard dog named Baloo) attacked and murdered the bishop to hide a carnal crime. The story took little time to disprove by a team of pathologists, but the net yield was two-fold. First, a personnel shift at ODHA, where the vacancy left by Gerardi’s death was filled by one Father Mario Ríos Montt. Second, there would have to be a more vigorous investigation.

On June 8, 2001 three army soldiers, the former intelligence chief Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, his son, Captain Byron Lima Oliva, and Sergeant José Obdulio Villanueva were convicted of the crime along with Father Orantes. These names raised eyebrows, and should have. Colonel Lima, a fellow School of the Americas grad, served as senior officer in Ríos Montt’s highland campaigns and, after the ’83 coup, became Mejía’s head of military intelligence, supervising political hits, according to U.S. Defense Department documents obtained by the National Security Archive. The court sentenced the three officers to 30 years imprisonment, while Orantes, who continually protested his innocence, received 20 years for abetting. The decision made for something of a milestone for Guatemalan civil society. It was the first time members of the armed forces had been tried in a civilian court.

Appeals managed to reduce the soldiers’ sentences to 20 years each, owing to an odd wrinkle in Guatemalan law stipulating that two people cannot be convicted of the same crime. On appeal, the convicted officers in 2005 were legally redefined as “accomplices” to the crime, not its co-authors. This added the curious asterisk to the Gerardi case because, as of the ruling, the author of the crime — which can be read both as one who delivered the killing blow or one who ordered it — has yet to be convicted. The appellate judge ordered further investigation, but none has since taken place.

In the meantime, nine witnesses in the original case wound up dead, per the auditing of Amnesty International. The sentence reduction did Villanueva little good, as he had been murdered in 2003 during a riot in the Remand Prison in Guatemala City — which put the collateral/coincidental death toll at ten. In the wake of the riot, Lima Jr. was transferred to El Pavon prison, where his continued silence was rumored purchased with blind eyes to his control of rackets that included extortion and narcotics.

With reputedly chummy blessings of prison administrators, Lima is said to have lived a comfortable existence inside Pavon’s crumbling walls, and, as of this writing, was only recently pulled over for a traffic violation outside them. The stop came as he drove a luxury bullet-proof SUV leading a caravan of trail cars for security, while the prison director sat in the passenger’s seat. Police found multiple firearms in the car. The official explanation for the trip was that Lima needed to visit a dentist.

In spite of his incarcerated status, the younger Lima reportedly maintains ties to the country’s elite, and more than a few rumors suggest profits from his enterprises finding their way into political coffers.

There are no straight lines between this case and the longer history of Efraín Ríos Montt, but it does stand as an object lesson in the continued impunity of those higher-up on the political food chain, and how past injustices still reach out into the world of contemporary political realities in Guatemala.

Even through the investigations and revelations of human rights abuses in the late 1990s, Ríos Montt’s political climb persisted. Despite the 1985 constitution forbidding former dictators to run for the presidency, Ríos Montt managed to get himself on the ballot in 2003. His case went to the Guatemalan Supreme Court, on which he had few political allies. They declined his petition. Ríos Montt then unleashed his ground forces in an event known as “Jueves Negro,” or Black Thursday. Mobs from around the country descended on Guatemala City to wreak havoc, cause untold property damage, and menace citizens. Television reporter Héctor Fernando Ramírez died of a heart attack amid the chaos after intervening to stop the thugs’ attack on a colleague.

Shortly thereafter, the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial authority in Guatemala and friendlier to Ríos Montt than the Supreme Court, agreed to hear the case. They determined that the Constitution of 1985 could not apply retroactively to the time when Ríos Montt was a dictator and thus allowed him his place on the ballot.

While this was a blow to the rule of law in Guatemala, politically speaking it mattered little. The FRG’s time had passed and Ríos Montt only garnered about 11 percent of the vote. Further, the FRG lost control of the Congress and Ríos Montt was forced to vacate his seat in 2004 as he was legally prevented from standing for both elective offices at the same time. Thus, at least for a time, Efraín Ríos Montt lost his immunity from prosecution.

After the 1996 peace accords, Guatemala’s civil society was anemic, at best, in meting justice for the all-but-countless crimes that had taken place on its soil for decades. Those unwilling to accept the blanket “reconciliation” offered under the accords sought redress in international law. In 1999, K’iche’ activist Rigoberta Menchú filed a complaint in a Spanish court accusing Ríos Montt and four other retired generals of torture, genocide, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism. Spanish jurists demurred, suggesting they could only act on international criminal cases once all indigenous legal routes had been exhausted.

But, in September 2005, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that Spanish courts could try those accused of crimes against humanity even if the victims were not Spanish. The following year, Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz traveled to Guatemala to interrogate Ríos Montt and the other alleged perpetrators, and, though a local appeal prevented the questioning, Pedraz on July 7, 2006, issued an international arrest warrant for the three de facto presidents of Guatemala in the early 1980s: Lucas García, Ríos Montt and Mejía Víctores. Lucas García, however, had died in exile in Caracas, Venezuela the previous month.

In the end, the international proceedings never got off the ground. Perhaps chastened by his brief loss of immunity, Ríos Montt in 2007 stood again for a congressional seat and won a four-year term. His political luck did not hold in the 2011 election season, and in early 2012 he was once again regarded as an ordinary citizen in the eyes of the law.

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Maldonado Schaad, Left; Rios Montt, Center. Photo by Jean-Marie Simon
Maldonado Schaad, Left; Rios Montt, Center. Photo by Jean-Marie Simon

Dancing With the Devil

Curiously, Ríos Montt may have foreshadowed his fate during his 2003 run for the presidency. “I can’t deny anything, nor can I corroborate or prove anything,” he said in an interview published in The Los Angeles Times’ June 15, 2003, edition. “I’m at an impasse. If there is proof that shows that I am responsible, then I’m going to wind up a prisoner, because I do not want by any means to evade my responsibility.”

A 30-year-old “cold case” might seem a monumental task for prosecutors, but dictators tend to leave historic volumes of evidence in their wake, and by 2011 new winds were blowing in Guatemala.

The legal proceedings that would eventually ensnare Ríos Montt began, in fact, without him, late that year. Pretrial arrangements in a case of genocide against Mejía Víctores, Ríos Montt’s army chief of staff Gen. Héctor Mario López Fuentes and his intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez began in the court of Judge Carol Patricia Flores. During those hearings, in the first of what would become an onslaught of challenges to Flores’ fitness to hear the case, López Fuentes’ defense team filed an amparo asking an appeals court to order the judge’s recusal.

A feature of some Latin American judicial systems intended to protect the civil rights of the accused, amparos are appeals to a higher court for rulings on specific matters of law in legal proceedings, versus appeals of the entire case. At times, a trial court will suspend proceedings to await the higher court’s ruling on an amparo. At other times they will not, particularly if the trial judge believes that the defendant is simply using amparo after amparo to merely delay proceedings and subvert justice. Occasionally, even after a ruling on an amparo is rendered, the original judge may simply ignore it. To further complicate matters, amparos can be directed to different courts in the hierarchy of the justice system and then be appealed to even higher courts. In practice, a case can descend into a Gordian Knot of competing amparos, tangling proceedings to the point of a nearly unparsable confusion.

Flores ignored the call for her recusal and continued with proceedings. In January 2012, Ríos Montt lost his immunity from prosecution when his term in Congress ended. Flores ordered him to appear before her court and formally accused him of genocide and crimes against humanity, adding him to the ongoing proceedings against the three generals.

In February of 2012, an appeals court ruling on the amparo by López Fuentes’ defense team asked Flores to recuse herself from the case and ordered it transferred to Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez. Flores, however, continued to hear the case and issue rulings. On March 17, the prosecution presented a formal indictment against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity specifically for the massacre of 1,771 Mayan Ixiles, the forced displacement of 29,000 others and crimes of sexual violation and torture.

The balance of 2012 was mired in over 100 separate amparos and other procedural motions by the defense teams of Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez. During this time López Fuentes and Mejía Víctores were dropped from the case due to health concerns, while defense attempts to remove Flores from the case continued periodically through early 2013, when she stepped back and pretrial proceedings went in front of Judge Gálvez.

On January 28, 2013, Gálvez ruled that there was sufficient evidence against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez to proceed to trial in front of the First High-Risk Tribunal “A.” The lead justice on this Tribunal de Sentencia would be Judge Jazmín Barrios along with associate justices Pablo Xitumul and Patricia Bustamante. Barrios could boast an impressive C.V. as pertained to human rights cases in Guatemala. She presided over the 1990 trial of the assassins of Myrna Mack, a famed dissident Guatemalan anthropologist, the Gerardi murder case and, in 2011, the trial of four former soldiers ultimately convicted for their part in the Dos Erres massacre. The soldiers were sentenced to 6,060 years apiece.

On March 13, another appeals court issued an order reversing the original amparo requesting Judge Flores’ removal from the case on grounds that she was biased against a defendant who had been removed from the case due to ill health. The court ordered Flores to resume her role as pretrial judge. They did not, however, immediately notify Judge Flores of this decision.

Efraín Ríos Montt, background. Witness at Trial, foreground. Photo by  J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org
Efraín Ríos Montt, background. Witness at Trial, foreground. Photo by J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org

On March 19, the trial of Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez began in Judge Barrios’ courtroom. Day One proved entertaining, at the very least. In spite of Gálvez’ pre-trial dismissal of significant portions of the defense’s evidence, Barrios provisionally accepted all of it. The defense then filed an amparo against Judge Barrios (even though she ruled in their favor) stating that, as the trial judge, Barrios was not allowed to rule on the admissibility of evidence. This made it obvious to most observers that Ríos Montt’s lawyers were playing for a procedural, rather than an evidentiary, resolution. Throughout the day, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, Ríos Montt’s loud and rather abrasive attorney, repeatedly demanded the recusal of Barrios because of personal enmity between the judge and himself stemming from a prior case.

Barrios tolerated his outbursts for some time, but, in the end, expelled him from the courtroom, asserting that he had exhausted the limits of permissible arguments. She ordered that the attorneys for the co-defendant serve as counsel for Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt then filed an amparo claiming Barrios had violated his rights to counsel of his own choosing. This issue remains unresolved, and may well serve to overturn the conviction.

On April 9, the Constitutional Court issued a new order for Judge Barrios to send the case file to Judge Flores so that she could legally incorporate the evidence into the case.

Flores, now back in the game, issued a ruling on April 17 — as the trial itself was moving towards closing arguments and decidedly not looking good for the defense — stating that the entire case should revert back to where it was when the first amparo was filed to remove her from the pretrial proceeding. The Supreme Court that day released a decision they had made on May 23, 2012, determining that Judge Flores should never have been removed from the case. As remedy, Judge Flores, with apparent Supreme Court support, ruled that the entire case was void and proceedings should begin again as they stood in November 2011 — before Ríos Montt had even been charged with genocide.

On April 18, Judge Flores went a step further and issued a ruling annulling the entire case. On April 19, Judge Barrios suspended the tribunal, pending a final ruling from the Constitutional Court. She claimed that Judge Flores’ rulings overstepped her authority and were illegal.

On April 22 and 23 the Constitutional Court found itself in the hot seat. At long last, the justices addressed many of the lingering issues in the case. Among a complex array of rulings, they denied Flores’ annulment of the case and her peculiar order to turn back the clock. They also ordered Flores explicitly to incorporate the defense’s evidence and return the case to Judge Barrios and the tribunal. Further, they ruled Judge Barrios had overstepped her authority in expelling Ríos Montt’s lawyer on the first day of the trial, and ordered that Francisco Garcia Gudiel be reinstated as counsel.

On April 30, 2013, after a twelve-day suspension pending appeals, the trial once again resumed.


Looking Into the Abyss

Over the two-month course of the trial, the prosecution’s case documented 266 incidents of genocide or crimes against humanity that resulted in 1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans. The numbers of the dead stemmed specifically from remains formally identified by organizations such as FAFG (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala), which made its bones, so to speak, poring over the civil war’s myriad crime scenes and is now considered a world leader in forensic anthropology.

While the initial charges represented a mere sampling of the dead and disappeared of Ríos Montt’s reign, prosecutors considered it an initial lever to pry open more doors.

In ensuing months, over 100 witnesses testified to their experiences in the Ixil triangle and gave harrowing accounts of torture, sexual assault and massacres. Counterinsurgency campaign plans found their way anonymously to investigators for presentation in court, and 64 experts spoke, ranging from forensic anthropologists to military tacticians to journalists on the ground at the time.

Perhaps the most daring and eye-popping testimony came from former army mechanic Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes. Speaking from a secret location via video-conference-call, Leonardo claimed that then-Kaibil officer Perez Molina had ordered executions and the destruction of villages during his time in Nebaj in the Ixil Triangle. The testimony stunned the nation, not just in what Leonardo said but that he and the prosecutors had the temerity to implicate a sitting president. The Guatemalan Old Guard responded with a dramatic propaganda push-back campaign. The campaign included a full twenty-page advertising spread — designed to look like a regular series of newspaper columns — in a national newspaper claiming that genocide in Guatemala was a myth. It also attributed the spreading of that myth to communists, foreigners and Catholic Priests. Old habits die hard.

The following day, President Pérez Molina announced support for the campaign.

Prosecutors documented through their questioning of expert witnesses the policy of sub-speciation instilled in soldiers, who commonly referred to Maya as “chocolates.” They also showed the pattern of increasingly ruthless orders and mission parameters issued to soldiers in the field over the course of four Ixil campaigns in 1982 and ’83: Operación Ixil, Operación Sofia, Operación Victoria 82 and Operación Firmeza 83. Plan Sofia documentation, the subject of a pretrial amparo seeking its exclusion from evidence for potentially revealing “state secrets,” provided a detailed roadmap of communications between Ríos Montt and his field commanders during his time in power. In one telling juxtaposition in the documents, the planning paperwork for Victoria 82 stipulated that “50 percent of Ixil inhabitants are guerrilla collaborators.” By Operación Firmeza the next year, the number of Ixil locals considered “hostiles” had doubled. Firmeza documents stipulated “100 percent support for subversives in the Ixil triangle.”

This is a damning assessment, as it inherently states that military leadership had decided to tell their soldiers to shoot anything that moved. Prosecutors did not need to work hard to draw the line from such policies to the findings of the UN HEC’s Memory of Silence report. Analyzing the known acts of violence during the Lucas García and Ríos Montt administrations, the report attributed 93 percent of the atrocities and 626 massacres to government forces and found that 83 percent of the victims were Maya.

Wittness Giving Testimony, Foreground, Tribunal led by Judge Barrios, Background.  Photo by  J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org
Wittness Giving Testimony, Foreground, Tribunal led by Judge Barrios, Background. Photo by J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org

Both sides gave their closing arguments in the first week of May 2013. Garcia Gudiel appealed to Judge Barrios for a day to prepare. Barrios retorted that the original indictment had been in place for 14 years and defense counsel had had plenty of time since then to organize their thoughts.

Perhaps sensing the end was nigh, Ríos Montt finally broke his silence a day before the trial ended.  In a charismatic performance that harkened back to his days as president, he blended shouting and whispering, cajoling and encouraging, in a masterful display of stagecraft. Any doubts of the 86-year-old’s lucidity were dispelled by the glint in his eye, which betrayed the old caudillo demagogue.

“I declare my innocence,” he said. “I never had the intention to destroy an ethnic nationality, my mission as chief of State was to restore order, because Guatemala was in ruins.”

Garcia Gudiel, who in his few days in court had alternated between shouting, threatening or sleeping, outdid himself in his closing argument. He managed to slur the Korean Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, and re-invoke the Old Guard biases against dangerous ideas, creeping alien influences and liberal impropriety against which the generals had long painted themselves as the iron-fisted bulwark.

“Why does that chinito (chink) from the United Nations send people from the UN here to Guatemala?” Garcia Gudiel asked the court. “He probably does not even know where Guatemala is! The internal problems of Guatemala can be solved by us Guatemalans. We don’t need gringo hippies here who are only parasitic and live off international aid.”

Prosecutors asked for a sentence of 75 years in prison against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez for their key roles in genocide and crimes against humanity.

On May 10, Barrios closed proceedings and retired along with her two fellow judges to reach a verdict. Roughly 30 minutes later, Judge Flores confoundingly reconfirmed her earlier decision to return the trial to November 2011.

We would be remiss if we did not point out the matrix of pressures on jurists in Guatemala that do not occur in more developed civil societies. Amid the scenario we have painted in this story, it should not be a surprise that judges, witnesses and lawyers live in genuine fear of their lives. The wild-card agents of ruthless men still walk free in this country, as is painfully remembered by the families of men such as Bishop Gerardi.

Many observers believed that Flores and other officers of the court have overstepped their authority in attempting to divert this trial. And questions still hover as to why. Was this incompetence, a battle for limelight, professional jealousy or a deliberate policy to engineer a mistrial?

Take your pick.

Undaunted, at 4pm on May 10, Judge Barrios returned from deliberations and almost immediately faced a barrage of aggressive interruptions from defense attorney Garcia Gudiel. She finally ordered security to arrest anyone that tried to walk out or interrupt her again. Barrios then began what would be a 55-minute summary by stating that the prosecution had proved that genocide had occurred against the Mayan Ixil and that it was carried out by the Guatemalan Army.

“We are totally convinced of the intent to physically destroy the Ixil group,” said Judge Barrios.

She effectively qualified Plan Victoria 82 as the architecture of genocide, and Plan Sofia as proof of the busy lines of communication between Ríos Montt and his commanders in the field. Though Cold War anti-communist paranoia fueled nearly every military campaign in Guatemala since 1954, Barrios stipulated that institutional racism — an instilled belief that the Maya were inferior — informed the campaigns and such dehumanization, as with all genocides, made unconscionable acts possible.

“The strategies show clearly that the Army communicated constantly between the High Command and troops,” the judge said. “Plan Sofia contemplated the extermination of the civilian population as part of its operations. [Plans] Victoria and Firmeza showed the planning and strategy while Sofia showed how the strategies were carried out on the ground.”

Ríos Montt’s unwavering protestations of his removal from the process, his insistence local commanders had autonomy, flew in the face of the evidence of constant communication with the Palacio Nacional. More commonsensically, it conflicted with the reality of a control-obsessed state, in which a de facto dictator does not stay a dictator for long should he allow his army commanders to do what they like on a local, regional and national level. Should this have been the case, Ríos Montt’s presidency would have lasted days.

The great irony of this point was that his own defense attorneys made it. One of their own expert witnesses, Gen. Quilo Ayuso, had explained the chain of command too well to the court. He described to the court the meticulous plans of military counterinsurgency: how they were conceived, how they were coded, how they were signed off upon, how they were chronicled. In other words, he described to the court the cold military efficiency that proved culpability went all the way up the chain of command.

During the trial, several clips from filmmaker Pamela Yates’ documentary “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator”, were entered into evidence. In one, Efraín Ríos Montt is seen in 1982, saying, “If I can’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?”

“The commander-in-chief of the army was responsible for the violations committed,” Barrios said. “José Efraín Ríos Montt had knowledge of what was going on and did not stop it. José Efraín Ríos Montt had knowledge of everything that happened. He knew that the plans were being implemented, he authorized them. He was the maximum authority.”


Armed security guard watches as Judge Jazmin Barrios leaves for deliberation. Photo by  J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org
Armed security guard watches as Judge Jazmin Barrios leaves for deliberation. Photo by J. Rodriguez / mimundo.org

After this nearly hour-long monologue, where her voice cracked under the strain, Judge Barrios first acquitted Rodríguez Sánchez of blame. She concluded that he was not in a position of ultimate authority and therefore could not take responsibility for the actions of others.

Ríos Montt fared worse. He drew sentences of 50 years imprisonment for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. In the courtroom, a media scrum formed around the defense table and, for a time, events felt like they might descend into a riot. Court officers eventually restored order and transported Ríos Montt to the military barracks and prison at Matamoros in Guatemala City’s Zone 1.

Before leaving the courtroom, Ríos Montt said to all the journalists present, “This is an international political show that will affect Guatemalans and the soul of Guatemala. I am not anxious about going to jail because I followed the law and fulfilled my duty.”



The awful impact of Ríos Montt’s “duty” are still being felt. The Ixil left their homes en masse to be at this trial. Witnesses said they still suffer their losses, daily. Guatemala as a nation remains psychologically scarred, seesawing between denial and depression. The massacres of the 1980s created a culture of mistrust, alienation, powerlessness, and there is always a sense that even this fitful grasp at self-rule and self-examination could be erased by a sucker-punch of violence tomorrow. Or a late ruling on another amparo. Ríos Montt’s lawyers are actively pursuing an appeal.

If that comes to pass, the process will surely play out in as bizarre and byzantine a manner as many Guatemalans have come to expect of their legal system. Even with a conviction, there is no guarantee of “closure,” to use a term of contemporary psychobabble.

But it is not closure that Guatemala needs — it is acceptance, accountability and responsibility. The nation needs to accept cold hard facts, admit that heinous acts were committed on both sides, but acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of them came at the hands of the military. There is no way around this, no mitigation of it: the people charged with protecting us instead committed the worst crimes known to human beings. Children thrown down wells. Daughters raped in front of their fathers. Fetuses ripped from a mother’s womb. In the name of all Guatemalans, the military preyed on our neighbors, betrayed their trust and, thus, betrayed all of us. We all have to take responsibility for those actions and put laws into effect to assure they are never repeated.

As long as there is no acceptance of what happened, the “internal conflict” is as alive now as it was then.

Lost in the trial verdict was Barrios’ demand that investigations and prosecutions continue into the crimes that still haunt us. And Ríos Montt’s admonishment, self-serving as it was, that this does not end with him should be hearkened.

In an interview with CNN the day after the verdict, President Pérez Molina faced the types of questions that, until very recently, would have been unthinkable in this country. As the interview got progressively more uncomfortable for the former Ixil area commander, technology came to his aid and the link broke. Whether this was one of the myriad power cuts that blight the country on a daily basis or a deliberate act, we may never know.

But what we do know is that a fractured society tends to stay fractured. It is a simple law of inertia. The awareness of state repression has improved, but it is difficult to say if this will drive a call for reform from members of the political and military castes. Recent events, such as the states of siege in Huehuetenango and Jalapa, prove one thing: the public may have moved on from the 1980s, but the state has not. Even if to a lesser extent, it continues to use the same military intimidation, random arrests, targeted assassinations of civil leaders and creative interpretations of the legal system to maintain control. Only this time it is not State vs. People — it is State-defending-foreign-businesses vs. People.

And so Guatemala continues its search for a united identity and a way out of its past.

It is a tightrope walk. Certainly, the country feels like a spark could set it off. Sadly, few would be surprised by another Jueves Negro. On the other hand, in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30 years of age, the power that an old caudillo still holds diminishes by the day. As does the power of the Old Guard. Perhaps we are seeing the end of them. The problem, however, being that the new guard looks remarkably like those they are replacing.

And yet, look what happened. Finally, the Guatemalan judicial system awakened from a deep slumber, its eyes flickering, unaccustomed to the bright sunshine. Following Ríos Montt’s conviction, at the very least the Ixil can explain to their younger generation why their aunts and uncles do not have any children, why they were forced to leave, what actually happened over all that time. Finally, in Guatemala, their home, someone believed them.

It is unclear what the ultimate fate of Efraín Ríos Montt will be. By the time this magazine is printed, he may very well be back at home, sleeping in his own bed. It is entirely possible that a ruling on one final amparo may undo the entire case. But there is one bell that cannot be unrung. He was found guilty by a national court, in front of Guatemalan judges and a room full of Guatemalan witnesses. He was confronted by his victims and he was judged to have committed atrocities against them. That moment will never go away. Not for him and not for Guatemala.

On the closing day of the trial, after the sentencing — and even as some feared that Ríos Montt would still escape justice by following a phalanx of lawyers out into the streets and beyond — witnesses to the day’s proceedings sang in the courtroom:


Aqui no lloró nadie.

Aqui solo queremos ser humanos.

Comer, reir, enamorarse, vivir.

Vivir la vida no morirla.


Here, no one cried.

Here, we only want to be human.

To eat, to laugh, to fall in love, to live.

To live life, not to die it.



(Click here to buy the latest issue of La Cuadra Magazine.)

Reporting for this story benefited greatly from a timeline of events established by the Open Justice Initiative, an international watchdog organization that used their reach and resources to monitor and report on the trial of Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez. To gain a fuller appreciation of the nuances, the context and the substance of this trial than we can provide here, we strongly recommend our readers visit their website at: www.riosmontt-trial.org.

James Rodriguez is a Mexico-US independent documentary photographer and photojournalist focusing on exposing social justice issues, particularly land tenure, human rights abuses, post-war processes and the negative effects of globalization. He has been based in Guatemala since 2006. Follow his work at MiMundo.org.

Jean-Marie Simon, photojournalist, lived and worked in Guatemala in the 1980. She will be giving two talks about her experiences living and working through the internal conflict in the coming weeks. First, on June 15, 2013 at 3pm in the Club Fotográfico de Antigua, Calle del Arco, #29. She will give a second talk at Sophos on June 19. Plaza Fontabella zona 10, Guatemala City.

Victor Ruiz is an independent journalist living and working throughout Central America.


Minor edits have been made to this story from its original printed form.

  1. Very thorough article albeit very biased. The author did not mention some things that are unexplainable if all of his arguments were true.

    First, claiming that members of the army were/are “racist” is ridiculous. The author makes it sound as if the Guatemalan army is formed by arian members. All of the conscripts have and had indigenous roots. Differences with the Ixiles were cultural and in language, not in race.

    Second, the author fails to mention that when Rios Montt ran for the presidency in 2003 the only regions in which he actually won were the regions where the genocide had supposedly happened. How can this be explained? Is the author suggesting that the Ixiles are that ignorant? I have never heard of Nazi sympathizers having electoral success in Israel or Serbian suppremacists having electoral success in Bosnia.

    Third, the author cites many references to prove his point taking such references as the truth set in stone ignoring that such references could have been drafted hidding an agenda.

    Fourth, the author also fails to point out that the trial was packed with irregularities.

    I believe Rios Montt has carried out a plethora of transgressions and deserves to face justice but accusing him of “Genocide of the Ixil People” just goes beyond logic (and evidence).

  2. I wonder, when will we see anyone in the US held responsible for the genocide against indians in that country?… Because – unless my history is wrong – their killing was made in a systematic manner, with the purpose of avoiding their active participation and involvement in the new country’s life.

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