This past week saw the start of the trial of an ex-general and politician in Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide. According to the U.N. this is the first time a former head of state has faced a national court for such crimes. Human rights activists say the trial is “historic”. The former general denies the charges and it is anticipated that the trial will last for months.
Specifically, General Rios Montt faces charges of crimes against humanity in connection with the killing of 1,771 indigenous Mayans during his rule in 1982-1983. Prosecutors said General Rios Montt wanted to wipe out the indigenous group, which he suspected of supporting rebel fighters. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that this the very first time that a former head of state is being put on trial for genocide by a national tribunal.
The proceedings could last months, with hundreds of witnesses, since the prosecution admits there is no evidence directly linking General Rios Montt to the killings. Their strategy is to use eyewitness testimonies to prove that there was an established chain of command. General Rios Montt’s 17 months in power are believed to have been one of the most violent periods of the war.
Guatemala suffered through a violent and brutal civil war where roughly 200,000 civilians, most of them of Mayan descent, were killed during the 1960-1996 conflict. This happened as a string of right-wing governments attempted to rid Guatemala of leftist guerrilla fighters suspected of being communists. A United Nations-backed truth commission report released after the 1996 peace accords found that the army and paramilitary groups were responsible for more than 90 percent of the hundreds of massacres carried out during the war.
Complicating the trial is the fact that the current president of Guatemala and ex-general, President Otto Perez Molina claims that no genocide ever took place in the country.
The testimony this week was graphic and shocking. Witnesses testified to the “subhuman” way in which the Mayan villagers were treated. There was testimony to multiple murders of women and children and elderly people by members of the Guatemalan military. Witnesses explained in horrific detail the executions by gun, machete and burning people alive. Witnesses also recounted people being beaten to death by rock-wielding soldiers.
Prosecutors, expert witnesses, and genocide survivors are diligently preparing their case, even as they suffer threats and intimidation. The presiding judge has already received death threats. International organizations like Guatemala Human Rights Commission are monitoring the process, offering moral support, and spreading the word to the international community.
The United States, unfortunately, was on the wrong side of history during this conflict. The relationship between General Rios Montt and the United States government were strong at this time. Military aid bans at this time were lifted and the United States gave millions of dollars in military equipment and trained Guatemalan soldiers. These same soldiers committed the acts of genocide that have been documented. Because General Rios Montt was fervently anti-communist, the United States was very comfortable in supporting him and either intentionally or not, turning a blind eye to the outrageous human rights violations being committed. It is important to note that the Cold War was the major factor at this time in determining the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Almost all international decisions were looked through the prism of the threat of communism.
General Rios Montt was praised in the United States as being “dedicated to democracy,” and “just an overall great guy.” In actuality, at the same time of this praise elite Guatemalan soldiers were on their way to Las Dos Erres to commit a mass killing. The army killed almost 200 Guatemalans that day, including 70 children. Guatemalan soldiers killed some of the children by holding them by their legs and smashing their heads into brick walls. Others were killed by blows to the head with sledgehammers. The killings went on almost unabated for three days. During the time they repeatedly raped women and girls before they eventually killed them.
Foreign policy mistakes of the past cannot be changed, but the United States could send a clear message that the U.S. stands with the people of Guatemala. It is important that a representative of the U.S. government attend the trial in order to send a positive message of support to all involved, from judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and to victims. The U.S. presence would send a strong signal that the international community cares about judicial independence, due process, and the rule of law.
In 2010, President Obama stated, “From Nuremberg to Yugoslavia to Liberia, the United States has seen that the end of impunity and the promotion of justice are not just moral imperatives; they are stabilizing forces in international affairs… Those who intentionally target innocent civilians must be held accountable, and we will continue to support institutions and prosecutions that advance this important interest.” These words stated by President Obama need to be followed up with action. The United States can send a message to the world that genocide trials are serious business and that the U.S. is firmly on the side of victims of genocide and human rights violations and not on the side of it’s perpetrators. This would be a step in the right direction to correcting the mistakes of the past.