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Thousands of Women March Against Guatemala's Decision to Annul Military Dictator's Sentence

A female-led movement for justice follows the overturning of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt's genocide conviction.

Two weeks ago, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the historic guilty verdict of the nation’s former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who had been convicted of committing genocide and crimes against humanity during his short reign from 1982 to 1983. The Constitutional Court’s decision annulled Montt’s 80-year prison sentence and ordered that the final weeks of the case be retried. At 86 years old, Ríos Montt was the first former head of state in Latin America to be sentenced for genocide by his own country.

In response, human rights organizations across Latin America organized actions protesting the sentence annulment, supporting the victims of genocide and condemning legal impunity. In Guatemala, an estimated 5,000 people marched through the capital on May 24. Simultaneous actions occurred in front of the Guatemalan embassies in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Mexico City, Mexico; Managua, Nicaragua; Lima, Peru; Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Additional protests occurred in El Salvador and Costa Rica.

Competing interests

David Oliva, a member of the human rights organization HIJOS Guatemala, said that the march in Guatemala was the biggest mobilization he has seen around the issue of memory and unmasking impunity in the justice system.

“Today there are more people out than the day that Guatemala mobilized to protest the assassination of Monseñor Gerardi,” he said, referring to the Guatemalan bishop and human rights defender who was murdered two days after the 1998 publication of the groundbreaking report Guatemala: Never Again. The report compiled hundreds of testimonies about crimes committed during the nation’s protracted civil war and genocide against indigenous communities, and it laid the groundwork for Montt’s subsequent trial.

At the march, human rights activists who had spent years organizing for Montt’s trial asserted that the ruling and sentence was still valid.

Pilar Maldonado of the Center for Justice and Accountability — one of the two co-counsels on the trial — has spent the last 13 years seeking justice for Montt’s crimes. He explained, “The sentence was definitive, and we are going to defend it. This ruling from the Constitutional Court cannot stop justice in Guatemala. We are not disposed to repeat the trial, because it is disrespectful to the Ixil victims and the other communities who were also victims of genocide.”

Montt’s legal battle began in 1999, when he was indicted for torture, genocide and crimes against humanity. In 2012, he was re-indicted, and indigenous Ixil communities began presenting testimonies about the reign of terror and murder that occurred under Montt’s military dictatorship from 1982 to 1983.

But at the same time, the business elite of Guatemala began openly positioning itself against Ríos Montt’s trial. The nation’s leading business association, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, publicly stated that it “defends the importance of knowing how to leave the past behind.” To Oliva, this stance clearly exposed those who financed genocide in Guatemala — and who now benefit from burying this history.

According to Nelson Rivera, a human rights activist and member of the Community Press, genocide, historical memory and today’s business practices are all connected. “They are all involved,” he said. “Those who are in the right-wing parties, those in organized crime and drug trafficking, the traditional elite families — and now transnational economic interests.”

“Unfortunately we are used to these dirty tricks by the justice system, which benefits those with money,” she said as the march passed Guatemala’s Supreme Court. She took a moment to read aloud the signs: “Genocide is written with a G, for military Government.” “You can retry them but they’ll never be innocent.” “My heart is Ixil.”

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