Guilty of Genocide: Guatemalan Dictator Sentenced to 80 Years in Jail
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AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of, what exactly he did?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. Ríos Montt ordered basically a program of extermination against civilians in the northwest highlands. That’s the area where the Mayan population of Guatemala is concentrated. They make up now, today, about half of the population of the country. And they formed—they were the part of the population that was most resistant to the rule of the army and to the rule of the oligarchy. They were pushing for land reform. They were pushing for rights to be recognized as equal citizens, which was something that, to this day, the Guatemalan oligarchy does not want to concede. And there was also a guerrilla movement that arose in the highlands.
And the Guatemalan army used a strategy of massacre. They would wipe out villages that did not submit to army rule. And the soldiers at the time described to me how they would conduct interrogations where they ask, "Who here gives food to the guerrillas? Who here criticizes the government?" And if they didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, they would strangle them to death, or they would slit their throats. If the people being questioned were women and they were pregnant, they would slit them open with machetes. They would make people dig mass graves. They would then make them watch as they shot their neighbors in the head, in the face, in the back of the skull. And this just happened in village after village after village.
And it wasn’t an armed confrontation, because the villagers were unarmed. The soldiers were armed with American and Israeli weapons. The villagers were not. It was straight-up murder. It was part of a strategy that had been developed in conjunction with the U.S. In fact, the U.S. military attaché in Guatemala at the time, Colonel George Maynes, told me that this village—that he, himself, had helped develop this village sweep tactic. There was a U.S. trainer there, American Green Beret, who was training the military, and this is, in his words, how to destroy towns. And that’s what they did. And now Ríos Montt has been convicted for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, can you describe the scene in the courtroom, from the point where the judge announced the verdict and the sentence and what happened in the courtroom and with Ríos Montt next?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, after the sentence, at one point, it looked like Ríos Montt was actually trying to flee the courtroom. It looked like his lawyers were trying to ease him out the door. And the judge started calling for security to stop Ríos Montt before he could sneak out the door.
The people in the audience started singing hymns. They started chanting, "Justice! Justice! Justice!" They chanted, "Yassmin! Yassmin!" That’s the name of the judge, Judge Barrios, who delivered the verdict. The Ixil people in the audience, many of whom had been survivors of these atrocities, who had risked their lives and come to Guatemala City to be witnesses in the trial, they stood up, and they put their arms across their—crossed their arms across the chest in the traditional way of saying thanks, and they all gave a slight bow in unison to pay tribute to the court.
The supporters of Ríos Montt, his family and the former military, some of them at certain points started shouting. They actually seemed most upset when the judge said that Ríos Montt would have to pay money reparations for his crimes. And, in fact, this morning there’s going to be a hearing on the reparations.