Guilty of Genocide: Guatemalan Dictator Sentenced to 80 Years in Jail
Editor's note: The following is a transcript of a Democracy Now! interview with Allan Nairn.
AMY GOODMAN: In an historic verdict, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Judge Yassmin Barrios announced the verdict on Friday.
JUDGE YASSMIN BARRIOS: [translated] By unanimous decision, the court declares that the accused, José Efraín Ríos Montt, is responsible as the author of the crime of genocide. He is responsible as the author of the crimes against humanity committed against the life and integrity of the civilian residents of the villages and hamlets located in Santa Maria Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal and San Gaspar Chajul. Immediate detention is ordered in order to assure the result of this court process and because of the nature of the crimes committed for which he has been condemned. I hereby order he enter prison directly.
AMY GOODMAN: Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of overseeing the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Ixil region after he seized power in 1982. Over the past two months, nearly a hundred witnesses testified during the trial, describing massacres, torture and rape by state forces.
Also on trial was General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, Ríos Montt’s head of intelligence. He was found not guilty of the same charges.
Ríos Montt becomes the first former head of state to be found guilty of genocide in his or her own country. Ríos Montt was a close ally of the United States. Former President Ronald Reagan once called him, quote, "a man of great personal integrity."
After the verdict, Judge Barrios ordered the attorney general to launch an immediate investigation of "all others" connected to the crimes.
JUDGE YASSMIN BARRIOS: [translated] In continuation of the investigation on the part of the public ministry, the tribunal orders the public ministry to continue the investigation against more people who could have participated in the acts which are being judged.
AMY GOODMAN: The Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who attended the trial, said there are others who should be tried for war crimes.
RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] We are using the universal law. In other words, each person has inherent rights, and therefore it is a farce to say that if one is judged, all will be judged. We are not all. We are not things. If someone else is guilty of a crime, he is welcome to come and sit among the accused.
AMY GOODMAN: One former general implicated in abuses during the trial was Guatemala’s current president, Otto Pérez Molina. In the early 1980s, Pérez Molina was a military field commander in the northwest highlands, the Ixil region where the genocide occurred. At the time, he was operating under the alias "Major Tito Arias." During the trial, one former army officer accused him of participating in executions.
To talk more about the historic trial and the significance of the verdict and sentence, we go to Guatemala City, where we’re joined by investigative reporter Allan Nairn, who covered the trial and attended it in Guatemala and has covered Guatemala extensively in the 1980s.
Allan Nairn, welcome back to Democracy Now! The significance of the verdict and the 80-year sentence?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, this was a breakthrough for the idea of enforcing the murder laws, a breakthrough for indigenous people against racism and for human civilization, because you can’t really claim to be civilized unless you can enforce the law against the most basic taboo: murder. And when the murders are committed by people at the top, usually they get away with it. Even in recent years, when there’s been some progress internationally, through institutions like the International Criminal Court, in prosecuting former heads of state, generals, for atrocities, almost always the only ones who get prosecuted are those who have lost the power struggle, those who no longer hold onto the reins of power or are no longer backed by the elites. But this case was different. In this case, a conviction was obtained against a general who represented the elite that triumphed, the military and the oligarchs who were responsible for perhaps up to a quarter million civilian murders, especially in the 1980s. Those are the people who still rule Guatemala. Yet, one of their number, General Ríos Montt, has now been convicted, because this was a prosecution that was initiated from below. And I don’t know of a case where that’s ever been done before. And this could be the beginning of something very big. I think this will be remembered for 500 years.
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.
It took the—it took about 45 minutes for the prison police, who were supposed to drag Ríos Montt away, to get into the room. When they came in, I happened to be standing next to the door that they entered, and I asked, "Are you the guys who are supposed to take away Ríos Montt?" And you could see that they were extremely nervous. They were carrying long rifles. But, I mean, this is such an event that this is something they’ll be telling their grandchildren about.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did they take him out, after he tried to leave with his lawyers before they got there?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, there was a huge swarm of press. He was taken out, and at one point, when he was being put into the police vehicle, you could see that he was being held by the scruff of his neck by the police who were taking him away to prison.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to talk about a very interesting CNNinterview with the current president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, because that’s the question everyone is asking now: Does this point the finger at him, he who enjoys immunity while he is president of Guatemala? We’re speaking with investigative journalist Allan Nairn in Guatemala City, attended the trial of Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison, where he sits today. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our discussion about the historic verdict against former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, found guilty Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentenced to 80 years in prison. Shortly after the verdict was announced, Guatemala’s current president, Otto Pérez Molina, was interviewed on CNN en Español, Spanish CNN. The host, Fernando del Rincón, asked the president about his time, Otto Pérez Molina’s time, as a military commander, but the line mysteriously cut off right after he asked the question.
FERNANDO DEL RINCÓN: [translated] In September 1982, Allan Nairn, an investigative journalist, had documentation where Major Tito Arias appeared in a video in which he said, quote, "All the families," referencing to the families in the zone, "are with the guerrillas." That’s what you said in September 1982 in the video in an interview with Allan Nairn, an investigative journalist from the United States, who, for certain, was there to be questioned in this process against Ríos Montt.
Let’s see if we’ll return with the president, to see if we’ll hear his response to that.
AMY GOODMAN: CNN host Fernando del Rincón returned to the question when the satellite was restored later in the interview.
FERNANDO DEL RINCÓN: [translated] In 1982, you appear in a video of Allan Nairn’s, which you have confirmed that you appeared, then with the name Major Tito Arias, where you say, "All the families are with the guerrillas." What did you mean by that?
PRESIDENT OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] Look, this is another case where a phrase is taken out of context of what we were talking about. I don’t think the thing is like that, Fernando.
FERNANDO DEL RINCÓN: [translated] No one is taking anything out of context. It is a video where it is a declaration you made.
PRESIDENT OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] It must be raised. Of course you were taking it out of context. I can tell you here now. If you want, I can explain. In 1982—and you can come here to verify it everywhere—the faction of the guerrillas that was called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in that area involved in entire families, without respecting their ages, from the elderly to the smallest children. They were given pseudonyms. They took over the local power. They built what they called "irregular local forces." They built what they called the "clandestine local committee." The plan was to burn. Better said, it wasn’t just a plan; they actually did burn the entire municipalities, in order to—
FERNANDO DEL RINCÓN: [translated] Mr. President, Mr. President, I must interrupt you.
PRESIDENT OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] That was the context in which we were living.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Guatemala’s current president, Otto Pérez Molina, being interviewed byCNN en Español host Fernando del Rincón. We’re joined by investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who Rincón was referring to in his questioning of Pérez Molina. You interviewed the Guatemalan president, Pérez Molina, when he was known as Tito in the highlands, Allan—that’s what he’s referring to—more than two decades ago. Explain the significance of this line of questioning and what Pérez Molina’s role was at the time that Ríos Montt has now been convicted of crimes against humanity for.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, now this—now that Ríos Montt has been convicted for the actions that the Guatemalan army took in the highlands, the next logical step is to look at those who were implementing the plan of Ríos Montt. And the field commander on the ground at that time in the Ixil region was Pérez Molina, who is now the president. With the ruling of the judge, this is more than just a logical conclusion that Pérez Molina should be investigated. It’s now a legal mandate from the court, because the court said that the attorney general of Guatemala is ordered to investigate everyone who could have been involved in the crimes for which Ríos Montt was convicted.
When I met Pérez Molina in '82, his troops were in the midst of a series of massacres, and the troops described how they would go into villages and execute civilians and torture civilians. At one point, one of the discussions with Pérez Molina took place as we were standing over the bodies of four guerrillas who the—his troops had captured. One of the soldiers said they had turned them over to Pérez Molina for interrogation after one of them had set off a grenade. The soldier said, "Well, they didn't want to say anything in their interrogation." Another soldier told me that they, the military, had in fact finished those troops off. So, Pérez Molina is a definite logical target for criminal investigation, although at this moment, as president, he still enjoys legal immunity. But that lapses as soon as he leaves an official position.
AMY GOODMAN: CNN host Fernando del Rincón also asked President Otto Pérez Molina if he still denies there was a genocide after Friday’s verdict.
PRESIDENT OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] Well, Fernando, I was speaking my personal opinion. And personally, I do not want this. And I said it also when I said that there was no genocide in Guatemala. And I repeat that now. Now, after there has been a judgment, which was in a lower court, today’s ruling is not as firm. We are respectful of what justice declares, and we will continue being respectful.
What I believe to be of value here, first of all, is that in Guatemala things are taking place that have never happened before. And that’s important. That is, a head of state today in a lower court having been convicted of a crime of this magnitude, which is the crime of genocide, is something that was unthinkable just 10 years ago here in Guatemala. Today what we are seeing is that justice can be exercised, justice can advance and move forward.
Now, this sentence is not so firm. The ruling shall be final when the appellate process runs its course. And I imagine those defending General Ríos will pursue these options, as he, himself, stated today after he saw the sentence and said he will appeal the sentence that was declared today.
AMY GOODMAN: CNN host Fernando del Rincón pressied President Molina further, asking him if he would go against the Guatemalan justice system and continue to deny that there’s a genocide.
PRESIDENT OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] Well, that’s hypothetical, Fernando. What you are telling me is an assumption. What is missing here is that the higher courts declare on the matter. I am not a part of the defense of General Ríos, and I will not be part of the official defense of General Ríos. In any case, as an executive, as president of the country, what is my responsibility is to be respectful. And it is what I also ask of all Guatemalans, that we be law-abiding. Here, we have to respect and we need to strengthen all the levels of justice. And what I have always said, we want justice to be served, but we want it to be a justice that is not biased to one side nor the other, because it would cease to be justice. And then what would happen is that Guatemalans would lose rather than be strengthened. They would lose confidence in the justice system. I’m not going to issue an opinion at this time.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, being interviewed by CNN. Investigative journalist Allan Nairn, your response?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, at one point, it sounds like Pérez Molina is trying to take credit for the trial. And the trial happened against his will. And, in fact, just a few weeks ago, he intervened behind the scenes to help kill the trial, and it was only revived after an intense backlash from the Guatemalan public and also international pressure. This morning’s Wall Street Journal carries a piece that has additional evidence citing various residents of the areas that Pérez Molina commanded also talking about him committing atrocities.
One of the remarks that Pérez Molina made in response to the verdict against Ríos Montt—he was echoing the comments of the American Chamber of Commerce, which represents the U.S. corporations in Guatemala—was to say that this verdict will discourage foreign investment in Guatemala. It’s a very revealing comment, because foreign companies, when they come into a country and are looking to invest, they want some laws to be enforced, like the laws on contracts, and they want other laws not to be enforced, like the labor laws and the laws which stop them from murdering their employees if they try to organize unions. In the ’80s, the leaders of the American Chamber of Commerce described to me how they would sometimes turn over names of troublesome workers to the security forces, and they would then disappear or be assassinated. Fred Sherwood was one of the Chamber of Commerce leaders who described that. And now, with this verdict, it seems that Pérez Molina and the corporate leaders and the elites in Guatemala, in general, are worried that they may have a harder time killing off workers and organizers when they need to.
And it’s especially relevant right now because there’s a huge conflict in Guatemala about mining. American and Canadian mining companies are being brought in by the Pérez Molina government to exploit silver and other minerals. The local communities are resisting. Community organizers have been killed. There was a clash in which a police officer was killed. So Pérez Molina has imposed a state of siege in various parts of the country. And just the other day, the local press printed a wiretap transcript of the head of security at one of these mines, in this case the San Rafael mining operation, where the security chief says to his men, regarding demonstrators who were outside the mine, he says, "Goddamn dogs, they do not—they do not understand that the mine generates jobs. We must eliminate these animal pieces of [bleep]. We cannot allow people to establish resistance. Kill those sons of [bleep]." And the security people later opened fire. This is the way foreign companies operate, not just in Guatemala, but around the world. I mean, it’s this kind of non-enforcement of law that made possible the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed over a hundred workers. And now they’re worried in Guatemala—
AMY GOODMAN: A thousand.
ALLAN NAIRN: Oh, I’m sorry, over a thousand workers—that this Ríos Montt case could also set a precedent for just starting to enforce the murder laws. And that can make their life a little more difficult. That can raise their labor costs. It has very serious implications for them.
And another aspect of this is that there’s going to be a fierce counterreaction against this verdict this week from the oligarchs, from the former military. They’re putting things out into the public calling Judge Barrios a dirty guerrilla, a hysterical Nazi. They have people following her around town with video cameras to try to imply that she’s not behaving in a proper manner for a judge. They’re going to try to get the courts, which have—other courts, which have traditionally been tools of the oligarchy and the military, to nullify the verdict against Ríos Montt. This battle is far from over.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan, there are three remarkable, prominent women who have—who are part of this verdict, who have helped to make it happen. One is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, one of—who brought suit, that has led to this trial. One is the attorney general, the first woman attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz. And then there is Judge Barrios, the judge in this case. Can you talk about these women?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, it was Rigoberta Menchú who helped to get this whole process started years ago with legal cases filed against Guatemalan generals for atrocities in the Mayan region. That helped produce a criminal court case in Spain, where—in the Audiencia Nacional, where the Spanish courts indicted and tried to extradite Guatemalan generals and former officials to Spain. I testified in that trial. And one of the survivors of the massacres who testified in that trial mentioned that Pérez Molina—this was an aside at the trial, because there were so many officers who were implicated—that Pérez Molina had been involved in this man’s torture.
One of the reasons that this case against Ríos Montt has been able to go forward is because the current attorney general, Paz y Paz, is a person of great integrity and has allowed it to go forward, obviously against the wishes of Pérez Molina and the oligarchy.
And Judge Barrios was the one who was—who was directly on the lines. She ran the trial. She was the one who had to deliver the verdict. As she left the courthouse every night, you could see her wearing a bulletproof vest. The judges and prosecutors involved in the case received death threats. In one case, a threat against a prosecutor, the person delivering the threat put a pistol on the table and said, "I know where your children are." It takes a lot of courage to push a case like this. And there are enough people in Guatemala who have been willing to stand up that it’s been able to go forward, but they’re doing so at considerable risk.
And just to give you an idea of the kind of environment they’re operating in, there’s a piece that just came out in Plaza Pública, one of the—kind of the leading political magazine in Guatemala, where they interview the families of the military, who have been protesting against the Ríos Montt trial. These are young people, now extremely rich because of all their money their parents stole in the military. And one of the topics that they talk about in this interview is the rape charges against the generals and colonels, because witness after witness talked about how indigenous women would be raped in the course of these massacre operations. And one of the military family men says that, "Well, yes, these rapes—some of these rapes may have happened, but they didn’t happen as a rule." And he then defends the military men by saying he doesn’t think that they would systematically rape the indigenous women, and he then uses language so vile that I can’t repeat it on the air. But the essence of his argument is that—his argument is not that they wouldn’t have done it because it would be wrong to rape or because it’s against the law to rape or because these military men have honor or because it’s indecent to rape; his point was that they wouldn’t have committed these mass rapes because they wouldn’t have—because of personal characteristics of the indigenous women, they would not have found them desirable. But he expresses it in the most disgusting language you can imagine. This is the oligarchy that has now been—and the military, that has now been stung by this verdict and is itching for payback.
And one final legal point I should make, the mandate that the judge gave, the order to the attorney general, Judge Barrios’s order to the attorney general, Paz y Paz, to further investigate everyone involved in Ríos Montt’s crimes, that could encompass U.S. officials, because the U.S. military attachés in Guatemala, the CIA people who were on the ground aiding the G2 military intelligence unit, the policy-making officials back in Washington, people like Elliott Abrams and the other high officials of the Reagan administration, they were direct accessories to and accomplices to the Guatemalan military. There were supplying money, weapons, political support, intelligence. They, under the law—under international and Guatemalan law, they could be charged. The courts and the attorney general could have right to seek their extradition from the U.S. Also, in the investigation process, they could subpoena U.S. documents, because there would be extensive reports and National Security Agency intercepts of Guatemalan army communications from that period, and there would also be still-classified reports on exactly what the CIA and the DIA and the White House and the State Department were doing with Ríos Montt and with the commanders in the field, people like, well, before Ríos Montt, General Benedicto Lucas García, afterward Pérez Molina. So, both President Pérez Molina and the U.S. are now potential targets for criminal investigation for these crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity in Guatemala.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, we will leave it there for now, investigative journalist on the ground in Guatemala City, and end with a clip of Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was there through the trial, speaking at the beginning of the genocide trial of Ríos Montt.
RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] It’s a very big day for Guatemala. It’s a very big day for those of us who have defended our lives in difficult circumstances, very painful circumstances of great isolation, of exile. It looks like our period of pain is ending, because we hope that from now on we will be accepted by Guatemalan society, in our polarized society, the society that carries the burden of past genocide on their backs.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú. The former dictator of Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, has been sentenced to 80 years in prison. He was taken to prison after he was found guilty on Friday. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’ll link to Allan Nairn’s blog at allannairn.org. That’s A-L-L-A-N-N-A-I-R-N.org. And you can see all of our coverage of this trial and our interviews on Guatemala at democracynow.org.