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Guilty of Genocide: Guatemalan Dictator Sentenced to 80 Years in Jail

Ríos Montt was convicted of overseeing the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Ixil region.

Brigadier General José Efraín Ríos Montt at the first press conference following his 1982 coup.
Photo Credit: Jean-Marie Simon/Wikimedia Commons


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.

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