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Meet Rios Montt: The First Head of State in the Americas to Stand Trial for Genocide

Former president José Efraín Ríos Montt has been ordered to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, marking a victory for the Guatemalan people.

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


In a remarkable development from the Americas, former Guatemalan president José Efraín Ríos Montt was ordered to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out during his seventeen month dictatorship between 1982 and 1983. Rios Montt is the first former head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide in a national court. While he has not yet been convicted of anything, Monday's legal outcome is a victory for his victims, domestic and international human rights organisations, and the Guatemalan people.

During Guatemala's thirty-six year conflict between 1960 and 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and another 45,000 disappeared at the hands of the state's security forces. Over one-hundred thousand are believed to have perished during the scorched earth campaign carried out in the early 1980s when Rios Montt and, prior to him, Romeo Lucas García served as de facto heads of state.

Rios Montt lost his immunity which he had held as a sitting member of congress last January. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested. At the time, I had  hoped that he simply would have stood before the court and accepted responsibility for the violence that he ordered thirty years ago. If he believed what he ordered was necessary to save the country from the threat posed by the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, he should have said so. In no way would that excuse him for the crimes that he committed.

Instead, he and his lawyers presented 75 legal  challenges to have the charges dismissed. His defence lawyer Danilo Rodriguez, ironically enough a former guerrilla of twenty-two years, and others speaking for the general argued, at various points, that Rios Montt was unaware of what was going on in the Ixil Triangle, was not really in control of what his subordinates were doing, could not be prosecuted because of an amnesty law, he was  not physically thereso he could not be responsible, and the killings took place in the heat of battle. In effect, Rios Montt has done everything possible to avoid responsibility.

Evidence of atrocities

Following three days of testimony,  Judge Miguel Angel Galvez ruled that there was sufficient evidence to try Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for ordering fifteen massacres involving the killing of 1,771 indigenous Ixiles in the department of Quiché between March 1982 and August 1983. The  judgelistened to witness testimony, historical, military and psychological reports, forensic reports from numerous exhumations, military plans, ballistic evidence, and death certificates. During these massacres, women and young girls were raped and killed. Young children and elders were executed. Men, women, and children were tortured. After having their homes and crops burned to the ground, twenty-nine thousand Ixil survivors then fled to the mountains where they were then harassed and persecuted by the Guatemalan armed forces while living in " subhuman conditions". In addition to Rios Montt, the court found sufficient evidence to send former Director of Military Intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez to trial for having been an intellectual author of Plan Victoria 82, Plan Sofia and Plan Firmeza 83 authorising attacks against the civilian population.

While they do not appear to have been close during or after the war, Guatemala's current President Otto Pérez Molina served as a regional commander in the Ixil region during the period that the massacres took place. In the past, the president has denied that any massacres took place during the conflict at the hands of the government's security forces. However, President Molina has remained quiet during the current hearings and has conveniently been out of the country attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where he is promoting an alternative to the current war on drugs.

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