Former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt will face a second genocide trial on the civil war-era Dos Erres massacre after Judge Carol Patricia Flores Blanco issued her ruling last week.
After a marathon hearing that lasted more than 10 hours, a packed court saw relatives of civil war victims as well as human rights activists celebrate the decision. Under international pressure to resolve excesses of the 36-year civil war, Guatemala will become the first country in Latin America to place a former president on trial for genocide.
In January, Judge Blanco ruled there was a case to answer for Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity and the genocide of Maya-Ixil during Guatemala’s civil war in the Nebaj region.
Challenges to the Ministerio Público prosecutors’ claims and evidence have thus far kept the trial from beginning; it was supposed to get underway in March.
In both hearings, Ríos Montt has refused to testify in his defense; however, he has proclaimed his innocence. Since January, the 85-year-old fired his original lawyers and hired a new team. The arguments remained similar, pointing to the fact that Ríos Montt was not present in nor in operational control of Nebaj—and that local commanders should take accountability for local decisions.
Ríos Montt addressed Judge Blanco, “I stand before you with respect and in compliance with the law. I was the politician responsible for results, working for the nation’s spirit. I plead guilty to this. I am not oblivious to the pain of the people or the national disgrace but I do not feel responsible for these acts.”
César Calderón, attorney for Rios Montt, told the Court, “You cannot link what others did under his command, for each commander acted independently. For example, you cannot accuse the Attorney General of being responsible if a prosecutor stole a watch during a raid."
The Dos Erres massacre is one of the more well-known atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict. The U.S. radio show “This American Life” recounted the massacre during last week’s broadcast.
On December 6, 1982, in the Péten department that borders Mexico, a detachment of Kaibiles, Guatemala’s Special Forces, entered the village looking for weapons. (Two months earlier, guerrillas had ambushed an army convoy near Dos Erres, killing 21 soldiers and making off with a number of their guns.)
After splitting up the male villagers from the women and children, a search revealed no weapons or guerrilla propaganda. Kaibil officers consulted with their superiors and the order to “vaccinate” the village was given. The military junta used a “scorched earth” policy in their fight against guerrillas. In this case vaccination was used to mean the destruction of property and the murder of the village’s inhabitants using brutal methods such as rape. In effect, it wiped Dos Erres off the map.
Of the more than 200 people that were killed, only two small boys survived. The story of one of those boys, then-3-year-old Alfredo Castañeda being taken home by Lieutenant Oscar Ovidio Ramírez Ramos, is told in ProPublica’s “Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala.”
It wasn’t until 2000 that then-President Alfonso Portillo admitted the Guatemala government’s responsibility and acknowledged the death of 226 victims. He handed a check worth $1.82 million to a survivors’ group.
On August 2, 2011, four former soldiers—Manuel Pop, Reyes Collin Gualip, Daniel Martínez Hernández and Carlos Carías—were convicted of their part in the massacre and received sentences of 6,060 years each. In March 2012, Pedro Pimentel Ríos, who had been working in a clothing factory in California was given the same sentence following his extradition. (Under Guatemalan law, the maximum time a prisoner can spend in jail is limited to 50 years.)
Until he faces trial, Ríos Montt remains under house arrest on Q500,000 ($64,200) bail. Judge Blanco said in court, “Since the accused has expressed interest in the proceedings opened against him, and considering his age, it is pertinent to dictate house arrest in his own home.”
The ruling surprised some observers. Alejandro Balsells, director of the Center for the Defense of the Constitution (Cedecon), told national newspaper Siglo Veintiuno, “The reality for most Guatemalans is that if they killed another in self-defense, they would be sent to jail. While someone like Ríos Montt, accused of genocide, gets house arrest and bail.”
Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.