Guatemala, Power, the Sentence, Somalia
Genocide and crimes against humanity have been committed in many countries across the world. Poor countries, rich countries, unequal countries, countries that occupy other countries, countries that consider ethnic or religious groups within their societies to be internal enemies. There have been some countries which have been pressured by the rest of the world to accept international tribunals on their own soil or to extradite their genocidal dictators to be tried by international courts. Germany, the Balkans, and African countries are three examples.
How was it that a country like Guatemala was able to try and sentence its former dictator for committing the most despicable crime against humanity in a national tribunal only ten days ago—independently of what that Constitutionality Court decides—? The reason is that there is more to Guatemala than the messed-up Guatemala. Guatemala also has one of the most resilient societies and some of the bravest and most determined people in the world. And the powers that be know they must join forces in order to deal with them.
Just like genocide (1978-1985) was not a chance occurrence but the culmination of a historic process of exclusion, racism, and repression against the indigenous Mayans by hand of the power and the State, nor is this sentence, which sent Efraín Ríos Montt to prison for committing genocide and crimes against humanity, a chance occurrence or a historical exception. It is the culmination of a historic process which began 33 years ago.
Guatemala was very different in 1980. With seven millions inhabitants–mostly indigenous Mayans, mestizos, and whites—and a higher percentage of poor people than today in a poorer country overall. With many collective movements demanding democracy and social justice in the fields, streets, and factories, and guerilla groups that sought greater equality by fighting in the mountains or the cities. It was governed by general Romeo Lucas. Under his orders, the State considered anyone who criticized injustice to be its enemy. While mestizos and whites were tortured, assassinated, or disappeared on an individual basis, the indigenous people received a collective sentence during the governments of Lucas (1978-1982), Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983), and Oscar MejíaVíctores (1983-1986). That’s how all Ixiles came to be considered enemies of the State and how it tried to exterminate them, as with other Mayan groups. Ixiles are from the Quiché department, the most important Mayan region when the Spaniards arrived five centuries ago.
The indigenous of Quiché were the first to denounce the massacres and the scorched earth policy, on January 31, 1980. With the support of university students and some diplomats they took over the Spanish embassy, while a reception with politicians was being held, in order to denounce the massacres to the country and to the world at large. The Lucas government responded by attacking them with fire and burning everyone inside. The Guatemala of terror showed its face to the world and became a pariah.
Contrary to what he claimed in his defense at court, Ríos Montt did not stop but rather intensified the horrific and genocidal counterinsurgency policy initiated by Lucas. And during his tenure he won the war by massacring unarmed civilians, who could sympathize (or not) with the idea of social change and could sympathize (or not) with the guerrilla. The balance of victory and of “having avoided the Sandinista contagion” was 200 thousand people dead, 50 thousand disappeared, 1 million refugees in Mexico and acts of genocide in a country of 7 million, mostly indigenous, inhabitants
But the burning of the embassy in 1980 did not quiet the accusations and demands for justice of the Mayans and the rest of Guatemalans. A decade later, during the celebration of the fifth centenary of the Spanish conquest, in 1992, organizations and relatives of victims, with leaders like RigobertaMenchú and Rosalina Tuyuc, cried out for “universal justice for the victims of the genocide in Guatemala.” Others, like Jesuit anthropologist Ricardo Falla, denounced it on international social forums and many others did so anonymously through journalism, politics, diplomacy, or activism.
Efforts to achieve justice continued during the following decade. The Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (Caldh) sued Ríos Monttin Guatemalan courts in 2000 for the crime of genocide. In 1999, the Menchú Foundation had asked the AudienciaNacional de España[Spanish National High Court] to take the case under the principle of universal justice. They almost managed to make it happen when Spanish authorities accepted the case and tried to extradite him, but the attempt was blocked by the Constitutionality Court in 2004, at a time when it was dominated by people close to Ríos Montt and judges who were close to the elite. Despite the elite’s distaste for Ríos Montt, which dated back to the nineties, a legislative pact with the pro-business government of Óscar Berger and Eduardo Stein allowed him to evade justice during the period when he didn’t have parliamentary immunity.
Because it must be remembered that Ríos Montt has been popular in Guatemala. He was popular when he presented himself as the progressive candidate, was elected president in 1974 as leader of the Christian Democrats but was not allowed into office because of electoral fraud, a ruling he did not fight. Following his ostracism, he became a Pentecostal pastor and founded his own party of right-wing populism, the Republican Guatemalan Front (FRG), with which he reached Congress in 1994 and presided over it between 2000 and 2003 with an absolute majority. He was a presidential candidate in 2003 and made it to third place with 20 percent of the votes. He was again elected to Congress from 2008 to 2012.
On January 14, 2012, the second time he was left without immunitysince the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, things had changed in the MinisterioPúblico [Prosecutor’s Office] and Organismo Judicial [Courts System]. The processes undertaken to clean up the courts, which had begun in 2003 thanks to the work of civil society and some civil servants, resulted in the temporary tenure in 2009 of AmílcarVelásquezZárateas General Prosecutor, and then that of Claudia Paz y Paz. They reactivated the cases of human rights violations during the civil war, euphemistically called internal armed conflict.
That’s how they began, and they delivered sentences against members of the military for cases involving massacres, disappearances, and concentration camps used for sexual exploitation. And the MinisterioPúblico then took on the most serious crime, the most despicable one: that of genocide. Against the most important figure, the most iconic: Ríos Montt.
The other dictators responsible for these crimes managed to avoid justice. Lucas died with Alzheimers while living in Caracas in 2006 and, after being captured, MejíaVíctores was considered unfit for trial by an official medical report.
The genocide case against two generals began making its way through the courts’ labyrinth in 2011, and Ríos Montt was added to the cases on January 2012. By that point he was a pariah. His party, FRG, had only gotten one congressman elected among the 158 possible seats, and Ríos Montt was an outcast for the business elite, traditional media, intellectuals, for everyone; progressive people accused him of genocide, conservative people accused him of rebelling against the elite, and almost everyone considered his party to be the most corrupt in the democratic period.
After overcoming countless “legal traps” created by the defense and described in this chart, the trial for genocide began on May 19, 2013. Alfred Kalschmitt, businessman, journalist, fellow member of Ríos Montt’s government in the eighties and star witness in the trial, spearheaded the attempt to recover support for him. “They abandoned him,” read the title of his column in PrensaLibre.
That was what changed the map of power in Guatemala.
The alliance between Ríos Montt and the elite came to an end in 1983. Researchers like Glen Cox identify this separation in Ríos Montt’s attempts to tax them at a higher rate. Five years after, Ríos Montt would form his FRG with an “anti-oligarchic” populist edge, ending in a definite manner his relationship with traditional power and conservative media. But the trial reverted that.
The first to oppose it, on their own, were the former members of the military belonging to the extreme right, along with the Fundación contra el Terrorismo [Foundation Against Terrorism]. These were joined by influential individuals with ties to the business world who were part of the Ríos Montt government in 1982 and 1983. Later, too, by the younger businessmen of the elite, like former president of Cacif Andrés Castillo. Then they scored what could have been the final point: intellectuals from the “modern right” and the “moderate left”, all of whom had patrician origins and had belonged to the elitist governments of Álvaro Arzú andÓscar Berger, published a sponsored message right on the day when Ríos Montt’s defense began questioning its witnesses, on April 16th. Not only did they deny genocide and describe the process as a juridical aberration, but they also held those seeking justice responsible for any potential political violence to result. That is, according to the sponsored message, not only were the victims, activists, the prosecutors wrong and without the right to demand justice for the horrible crimes from 30 years prior, but they would also be responsible for the violence unleashed against them.
Cacif added to the pressure with institutional press releases and conservative newspaper PrensaLibre’s editorialdescribed the MinisterioPúblicoas responsible for any possible confrontation were it to pursue the trial. Additionally, president Otto Pérez Molina dismissed the accusations of a witness who testified against him, and belittled the trial. He said that not only did he agree with the sponsored message, but that he also endorsed it.
The appearance of Marco García Noriega, current president of the Asociación de Azucareros de Guatemala [Association of Guatemalan Sugar Producers] (Asazgua) and seven-time president of Cacif, indicated how much Cacif felt against the ropes and had to go the extra mile to achieve its political objectives when there was a threat to the status quo. He was present when the Peace Accords and the Fiscal Pact were negotiated, when the FRG was in power, and in other moments when the establishment was being attacked. In this 2011 interview, García Noriega analyzes his role as part of the private sector with regard to Sandra Torres, the pressure from the emerging power in the struggle for the State, the fight with members of cooperatives or the fiscal issue. Now he appears on the front row of every press conference given by Cacif. Their presence in front of the microphones is an example of how power takes itself seriously in order to ensure that things stay the wayit wants them to.
It is, furthermore, the first time that the power closes ranks in such a way in response to an event. Economic, military, political, media, and intellectual powers. On the other side, the United States, the international community, a part of the media, human rights activists and civil society.
It was an uneven match. On April 18th, in an impossible two-paragraph synthesis, judge Patricia Flores, from the Juzgado de Alto Riesgo [High Risk Court], annulled the trial and sent it back to November 2011, to a time when it was still under her power in a court which decides whether cases deserve to be tried in the Tribunal de Sentencia [Sentencing Court]. This happened in spite of the fact that it was already in the High Risk sentencing court, acourt of equal rank in the judiciaryhierarchy.
The accusers—MinisterioPúblico, Caldh, and the AsociaciónJusticia y Reconciliación [Justice and Reconciliation Association]—appealed to the Corte de Constitucionalidad [Constitutionality Court], that omnipresent but easily swayed court, which to everyone’s surprise ruled by dismissing Flores’ annulment. It was then that the court of Yasmín Barrios, Pablo Xitumul, and Patricia Bustamante took advantage of the “non-annulment” in order to continue with the trial and lead it to the sentence of May 10th.
Appeals –legal instruments originally created to guarantee due process which are now legal traps that allow the vast majority of crimes in Guatemala to go unpunished– made most of us believe that there would be no sentence in the trial for genocide. But the Court managed to accomplish it. Ríos Montt testified before the judges. He said it was his subordinates’ responsibility and claimed he didn’t know about the atrocities being committed. The Court—based on the evidence, the experts, and the witnesses— did not believe him. It decided Ríos Montt knew what was happening and did not stop the horror. It decided these constituted crimes against humanity and genocide, and sentenced him to 80 years in prison.
It is the first case in the world where a former dictator was sentenced for genocide by the courts of his own country. The Argentinian counterinsurgency during the seventies, also extremely cruel, was the only other to have been tried: former dictator Jorge Villela, was jailed for life for crimes against humanity and died behind bars last week.
The Guatemalan sentence added a new case to international jurisprudence as it included rape as an element of genocide. Politically, this was a way for the State to apologize to the Mayan people for all the repression of the XX century; it meant condemning the worst racist crime in its institutional form. It meant, in the end, healing and closing many wounds that had been open for 35 years. According to the Comisión de EsclarecimientoHistórico [Commission for Historical Clarification] (CEH), more than 90 percent of the human rights violations and 95 percent of the 626 massacres were committed between 1978 and 1948. The ruling granted justice not only to the Ixil but also to all of those who demanded it since 33 years ago, those from the Spanish embassy, inside and outside Guatemala, the forums, the universities, the streets.
The sentence wasn’t perfect either. But “perfect is the enemy of good,” as the proverb goes. The sentence did not include one necessary paragraph. Although it should have been emphasized that they were unarmed civilians attacked by state forces in a genocidal counterinsurgency, it is not true that they were farming and were caught in the middle of the fields, as it was painted. The official history still needs to correct that interpretation of the past. The indigenous Mayans –Ixiles, K’iché, and many more– sympathized with the idea of social change and justice after centuries of injustice. And that wasn’t a sin nor a crime nor a reason to deserve genocidal massacres.
But there will be time to correct that. At the moment, the country and the State are just getting used to having sentenced their former dictator, one notorious for committing genocide and crimes against humanity. The most powerful elites resist the decision and have publicly pressured the Corte de Constitucionalidadto annul the ruling or the trial. The Court, made up of five magistrates, is divided to this day, Monday May 20th. There are two judges who are very close to the private sector: Alejandro Maldonado, who was even part of the extreme right party Movimiento de LiberaciónNacional [National Liberation Front], and Roberto Molina Barreto, who was part of president Óscar Berger’s government. Neither of them would accept a sentence that includes the word “genocide.” Judge Mauro Chacón, designated by the national Universidad de San Carlos, and Judge Gloria Porras, who was subdirectorof the General Prosecutor’s Office during the tenure of AmílcarVelásquezZárate, could accept the ruling. It will all therefore rest in the hands of Héctor Pérez Aguilera, a designee of the opaque Colegio de Abogados [Lawyer’s Association] who has on occasions defended members of the military. He is the hope of those who applaud the sentence in Guatemala and around the world.
The elite opposes the sentence because it fears it could be tried for its participation alongside the military governments. President Pérez Molina feels something similar due to the accusations of some human rights activists. They demand his conviction for having been part of the army in Nebaj in 1982. The 12 intellectuals try to scare the rest by telling them that now 300 members of the military will be tried. I sense that the Prosecutor’s Office for Human Rights, probably ecstatic but exhausted, lacks the budget or the political capital to try them all. At this time, it has managed to secure a sentence in one more paradigmatic trial, one of a crime characteristic of those of the past. A trial that could never take place in Somalia. Nor in Spain. Nor in almost any developed country: in the United States, the condemnation for the massacres in Vietnam only lasted three months and today, after five years of Barack Obama, Guantanamo is still in operation.
For us, it is a good way of closing a horrific chapter in the history of Guatemala, which is not the most sinister country in the world, as a South African journalist points out. It just happened to have one of the most sinister armies, States, and elites in the world. Society, our ancestors, and the citizens of the present and future are like those of other countries: with dreams, contradictions, the desire to work, and resilience.
*Hours after the publication of this text, the Corte de Constitucionalidad, in a 3-2 ruling, annulled the sentence and half of the trial, not from the point in 2011 that the defense had requested, but from April 19, 2013.
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