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The Verdict that Rios Montt couldn’t refute
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Articles in English

The Verdict that Rios Montt couldn’t refute

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It was a damp, hot, almost suffocating courtroom the afternoon of the sentence. The accused Generals Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez were two diffused silhouettes among the hundreds of reporters and nearly thousand people who awaited to hear the verdict. For the first time in Latin American history, a former strongman was tried for genocide. Many were anxious and others worried that because of pending injunctions the trial would be suspended. But once the panel of three judges finally made their way into the courtroom, it was clear. There would be a verdict and nothing could stop it.
When he sat down, judges, lawyers, prosecutors and journalists all resembled children sitting on the floor waiting for him to speak as if it were story time. “I’m going to tell you a story,” Rios Montt began. From behind he resembled a grandfather about to speak with his grandchildren.
“It’s true, it’s true that we instilled doctrines. That is why the government instituted Guatemalaness as a concept…I didn’t want to take away the identity of the different Mayan groups but consolidate it so that there was infrastructure,” Rios Montt said.

Adapted by Romina Ruiz-Goiriena

Over 25 court days took place before getting to the final stage of the trial. Survivors, expert witnesses, ex-military officers, ex-guerilla members, anthropologists, sociologists, and even journalists had all taken the stand. The overwhelming majority testified that crimes of genocide and against humanity had taken place. This is what the country’s public ministry set to prove judicially with “a case that underwent over ten years of investigation,” as prosecutors said.

On the other hand, the defense was more technical and complicated. Every day of the trial, journalists and lawyers awaited to see what legal strategy they would use. The filed injunctions, appeals, “amparos;” everything to detain and suspend the trial. Surprisingly, they did little to question the charges.

It was the three judges, Yasmin Barrios, Pablo Xitimul and Patricia Bustamante who would have the last words at the trial. They asked not to be interrupted while they read the sentence. They didn’t want further interruptions from the attorney. They spoke directly. Under no circumstance would the trial be suspended. They had already done son April 19 on the orders to set proceedings back. They had also suspended it on May 2, when a new attorney joined the defense team. By four o’clock, the justices had deliberated well over eight hours. They announced that they now had a sentence.

The verdict would establish a juridical truth for Guatemala as to whether or not genocide had taken place.

There were murmurs. Everything rested on the judges’ decision.

“I’m going to tell you a story”

The day prior to the verdict, the defense team finally used its last card, one that they had been holding onto for more than a year and a half. Efrain Rios Montt wanted to testify. It would be the first time he would speak openly since being charged on January 26, 2012. He would attempt to defend himself, something he had never done before.

“Whatever I say can be used against me,” that had been his mantra throughout the trial for not speaking. It was his mantra right up to the moment prior to the sentence where nothing else could be done.

He asked to speak right after the public ministry and the Center for Legal Action for Human Rights and the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, who represented victims’ rights had given their closing arguments. This meant that only Rios Montt’s lawyers could question his testimony.

The strategy was for Rios Montt to be able to speak without being questioned.

He understood the charges and prosecutors’ focus; the intention to carry out genocide, 1,326 victims that had been exterminated in the Ixil triangle, 420 exhumed corpses in Nebaj, Cotzal and Chajul. These were the figures that had been broken down in 26 days of trial.

At 86 years old, Efrain Rios Montt, walked up to the bench slowly. His stood upright despite having an aged frame. It would be his last opportunity to persuade the tribunal. Everyone wanted to listen to what he had to say.

When he sat down, judges, lawyers, prosecutors and journalists all resembled children sitting on the floor waiting for him to speak as if it were story time. “I’m going to tell you a story,” Rios Montt began. From behind he resembled a grandfather about to speak with his grandchildren.

The other general, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was silent. Like throughout the trial, he kept a very low profile.

Rios Montt was about to tell his story, but it was really the story of Guatemala.

A Divided Army

Rios Montt began his story in 1973, when he was the  IADC (Inter-American Defense College). “That’s when they asked me to run for presidential office,” he said. He explained he won the 1974 elections. “There was a military regime at the time. They called me to oppose that regime. We won but unfortunately there was a recount and I lost,” he said.

At that time Rios Montt did not contest the election fraud. “All of the leftist youth was mad at me because I didn’t take to the streets to wage war. I told them they had made me a presidential candidate not a guerilla commander. I had to leave Guatemala and went to Spain as a military aggregate to the embassy in Spain.”

Rios Montt returned to Guatemala shortly after the 1976 earthquake. He had now retired from the army and was an education teacher at the Verbo Christian School. Nothing that he is accused of had happened yet. “ I was there when the coup happened in 1982. Guatemala’s political situation was serious. Subversives had taken the central square ready to take power. The army, according to failed general, was tired of war,” Rios Montt told the tribunal.

Prosecutors charged Rios Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity for 15 massacres that took place in the Ixil triangle in the Quiche department. These events took place during the 17 months he was in power from March 23, 1982 and August 8, 1983 when he was deposed.

“When I arrived as head of state, we made a promise to make democracy law,” Rios Montt said exalting himself. His tone was reminiscent of the man who made presidential speeches and gave Sunday sermons. He would extend his hands, and it would complete his portrait. At times he seemed nervous, others just impatient. Rios Montt was enthralled by his own tale. He looked away from the tribunal and kept his eyes on the journalists, who looked up at him like schoolchildren.

“I had to reorganize the state,” he exclaimed. “The state was bankrupt because the entire budget was being executed with seven percent of the GDP. This caged us in.” He then added, “We also had a tired army that was very upset because younger soldiers had deposed them of their ranks.”

In their closing statements, the public ministry argued that Rios Montt headed a unified army. Rios Montt looked to undermine this statement, “the unity that they speak of is a farse,” he refuted. “We had subversives at the palace door, the state was broken, polarized political parties because no one was content with the results from the March 71982 election. To make things worse, we had endemic poverty. That was the Guatemala I came to find.”

With each sentence uttered by Rios Montt, the silence grew in the courtroom. In over a year’s worth of hearings, Rios Montt always carried a copy of the country’s criminal code and constitution. He would stop in parts that addressed the president’s duties or genocide. He made annotations and stayed silent. Perhaps he did all of this, awaiting this very moment where he told his version of the history of Guatemala’s army.

The power of government

“You have heard from the prosecution that I was the minister of defense, minister of general defense. And yes, the first secretary was minister of interior and the second secretary was the minister of communications. All three of us were ministers because we didn’t have money to do anything else. What’s interesting is that in the ministry of defense you can find the accords that explain how the minister of defense was the head of government. It was written and left in the vice minister’s office so that all legal and economic proceedings could take place for the minister of defense. So in many ways, it was the vice minister’s responsibility, not mine.” That is how Rios Montt explained his version of chain of command from the time he took power in 1982. He accused everyone beneath him hierarchically of being at fault.

Three months after the coup, Rios Montt proclaimed himself president in June 1982. He said from that moment on they looked to establish a judicial framework that could be used as a reference. “Under a coup we couldn’t respect the Constitution because everything was decay, everything rotted by itself. We needed to create the statute of limitations for the state. These statutes would replace the constitution. And naturally, we gave the executive branch legislative powers. But of course, always with the counsel of lawyers.”

At that time, the state was conformed by ministers of the state. At the helm was Rios Montt. They were organized in three groups: a social-political cabinet, an economic cabinet and one of security.

Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez was part of that structure. He was the head of intelligence of the ministry of defense. It was known as D2, and it was the section charged with compiling information of what happened nationally. Those reports were given to the president.

“Every ministry had its characteristics and every cabinet would make reports about every situation we found ourselves in,” Rios Montt said.

“We found out,” he said with an astonished tone, that the URNG and its groups has declared war on the state of Guatemala. “Brothers against brothers, war is not fair. This isn’t a war. They wanted to declare one in order to have free territories,” Rios Montt said referring to areas controlled by subversive groups.

Rios Montt paused for several minutes.

Rodriguez Sanchez listened in cautiously.

Rios Montt continued to make his stance vis-à-vis his accusation, “I must attest that I cannot agree under any circumstance to the conclusions made by the prosecutors or the (victims’) lawyers. I cannot accept the accusations made against me.”

He said that he was the head of state of Guatemala. But that the chain of command in the army began with commanders and the minister of defense, “the commander in chief of the army only does three important things: mobilizations, promotions and awards and pensions.”

His role was almost decorative.

Fundamentally, Rios Montt argued that mandating the army was done from positions inferior to his, “this is what was accorded in government statues and the army’s law. On the other hand, the defense minister, besides his functions has under his command the entirety of the army. He could make them fill in laws.”

Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores was the minister of defense at the time. From January 2012 all possible charges against him were dropped after he was found unfit to stand trial for health reasons.

Rios Montt blamed Mejia Victores as he explained that the army was completely autonomous, “The commander od defense depends on commanders. And every single one of the commanders, had one territory and jurisdiction. Power was autonomous.”

When prosecutors presented diagrams of the chain of command, everything was hierarchical and vertical ending at the president’s office. Orlando Lopez, the chief prosecutor of the case said that both generals were aware of the events taking place.

Rios Montt denied the accusation saying, “the men accusing me, went about the work backwards. They asked privates and sergeants and started making special reports. Neither the head of the army nor the minister of defense ever gave me such reports. I was the head of state and I was busy trying to open the country up internationally.”

Morality, “Guatemalaness” in discourse

We have seen Rios Montt in the big screen throughout the trial. In clips he looks young, strong and smiling with a slick gelled-back smug look. Rios Montt has taken notes as he watches a film made of him 31 years ago.

He also made reference to that video. “You have probably seen that video where I am often accused of being a racist when I say that we are a country made up of many different nations. It is truly the case. I was saying those are Kekchis, Quiches, Mames, Pocamames…together we make a big nation,” Rios Montt exclaimed. “That was the true political intention but the prosecution simply grabs snippets that favors their argument. I want to say now that I was only interested in unity while embracing individuality of each one of the nations of Guatemala.”

“It’s true, it’s true that we instilled doctrines. That is why the government instituted Guatemalaness as a concept…I didn’t want to take away the identity of the different Mayan groups but consolidate it so that there was infrastructure,” Rios Montt said.

He also said that one of the documents that could have helped him greatly was a report by the undersecretary of the United Nations in 1982. But he said, I was never able to find it in order to have it admitted as evidence in his favor.

The national project for 1982 and 1983, also had a moral approach. He sought to transcend morality within the state, he said. "There was a need and frustration, we needed to change the way we thought. We did a campaign to show that each of the members of the State were, above all, public servants, paid by the people's taxes. We learned that employees are public servants, not bosses. In that morality campaign said that all public employees would behave better. That would not steal, that they would not lie and they would not cheat. That was part of the campaign we did state moralizing. Because the state is nothing more than a public servant,”  It was, as he said, what he wanted to establish for his government.

Armed institutionality

There was one thing that was clear in Rios Montt testimony about the history of Guatemala, “from 1944 until 2013 all of the markers of progress have in one way or another been catalyzed by the army. There have been ups and downs, but the armed institutions have brought about changes. Then they change their attire and we say that we all built this government.”

Rios Montt said that October 20, 1944 was simply an uprising and that November 13 General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes was getting Guatemala involved with Cuban affairs. Rios Montt also said March 23 happened because the president had weakened the government and his politics simply didn’t work.

He said that his government failed because of political inertia. “This inertia is impossible to stop for a head of state, especially in a country so deeply divided by problems and a lack of economic capacity.”

But prosecutors found that it wasn’t inertia but a continuation of counterinsurgency tactics that had already been deployed by previous military regimes. The difference is that during his rule there was evidence as to how these civilian control strategies were implemented.  Military plans Victory and Sofia 82 as well as Firmness 83 were used as key evidence.

Rios Montt defended himself, “I never authorized, signed, proposed, ordered that any race, ethnic group or religion be attacked. I never did this. And in all of the evidence, nothing points to my participation.” He then added, “Victory 82 was signed by the army chief. I saw it and there is no line that speaks as to the intentionality of eradicating any people, ethnic group or religious group. I saw it be signed by the people that were there. I didn’t see other plans, because I had other endeavors to take care of in the national front.”

Rodriguez Sanchez is suspected of having drafted these documents. His signature appears in one of the appendixes. Rodriguez said that these were “views never orders.”

Prosecutors asked the generals be condemned to 75 years in prison for the crimes committed against the Ixils in 1982 and 1983.

“I declare myself innocent,” Rios Montt said.

The following morning Rodriguez Sanchez said the same.

Yes there was genocide

In the end, 31 years after walking together the verdict would separate both generals. The court would determine that genocide did occur in Guatemala. And this is how, the tribunal would explain its ruling.

Firstly on the basis of survivor testimonies it analyzed each one of the statements.

Secondly, the tribunal analyzed each one of the tactics deployed, displacements, mass rape and sexual violence, the burning of crops. All of these would point to the state’s intent.

Thirdly, the tribunal concluded 5.5 percent of the Ixil population was exterminated.

Fourthly, planning took place, which means there was a previous motivation.

Fifth, civilians were labeled as internal enemy combatants.

Sixth, military plans Victory 82 and Firmness 83 delineate the objectives. Sofia 82 explains the mission.

Seventh, “Efrain Rios Montt had complete knowledge of what was going on and did nothing to stop it, even though he had the power to stop the perpetration of such acts and in knowledge of plans Victory 82, Firmness 83 and Operation Sofia,” which he authorized according to the tribunal.

Eighth, the D2 does not have command or authority therefore, it is not responsible of such crimes.

Ninth, Efrain Rios Montt is found guilty of acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. He is sentenced to 80 years in prison. Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez is acquitted.

Tenth, what will the defense attempt to do next in order to appeal Rios Montt’s conviction? And where does this leave Rodriguez Sanchez?

In a split second, Rios Montt is surrounded by a mob of journalists as he waits to be escorted to Matamoros prison. There are cheers and applauses as people sing Otto Rene Castillo poems and Mercedes Sosa songs.

Survivors say thank you in Ixil, “Tantix, Tantix.”

Rios Montt’s voice can be heard ever so faintly, “the tribunal has pegged me as a genocidist. Do not worry about me, I have upheld the law and I will leave without anguish.”

Rodriguez Sanchez continued to be silent.

But Rios Montt was not able to persuade any of the justices of his innocence.

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