Rios Montt, 1980s Guatemalan Dictator, on Trial for Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity

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There’s a landmark trial underway now in Guatemala –Friday (05-Apr) was day 10– where Jose Efrain Rios Montt, the general who ruled Guatemala for 17 months during 1982 and 1983, faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. This is the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in a national, as opposed to an international, court.

The charges Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, his then chief of military intelligence, face are based on evidence of systematic massacres of the country’s Mayan citizens by Guatemalan troops and paramilitary forces during that period in the early 1980s, the most bloody and brutal phase of the country’s 36-year civil war.

In its 1999 report, a United Nations-sponsored truth commission found that the state was responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations committed during the civil war, the guerrillas they were fighting three percent. A staggering eighty-three percent of the victims were Maya. According to the truth commission, 200,000 people were killed or subject to forced disappearance during the conflict. This in a country whose population today is just over 13 million.

Further detail via the Open Society Justice Initiative who is monitoring the trials:

The commission identified over 600 massacres, and found that the state was responsible for systematic violence – including extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, sexual violence, death squads, the denial of justice, and other crimes and violations, with the victims largely from indigenous and rural communities. The three-year period between 1981 and 1983 accounts for 81 percent of the violations reported by the truth commission related to the 36 year conflict—with nearly half (48%) of all reported violations occurring during 1982.


The commission specifically found that the state was responsible for acts of genocide in four designated regions between 1981 and 1983. The commission stated that the Army identified Mayans as an “internal enemy” as a base of guerrilla support and committed massacres with the objective of killing the greatest number of people possible, with strategic planning and in response to state policy. In the Ixil region, between 70 and 90 percent of the communities were wiped out during this period.

This trial, which began on 19 March, relates to this first set of charges:

The first genocide charge against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez is in relation to 15 massacres against the Ixil population living in the Quiche region during his rule as head of state between March 1982 and August 1983. These charges allege that Rios Montt was the intellectual author of 1,771 deaths, the forced displacement of 29,000 people, sexual violence against at least 8 women, and torture of at least 14 people. They allege that Rodriguez Sanchez implemented military plans responsible for the killing of civilians in the Ixil Triangle of Nebaj, Chajul and San Juan Cotzal, in Quiche.

The trial is important for North Americans as well. The Reagan administration, and later that of George H. W. Bush, provided funding, training and the weapons used by the military against the victims, both in the Rios Montt period and the period that followed. Indeed, Reagan himself was an unapologetic supporter of the dictator, insisting during a 1982 visit to Honduras that Rios Montt was getting a “bum rap” while dismissing out of hand accusations of human rights violations and ending a five-year prohibition on arms sales.

There are several ways to follow the trial:
Live coverage from The Open Society Justice Initiative blog
Live coverage from NISGUA, the Network in Solidarity for the People of Guatemala
Livestream and blog (in Spanish)



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    1. If it hasn’t already, it should. Well before this trial evidence surfaced that the Reagan Administration knew of the human rights violations. It’s not debatable that these heinous crimes occurred, and that the policy of the state at the time was to kill the largest number of people possible; the trial is an attempt to make someone accountable. It’s a shame that it’s taken three decades. Those who cared enough to pay attention in the 1980s knew then precisely what was going on.

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