For the first time in history, a former head of state was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity in a national court. Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, 86, was sentenced to 80 years in prison for his role in the genocide of more than 1,700 indigenous Ixil Mayans during his 1982-83 rule.
The charges Rios Montt faced were 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.
As I wrote in a previous post, The trial was 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. It was during this period that the brutality had reached its peak.