Guatemala’s Trial of the Century

Latin Americans are closely watching the trial of former president Rios Montt, the first head of state in the region charged with genocide in his own country.

05.06.13 8:45 AM ET

On paper, the Guatemalan civil war was settled 17 years ago, when guerrilla insurgents laid down arms and signed a historic peace accord. But memories still linger of a bloody, 36-year conflict that took 200,000 lives and tore this Central American nation apart.

Today, the battle for Guatemala still rages—not in the field but in the courtroom, where a special High Risk Tribunal is hearing charges of an especially bloody chapter of that civil war. The trial not only stands to rewrite recent Guatemalan history but could also be a bellwether for democracy in the rest of Latin America. If the case is allowed to play out to a verdict, that is.

After complicated legal sparring between lawyers, and a controversial ruling by a dissident lower court judge that threatened to void the whole case, the country's Constitutional Court ruled recently to resume the trial against former president Efraín Rios Montt and his intelligence chief Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Both stand charged with crimes against humanity and genocide.

And the rest of Latin America is watching closely. The Rios Montt trial is a groundbreaker on many fronts. This is the first time a former head of state in the region has been brought up on charges of genocide in his own country. It is also a stress test for this tender Latin democracy where, like so many countries across the hemisphere, the rule of law often has bowed to the whim of the powerful. Susan Kemp, a legal counsel for the International Council on Transitional Justice, defined the case as "a fight for democracy and over political control of the judiciary."

The trial that began on March 19 has seen dozens of witnesses tell tales of torture, rape, and mass murder, allegedly at the hands of state security forces. The hearings were winding to a close  when on April 18, in a maneuver that blindsided the legal community, circuit court justice Patricia Flores challenged the higher court on grounds that key evidence had been wrongfully excluded in the pretrial phase, in 2011, but later readmitted to the court record. Flores argued the trial should be started over, essentially from scratch, while defense lawyers demanded the case be thrown out altogether.

The next day, trial judge Barrios pushed back, announcing that the proceedings would carry on, but left the final word to the Constitutional Court, Guatemala's court of last resort. Last week, the high bench ruled to resume the trial.

This was only the latest punch-up in a legal brawl that has seen attorneys for the former Guatemalan strongman filing nearly 100 motions to stall the trial since November 2011, while prosecutors have stubbornly pressed forward, cheered on by human rights advocates and international pressure groups. 

That the case has gotten this far at all is already something of a milestone. Not so long ago few Guatemalans, whether in ponchos or epaulets, ever imagined that anything would come of the harrowing events of that war, never mind that someone from the country´s ruling circle would one day be summoned to answer for their actions.

The onetime army general Rios Montt took power by coup d’état in early 1982, only to fall to another the next year, but in that brief interlude he left his mark. Security forces stormed the Mayan highlands to eradicate Marxist inspired guerrillas—firebombing homes, interrogating and torturing peasants, and reportedly executing suspected subversives by the dozens.

Former Guatemalan de facto President (1982-1983), retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, speaks with his lawyers during the opening of the trial on charges of genocide during his de facto 1982-83 regime, in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013. Rios Montt, who stands trial despite defense attempts to postpone the start of the historic proceedings, is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the indigenous Ixil Maya people in the Quiche region. The trial marks the first time genocide proceedings have been brought in relation to the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead, according to United Nations estimates. AFP PHOTO/Johan ORDONEZ        (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty

Former Guatemalan de facto President and retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, speaks with his lawyers during the opening of the trial on charges of genocide during his de facto 1982-83 regime, in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013.

When the smoke cleared, some 1,771 people were dead, mostly Mayan peasants, and many of them women and children. Many were executed with a bullet to the head, a field report drawing on forensic evidence later concluded. Military men defended the repression as key to thwarting the communist threat. Independent investigators branded it genocide. "By any standard, the violence in Guatemala was off the charts," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin America policy think tank.

As little as 18 months ago, a genocide trial looked remote. But by last month, thanks largely to the mobilization by indigenous communities and survivors of the civil war, almost a hundred witnesses had delivered testimony. Some pointed a finger not only Rios Montt but at least one also implicated sitting president Otto Pérez Molina.

A former military man, Molina had served under Rios Montt, reportedly under the nom de guerre Major Tito. A documentary produced by investigative journalist Allan Nairn features a lengthy interview with a field commander identified as Major Tito detailing how his troops rooted out insurgents in the highlands with mortars, helicopter gunships, and ground troops.

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Molina has since admitted to going by the alias Tito during the civil war but denied his troops were involved in any atrocities. He also defended the government campaign against the rebels, arguing that the "peace and stability of the country were at stake." Last month, when a prosecution witness named him as one of the commanding officers during the scorched earth operation, Molina lashed out, claiming that since he was not on trial his rights had been violated. But to his credit, he has refrained from publicly using his office to interfere in the trial or challenge Judge Barrios's authority.

"There's a broad consensus to go forward in Guatemala, even though many people, the president included, probably  thought things wouldn't get this far," says Shifter.

That the trial is still on track, "is a measure of progress," he adds. "There's no question that the justice system is on trial here. And the justice system is a test of democracy itself."