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The Lasting Legacy of the Rios Montt Guilty Verdict

Above photo: People in the courtroom cheering the guilty verdict against General Efraín Ríos Montt, an unprecedented trial for all of the Americas, on May 10, 2013. Photo credits: Daniel Hernández-Salazar, 500 YEARS.

Today (May 10, 2023) marks the day when General Efraín Ríos Montt was declared guilty of genocide against the indigenous people of Guatemala and sentenced to 80 years in prison. That this small country built an airtight case and created a legal precedent for Guatemala, Latin America, and the world, was a great human rights victory to be celebrated. Even though later the Guatemalan political and business elites could vacate the verdict on technical (not evidentiary) grounds, and Ríos Montt died before he could be retried, he died a convicted  genocidaire. As they say in Guatemala, El veredicto está vigente – The verdict stands.

I was at the trial, filming for our feature documentary 500 Years and our web series Dictator in the Dock (which you can watch on our Facebook page). Our interview with Riós Montt from 1982 was part of the key forensic evidence presented at the trial that helped convict him. When a journalist asked Ríos Montt if he remembered being filmed by me in 1982, he replied, “I don’t remember her, but now I’ll never forget her.”

I asked five Guatemalans who were all at the trial, who testified, documented, and wrote about it, to tell us their thoughts about its legacy ten years later.

Watch our short film, The Verdict, a synopsis of the trial (13 mins.): 

By Kaxh Mura’l

Kaxh Mura’l is a Maya-Ixil human rights defender seeking asylum in the United States.

10 years later, what is the legacy of having tried Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity?

The date that the sentence was achieved will always be remembered as an important moment, where a huge step was taken in the search for justice when many cried with joy and celebrated that justice had finally been done for their loved ones who were murdered. We believe that this date gave peace and tranquility to the spirit of our deceased. The person responsible did not die free but instead died guilty, and that was in his conscience that he was to blame for the suffering of thousands of Indigenous People.

The people of Guatemala, mainly the Ixil population, decided to start recounting that story, which paves the way for a long process that seeks to empower the indigenous population to seek justice for the victims of the armed conflict. There are still many ways to go, and it is essential to mention that although the perpetrators of these crimes continue to deny the facts, that does not mean there was no sentence on the genocide case. There is a sentence written on paper, but there is also a sentence in the minds of those who suffered those crimes because of the system. You can erase and manipulate the sentence on paper, but that does not change the history written with blood and pain in the lives of the thousands of Indigenous People who suffered these atrocities.

We are convinced that the main person responsible for the events was sentenced. That causes fear for those who sponsored that war because what is sought is that all those responsible pays for the crimes committed against a historically marginalized, discriminated, and exploited population.

Currently, the mafia and corruption continue to do everything possible to reverse the progress made in Guatemala in the search for justice. The mafias co-opt the Guatemalan justice system and operate in total impunity. We are concerned that this season authorities elections the electoral tribunal has rejected the registration of the people’s candidates and have accepted the participation of candidates involved in many cases of corruption, as is the case of Zury Rios the daughter of a genocidaire. The Guatemalan mafia is forcing its own population to accept these corrupt candidates.

By Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj

Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj is a journalist, social anthropologist, author, academic, and international spokesperson. Dr. Velásquez Nimatuj is the first Maya-K’iche woman to earn a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology and initiated the court case that made racial discrimination illegal in Guatemala.

The legacy of the trial for genocide against the Maya-Ixil People against General José Efraín Ríos Montt is to have shown that when the justice system is independent, it is capable of materializing a universal principle of justice that says that no one, regardless of his social status, his racial origin, the position he or she holds or that he or she possesses any other privilege. No one is above the law. The survivors of the Ixil genocide bequeathed to all the Indigenous Peoples of the world the example that it is a historical duty to judge their torturers because that dignifies the lives of their peoples.

By Dr. Marta Elena Casaús Arzú

Dr. Marta Casaús Arzú holds a political science doctorate in sociology and was an expert witness at the genocide trial. She is the author of the classic: Linaje y Racismo (Lineage and Racism) about the phenomenon of racism and discrimination towards the Mayas in her Guatemala.  

I believe that the sentence against General Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez, which is 10 years old since it was handed down on May 10, 2013, marked a milestone in the history of criminal law in Guatemala and international jurisprudence and represented a watershed in the history of Guatemala and a lesson in citizenship for Guatemalan society, because it allowed, for the first time in centuries and decades, that Mayan and mestizo ladino men and women, who had suffered for centuries from violence and indiscriminate racism and who, during the armed conflict, had been subjected to severe human rights violations, could tell their story, be heard at the national and international level, renegotiate their memories and sentence a soldier responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes of against humanity.

It was an impeccable and exemplary sentence at a national and international level that is undoubtedly already being studied as a masterpiece of international jurisdiction and has served as a model for other cases.

I will analyze it from 3 or 4 perspectives to assess the importance and impact of this sentence in the legal, political, social, and psychological spheres and in all of us who had the opportunity to participate in the process, in my case, as an expert witness.

In my opinion, at a legal and judicial level, one of the successes of this sentence was not only in its preparation and in its transparent management and firm and determined execution by Judge Yassmín Barrios and the other judges, and in the coordination of the prosecutors and lawyers of the witnesses, despite the obstacles and obstacles that they had from the beginning, but instead in the fact that the trial was effectively carried out. The sentence was given within the scope of the Guatemalan penal code, thus avoiding all the international pressures of the powers to avoid a conviction for Genocide.

This legal trickery, together with the fact of changing the term of the definition of genocide from “with the intention of”, to, that of with the purpose of, as well as changing the term crimes against humanity to that of duties against humanity They seemed to me to be three key elements that have not been sufficiently analyzed or valued, and that gave much more grounds to the sentence.

From a political perspective, one of the greatest legacies of the genocide judgment was to highlight the horrors that thousands of victims and survivors had experienced and for their voices to be heard nationally and internationally and, above all, that Mayan men and women, who had remained anonymous, silent, frightened and harassed by their perpetrators, to re-occupy their voice, tell their story and renegotiate a historical memory that had been silenced, denied and made invisible by official history and unknown by thousands of citizens who they had seen the armed conflict as something distant. The fact that justice was delivered to the thousands of people affected and jurisprudence was established as a fact of inestimable value.

Just the fact of having achieved, for a few years, the change in the correlation of political forces, in relation to justice was already a historical milestone in a country dominated by subjugation and subalternity. Just the fact, for the first time in the country’s history, of sitting the high command, the oligarchy, on the bench was already a historic milestone. Still, it was also, forcing the middle classes and timorous intellectuals to take a position in favor of or against some forceful and evident facts that could not be questioned or denied by the defense attorneys.

The trial for genocide stripped all the political actors naked and put them on the ropes. Many sectors that were unaware or did not want to see the magnitude of the country’s tragedy forced them to take sides, and for the first time, the official story was questioned. and condemned and held responsible the perpetrators of the violence and the violation of human rights to several years in prison, setting a precedent for other subsequent trials.

Politically, putting General Ríos Montt on the bench and his intelligence chief Rodríguez Sánchez and indirectly accusing a large part of the army and the High Command of responsibility for said acts marked a before and after and as a consequence of this historic trial, the State and its ideological apparatuses, for a period of several years, ceased to be “property of the oligarchy and the military” to become a State that imparted justice to all and included the voices of all those who had been involved in the armed conflict, to the guerrilla organizations, which were also indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

General Efraín Ríos-Montt and his lawyers after hearing the guilty verdict for genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, 2013. Photo: Daniel Hernández-Salazar, 500 YEARS.

On a social level, the country’s historical-structural racism against indigenous peoples was exacerbated and spread to the whole middle class and urban youth, who, influenced by the media and networks, denied the facts and blamed “the Indians” and the communists and NGOs, of the invention of massacres and genocide. The denialist articles and the opinions in the networks against any Mayan columnist or commentator, and worse if she was a woman, were exacerbated to the maximum. However, for another sector of society, uncovering a story unknown and covered up by all, denied by the High Command and the oligarchy and some intellectuals and politicians at the service of the ruling classes, served as a revulsion and awareness of what the internal armed conflict had entailed and allowed them to know the harmful effects that this hidden and covert war had had on the population as a whole, especially for the Mayan communities that had lived through it and mainly for the Mayan women who suffered public rapes and systematic, as part of the counterinsurgency protocol.

The same trial process in which judges, prosecutors, lawyers, NGOs, witnesses, Mayan and Ladino survivors, and rural and urban sectors coincided created new spaces for sociability among them and new spaces for dialogue and negotiation, which have allowed, until today, create a new citizen social base, more critical and reflective, that respects and recognizes plurality and cultural diversity, as a contribution and that will undoubtedly be the basis on which the demonstrations against President Otto will be organized. Pérez Molina and his government and on which all the opposition and resistance against the Corrupt Pact is being based.

Undoubtedly, 10 years after the trial for genocide against General Efraín Ríos Montt, and the accusation of genocide and crimes against humanity, despite its subsequent annulment, left an indelible mark nationally and internationally and paved the way for other trials that continued to retake all the previous methodology and foundations, which contributed to ruling on new trials such as that of former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, where despite his acquittal, all the doctrine and principles that supported the trial against Ríos Montt remained and established jurisprudence, as well as the firm sentences of Sepur Zarco, that of Molina Theyssen case or that of the Achi women.

Perhaps the most important thing about this trial is that it marks an irreversible path where, despite the annulments, obstacles, and denials, despite trying to continue denying the genocide and trying to release and release the perpetrators of these crimes of crimes against humanity, the lesson has already been given. The sentences are firm and irreversible, and above all, the dispute for the memory of the different Mayan peoples and social actors who were able to tell their story, recover their memory, and that justice be done to these events that have left so much pain and suffering in the most defenseless civilian population that was declared by the army as a “public enemy” never happen again.

By Daniel Hernández-Salazar

Daniel Hernández-Salazar is a Guatemalan photojournalist who, by being present at the most important events in Guatemala over many years, has created an archive of images central to the historical memory of Guatemala. He is also a fine arts photographer whose work has shown in museums and galleries in Guatemala and worldwide. 

Since the assassination of Monsignor Juan Gerardi in April 1998, Guatemala began another slide into the darkness of impunity and injustice. Slow at first, it accelerated after the resounding guilty verdict was handed down against the fanatic and symbolic military man, Efraín Ríos Montt, on May 10, 2013. Then, instigated by his daughter Zury, the forces that govern behind the scenes began trafficking influences, threatening and pressuring until the Constitutional Court ordered the trial to be rolled back to the beginning, with the hope that Ríos Montt would die before being found guilty again, which happened in 2018. If they did not do so, they would fall after him, the real culprits, the ones who gave the orders. Criollo members of the oligarchy and their military servants who repressed and eliminated what they called “the internal enemy”, fiercely applied a national security doctrine under which they implemented “scorched earth” military campaign plans. 

Everything indicates that Guatemala is condemned to a destiny controlled by the economic elite. That trial of Ríos Montt and the peace agreements now seem like mirages of democracy. Both processes were milestones in our recent history. They seemed like rays of light and hope that made us believe we could build a different future. The joy did not last long. It was obvious. We were delusional.

As a photographer and documenter, I consider my work a contribution to society, so I dedicated myself to documenting the trial. The images that I obtained symbolically summarize this process and represent the history of this country and its jurisprudence. They are a testament and tribute to the victims and the protagonists of the search for justice for the barbarity that occurred in our country. It is also a way of resisting until the gale of impunity passes.

By Andrea Ixchiu

Andrea​ ​Ixchíu​ ​is​ ​a ​leader,​ ​journalist,​​ ​human​ ​rights​ ​activist,​ ​and​ ​a​ ​culture hacker ​with​ ​an​ ​expertise​ ​in​ ​internet​ ​security.​ ​She​ ​was the​ ​youngest​ ​woman​ ​elected​ ​as​ ​a​ ​tribal​ ​leader​ ​in​ ​her Maya K’iche’ highland​ ​community,​ ​where​ ​as​ ​President​ ​of​ ​the Natural​ ​Resources​ ​Board,​ ​she​ ​was​ ​in​ ​charge​ ​of protecting​ ​their​ ​ancestral​ ​forest​ ​of Totonicapán​ ​from​ ​extractive​ ​industry​ ​incursions.​ 

“The genocide trial reminds us that the inequality, authoritarianism, and violence we suffer today in Guatemala have ancient roots. This trial was a landmark in the world, not only because it was the first attempt by a Guatemalan court to try a crime of this magnitude, but above all because of the political burden it has in a racist country like Guatemala, which members of Indigenous communities they will achieve justice amid a corrupt system and where impunity reigns.

Above all, this process showed that the country’s structural problems are still latent and that there are sectors responsible for the violence of yesteryear, businessmen and the military, who continue to deny the magnitude of the violence they provoked and, above all, refuse to assume the consequences of his actions. This trial was also a lesson in the struggle, dignity, and courage of the Maya-Ixil People for the world.”

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is a an award-winning filmmaker and co-founder/Creative Director of Skylight Pictures, a company dedicated to creating feature length documentary films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice by implementing multi-year outreach campaigns designed to engage, educate and activate social change.

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