Thirty years later, a Date With Justice

Aaron Schneider, Guest Blogger

For the first time in history, a perpetrator has been found guilty of genocide in a court in his or her own country. In 1982, General Efraín Rios Montt seized power in a coup and guided a counter-insurgency strategy of genocide against the Ixil Mayans of the Guatemalan highlands until a coup deposed him 17 months later.

In the civil conflict that tore this small Central American country apart, more than 2,50,000 of a population of 6.5 million are estimated to have been killed. The genocide of the Ixil Mayan population eliminated approximately five per cent of that ethnicity in Rios Montt’s short reign. For 30 years, he evaded justice, accused by various human rights and indigenous groups of war crimes but securing election as a member of Congress where he was granted parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Just under two years ago, he lost his seat for the first time, and human rights organisations and indigenous groups pressed for justice.

History of violence

The significance of this case for Guatemala’s indigenous people, for Latin America, and for the world cannot be overstated. Genocide of the indigenous Mayan population of Guatemala began with European contact 500 years ago, and the most recent episode of ethnic cleansing occurred with the military backing of the United States government and the President at the time, Ronald Reagan, who infamously said that Rios Montt got a “bum rap” on human rights.

The judge in the case against Rios Montt noted that he had full knowledge and could have stopped the systematic elimination of Ixil Mayans, one of the 21 different Mayan groups who make up the majority of Guatemala’s population. As the judge read out the verdict — the maximum 80 years of prison — the court erupted. Mayan women in traditional clothing wept openly, embraced, and basked in the rolling chants that refused to stop, “Justice! Justice! Justice!” Rios Montt shouted to the judge to restore order.

Hundreds of men and women had given testimony in the trial. Some covered their faces to hide their tears as they told of babies thrown in the air and impaled on bayonets.

One woman recounted the murder of her sister and her mother held hostage by a battalion that raped her for two weeks. Men told of the mass graves in which their fathers and brothers were buried, shot in the head while kneeling over a pit so their bodies would topple one on top of another.

Two weeks ago, it appeared that the trial might not finish. A higher court suddenly halted proceedings and ordered the trial to restart from the point it had reached in November, before any civilian witnesses had testified. The decision was apparently made in response to testimony just before then, when a military mechanic testified that the current President of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, himself an ex-general and commander in the Ixil region in the 1980s, had ordered the burning of villages and execution of residents. With a sitting President implicated, few thought the case would continue.

A first

In the end, Guatemala made history. Other Latin American strongmen have faced justice, including dictator Jorge Videla of Argentina, imprisoned for crimes against humanity, and Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who died under house arrest before being convicted on charges of illegal enrichment and human rights violations.

None has faced charges of genocide. In Guatemala, a perpetrator of genocide has faced justice in his own country and has been sentenced to jail for a very, very long time. How long will it be before other countries face up to their own genocidal pasts, before a sitting President faces justice, before a President in my own country faces justice for war crimes? Guatemala has taught us a lesson. I hope we learn it well.

Aaron Schneider is the Leo Block Chair at the University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies. He is in India for six months conducting research. E-mail: aaron.schneider@du.edu

This article first appeared in the Hindu