Human rights activists feared that the presidential victory of former general Otto Perez Molina would mean a step backwards in transitional justice in Guatemala. However, this week, two landmark events have given clear signs that Guatemala's fragile democracy is maturing.
On January 26, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, allowing the international tribunal to prosecute any human rights abusers if Guatemala fails to do so; the same day, after years of being shielded by parliamentary immunity, former de facto President Efraín Rios Montt was questioned for his involvement in the genocide of 1,700 Mayan indigenous people in 1982–1983, during Guatemala's thirty-six-year civil war (1960-1996).
In the blog SALTLaw, in a post titled “A good dawn for justice in Guatemala,” Raquel Aldana writes about the significance of Rios Montt facing trial for genocide and crimes against humanity:
Today was a historic day for Guatemala. A few hours ago, after a long day of heady hearings, a Guatemalan court opened a criminal case for genocide against Retired Military General Efraín Ríos Montt and ordered him detained under house arrest. Now 85, the retired general must face trial accused of being responsible for one hundred massacres, which produced a death toll of one thousand, seven hundred and seventy one victims. Ríos Montt, who until recently enjoyed immunity after serving nearly two decades as Congressman in Guatemala, had been de facto president during the most brutal 17 months of the 36 year-long civil war, between 1982 and 1983.
She continues reporting on Rios Montt's appearance in court:
When asked in court today if he understood the charges he faced, Ríos Montt said into the microphone “I understand perfectly.” Then, instead of making a formal declaration of guilt or not guilt, he stated a preference for silence. Outside the courthouse today, indigenous Guatemalans laid red rose petals spelling impunity no more. Meanwhile, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
On the Council of Foreign Affairs Blog, Natalie Kitroeff lays out Rios Montt's defense.
Ríos Montt has made his defense quite clear. Over the past month, he has repeatedly said that he can’t be tried for any human rights violations because he wasn’t in charge of the military’s on-the-ground operations as the country’s political leader. His lawyer has echoed these claims, telling the press recently, “We are sure that there is no responsibility, since he was never on the battlefield.”
She goes on to explain:
This strategy is a radical new approach in the Guatemalan context. Until now, the military has consistently denied that genocide was ever a part of the civil war. Even the current president, Otto Pérez Molina, said that he doesn’t believe the findings of the UN truth commission, and that he could “prove that [genocide] did not occur,” during the conflict. But Ríos Montt is now arguing not that the atrocities didn’t happen, but that he is not culpable.
While this doesn’t yet amount to an open acknowledgement of genocide, it does suggest that things have changed (if slightly) since the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) first brought charges against Ríos Montt in 1999. The discovery of mass graves by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) and the tireless work of victims groups in pushing for trials – finally winning convictions for four ex-soldiers this year – has made it untenable for the military to negate the genocide outright, at least in a court of law.
In the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, Erik Loomis looks at what Rios Montt's trial means for Guatemala today:
Today, Guatemala faces a new period of instability due to the expansion of drug gangs from Mexico and El Salvador into their country and its unfortunately convenient stop on the drug highway to the United States. Whereas thirty years ago, people wanted to dismantle the police force because of its horrifying repression, today people are putting hope in the police as the one thing that could stand in the way of a new generation of shocking violence. Forcing Ríos Montt to face trial for his crimes is not going to solve any of Guatemala’s enormous problems, but it might at least force the defenders of violence in that nation to think twice about their actions.
Mike, in Central American Politics, reports that Rios Montt was granted bail and will remain under domiciliary arrest during the trial. Mike adds his opinion:
A tremendous victory for the people of Guatemala and a continuation of what I believe has been a pretty remarkable year-plus of human rights advancement in the region.
These two events show that, without turning a blind eye to the past and the terrible atrocities that were committed during the country's civil war, Guatemala seeks to become a country where international human rights standards are respected and enforced. The fact that President Otto Perez Molina, a former Army General, has not interfered with the case and has backed the signing of the Rome Statute gives Guatemalans hope that in the near future justice will arrive earlier, before criminals are dead, or too old or too sick to face trial.