In a decision with bitter repercussions, on 10 May 2013 Guatemalan ex-dictator Jose Efraín Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. This victory happened after an unwarranted suspension of the trial and delaying tactics on the part of Montt’s legal team.
The ruling came as an immense relief to the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala, who had yet to see any justice for the rapes and murders of family members, the massacres, and the destruction of their homes and lands that occurred during the country’s 36-year armed conflict. For many, the ruling against Montt was a sign that injustice would no longer be tolerated and that justice, even against political leaders, could be obtained.
Civil war in Guatemala started in the early 1960s due to inequalities in economic and political life. In the 1970s, the Indigenous Maya began taking part in protests against a repressive government, demanding greater equality and inclusion.
In 1980, the Guatemalan army instituted “Operation Sophia”, which aimed at ending insurgent guerrilla warfare by destroying the civilian locations in which they hid. Its actions specifically targeted the Mayan population, believed to be supporting the guerrilla movement.
Over the next three years, the army destroyed 626 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million, while more than 150,000 were driven to seek refuge in Mexico.
In 1996, after 36 years of civil war, the Guatemalan armed conflict ended when the government signed a peace accord with the insurgent group, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Part of the agreement directed the United Nations to organize a Commission of Historical Clarification. It began work in July 1997, funded by a number of countries, including the USA. In February 1999, it released the report, “Guatemala: Memory of Silence”, which affirmed that a government policy of genocide was carried out against the Mayan Indians.
Fast forward to just ten days after the historic conviction of ex-dictator Ríos Montt when the Constitutional Court of Guatemala threw out the ruling on a technicality. The trial was then postponed and was slated to take place under a new tribunal. However, it soon became clear that progress towards justice was going to be painfully slow.
On 13 May 2014, 111 members of Congress voted on whether or not genocide occurred in Guatemala. Eighty-seven voted that it did not. This astonishing and gut-wrenching decision is a further step towards absolving Rios Montt and the current President of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, of all responsibility for crimes against humanity. Under the administration Pérez Molina, an ex-general in the war, there has been a resurgence of violence against Indigenous communities, especially those defending their lands against exploitation by international mining and dam companies.
There is no time limit on judicial responsibility for crimes of genocide. But if what happened is not determined to be genocide, then those accused cannot be held legally responsible for crimes committed over 30 years ago.
Amilcar Pop, an Indigenous congressman, one of few who defend the rights of Indigenous people in Guatemala, called the ruling “a betrayal of human rights”. According to Pop, the vote strengthens the culture of impunity and human rights violations in Guatemala.
The mealy-mouthed Congress president, Arístides Crespo, commented, “What we as a Congress are saying is let’s forget the past and start working to search for harmony, peace and reconciliation.”
It’s an easy word to bandy about, reconciliation, but according to Nelson Mandela: “Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.” That’s not about to happen in Guatemala any time soon.