Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

A Guilty Verdict for Rios Montt

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Guatemala City, Guatemala – Former Guatemalan president Efraín José Ríos Montt was found guilty on Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. His co-defendant, former intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, was acquitted of all charges.

With the threat of the trial regressing to November 2011, Judge Yasmín Barrios pressed on with the closing arguments on Friday morning before retiring to consider a verdict with the three-judge panel.

Upon returning, Judge Barrios delivered her verdict, threatening the Ríos Montt attorneys with jail should they interrupt or attempt to leave again.

In a 30-minute monologue Judge Barrios agreed that the prosecution had proven that genocide against the Mayan Ixil had occurred and had been carried out by the Guatemalan Army. She blamed the Cold War anti-Communist context of the conflict as the underlying factor for the genocide, exacerbated by institutional racism.

Internal army plans for Operación Sofía claimed that in a six-month period, Ixil support for the subversion rose from 50 percent to 100 percent, thus soldiers were to treat any civilian they encountered as a potential guerrilla.

Forensic anthropology enabled investigators to identify 1,771 bodies who were killed as the result of orders issued by Ríos Montt. Experts had spoken about clandestine burial sites and exhumations of bodies that showed signs of torture and bullet wounds.

Judge Barrios described the escalation of criminal violations that ranged from assault to killing of animals and destruction of crops, the burning of houses, torture, rape, and murder. He paid tribute to the witnesses that came forward to give harrowing testimony of abuse at the hands of the army.

“Misery, exclusion and the status as enemies of the State. To be an Ixil was to be equated with the guerrilla,” said Judge Barrios. “The commander in chief of the army was responsible for the violations committed. José Efraín Ríos Montt had knowledge of what was going on and did not stop them.”

“José Efraín Ríos Montt had knowledge of everything that happened. He knew that the plans were being implemented, he authorized them. He was the maximum authority,” she continued.

To cheers in the courtroom Judge Barrios concluded, “The crime of genocide affects all Guatemalans. It damaged the social fabric of the country. Justice is a right of the victims and strengthens the rule of law in this country. The Guatemalan people want to live in peace! We do not want a repetition of these events ever again!”

Ríos Montt was eventually removed from the courtroom after being mobbed by the press in attendance. “The problem with this tribunal was that it was an international political show. I am not worried about going to jail because I followed the law and fulfilled my duty,” said the 86-year-old former general.

The judges found that Rodríguez Sánchez was not in a position of authority and thus could not be held responsible for the actions of the army soldiers. Judge Barrios asked the Ministerio Público to continue their investigations into atrocities carried out during Guatemala’s 36-year internal conflict. This may have repercussions for President Otto Pérez Molina as he was an area commander in Nebaj, at the center of the Ixil Triangle, from 1982-1983.

A handcuffed Ríos Montt had his house arrest immediately revoked and left the Palacio de Justicia for Matamoros military prison to begin his sentence. Given the trial had almost 100 appeals and lasted 17 months from hearing to completion, this is unlikely to be the last word on the subject.

Ríos Montt still faces charges relating to the Dos Erres massacre in 1982 and it remains to be seen if that or other events from that period are ever brought to trial.


Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Tags: Ríos Montt
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