After years of appeals, Efrain Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s former military dictator who ruled from 1982 to 1983, stood trial in the country’s first genocide trial that began on Tuesday. Ríos Montt is accused of being responsible for 15 massacres that took the lives of a combined 1,771 Ixil Mayas and forcibly displaced an additional 29,000.
The massacres were part of a counterinsurgency campaign against leftist groups based in Guatemala’s mostly Indigenous western highlands. Along with former head of intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, Ríos Montt is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity and is being tried by three judges from the Supreme Court’s Tribunal Primero A de Mayor Riesgo (First High-Risk Tribunal A). This marks the first time that a former head of state has been tried for genocide in a domestic court.
Last March, the 86-year-old former dictator was denied amnesty under the 1996 National Reconciliation Law on the grounds that the law denies such protection to those accused of genocide, torture or forced disappearances. Prosecutors admit that there was never a direct order from Ríos Montt to massacre the victims in the Quiche Department where the guerillas were based. But they hope to prove that the leader had knowledge of the acts due to the absolute power granted to him by the military chain of command. His lack of action, they argue, is proof of his complicity. Guatemalan prosecutors have successfully prosecuted other military officers with similar evidence in the past, leading to speculation that Ríos Montt could be found guilty at the end of his six-week trial.
The first day of the trial saw the ex-dictator’s legal team abruptly quit. They were replaced by defense attorney Francisco García Gudiel who tried, unsuccessfully, to file motions to block the proceedings on procedural grounds. He was later dismissed from the courtroom for accusing Judge Jazmin Barrios of bias against him. The three-judge panel appointed a new defense lawyer to represent Ríos Montt for the remainder of his trial.