Last week, Guatemala’s Court of High Risk “B” (Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo “B”) announced that the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former president, General Efraín Ríos Montt, will not resume until January 2015. The trial was pushed back from an earlier date of April 2014, and by the time proceedings continue, Ríos Montt will be 88 years old.
Ríos Montt had been tried and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Mayan Ixil people during one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s civil war. On May 10, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but served just two days before being transferred to a military hospital.
A day later, one of the defense team’s 100-plus amparos—measures designed to provide constitutional protection of individuals—was upheld by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC). The result of the successful amparo was to move the trial back to its middle, where there was a judicial battle over who was to hear the case—Judge Yasmin Barrios or Judge Carol Patricia Flores.
The ruling backtracked on previous declarations that the trial would not return to a previous date. It also contradicted Guatemalan law, which states once a verdict is delivered, the defendant must continue their legal fight in the Appeals Court.
Since then, the original trial judges have recused themselves on the grounds that they have already issued a judgment. Dozens of judges have avoided hearing the case for fear of repercussions, and in October, the CC reopened the possibility that Ríos Montt may be granted amnesty, based on a 1986 presidential decree by former President Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores that barred prosecutions for political crimes committed during Mejía and Ríos Montt’s administrations.Meanwhile, frustrated survivors of the atrocities in Ixil have taken their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington DC.
By the time the trial resumes in 2015, Guatemala will be undergoing several political transitions. Presidential elections are set for September of that year, with a likely decision in November. Guatemala’s current attorney general, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Claudia Paz y Paz, will complete her four-year term in 2014, when President Otto Pérez Molina could choose to reappoint Paz y Paz or select someone else.
Whether a new attorney general would be as willing to investigate crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war remains to be seen.
The future of the Ríos Montt trial is just one element in an ideological battle for Guatemala’s past. In the same week that the trial was rescheduled, Baltazar Muñoz, a former military commissioner, was arrested by the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry—MP) for genocide and crimes against humanity.
After 39 attempts, Guatemala’s Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court—CSJ) has yet to elect a president of the Organismo Judicial (OJ)—the entity that appoints judges in Guatemala—a delay that is attributed in part to the contentious issue of amnesty for civil war crimes–part of the legal battle for Guatemala’s history.
Regardless, Guatemala is a signatory of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Should Ríos Montt receive amnesty, it would be in direct contravention of that convention, leaving Guatemala with the decision to either continue the trial or remove itself from the treaty.
Guatemala’s future willingness to investigate past crimes remains unpromising. The early favorite in the 2015 presidential race, Manuel Baldizón—who lost to Pérez Molina in 2011—was asked in an interview with the Guatemalan news site PlazaPública if he had anything to say about the trial.
Baldizón responded that “it’s not a topic that people are interested in. People do not want to talk about cramming more people into that boat. They want justice or food, employment. That’s a topic that interests us.”
Baldizón speaks for many Guatemalans who want to leave their past behind them. But others believe that Guatemala can only begin to heal by acknowledging past atrocities and dealing with them.
There are enough forces battling on both sides for the memories of yesteryear in Guatemala. Whether—and how—current and future generations move forward remains in the balance.