Guatemala Illuminates its Dark History With a Stunning Guilty Verdict for Rios Montt

After years of tireless effort and weeks of proceedings in the trial of US-supported former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, Judge Jazmin Barrios delivered a stunning victory for truth and justice. Though her voice quivered initially under the gravity of her charge, as she detailed the court’s findings, Judge Barrios was eloquent, forceful and righteous, vindicating all those who toiled for years and risked their lives to shed light on the bloody past.

Declaring Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentencing him to 80 years in prison, Judge Barrios echoed the voices of the victims: “For there to be peace in Guatemala, first there must be justice.” This historic verdict will reverberate from the packed courtroom to the highlands where the rivers ran red with blood, to the global community, to send an unmistakable message that justice can prevail over the most ardent efforts of those whose ruthless acts are cloaked by impunity.

The process was fraught with delay, vitriol and unexpected turns, caused by relentless defense efforts to delegitimize the tribunal rather than present a substantive rebuttal to the charges. It was uncertain whether the Guatemala genocide trial would ever reach its dramatic conclusion many years after survivors first availed themselves of the legal system to find truth and justice for the unspeakable brutality that claimed over 200,000 lives and devastated countless others. Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Jose Maurico Sanchez Rodriquez, who was ultimately acquitted, were charged were the deaths of 1,771 Maya Ixiles in the Department of Quiche from 1982 to 1983, along with a deliberate campaign of state-sponsored terror intended to destroy the Ixil culture. Weeks of trial included the haunting testimony of survivors, whose palpable grief flowed from newly reopened wounds and the methodical and exhaustive presentation of carefully orchestrated forensic, military and other experts.

Even as the world waited expectantly for the trial to conclude, the legal maneuvering continued to plague the process. Judge Carol Patricia Flores, in charge of preliminary matters before she was recused – after a motion by the defense – and subsequently reinstated, sent the process careening into turmoil with her April decision annulling all trial proceedings that happened after she was removed from the case in November 2011. Amid multiple appeals that engendered confusion and uncertainty, a ruling from the Constitutional Court allowed the trial to move forward.

The trial was convened briefly on Tuesday before being recessed, after defense attorney Garcia Guidel informed the tribunal that he was gravely ill. Guidel was photographed later that afternoon in the public ministry, apparently in fine health. When the defense failed, yet again, to produce witnesses, Judge Barrios put an end to the stalling tactics and moved the trial to its final phase. This announcement provoked another tirade from Garcia Guidel, who threatened that he would not rest until the judges were in jail. With unfailing grace and dignity, Judge Barrios neither reacted to the antagonism nor buckled under the unrelenting pressure of presiding over this contentious trial and calmly read the Code of Ethics provisions mandating respect for the tribunal and toward all human beings.

Rios Montt, who declined opportunities to address the tribunal and remained silent and mostly impassive during the proceedings, demanded to address the court at the very end, despite the procedural irregularity of doing so. Determined to avoid accusations that she deprived the defendant of his voice, Barrios allowed Rios Montt to launch into a meandering statement. As Rios Montt’s cadence varied, he declared his innocence, denied centralized control over the military and claimed that the behavior of soldiers was the responsibility of field commanders, attributing any atrocities committed in various regions to their local command. Rios Montt’s denial was eviscerated in part by his own arrogant statement, preserved for perpetuity on videotape and played for the court earlier in the trial, in which he confidently affirmed his control over the army. It is noteworthy that President Perez Molina, accused in open court of complicity in war crimes, was a field commander in the Ixil region in 1982.

The trial’s completion was uncertain until the very end. On Friday, Judge Flores reaffirmed her April decision annulling the trial, claiming that the Constitutional Court ruling required her to simply reissue her decision, an order that defied logic. Judge Barrios refused to be intimidated or outmaneuvered and insisted that the tribunal would continue, scheduling the announcement of a verdict at 4 PM. Defense attorneys declared that any ruling from the court would be invalid, the last in a long series of obstructionist machinations designed to circumvent justice.

Before the verdict was read, tension in the courtroom was palpable. As Judge Barrios began to speak, the court’s findings seemed to lead inexorably to a guilty verdict. Clearly moved by the dignity of the survivors, the panel of judges found that the military employed a calculated strategy to destroy the Ixil for their historical recalcitrance and perceived ideological and logistical support for the guerrillas, through extrajudicial assassination, rape, forced displacement, intentional starvation and severing sacred ties to ancestral land. Judge Barrios summarized the irrefutable incrimination of the military’s own documents, including Plan Sofia, which classified the Ixil as the internal enemy. Judge Barrios lamented the irreparable and intergenerational harm to these communities. The court found that intelligence evidence indicated constant communication between the field and the military command and that Rios Montt had the knowledge and authority to stop the atrocities. Rios Montt’s house arrest was revoked, and he was ordered to jail.

Chaos erupted after the verdict, and Judge Barrios for the first time raised her voice, appealing for calm and demanding that Rios Montt not be removed from the courtroom by anyone other than the police. As the tension eased, elated survivors who waged the long battle for historical justice and their supporters applauded the judges, before breaking out into song and cheers of “Justice, Justice.” Despite this victory, the grief and incalculable loss will endure forever.

Although the Peace Accords included a commitment to unearth historical memory, many were determined to ensure the truth in Guatemala remain buried with the remains of tens of thousands of the disappeared. The trial cracked wide open a festering schism in Guatemalan society about truth, memory and justice. Courageous survivors, judges, witnesses and lawyers proceeded in the face of threats and accusations. Many fear that the verdict will unleash violent reprisals, as the trial has inflamed the already polarized climate. In the past week, a man reportedly from the Foundation Against Terrorism was escorted from the courtroom for taking photos and videos of courtroom observers. Further heightening the tension, someone composed and circulated an ominous “faces of impunity” brochure, with names and color photographs of protagonists in the fight for justice, which many feared was a thinly veiled hit list.

All the reasons that transitional justice is difficult to pursue in national courts plagued this trial. Though the conflict ended in 1996, Rios Montt enjoyed immunity from prosecution as a member of Congress until 2012. Yet survivors began their long, exhausting and improbable trek toward justice in 2000, a year after the UN-sponsored Truth Commission gave victims their voice, punctured the silence surrounding the conflict’s unspeakable brutality and attributed blame for 93 percent of the deaths to the military. The survivors’ efforts to bring the intellectual authors of the state-sponsored terror to justice were consistently impeded by interference in the judiciary and a lack of political will, compounding the structural inequality that gave rise to the conflict in the first place: endemic racism, desperate poverty, stratified socio-economics and political exclusion. Those aligned with the military and economic elites still retain much of their historical power, though components of the judiciary exhibited remarkable independence and integrity.

Even in the spotlight of the international community, threats and intimidation have been intense and unrelenting. We cannot turn away now, content that justice has been done: We must continue to walk in solidarity with the survivors, lawyers, judges and experts who have displayed extraordinary courage and exceptional dedication to truth, memory and justice and are still at risk. This verdict is not the end of this sordid tale for Rios Montt, and subsequent legal maneuvering and its attendant rhetoric is all but certain to cast doubt on the proceedings and further inflame already simmering societal divisions. But the trial and the verdict represent an undeniable victory for the Ixil, for Guatemala and for our common humanity. This remarkable triumph of the human spirit confirms that the arc of Guatemalan history does indeed bend toward justice.