Reckoning with Genocide

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General Efraín Ríos Montt (center) announcing his military coup, Guatemala City, March 23, 1982

Criminal prosecutions of former heads of state and heads of government are no longer very unusual. Between 1990 and 2009, there were some sixty-seven such prosecutions worldwide for human rights abuses or corruption, or both, a far greater number than ever previously. No doubt this is a consequence of the rise of the international human rights movement and the emphasis it has placed on holding accountable those responsible for great crimes. Yet the prosecution of General Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, now eighty-six years old, stands out in at least one respect. For the first time, a former head of state is being tried for genocide in the courts of his own country.

The trial of Ríos Montt, who served as president of Guatemala from the time he seized power in a military coup in March 1982 until he was forced out in another military coup in August 1983, began on March 19 in Guatemala City. The prosecutor alleged that Ríos Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, his chief of intelligence, were responsible for the killing of 1,771 Ixils—one of Guatemala’s twenty-two distinct indigenous peoples—and the forced displacement of another 29,000, many them tortured or sexually abused by the army. Testifying in the Ixil language, with a court interpreter translating into Spanish, two witnesses described a 1982 massacre in the village of Canaquil, near Nebaj, the largest of the three towns in what is known as the Ixil Triangle, in Guatemala’s western highlands. One of them, who was twenty-one at the time, said his sister-in-law was among those killed, and told the court that the soldiers burned the bodies of the dead and also burned houses and killed animals. He escaped, he said, by fleeing into the mountains. The other witness was nine years old. He said he was shot at as he fled, and hid in a creek. When he eventually returned to the village after the violence ended, he found that his parents and his two siblings, aged one and five or six years old, had been killed.

Since the prosecution says that it plans to present 130 witnesses, it seems likely that the trial will last for two or three months, or even longer. Ríos Montt’s defense lawyers have argued that he was not present where the killings took place and that he did not have command responsibility for the military officers directly involved. It seems likely that one way the prosecution will rebut this claim is by showing the court a filmed interview with Ríos Montt while he was president in which he strongly asserts his control over military operations. However it turns out, the case is sure to have a profound impact in Guatemala, and perhaps elsewhere. A court hearing in which members of a persecuted indigenous community testify about such matters against a former head of state is, in itself, a remarkable development.

Getting to this point has required a long and difficult struggle. The prosecution of Ríos Montt is, at least implicitly, a repudiation of the policies of the Reagan administration, which was a resolute supporter of the Guatemalan dictator. Reagan himself, and high State Department officials responsible for US policy in Latin America and for the protection of human rights, denied Ríos Montt’s abuses as they were taking place—abuses that included the killing by his forces of many thousands of poor Guatemalans. Reagan and his spokesmen tried to impugn those who reported on these abuses as dupes of the left-wing guerrillas then fighting the Guatemalan government.

A crucial turning point in the struggle to hold Ríos Montt accountable was the publication in February 1999 of the nine-volume report of the Commission to Clarify Past Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence That Have Caused the Guatemalan People to Suffer—generally known as the Historical Clarification Commission, or by its Spanish acronym CEH (Comisión para el Esclarecimíento Histórico). The CEH was created in 1997 following a UN-brokered agreement in Oslo, Norway that ended thirty-six years of armed conflict between the Guatemalan government and guerrilla forces. Many doubted that the report would be very important because the government, while allowing it to be made, insisted that it not name those responsible for abuses. Though the CEH adhered to that restriction, the report nevertheless made it clear that General Ríos Montt, during the seventeen months that he served as president, was responsible for by far the greatest number of the abuses it documented.

The CEH reported 42,275 cases of persons who were murdered, disappeared, raped, or tortured, and estimated that the actual number of those murdered or disappeared during the conflict exceeded 200,000. The report also found that 81 percent of the murders and disappearances took place between 1981 and 1983—some 48 percent in 1982 alone, when Ríos Montt was in power. The report identified hundreds of villages that were wiped out by his army and said the killings in these areas constituted “acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people”—that is, the indigenous population of Guatemala. Perhaps the ethnic group most severely victimized during Ríos Montt’s tenure were the Ixil. According to the CEH, the great majority of Ixil villages were destroyed during the Ríos Montt period, and about 7,000 Ixil killed. Many of the survivors were forced to flee to remote parts of Guatemala or to Mexico. What happened to the Ixil figured prominently in the CEH’s decision to call the killings “acts of genocide.”


Efforts to prosecute Ríos Montt have been underway for a long time. Not long after the publication of the CEH report, a group of Guatemalans that included indigenous leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú launched a prosecution in Spain, taking advantage of Spain’s commitment to invoke “universal jurisdiction” to bring to trial those allegedly responsible for certain crimes, including genocide, terrorism, and piracy, and also of the fact that the victims of political violence in Guatemala included Spanish citizens. That trial continues today. Up to now, however, the Guatemalan courts have declined to extradite defendants to Spain.

Ríos Montt could not be prosecuted in Guatemala following the publication of the report, however, because he enjoyed immunity as a member of the Guatemalan Congress. His immunity ended on January 12, 2012. On January 26, 2012, Gautemalan prosecutors added him as a defendant in a case against three other former generals, and placed him under house arrest. Along with Ríos Montt, the prosecution continues against José Rodriguez Sanchez, his chief of military intelligence. They are charged with crimes against humanity as well as genocide. (The prosecution of one of the other generals, Oscar Mejía Victores, defense minister under Ríos Montt and his successor as president as a result of the August 1983 coup, has been discontinued because the Guatemalan court found him physically and mentally unfit to stand trial.)

Bringing such cases in Guatemala involves great risks for those associated with them. Witnesses, prosecutors, and judges have all been threatened and, in some cases, forced to flee the country. Others have been killed. The most recent was the December 2012 murder, of a prosecutor who worked for Guatemala’s Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, the driving force behind the case against Ríos Montt.

Though the CEH report concluded that American support for the Guatemalan government helped enable those crimes, the efforts by the Reagan administration to defend Ríos Montt and to discredit his critics will probably not become an issue at his trial. Yet these efforts should not be forgotten. In a careful report published in 1982, a little more than three months after Ríos Montt came to power, Amnesty International stated:

Guatemalan security services continue to attempt to control opposition, both violent and non-violent, through widespread killings including the extra-judicial execution of large numbers of rural non-combatants, including entire families, as well as persons suspected of sympathy with violent and non-violent opposition groups….

The report listed a large number of rural massacres: it attributed fifteen of them to the Guatemalan Army and four to guerrilla groups. It also documented fifty episodes of violence that it did not attribute to either side or that involved charges against both sides. This elicited a response from Thomas Enders, the then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, who said:

We assume that many of the incidents which we are unable to substantiate (e.g., March 24, March 24-7, April 2, April 5) have been reported to you as they have to others, by the CUC, which seized the Brazilian Embassy on May 12, the FP-31 or similar groups. Both the CUC and the FP-31 are now closely aligned with, if not largely under the influence of the guerrilla groups attempting to overthrow the Guatemalan government. Accordingly, we have reason to suspect the accuracy of their reports. [Letter to Patricia Rengel, Director of the Washington Office of Amnesty International, September 15, 1982.]

Enders’s letter was followed by briefings on Capitol Hill in which State Department officials insisted that Amnesty’s reporting was based on information supplied by guerrilla sympathizers.

In 1982, the year in which the CEH found that 48 percent of the killings and disappearances of the thirty-six-year conflict had taken place, the State Department asserted that “there has been a decrease in the level of killings.” President Reagan, when he met with Ríos Montt in Honduras on December 4, 1982, called the reports of Ríos Montt’s human rights abuses “a bum rap.” Though blocked by Congress from furnishing direct military aid to the Guatemalan government, the Reagan administration did what it could to circumvent restrictions, supporting loans to Guatemala by international financial institutions, reclassifying the provision of trucks and jeeps as non-military aid, and going forward with the supply of military spare parts on the basis that the sale of this equipment had been approved at an earlier date. Though such support probably had little effect, the fact that the President of the United States chose to speak out in support of Ríos Montt and to respond to his critics was a far more serious matter.


One of the curious elements of the trial of Ríos Montt is that it is taking place at a moment when Guatemala is governed by another retired general, Otto Pérez Molina. Three decades ago, when the massacres were taking place, Pérez Molina was an officer with the rank of Major, based in Nebaj, in the western highlands where much of the killings were taking place. Whether he was directly involved in the massacres is not known. At the very least, he must have been aware of what was happening to the Ixil.

In the 1990s, Pérez Molina took part in the negotiations that led to the Oslo peace accord. Up to now, there have not been significant complaints about his human rights record as president. An important test will come when he decides whether to keep Claudia Paz y Paz, who was appointed as Attorney General in 2010 by his predecessor, President Álvaro Colom, and whose four-year term ends next year.

Many Latin American countries have experienced severe violations of human rights. Some of the worst abuses took place during the 1970s and the 1980s under the military regimes of that era. But the only country for which it would be appropriate to use the word genocide to describe the crimes committed since World War II, when that term was coined by Raphael Lemkin, author of the Genocide Convention, is Guatemala. Though it may not be appropriate to suggest a hierarchy of human rights abuses, a consensus has developed internationally that genocide, the intent to eliminate entire groups, is the greatest of all crimes. Accordingly, it is important that the person who is alleged to have the highest level of responsibility for the genocide in Guatemala, Ríos Montt, should face a reckoning.

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