A historic victory for truth, justice and human rights in Guatemala

By Val Croft, an Amnesty activist from Toronto with a passionate commitment to human rights in Guatemala.


Photo: An Ixil woman is sworn in before giving her testimony in the genocide case against former de facto president Efrain Rios Montt, who listens via headphones in the background. On May 10, Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity. By Roderico Y Díaz  

I’m still reeling from being in the courtroom last Friday when supporters of justice burst into applause as Guatemalan ex de facto president Efrain Rios Montt became the first former head of state in Latin America to be convicted on charges of genocide.  

More than a hundred witnesses testified during the trial, most of whom brought first hand accounts to build the case that Rios Montt and his military high command enacted policies to exterminate the indigenous Ixil population between 1982 and 1983. During those years, strategic military operational plans were developed and authorized by the government that identified an entire ethnic group as subversive, claiming they formed the support bases for guerilla forces waging a counter-insurgency war against the government.

What transpired was a military-led campaign that systematically used scorched earth tactics to try and destroy the Ixil population. These tactics were categorized by extreme sexual violence against women, the elderly and young girls, mass extrajudicial killings including of pregnant women and children, the razing of houses and crops and the killing of livestock. Survivors were forced to flee into the mountains where they were further persecuted by the military and many died from hunger. Those who returned were forced to live in army-controlled model villages and many were forcibly recruited into civil defence patrols.

Hearing first-hand accounts of such extreme forms of violence will stick with me for the rest of my life. So too, will the cries of justice and tears that were overflowing in the courtroom when the former president was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison for genocide, with an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity. Although Judge Yassmin Barrios absolved former Head of Military Intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez of the same crimes, she gave authorization to the Public Prosecutor’s Office to continue to investigate others who may bear responsibility for the genocide in addition to Rios Montt.

Here in Guatemala, many people are calling this a turning point for the country, and describing this landmark conviction as an indescribably important crack in the dam of impunity. Despite the ludicrous legal challenges that the defense brought forward and decades of denial by the elite and politically powerful in Guatemala, the plaintiffs triumphed against all odds, achieving both truth and justice.

The respect and admiration I have for so many people who have risked everything to bring the case forward is not easily put into words, particularly for the survivors that make up the Association for Justice and Reconciliation. It has been a tremendous privilege to join friends and allies in the human rights community here in Guatemala to salute and celebrate their tireless, courageous work. 

Today, however, in the public hearing on reparations – essentially the nitty gritty of how Guatemala is going to honour the victims, acknowledge what happened, provide financial compensation and assure that the words “never again” mean something – there was a gaping omission. The judge ordered public apologies, the creation of memorial and cultural centres, the inclusion of this court decision in the public school curriculum, amongst other things. But there was no mention about the vexed issue of access to land.

In Guatemala, as in many parts of the world, unequal access to land is the root cause of much disparity. It continues to fuel conflict, struggle for change and violent repression against those who are forcibly evicted off of ancestral land to make way for monoculture plantations used to grow crops for export or biofuels, or for mega resource extraction.

For the Rios Montt conviction to truly be a turning point to a more just society, connections need to be publically made between the repression of the past and the repression of the present.

In the last few years, attacks against human rights defenders have skyrocketed, particularly those who are resisting transnational resource extraction. The policies of the current president Otto Perez Molina, himself a retired General and an adamant genocide denier, have been to use the force of the military to enact states of siege to suspend the constitutional rights of those resisting the encroachment of mining and hydroelectric companies.

Claudia Samayoa from the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders spoke eloquently when she said, “We really hope that we will have a change in Guatemala. From now, we will start to recognize that what is happening today with … mining or exploration without due consultation is part of the same idea of genocide. It’s the same racism. It’s the same idea that people are not worthy of decision-making. So, if we start learning [from] the lessons of this trial, we will change as a country. And we really hope that we can help move forward our country, not from [a place of] silence but from the truth.”

Making those connections between the past and present is incredible important, and the implications of this trial are far-reaching. For now, people are celebrating this historic decision in Guatemalan history, where a national court has finally declared what survivors have been saying all along: Si, hubo genocidio. Yes, there was genocide.