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Latin America makes strides: Former Guatemalan dictator faces genocide trial

As Guatemala's Rios Montt's trial begins today, many advocates argue that prosecuting state-sponsored abuses is the only way to allow the region's democracies to move forward.

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Even as Mexican and local criminal gangs wreak havoc on Guatemala's hinterland, the country is still reeling from the violence of the 36-year civil war between right-wing governments and leftist guerrillas, which ended in 1996. Many human rights advocates have pushed for the trial of the still-politically powerful Rios Montt as a means of patching the country's frayed social and democratic fabric.

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“This is a watershed,” says longtime Mexican human rights activist Mariclaire Acosta, director of the Mexico office of Freedom House. “It's going to be a huge test.”

An army general who overthrew another in a 1982 coup, Rios Montt and his one time intelligence chief are being prosecuted for setting the stage for the massacres of nearly 2,000 Ixil Maya villagers by Guatemalan soldiers. The Maya were targeted for their alleged support of leftist guerrillas.

In total, more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed in the civil war, according to the UN. A UN-backed commission found that more than four of every five victims of the war were ethnic Maya and the vast majority were killed in the five years that ended with Rios Montt's own 1983 overthrow.

“Thirty years after the commission of various crimes against humanity, the hour has come to know the truth and make reality the right of victims to obtain justice," scores of Latin American human rights groups declared in an internet posting this week praising Rios Montt's trial "These types of processes strengthen the rule of law and Guatemalan democracy."

'So many' facing trial in Latin America

Human rights have become part of national conversations in many Latin American countries that have emerged from authoritarian rule. Truth commissions have excavated the motives behind massacres and mass repression, while trials have put at least some of the guilty in jail, Ms. Roht-Arriaza and other experts say.

"I do not think that there is any other part of the world that had made so much progress in terms of justice, truth, and reparation as Latin America has done," says Mr. Dulitzky. "There are no other places in the world where you have so many former heads of state and high level military officials in jail or facing trials for human rights abuses."

But Dulitzky points out that much work remains: documentation remains squirreled away in military vaults, thousands of the disappeared remain unaccounted for, amnesty is considered valid or constitutional in some countries, prosecutions are slow in others, and sentences often are inadequate to the crime.

"It is more a zigzag with a couple of steps forward and one step backward or to the side," he says.

Argentina has achieved one of the more proactive legal systems when it comes to trying military officers and others involved in the disappearance of as many as 30,000 people during the seven-year military dictatorship that ended in 1983. Early convictions of regime leaders were voided in 1990 by an amnesty granted by then-President Carlos Menem.

But the trials began anew in 2006 after the pardon was declared unconstitutional by Argentina's high court. Last year nearly 400 suspects were tried for crimes related to the military regime's disappearing tens of thousands of people and 86 of them were sentenced, according to the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice.

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