Moises Castillo/AP
Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt speaks to the press as he arrives to court to stand trial on genocide charges in Guatemala City.

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.

Many Latin American societies still fitfully seek justice for the torture, murder, or disappearance of hundreds of thousands of civilians that took place during the military dictatorships, leftist insurrections, and grinding civil wars that ended decades ago.

There are some signs of progress: Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt goes to trial today in Guatemala City as one of the first former presidents to be tried for genocide in a national court, as opposed to The Hague. The trial echoes the multiple prosecutions seen in recent years of former military officers linked to human rights abuses during the dictatorship-eras in Argentina and Chile.

But those cases have run headlong into amnesties granted to soldiers, with Argentina overcoming them and prosecutors in Chile forced to work around them. And in Uruguay, where an estimated 200 people were disappeared during a 12-year military regime in the 1970s and 1980s, the high court last month struck down a 2011 law allowing the government to investigate abuses during the country's military dictatorship. That effectively reestablishes amnesty for the military officers and others involved in the disappearances and murders of several hundred people there during the military regime.

“It's a totally mixed record,” says Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a law professor at the Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, and a noted expert on “transitional justice,” or the effort to resolve past abuses.

“You think that things are going along swimmingly and then you have things like the Uruguayan Supreme Court decision.”

Many advocates argue that exposing, if not prosecuting, state-sponsored abuses is the only way to allow many of the region's often deeply flawed democracies to move forward. By collecting evidence about the extent of past atrocities, truth commissions and criminal trials provide both cathartic healing and the chance to regain citizens' trust and guarantee these crimes won't easily happen again.

But efforts to resolve past crimes too often clash with the public's desire to move on. And as the nature of large-scale violence has bled from the political to the criminal – especially in Mexico and across Central America – dealing with kidnappings, disappearances, and murders by security forces and gangsters demand new perspectives and strategies, advocates say.

"Transitional justice tools were developed in order to help understand and confront human rights abuses from the past when a change in regime happens," says Ariel Dulitzky, an Argentine human rights law expert at the University of Texas at Austin who has served on United Nations investigative commissions. "I am not sure that they provide a set of tools to confront violence coming from organized crime."

'A watershed'

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.

“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.

Peru has taken a similar path, with transitional justice advocates hailing the 25-year sentence being served by former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Mr. Fujimori was charged with corruption and human rights abuses during his government's war with the leftist Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, guerrillas in the early 1990s.

But the Uruguayan Supreme Court ruling echoes a decades-long public debate over how to deal with the abuses of the military dictatorship there, which ruled from 1973 to 1985. In referendums in 1989 and again four years ago, voters voiced support for amnesty.

Even Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, himself jailed for years under the dictatorship, urged amnesty during his 2009 election campaign in order to avoid political turmoil. But following the high court's ruling, President Mujica's left-leaning coalition launched protests supported by international organizations.

"With this verdict, Uruguay has slipped backward toward the situation of near total impunity that characterized its approach to transitional justice for three decades," the Washington Office on Latin America, a watchdog group said in a statement to the press.

Present day crossfire

Latin America is not only dealing with crimes of the past. As governments confront criminal threats that sometimes mirror guerrilla movements, civilians have been caught in the crossfire between security forces and the gangs.

In Mexico, efforts at finding truth – let alone justice – have barely begun amid an ongoing six-year-old military-led campaign against criminal gangs that has left as many as 70,000 people dead and tens of thousands more disappeared.

"A democratic nation, a self-respecting nation, can't accept not knowing where to find more than 20 thousand of it's children, can't accept that thousands of its children are thrown unidentified into a common grave," the poet Javier Sicilia, leader of a movement demanding an end to Mexico's violence, told lawmakers in January after passage of a victim's law aimed at reparations for the gangland war's carnage.

"There won't be sufficient justice for the dead if we don't recover their memory, their names, their histories, their presence among us," Mr. Sicilia said.

President Enrique Peña Nieto's three-month old government has promised to compile a complete roster of those who've disappeared. But military and other security forces largely remain immune from prosecution. And Mexican organizations comprised of victims' families who have demanded that the government act are facing both official and public if not outright hostility.

“Society doesn't listen,” says Diana Iris, a middle-aged housewife whose 23 year old son is one of more than 1,800 people who have disappeared in Coahuila state, which borders central Texas.

“People as a defense say that it is not going to happen to them. They continue living as if nothing is happening. They don't realize the level of violence we are living, the tragedy we are enduring.”

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