Retrial of ex-dictator Rios Montt: Will a changed Guatemala shine through?

Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide in 2013, but his verdict was overturned. Since then, the country has seen bolder demands for accountability and reform.

Luis Soto/AP/File
In this file photo, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt listened to his verdict in his first trial in 2013. His retrial starts today.

Massive protests against corruption last summer brought a celebratory sense of empowerment in Guatemala. Yet the country is still waiting for a similar cathartic release when it comes to an accounting for its 36-year civil war.

As the retrial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt nears some are hopeful that Guatemala has undergone a fundamental shift, with the public far more united in its expectations of accountability and reform following the election of a political outsider as president, and the resignation of the former president and vice president over corruption allegations. Yet, amid the optimism, old tactics have emerged: The defense team successfully had the trial's launch delayed today, for reasons including concern over the state of his mental health.

Mr. Ríos Montt was originally tried in 2013 and found guilty of genocide. But his verdict was overturned just 10 days later, echoing an earlier period of widespread impunity, back-room deals, and corruption. The constitutional court ruled that the judge deciding the case was not impartial. 

Still, his trial and retrial represent the first time any country has prosecuted its own former head of state for genocide. And it's being seen as a breakthrough for transitional justice, or the political and judicial processes that follow periods of human rights abuses. 

Nations that aggressively prosecute human rights abusers often see a decrease in future abuses, says Kathryn Sikkink, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass.   

“I’m confident that if a country wants to move toward less violence and more protection for human rights, that trials are one part of the solution,” says Ms. Sikkink.  

Guatemalans are eyeing other indicators as well of a significantly changed backdrop for the upcoming trial. Just last week, 18 high-ranking military officials were arrested for crimes against humanity dating back to the same period of the civil war, which ended in 1996. And on Jan. 14, Jimmy Morales will be inaugurated president, a development many see as a drastic split from long out of touch – and untouchable – political elites.

“The fight against corruption is tied to … human rights,” says Tommy Morales (no relation), an architecture student at the University of San Carlos who participated in anticorruption protests last year. He sees a direct link between recent anticorruption demonstrations and the unresolved crimes from the civil war.

“The [political and economic] players today are the same from the time when the military was in power in Guatemala,” he says. "Everyone should be held accountable." 

A corruption connection?

Ríos Montt is charged with ordering the massacres of nearly 2,000 indigenous Mayans during his 17 months in power. His 1982-83 rule as de facto president is considered one of the most violent periods in the conflict between leftist guerrillas and the military. 

But for Guatemala, his trial is just a start in tackling impunity. An estimated 70 percent of all crimes go unpunished in Guatemala, and there's a sweeping lack of public trust in government institutions such as Congress and the courts. The 30,000 protesters who filled Guatemala’s central plaza every Saturday for months last spring and summer openly displayed their frustration with the country's widespread lack of accountability – from war crimes that date back decades to the theft of public funds.

“A lack of justice in relation to the war is connected to corruption [today] in the sense that no one felt that there was a serious …challenge to impunity and the powers that be,” says Paul Seils, vice president of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice who has designed and directed investigations into war crimes in Guatemala.


Still, over the past four years, Guatemala has started to see a shift in the status quo. Citizen hopes for justice are cautiously growing: first with the 2013 Ríos Montt conviction, then following the resignations of President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti last year amid anticorruption protests, and now with the arrests of the military officials, who could also face trial for their war crimes and the relaunch of Ríos Montt's trial, Mr. Seils says. 

These moves show “a more concerted attempt to attack the structures of impunity, whether it’s for war crimes or corruption,” he says. 

“The final outcome [of the Ríos Montt trial] is still very important,” adds Sikkink. “It would be a pity if Guatemala, having gone this far, should make some legal and judicial mistakes … [to] undermine the great progress they’ve made to this date.” 

And swift progress is exactly what Guatemalans are looking for. Mr. Morales, the student protester, and others are planning a new round of demonstrations starting later this week, on inauguration day. 

“Guatemala needs to seek justice for these events of the past in order to continue moving forward,” says Morales. He plans to remind the new president of that starting on Day One.

Editor's note: This story was edited to reflect a change in the trial's start date.

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