What will the Rios Montt genocide conviction do for Guatemala?

Rios Montt was one of the world's first former presidents tried for genocide in a national court. Many hope his conviction means positive steps for the justice system and healing wounds of war.

Luis Soto/AP
People hold a signs that read in Spanish: 'there was no genocide in Guatemala' during a protest outside the Matamoros prison in Guatemala City, Sunday. Demonstrators say the judicial process was corrupt and are demanding a higher court nullify the verdict. A tribunal ruled Friday that Rios Montt knew about the killings and didn't stop the slaughter between 1982 and 1983, the height of Guatemala's brutal civil war.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, centralamericanpolitics.blogspot.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

A Guatemalan court found former dictator and US Cold War ally, Efrain Rios Montt, guilty on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to eighty years in prison. His intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was found not guilty on all charges. It's a historic day for the people of Guatemala. Here's Will Grant with the BBC's take:

When the Guatemalan Peace Accords were signed in 1996 after a civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, very few ever thought this moment would be reached. In blisteringly critical language, Judge Jazmin Barrios said that as de facto president it was logical that Rios Montt knew of what was happening in the country, but did nothing to stop it.

Hunger, systematic rape and forced displacements were all used as tools of war against the Ixil people for whom merely being a member of the indigenous group was a "mortal offence" in the military government's brutal pursuit of left-wing guerrillas.

Judge Barrios's summary and subsequent sentencing of Rios Montt was everything that human rights organisations and victims' families' groups in Central America had been hoping to hear for decades. Now the 86-year-old former general is facing the rest of his life in prison, though he is almost certain to appeal on the grounds of his age.

From a July 2011 post of mine on Dos Erres:

I know that it probably sounds like I go back and forth about this, but that's not really the case.I think that all those who committed human rights violations during the war (and the postwar) should be held to account for what they did. However, not everyone is equally responsible and not every should obviously suffer the same punishment. And while it is right that these four men from the Dos Erres massacre have their day in court, I am uncomfortable with the fact that the people who trained, ordered, and rewarded them for their behavior will not.

Now, the courts have finally brought the man most responsible for the genocide of the early 1980s to justice. There's more work to be done.... Judge Flores tried, once again, to annul the trial and send it back to the beginning [Friday] morning. Rios Montt's attorney, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, argued after the verdict that they have already lodged four constitutional challenges and eight amparos which have not yet been ruled upon.
 Judge Barrios said that the attorney general's office still has the responsibility to continue to pursue justice. For many, that seems to mean going after President Otto Perez Molina who was tied to the genocide during witness testimony. Mr. Perez Molina can't be brought before a court right now as he has immunity while president. The president, by the way, issued a statement supporting the court's ruling. [Though he told CNN that he personally did not believe a genocide occurred.]
 However, I'd like to know more about why Rodriguez Sanchez was found not guilty. Legally, why wasn't he found guilty? And what does the prosecutor's office learn from that? The lessons should influence who, if anyone, they pursue next.
 Charges have also been filed against a former ORPA guerrilla for a massacre of twenty-two campesinos. I'd like to see the AG's office go after the financial backers of the genocide and/or those who profited.
 Will the trial heal the wounds of war? I doubt it. The audience's singing of a poem by terrific poet, Otto René Castillo, following the verdict probably didn't help. He was a guerrilla in the Rebel Armed Forces who was disappeared by government forces in the 1960s.
 Will the verdict help strengthen the country's judicial institutions? I'm not convinced. This was a very politicized case with both sides frustrated with the process and only one side frustrated with the outcome. The international community will herald it as a sign of the much improved justice system, which I have and continue to agree with, but I don't know how the verdict will play out locally. Many on the right still believe that this was a political lynching. They've consistently fought efforts to strengthen the country's judiciary and this will probably all but end any support they still might have had, if any, for Paz y Paz and CICIG.
 But none of those issues mattered [Friday night]. The Maya-Ixil population, who suffered so much during the war and who still suffer today, have finally found the justice for which they have been struggling for over three decades. 

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

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