Shannon K. O'Neil

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Guest Post: Guatemala’s Ex-President Asks About Genocide Trial

December 20, 2011

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt leaves the public prosecutor's office in Guatemala City (Jorge Lopez/Courtesy Reuters).

This is a guest post by Natalie Kitroeff, a research associate here at the Council on Foreign Relations who works with me in the Latin America program. 

Last Thursday, former de facto President of Guatemala during military rule, General (ret) Efraín Ríos Montt walked into the Attorney General’s office to ask whether they planned on trying him on ten-year-old war crime charges anytime soon. He stands accused of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against indigenous civilians in the early 1980s – the most violent years of the country’s civil war. Flanked by his lawyer and a gaggle of reporters, he calmly told public prosecutors, “I’m here, I’m healthy, and I’m not afraid… if there’s a criminal investigation against me, it should go forth according to due process and I should stand trial.” While this may seem like an ill-advised move, it’s actually quite cunning given the weak hand he now holds.

When the new legislature takes office next month, Ríos Montt will officially lose his congressional seat, and with it his immunity from prosecution (granted to all members of congress unless they’re removed by court order).  What’s more, the party he led for over two decades – the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) – is weaker than ever – winning just 2 percent of the vote in local elections last September. This is not good news for Ríos Montt, who has had his differences in the past with incoming president Otto Perez Molina. Longstanding tension between the two came to a head in 2000 when Perez Molina left army ranks to form his own Patriot Party (PP) after the ruling FRG government denied him a top spot in the military.

The newly strengthened Attorney General’s office may be an even bigger problem for the aging ex-General. With Claudia Paz y Paz at the helm this year, the Public Ministry has shown that it is willing and able to aggressively pursue his case, convicting four soldiers and charging five more for their roles in two massacres that occurred on Ríos Montt’s watch. But if he leaves the country he risks facing an even fiercer opponent in Spain’s National Court, which issued an international arrest warrant for Ríos Montt on genocide charges in 2006.

An obvious reason why Ríos Montt turned himself in voluntarily is that he wants to avoid the embarrassment of a very public arrest. He also may be angling to get in the good graces of public prosecutors, who have already detained his third in command, former Chief of Staff Hector Mario López Fuentes, for acts of genocide. He has made clear that he intends to shed all responsibility onto his subordinates, using the excuse that he was the political, not the military leader during the civil war and was not aware of any human rights abuses. Regardless of his motives, the fact that Ríos Montt has to engage with the charges at all shows that something may finally be right with Guatemala’s fledgling justice sector.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Milburn Line

    Fabulous post, Natalie! Last Friday, in New York, Secretary of State Clinton honored Claudia Paz y Paz as she received the International Crisis Group “In Pursuit of Peace” Award. It sure is nice to see the U.S. supporting the cause of justice for those pursuing accountability for historic crimes in Guatemala – especially since Paz’ appointment as Attorney General may be undermined by the new government.

  • Posted by Sebastian Castillo

    You only forgot to read history.

    “Gen. Efram Rios Montt (dictator from 1982 to 1983 and the current Congress President), who ordered the main highland massacres (662 villages destroyed, by the army’s own count), said the C.I.A. did have agents inside the G-2. When I asked Rios Montt-a firm believer in the death penalty-if he thought he should be executed for his role in the slaughter, he leapt to his feet and shouted “Yes! Try me! Put me against the wall!” but he said he should be tried only if Americans were tried too. Specifically, he cited President Reagan, who, in the midst of the massacres, embraced Rios Montt and said he was getting “a bum rap” on human rights.”

  • Posted by Eduardo Linares Batres

    The term “president” can only be applied to someone who is ELECTED to the post. Ríos Montt was a de-facto head of state of the Guatemalan Republic, who took over power through a military coup. The same applies to fidelito castro –please note the lower case initials–; he can never be rightfully considered ‘president’ of Cuba; he’s just a two-bit tin dictator, from Orwell’s 1984 or from the darkness that is even now North Korea, ruling by force, not by the consent of the Cuban people, in an scatological little ‘cubita’ –note the lower case initial. Conversely, at least Ríos Montt wasn’t a dictator, but merely an authoritarian government saving us from the communist –please note the lower case initial– onslaught of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today Guatemala is a free, liberal-democrat country, with myriad problems, BUT, because we were saved from the form of fascism that is communism, with a bright future to come. To top it all off, fidelito is -literally- a bastard, which is at the fountainhead of his discontent.

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