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.
Without fanfare, or so much as a public arrest, this weekend Guatemala took another historic step toward justice for a genocidal civil war that took the lives of more than 200,000 innocent, mostly indigenous civilians. Just a week after losing his diplomatic immunity, General (Ret) Efraín Ríos Montt was ordered to testify in court about his role in abuses that occurred between 1982 to 1983, when he was de facto President of Guatemala. If judge Patricia Flores decides there is enough evidence to proceed to trial, Ríos Montt will be prosecuted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity (including 626 massacres of civilians in Chimaltenango, Quiché, Huehuetenango and Baja Verapaz).
Ríos Montt has made his defense quite clear. Over the past month, he has repeatedly said that he can’t be tried for any human rights violations because he wasn’t in charge of the military’s on-the-ground operations as the country’s political leader. His lawyer has echoed these claims, telling the press recently, “We are sure that there is no responsibility, since he was never on the battlefield.”
This strategy is a radical new approach in the Guatemalan context. Until now, the military has consistently denied that genocide was ever a part of the civil war. Even the current president, Otto Pérez Molina, said that he doesn’t believe the findings of the UN truth commission, and that he could “prove that [genocide] did not occur,” during the conflict. But Ríos Montt is now arguing not that the atrocities didn’t happen, but that he is not culpable.
While this doesn’t yet amount to an open acknowledgement of genocide, it does suggest that things have changed (if slightly) since the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) first brought charges against Ríos Montt in 1999. The discovery of mass graves by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) and the tireless work of victims groups in pushing for trials – finally winning convictions for four ex-soldiers this year – has made it untenable for the military to negate the genocide outright, at least in a court of law.
Whether or not the “I didn’t make the call” line of defense will work remains to be seen. To win, public prosecutors will have to prove that the army’s brutal scorched earth tactics were part of a coherent state policy designed by the president (not just the work of individual rogue officers). This concept of “intellectual authorship” has yet to be tested in Guatemala, as so far only low-ranking soldiers – the material authors of the crimes– have ever been convicted for war crimes (the one exception is Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, who was convicted as an intellectual author of Myrna Mack’s assassination, but escaped imprisonment and is now a fugitive).
Ríos Montt is also taking a further risk with this legal strategy, threatening the military chain of command by deflecting responsibility for wartime violations onto military commanders. His three top officials are now in police custody, including an ex-minister of defense, an ex-military chief of staff and an intelligence officer, undoubtedly alienated from their old boss. As the Chilean and Argentinean justice processes have shown, once the military turns against itself it becomes much easier to prosecute human rights violations. Though Guatemalan prosecutors say they have documents proving a rigid, top-down chain of command, witness testimony from former high-ranking officers would certainly boost their case. And if he isn’t careful to maintain military loyalty, that may be just what Ríos Montt hands them.