Guatemala: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward?

Efrain Rios Montt testifying at his genocide trial | Photo by the Guatemalan government | public domain

Efraín Ríos Montt testifying at his genocide trial | Photo by the Guatemalan government | public domain

The decision of Guatemala’s highest court to overturn the guilty verdict in the trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt – found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity – has raised serious questions about whether, as many had hoped, the country’s elites will ever allow justice, national reconciliation, and democracy to move forward.  What was a clear victory for many in and outside of Guatemala has evolved into a massive setback, at least for now.  For the victims and survivors of the atrocities, the trial was the first time that their tragic stories got an open and respectful hearing.  For the noble prosecutors and judges who pursued the case despite personal risk and beat back repeated maneuvers by Ríos Montt’s defense team to derail proceedings, it was a solid validation of their commitment to build rule of law.  For Guatemalan society, it meant unprecedented public discussion of the past – and the symbolism of the condemned dictator being taken away by bailiffs promoted closure.  For the international community, it proved that persistence could help a country with chronically weak and politicized institutions become the first in the world to put a former head of state on trial for genocide.  But now the outcome is cloudy.

From the beginning, the long-term impact of the trial would depend on the followup.  Immediately after the verdict was issued, President Pérez Molina, a former military commander, set aside his vehement denials that genocide occurred and said he respected the court’s verdict.  But he conditioned issuance of an official government apology, as ordered by the court, on the exhaustion of all defense appeals – which could take years – and was noncommittal in responding to the court’s call for more investigations of people involved in the atrocities.  While he personally has immunity from prosecution, allegations of his own activities during the Ríos Montt period would obviously be problematic for him.  The powerful business organization CACIF, long aligned with the military, rejected the verdict and began mobilizing resistance to further investigations.  Even moderate politicians, such as former Vice President Eduardo Stein, criticized the genocide ruling and calls for more investigations, apparently fearing that more ethnic groups will stake claims.  Like other dictators facing justice, Ríos Montt has already suffered a supposed health problem requiring that he be moved out of prison and into a military hospital – leaving observers wondering how much of his 80-year sentence he would serve.

The U.S. Government supported the trial process and proclaimed it a victory for Guatemalan judicial institutions.  But it appeared cautious on next steps even before the upper court overturned the verdict (on which U.S. comment is lacking).  Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp who visited Guatemala last month and gave the trial a push, and U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Arnold Chacon, attended some proceedings.  The U.S. Embassy pledged its continued support to “credible, independent, transparent, and impartial judicial processes,” but its statement also suggested a lack of enthusiasm for more.  “In these moments it is significant to remember that Guatemala, as a country, was not on trial, but rather two individuals, one of whom was absolved and the other convicted,” it said.  It added that “now is the opportunity to advance to real reconciliation” – a prospect that appeared premature even before the upper court action.  Neither the prosecution nor defense spoke much during the trial of Washington’s direct or indirect role in the 1980s violence – a situation that U.S. policymakers may prefer to continue.  If so, it’s a far cry from the position taken by President Bill Clinton, who during a visit to Guatemala in 1999 apologized for American support for security forces that committed “violent and widespread repression.

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