MEXICO CITY -- A three-judge panel Friday convicted former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt of genocide, saying his military regime used “extreme terror” in an effort to wipe out a Mayan minority ethnic group in the early 1980s.
In a packed courtroom in Guatemala City, Judge Yassmin Barrios said investigators had proven that the regime led by Rios Montt, who is 86, used starvation, mass homicide, dislocation, rape and aerial bombardment as tactics to exterminate the Ixil minority, which it believed to harbor leftist guerrillas.
Barrios gave Rios Montt a 50-year jail term for genocide and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.
When Barrios read the sentence, cheers erupted in the courtroom, a sign of the high emotions surrounding the trial, which deeply divided Guatemala and drew attention in other Latin American nations with a history of military dictatorships.
The conviction marked the first time a former Guatemalan military strongman known for “scorched earth” tactics to eradicate leftist guerrillas had been found guilty of genocide and ordered to prison.
“The accused, Jose Efrain Rios Montt, had full knowledge of all that was occurring and did nothing to stop it,” Barrios said.
Rios Montt ruled Guatemala from March 1982 until August 1983, one of the most intense periods of the nation’s civil war, which began in 1960 and did not end until 1996. An estimated 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Mayan, were killed in the violence.
“This was the first time that a former head of state has been tried for genocide in clearly genuine national proceedings. Despite the many obstacles, its success shows the importance of justice being done nationally, even when the odds are long. It is a great leap forward in the struggle for justice in Guatemala and globally,” said David Tolbert, president of the International Center For Transitional Justice, a New York-based group that seeks to accountability for mass atrocities.
The hour-long hearing saw Barrios read a summary of the findings against Rios Montt that was both a chilling recounting of atrocities and at times a poetic quest to find a way toward justice for one of the most painful chapters in Latin American history.
“The justices see that the murder of babies and pregnant women was designed to destroy the Ixil people,” Barrios said, adding that “sexual violence was a tool to destroy the social fabric of the Ixil.”
The minority, one of the smaller of the 20 or so Mayan groups living in Guatemala, dwell in a mountainous region known as the Ixil Triangle several hours from Guatemala City, the capital.
Rios Montt, who forcefully proclaimed his innocence a day earlier in a finger-wagging speech in the courtroom, evaded trial for much of the past decade.
It was only in 2012, after Rios Montt stepped down from the legislature, that his parliamentary immunity ended and the trial could proceed.
Since the trial began March 19, prosecutors brought more than 100 witnesses and experts to the stand, some of them Ixil women who recounted how soldiers raped them, and left them to watch their children and relatives be killed.
Rios Montt was charged with the death of 1,771 people and the enforced displacement of 29,000 others. Also charged was his former chief of intelligence, former Gen. Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, but he was exonerated on both counts.
A 5.1 magnitude earthquake shook Guatemala City shortly before the verdict was handed down, a physical manifestation of the tremors of the trial, which unnerved the ruling class in Guatemala and cast a harsh light on President Otto Perez Molina, a former army major under Rios Montt.
“One of the witnesses did single out Perez Molina as the commander of the base in Nebaj (in the Ixil Triangle) in 1982,” said Matthew Kennis, a Guatemala specialist for the U.S. branch of Amnesty International, a human rights group that followed the case.
Perez Molina denied in March that there had been a genocide in Guatemala in the early 1980s, but more recently he has backtracked.
At the time of Rios Montt’s rule, the United States was engaged in proxy war across Central America in an effort to turn back Cuban-backed leftists in the region. In December 1982, President Ronald Reagan said after meeting with Rios Montt in Honduras that the Guatemalan dictator got a “bum rap” as a human rights violator.
In his declaration Thursday, Rios Montt used a voice practiced in the pulpit of a Protestant church, where he has served as a preacher.
“I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered that there be attacks against a race, an ethnic group or a religion. I never did it,” Rios Montt said.
“I declare myself innocent,” he added, asserting that his country “was on the edge. Guatemala had failed. And forgive me, Your Honor, the guerrillas were at the door of the presidential palace.”