GUATEMALA CITY -- The overturning this week of former military dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction on charges stemming from Guatemala’s brutal civil war has created a surprising consensus among critics on both the left and the right: Prosecutors badly overreached when they tried to pin accusations of genocide on the 86-year-old former president.
Despite sharp divisions over the civil war – the legal process against Rios Montt exposed that underlying issues of racism and inequality are still-open wounds – starkly opposing forces are united in criticizing the prosecution for saying that ethnic hatred, and not economic or ideological issues, was the root of the war. They include two former Marxist guerrillas and a right-wing activist who asserts that Marxists infest the Attorney General’s Office.
“To affirm that a genocide occurred is to twist history,” said Adrian Zapata, a sociologist who was a guerrilla commander during the civil war, which gripped Guatemala from 1960 until peace accords were signed in 1996. “What happened wasn’t an ethnic war like between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda.”
A fellow former guerrilla leader, Gustavo Porras, said Rios Montt had deployed soldiers in a scorched-earth campaign in the remote Ixil Triangle region because rebels had a strong presence in the area, not because he sought to wipe out the Ixil Maya, one of 21 ethnic Mayan groups in the nation.
“The Ixil area was the home of the EGP,” Porras said, using the Spanish initials of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, a faction in the insurgency known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. “It moved through that area for decades.”
After weeks of wrenching testimony from Ixil witnesses about mass rapes, disembowelments and rampant murders during the Rios Montt regime, a three-judge panel handed down convictions May 10 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, giving Rios Montt an 80-year jail sentence. The conviction would have been the first ever by a national court against a former de facto leader, and the impact rippled across Latin America.
But in a dramatic reversal, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the verdict Monday, citing procedural errors. It said a lower tribunal must turn back the clock on the trial to the point where it stood on April 19, the date when one of the judges hearing testimony against Rios Montt rejected a previous order from another judge that would have halted the trial. It’s still unclear how the Constitutional Court’s order could be carried out.
Few judges want to participate. Fifty-nine refused before judicial authorities found three who’d compose a new tribunal.
“I don’t think there’s been this level of polarization in the country since the signing of the peace accords,” Zapata said.
Newspapers, radio programs and even the backs of public buses carry paid messages proclaiming the innocence or guilt of Rios Montt, an evangelical Christian who governed from March 1982 until his ouster in another coup in August 1983.
“Were there excesses? Of course there were, but from both sides, the army and the guerrillas,” said Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, the son of Rios Montt’s former interior minister and founder of the Foundation Against Terrorism, a right-wing group that’s called the genocide charge a lie.