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.
“In Rwanda, there was a genocide. We’re talking about 800,000 deaths in four months,” Mendez Ruiz said, referring to the mass slaughter by ethnic Hutus of Tutsis in 1994. “Here in Guatemala, we’re talking about 1,771 deaths in 18 months.”
That figure is the prosecution’s calculation of how many people died in 15 army massacres in the Ixil Triangle area during the Rios Montt regime.
Other massacres also took place during Rios Montt’s regime, and over the whole period of the war at least 200,000 people were thought to be slain.
Genocide is a term created after the German Nazi regime killed an estimated 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Declared an international crime in 1948, it’s defined as intent to destroy, in whole or in part, any national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
Some 21 Mayan groups make up nearly half of Guatemala’s 15 million people, making it the most heavily indigenous nation in the Western Hemisphere after Bolivia.
For Mayan activists, many of whom sat in the tribunal in colorful dress, some listening through headphones to interpreters, the trial was emotional, even cathartic.
Some activists still boil at what they said was contemptuous treatment by Rios Montt’s lawyers of the judges and witnesses, saying it reflected broader racism.
“It was an attitude of mockery toward the tribunal. They said, ‘If there were a genocide, these Indians wouldn’t be here,’ ” said Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj, a K’iche Mayan who’s a social anthropologist with a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin.
Velasquez said Guatemala was at “a point of backward movement” that she ascribed to a failure to make progress on reforms outlined in the sweeping peace accords that ended the civil war.
“Among indigenous children, 7 out of 10 are malnourished,” she said. “Have our social indicators changed? No, they haven’t changed. . . . We haven’t had bilingual education beyond the third grade.”
Disappointment in the peace process is widespread.
“We signed the peace accords because we thought it could be the beginning of improved conditions in the nation. But this hasn’t happened,” Zapata said.
“We are at a moment of a lot of uncertainty,” added Alvaro Pop, an activist from the Kekchi branch of Mayans and a promoter of indigenous political participation. “The thirst for justice in Guatemala is very strong, and it has been historically thwarted.”
Indigenous Mayans are far from monolithic in their political views, however. Rios Montt enjoys significant support among some Mayans, and his political party has traditionally won in the highland regions that are the Mayan heartland. On the day his conviction was overturned, demonstrations both for and against him erupted among the Ixil.
While Mayan people participate broadly in municipal governments – 39 percent of city halls are run by indigenous mayors – at the national level, it’s a different story. Of 158 seats in Congress, indigenous people occupy only 19.
Some view the Rios Montt trial less through the lens of racial discrimination than through the perspective of economic privilege, political persuasion and international pressure.
After the now-overturned verdict was handed down, the umbrella Guatemala business confederation, known by its initials as CACIF, called for its annulment, saying the verdict came because of international pressure.
Enemies of Rios Montt saw that as the powerful business class meddling in the judiciary, while others say meddling came from elsewhere.
“The people behind this trial aren’t former guerrillas. They are NGOs” – nongovernmental organizations – usually funded from abroad, Porras said.
On the right side of the political spectrum, Mendez Ruiz also sees hidden actors in the drama. He said radical leftists had infiltrated the judiciary and wanted the Rios Montt trial to serve as a catalyst for “revolutionary trials” against former military officers.
“Around the world, Marxists are fossils,” Mendez Ruiz said, “but here in Guatemala, dinosaurs live.”