Thirty years after coming to power, retired General José Efraín Ríos Montt faces a court this week on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, in what Amnesty International is calling a landmark development.
His appearance before a Guatemala City criminal court on 26 January will decide whether he will face trial over accusations he bore command responsibility for genocide between March 1982 and August 1983, when he was the de-facto ruler of the Central American country.
While he was in power, massacres took place primarily in Mayan indigenous villages in the Guatemalan countryside as part of the Government’s “scorched earth” military policy amid a bloody 36-year internal armed conflict.
“It has taken three decades, but this court appearance finally provides a glimmer of hope to the thousands of victims and relatives of victims that impunity will finally be challenged for some of the worst atrocities of Guatemala’s civil war” said Sebastian Elgueta, Amnesty International’s researcher on Central America.
“The Guatemalan authorities must not miss this landmark opportunity to reveal the truth, as well as to pave the way for justice and reparations for the tens of thousands of victims.”
A UN-backed truth commission, which reported in 1999, found that during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict some 200,000 people were killed or disappeared and security forces committed more than 600 massacres, mainly in rural and indigenous communities.
The case against Ríos Montt, now 85 years old, is part of a criminal case filed in 2001 against various former military officials by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a group representing hundreds of victims of human rights violations during the armed conflict.
He has always denied the charges against him.
According to the UN-backed truth commission, nearly half of all the human rights violations committed during the 36-year armed conflict took place in 1982. General Ríos Montt was de facto ruler for nine months of that year.
Three months into General Rios Montt’s rule, on 1 July 1982, the Government declared a state of siege in several regions suspected to be harbouring armed opposition groups. This allowed the military to arrest and hold suspects without charge, to take over private homes and vehicles, and to legally break into homes and offices under cover of night.
In this context, Amnesty International documented widespread human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity – including extra-judicial executions, disappearances and torture – carried out by Guatemala’s armed forces and their supporters in armed “civil patrols”.
Massacres of whole villages of indigenous non-combatants were commonplace, with troops often torturing the inhabitants – including by raping women and girls – before systematically killing them.
Among the worst massacres took place in the village of Plan de Sánchez, near the central Guatemala town of Rabinal, in July 1982, leaving 268 rural and indigenous people dead.
Early in the morning of 18 July 1982, two mortar grenades were dropped on Plan de Sánchez as rural peasants were making their way to trade at the market in Rabinal. That afternoon, some 60 people in military uniforms and brandishing assault rifles descended on the village and began rounding up its Maya-Achí indigenous inhabitants.
Around 20 girls between the ages of 12 and 20 were taken to a house where they were abused, raped and murdered. Other children were beaten to death, while some adults were imprisoned in a house before troops fired on them indiscriminately and attacked them with hand-grenades.
Nine months into General Ríos Montt’s rule in December 1982, a Guatemalan elite army unit entered Dos Erres in the northern Petén region, where they tortured and killed some 250 men, women and children over the course of three days before razing the village. Again, many of the women and girls were raped, and numerous villagers, including children, were thrown into the village well.
As commander-in-chief of the Guatemalan army during 1982 and 1983 General Ríos Montt was at the head of the chain of command. Under international law, individuals with command responsibility can be held criminally responsible for serious human rights violations committed by subordinates.
Four former soldiers who participated in the Dos Erres massacre went on trial in 2010 and were sentenced to more than 6,000 years in prison for their part in the atrocity.
Until now, those at the highest level of command responsibility of Dos Erres and numerous other massacres have not been brought to justice by Guatemala’s judicial system.
“Bringing alleged intellectual authors of these crimes to justice for orchestrating these abuses will send a powerful signal that Guatemala is serious about achieving justice for some of the 200,000 victims of human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict”, said Sebastian Elgueta.