Guatemala: Rios Montt goes on trial at last

With some 500 people packed into the courtroom, the trial of former Guatemalan military dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) for genocide and other crimes against humanity began in Guatemala City on March 19. The charges include the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayan civilians in the central department of Quiché as part of the "scorched-earth" policy implemented during Ríos Montt's dictatorship, which was marked by some of the worst atrocities in a 36-year counterinsurgent war that left an estimated 200,000 people dead, mostly indigenous civilians. Ríos Montt's former intelligence chief, Gen. José Rodríguez, is on trial with him. The proceedings are expected to involve some 130 witnesses and 100 experts and to last several months. Ríos Montt, 86, could face a sentence of up to 50 years.

The trial's opening was delayed because of problems with Ríos Montt's legal team. The presiding judge, Iris Yazmin Barrios, removed Danilo Rodríguez and the three other defense attorneys on the grounds that Rodríguez had friends in the panel of magistrates. Ríos Montt then brought in attorney Francisco García Gudiel as his lawyer. After García Gudiel made six motions to suspend the trial and announced that he and Barrios were personal enemies, the judge removed him and ordered José Rodríguez's lawyers to act as temporary attorneys for the former dictator.

Ríos Montt managed for years to evade efforts to bring him to trial, using a 1996 amnesty and the immunity he enjoyed by serving in the Congress from 1990 to 2004; in 2003 he even ran for president, although he lost badly. But in January 2012 Judge Carol Patricia Flores ruled that there was sufficient evidence to make him stand trial. On March 19 Ana Menchú, the sister of 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, said it was "historic" that after 30 years of efforts Ríos Montt was finally brought to trial. But current president Otto Pérez Molina, who was a major in the army during Ríos Montt's regime, told a press conference on the same day that while "the application of justice" was important in this case, there was no genocide. Genocide "didn't happen in Guatemala," he said. "I'm saying what I've read, what I know and what I've tried to investigate on the subject." (AFP, March 19, via Global Post; La Jornada, Mexico, March 20, from DPA, AFP, Reuters, Notimex)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 24.