Guatemala: Ríos Montt is convicted —who's next?

On May 10 a three-judge panel of the High Risk Cases Court in Guatemala City convicted former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) of ordering, supervising and permitting the killing of 1,771 people from the Ixil Mayan group—about 5.5% of the total Ixil population—in El Quiché department during his 17 months of de facto rule. The killings occurred during the most violent phase of a 36-year civil war in which some 200,000 people died, mostly civilians killed by the military, with covert assistance from the US. Ríos Montt was given a prison sentence of 80 years and was escorted from the court directly to the Matamoros prison. He said would appeal and called the proceedings an international farce. The court acquitted co-defendant José Rodríguez, Ríos Montt's former intelligence chief.

The judges ruled that Ríos Montt's crimes constituted genocide; he is the first former head of state to be convicted of genocide in Latin America, and possibly in the world. The trial—the result of years of effort by survivors and human rights advocates—began on March 19 but was under constant threat from powerful rightwing forces and was suspended briefly in April. Pandemonium broke out in the packed courtroom when the verdict was finally read. Weeping survivors and human rights advocates hugged each other while presiding judge Yasmín Barrios called for order, apparently concerned that Rios Montt might escape in the chaos. Before leaving, the indigenous witnesses and spectators turned to Judge Barrios and quietly said: "Tantixh," "thank you" in Ixil.

In addition to convicting Ríos Montt, the court ordered the Public Ministry to continue investigating other people who might have participated in the crimes with which the former dictator was charged. "This important and unexpected aspect of the verdict," wrote US investigative report Allan Nairn, who was present in Guatemala City as a potential witness, "means that there now exists a formal legal mandate for a criminal investigation of the [current] president of Guatemala, Gen. Otto Pérez Molina." Although he has immunity while his term lasts, Pérez Molina was implicated by one witness during the trial.

"We might be in agreement or in disagreement," Pérez Molina said in a May 10 interview after the verdict was handed down, "but the important thing is that we should respect the judicial authorities." However, the sentence has created "delicate situation," Pérez Molina added. "As we're calling for them to come invest in Guatemala, regrettably this isn't good news internationally." (La Jornada, Mexico, May 11, from correspondent; News and Comment blog, May 11; Prensa Libre, Guatemala City, May 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 12.