Guatemala: Edgar Pérez - Genocide and justice
In March this year former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt made international headlines when he was convicted on genocide charges. Sadly, the conviction was swiftly overturned by Guatemala's Constitution Court. A new trial is set to begin in January 2015, but many fear that the same legal and political barriers will stand in the way of a conviction.
Last month one of Guatemala's foremost human rights lawyers and lead prosecutor in the trial, Edgar Pérez, visited MRG to speak about the challenges of building a case against Rios Montt, the aftermath of the annulment, and what comes next.
The charges against Ríos Montt centred on the killings of at least 1,771 people of the Ixil Maya ethnic group during a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in 1982-83, part of Guatemala's three-decade -long civil war. According to reports, the great majority of human rights violations during the war were committed by the Guatemalan military, but also by paramilitary forces called Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, that were sponsored and institutionalized by the government of Efrain Ríos Montt in 1982.
The campaign against the Ixil people was codenamed Operación Ceniza - or Operation Ashes. Rios Montt accused indigenous communities and the rural poor caught in the crossfire of the civil war of providing logistical support to the guerrilla groups who opposed the government, and thus viewed the Ixil Maya as an internal enemy. He ruthlessly pursued scorched-earth tactics, using metaphor to explain his logic: "The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea...if you cannot catch the fish, you must drain the sea."
Building the case against Ríos Montt
Building the case against Ríos Montt began in 1998. Through his work on taking cases to local prosecution offices and the exhumation of mass graves, Pérez began to see a pattern to the violence: "A small village in the south of the country had experienced exactly the same style of attack as a village in the north, and in other parts of the country."
For indigenous groups in rural areas, these attacks were indiscriminate - entire populations were wiped out in massacres. In contrast, attacks committed in urban centres were more selective, focusing on trade unionists, teacher and student leaders. "Over the years, it was possible to demonstrate that there was a clear policy directed against ethnic minority groups in Guatemala."
A strong body of evidence was built up to support this claim, including research, witness testimonies, official documents and leaked government records. It was crucial to prove that Ríos Montt had operational control over the army, and knowledge of what was taking place. To do so, prosecuting lawyers turned to Pamela Yates' 1983 documentary When the Mountains Tremble. In the footage, Ríos Montt effectively claimed to have total control over the Guatemalan military: "If I can't control the Army, then what am I doing here?"
Also crucial were the leaked Operation Sofia documents, detailing the planning and implementation of Operación Ceniza. These records showed a detailed plan of action and a rigid command structure within the army. They demonstrated that the violations carried out against the Ixil Maya were sanctioned by the highest military authorities.
All of the evidence pointed to Ríos Montt as the intellectual author of the massacres: "As time went by, we came to realize we had a genocide case that we could carry out" said Pérez. Momentum increased in 2011, as 3 retired generals were brought up on genocide charges. On 14 Jan 2012, Ríos Montt's term as a congressman ended, and he lost his immunity from prosecution. On 26 Jan 2012, he was formally indicted on war crimes charges.
Obstacles to justice/annulment by Constitutional Court
The subsequent trial was plagued by setbacks: "Ríos Montt's defence was waged in both the political sphere and the media," says Pérez. Guatemala's media, controlled by powerful business and political elites, waged an intense campaign to discredit the trial. This campaign was rooted in fear - the business sector itself is allegedly culpable in the genocide, having provided financial and material support, including planes and helicopters used in bombardments.
Guatemala suffers from a state of entrenched impunity and high levels of political violence, and prosecuting lawyers were subject to constant intimidation. Pérez himself has faced death threats and multiple attacks, and now receives protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International.
Despite these obstacles, the prosecution prevailed. Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and on 11 May 2013 he was sentenced to 80 years in prison. However, only 10 days later. Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned the decision, on what many perceive to be fraudulent grounds.
Impact on the victims/willingness to continue
What impact has the annulment had on the victims? Pérez says that feelings were mixed; understandably, there's a deep sense of disappointment at the outcome - but others have a different view. "Some - many, I would say - feel a sense of historical vindication. They feel that their lives have meaning; that they've empowered themselves. They feel very, very satisfied with what they've done."
Pérez also spoke about 10 women who gave testimony about sexual violence and slavery that they suffered during the conflict. "They have no regrets and they don't feel stigma, they feel released," he said. "Even though only 10 women spoke out, they were speaking in the name of thousands of women who were victim to these practices."
Guatemala has historically been a country of racism and exclusion; these communities have struggled for 500 years to advance and protect their rights. "They see every small victory as further impetus to carry on struggling." Despite the setbacks, there's still a will to continue. Many who were witnesses have told Pérez they would return to give testimony as many times as it takes.
The date of 2015 for the new trial offers some hope, but problems persist. The Constitutional Court has already opened the door for potentially granting Rios Montt amnesty for his crimes. Guatemala's Supreme Court of Justice - which will have the ultimate decision on such a decision - is up for re-election in 2014. Pérez fears individuals hostile to the case may be elected to the Court, and is appealing to lawyers and the international community to become involved in accompaniment and/or observation of the election process.
It's clear that it's not going to be plain sailing for the next trial; but it's equally clear that the victims, affected communities, and their lawyers, aren't prepared to give up without a fight.