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Un-trialled in Guatemala


The world was seeing something incredible. Unprecedented to all, unimaginable to most, and unbearable for the few in the dock: the brutal Efrain Rios Montt, president of Guatemala during its most brutal and bloody massacres in 1982, was on trial for genocide; the first former head of state ever to be tried by his own population for the crime.

The one thing this was not, was un-trialled. Not until last week anyway. The implication that the current incumbent, President Peres Molina, was also a key suspect in the purges of indigenous Mayans during Guatemala’s 36-year long civil war that saw almost 200,000 killed or ‘disappeared’, meant the trial was suspended.

“I am not doing this because I want to, but because it has been ordered by the constitutional court and the supreme court,” Judge Flores told the hearing. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court now has ten days to rule on the dispute, but the families of Montt’s victims and human rights campaigners are now afraid that the moment for justice has passed.

Rios Montt is accused of overseeing the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he headed from March 23, 1982, to Aug. 8, 1983, as part of a U.S.-backed “scorched earth” campaign aimed at wiping out support for leftist guerrillas. As usual with the principles of international justice, the well-established evidence against Montt is now being disregarded because of the threat it poses to those in power.

Allan Nairn, an investigative journalist, told US media show Democracy Now that he was due to give evidence that would have directly implicated President Mollina, who Nairn has also accused of perpetrating atrocities. In 1982, Nairn interviewed a Guatemalan general named “Tito” on camera during the height of the massacres, a man who turned out to be Mollina.

With that news, the trial had to collapse. Like any smart President, Mollina clearly knows how to avoid trouble, and whilst he enjoys the same political immunity from court action that Montt used until 2012, he can sense that a court case may be waiting when he leaves office. Not one to sacrifice his own liberty for others’ justice, Mollina has pulled the plug on the trial and many have lost hope that Montt would be found guilty and sentenced.

This is another sad and sorry example of the weak and often irrelevant international justice system. Of the cases being heard at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, all relate to crimes that occurred on the African continent, none in Central America, despite their being no dearth of potential. Rios Montt, and his protector-in-chief Mollina, will join the likes of Suharto, Somoza and others to whom the rules of play do not apply.

Throughout the 1980s, financial and even military support for villains of Montt’s ilk was forthcoming from the despicable presidency of Ronald Reagan. Far from being the liberator of Russia and the man to bring down the Berlin wall in the name of freedom and democracy, Reagan was a thug who outsourced his killings to peasant villages in Central America.

All part of the US’s grand strategy of ‘containment’ in the face of that super-evil, Communism, Reagan licensed all kinds of atrocities. In 1983, shortly after some 20,000 Salvadorans had been brutally killed by government forces using US weapons, Reagan went on television to praise the Salvadoran government he armed for “making every effort to guarantee democracy, free labor unions, freedom of religion, and a free press.”

In addition, thousands of Nicaraguans were killed by death squads that were armed with funds generated from selling weapons to Khomeini’s Iran. Everyone has heard of this so-called ‘Iran-Contra’ affair but few seem willing to ask questions as to why Reagan lived the rest of his life outside of prison for it, despite eleven administration officials going down for their involvement. What makes Iran-Contra worse, is that Iran was armed at the same time it was fighting Saddam Hussein, who was also being armed by the US. The Iran-Iraq war raged on for eight bloody years between 1980 and 1988, in which over a million people were killed.

This is all merely a taster of the atrocious rap sheet of one of the most celebrated US Presidents of all time, and would doubtless include many more US personnel if a full enquiry were to be had.

At a time when Islam has super-ceded Communism as the ultimate evil, and when Barack Obama has reminded us that ‘Americans refuse to be terrorised’ in the wake of the Boston bombing, the citizens of Guatemala, and the world, remember that all-too-often Americans do not refuse to be the terrorists themselves. Rios Montt’s trial was unprecedented, and indeed unimaginable, but now it seems likely he will reside peacefully outside of the law. Along with a working international justice system, Montt and Molina remain un-trialled.

James Elliott can be reached at:


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