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The Strange Trial of Ríos Montt


The sentence of 80 years in prison against former de facto president Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during Guatemala’s armed conflict, emitted on May 10, 2013, was annulled by the Constitutional Court ten days later.

The court’s decision is a judicial aberration, since it not only exceeded its jurisdiction but also openly violated legal precepts and endorsed the underhanded mechanisms that uphold a system of impunity in Guatemala. It also demonstrates the lack of independence of the court to the powerful economic and political groups.

Guatemala is also one of the countries with the deepest social inequalities, where the dominant economic elite and the military and political powers have acted with the assurance of immunity and impunity. The genocide trial against a former head of state put an end to that assurance. Today we know that at some moment justice can be attained. That is why they tried to stop the trial and once the sentence was handed down, joined forces to have it annulled.

For members of the dominant groups–profoundly racist and used to discriminating and belittling indigenous peoples–it is inconceivable that indigenous people have accused and taken to court a general, who exercised brutal power precisely to defend the economic privileges of these groups.

Nonetheless, the genocide trial represents a breakthrough for justice and truth, the fundamental bases for building peace.

In the public hearings the truth emerged in all its rawness–the truth that government and military officials had sought to bury at all cost. This has meant an opportunity for younger generations to learn about an essential chapter in Guatemala’s history, an indispensable prerequisite for tracing a different future.

During the trial, the Tribunal marked that the sexual violence committed against Ixil women was a constituent element of the genocide. Testimonies and investigations presented during the trial proved that the rapes were directed not only to harm women, but also to destroy the social fabric of the communities, with the clear objective of annihilating the Ixil people.

The trial fortifies struggles for gender justice for crimes of the past and the present, which has a huge potential impact on the rampant impunity that surrounds the violence against women in Guatemala today, particularly femicide.

Another of the valuable experiences of the trial was the construction of broad alliances to support the victims that included human rights groups and women’s, indigenous people’s, peasant farmers organizations, along with intellectuals and progressive individuals and generated strong international solidarity. All this left the lesson that the unity of diverse sectors of society on a common objective is possible and indispensable to advance in just causes.

This emblematic trial is not over. The struggle for justice continues. The progress made is the result of the untiring efforts of women and men of the Maya-Ixil people, who will never stop until they attain justice. In this long road they have had the help of human rights organization and legal professionals, who also deserve recognition.

Special recognition should go to Yasmin Barrios, President of the Court of Great Risk who decided the case, along with two more members of this judicial organ. Also critical in the process was attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, and the legal team responsible for the case in the public ministry.

Faced with a campaign of threats and intimidations unleashed by the most backwards groups in the country, it is necessary and urgent to guarantee the security and integrity of the victims, those who brought the case, the judges and prosecutors, and the human rights defenders who have accompanied the struggle for justice.

Luz Mendez is president of the Advising Council of the National Union of Guatemala Women (UNAMG). She participated in the peace negotiations as a member of the Diplomatic Political Team of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit. In the international arena, she was a member of the Team of Experts on Gender for the peace talks in Burundi organized by UNIFEM, and of the Advising Council of the Global Fund for Women. She is a contributor to the CIP Americas Program,

Translation: Laura Carlsen

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