By Megan Whelan
Thursday, January 26, 7:00 am, hundreds of community activists and human rights defenders gather outside Guatemala City’s national court to witness former dictator Efraín Rios Montt testify on the gross military atrocities and human rights violations that occurred during his de-facto presidency from 1982 to 1983. In solidarity, thousands more both in Guatemala and internationally intently follow the live coverage broadcasted over social media sites1.
For more than twelve hours that day, rural families, victims and survivors of the military’s merciless scorched earth campaign, stood alongside urban human rights activists as the trial was live-streamed into the plaza outside: the vibrant colors of traditional indigenous dress blending seamlessly with the vivid backdrop of urban graffiti of resistance. New generations joined the survivors in the plaza, demonstrating the breadth of political resistance that has persisted for more than thirty years, since the height of the internal armed conflict. As the crowd waited, hip-hop followed Mayan prayers, which followed live poetry from the crowd.
One survivor stated, “What we want is to see justice because though [Rios Montt] may deny it, he was the one who organized and ordered our execution. We are here today to hear him testify about all that occurred in ’82. We are here for all of our family members who have disappeared.” Ríos Montt maintained his right to remain silent in the court that day, but he was forced to listen to the accounts of human rights abuses committed in the highlands under his rule, and survivors finally had the opportunity to see him before a judge.
By 9:30pm Judge Carol Patricia Flores Blanco declared her verdict: Ríos Montt would be charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. As the crowd outside chanted “Jail, jail, jail”, Ríos Montt was put under house-arrest until his next court date in April, posting a bail of Q500,000 Guatemalan Quetzales (roughly $70,000 USD).
In a country where impunity reigns at 97% – that is for every 100 crimes only three reach a judicial conclusion2 – and systems of both violent and structural oppression are entrenched in the political landscape, the case against Efraín Rios Montt is an extraordinary representation of powerful and persistent community organizing across generations and across cultural and political boundaries.
For more than a decade since the survivors’ Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) first accused Ríos Montt and his military command for crimes against humanity, thousands of rural Guatemalans, majority indigenous Maya, accompanied by a team of human rights lawyers and advisors, have tirelessly moved the process forward step by step, despite years of legal stagnancy.
Over one hundred witnesses testified time and again to public prosecutors that turned over frequently and before multiple judges, while legal advocates closely monitored every step. Forensic experts carried out exhumations of thousands of victims so that families could re-bury their loved ones with dignity 20-30 years after the violence. In regional and national meetings, legal advocates updated the witnesses and psychologists provided a space for mutual support. As the case moved into the public phase, survivors also involved the youth in their communities in building monuments and commemorating massacres to ensure their stories were not erased from collective memory in a country where history is as contested as politics.
Speaking out about what happened during the war still implies incredible risk. Human rights defenders, many of whom seek justice for past and current crimes, faced a record number of attacks in 2011. A total of 402 human rights violations and 19 assassinations of human rights defenders were reported in Guatemala last year.3 In January, a former general who served in the highlands during Ríos Montt’s rule, assumed the presidency. President Otto Pérez Molina has publicly denied there was genocide in Guatemala,
The case against Ríos Montt will face multiple legal and political challenges ahead and, in Guatemala’s current political climate, the safety of all those involved will be of utmost concern. Nonetheless, the movement to break the silence, preserve historical memory, and end impunity in Guatemala celebrated an astonishing victory last Thursday, validating the struggle and the personal risk these community leaders continue to face in order to achieve justice.
Standing outside the court, one AJR activist stated, “We have to celebrate this historic event. Our struggle has become reality. It was worth it.”
Visitor count at Para Que Se Conozca, Para Que No Se Olvide
Doctor Sergio Fernando Morales Alvarado. Circumstantial Annual Report: Executive Summary 2011, Procurador de los Derechos Humanos
Unidad de Protección a Defensores y Defensoras de De Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA)