On June 2, 1982, when American journalist Pamela Yates asked Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt whether the Army was committing human rights violations against indigenous communities, he emphatically denied the allegations.
“Our strength is our capacity to make command decisions. That’s the most important thing. The army is ready and able to act because if I can’t control the army then what am I doing here?,” he said.
This historical footage, included in Yates’ latest documentary ‘Granito. How to nail a dictator,’ which will be shown this year for the first time in Guatemala, has come back to haunt the 85-year-old former general as a crucial piece of evidence that proves that he ordered the 11 massacres committed by the army against the Mayan Ixil population between 1982 and 1983.
On Jan. 26, during a court hearing in which Ríos Montt was accused of the brutal slaughter of 1,771 indigenous civilians, including women and children, the defense argued that he did not have command responsibility over his army officers in the highlands and therefore could not be held accountable for the massacres, an argument that rang hollow when this clip from Yates’ interview was shown.
The prosecution read the charges out loud: between 1982 and 1983, under Ríos Montt’s de facto rule, 11 massacres were committed against Mayan Ixil civilians in the municipalities of Santa María Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal and San Gaspar Chajul, in the highland department of Quiché, 54 communities were destroyed and 29,000 people were displaced.
The case against Ríos Montt is based on forensic evidence found after the remains of 317 victims were exhumed, 11 military reports that clearly indicate that the former dictator provided the necessary resources to wage counterinsurgency operations against indigenous communities that were accused of harboring guerrilla combatants, as well as Yates’ interviews.
Although Ríos Montt was allowed to sit down, he chose to remain standing during the entire proceeding. On one side of the courtroom sat his daughter, Congresswoman Zury Ríos, friends and members of the Guatemalan Republican Front Party (FRG) that he founded in 1990; on the other sat members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the group of Ixil victims that initiated the prosecution, who have waited 20 years to see justice done.
Once the charges had been read, which took over two hours, Ríos Montt was allowed to speak. “I prefer to remain silent”, he said, and left the task to his defense team.
Finally, as the eight hours and 40 minutes long hearing drew to an end, Judge Carol Patricia Flores opened the way for Ríos Montt’s prosecution but granted him bail (US$64,000) under house arrest as she deemed that it was unlikely that the former general would attempt to flee the country. Given that the Spanish National Audience launched an international arrest warrant against him in 2006 for ordering a brutal siege on the Spanish embassy in 1980 in which 35 people were burnt alive, it is impossible for him to legally leave the country without being arrested and turned over to the Spanish authorities.
The fact that Ríos Montt voluntarily turned himself in is believed to have been a carefully planned move by the defense team which worked in his favor.
Judge Flores’ ruling came 12 days after he lost the immunity he enjoyed as a member of Congress. The public prosecutor’s office now has until March 17 to present the results of its investigation to a judge who will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to try the former general.
Ríos Montt’s third in command, former Chief of Staff Héctor Mario López Fuentes, was detained in June last year for acts of genocide and was also due to stand trial. However, his ill-health has hampered the proceedings as the 82 year-old, who suffers from prostate cancer, is currently hospitalized.
Outside the courtroom, victims of wartime atrocities had filled the Human Rights Square with makeshift altars where they had placed photographs of those murdered and disappeared, candles and pine needles, and held placards urging Guatemalans not to forget the past.
When the hearing began, they gathered around a giant screen on which the proceedings were broadcast and waited patiently for over eight hours to hear the outcome. After two decades of legal hurdles, justice finally seemed to be within their reach.
Judge Flores’ ruling has been regarded as controversial. On one hand, it is highly likely that Ríos Montt will have to stand trial but on the other, the decision to grant him house arrest was regarded as unfair, and many victims said that it amounted to letting him walk free.
Guatemala’s newly elected President, retired general Otto Pérez Molina, said during a press conference that he would respect the court’s final verdict, but stated that in his opinion, “genocide was never committed here”.
“What happened here was an armed conflict that the guerrillas spread to the countryside and in which they involved the Mayan people. People were never exterminated for racial motives. Check out the army’s archives and you will find that 70 to 80 per cent of all soldiers were Mayan”, he added.
During Ríos Montt’s de facto rule, Pérez Molina served as part of the Gumarcaj Task Force stationed in Chajul, where some of the worst atrocities of this period were committed.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has also sought to prosecute Pérez Molina for the kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial execution of guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca in 1992 when the retired general served as head of the G2 military intelligence service.
However, a Guatemalan court ruled, in January this year, that there is insufficient evidence for Pérez Molina to be arrested in connection with Bámaca’s death.