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Guatemala: Ríos Montt’s conviction is only a beginning

Dear LAB Supporter and Friend,

Guatemala: Ríos Montt’s conviction is only a beginning

The conviction on May 10 of former military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is an historic advance for Guatemala. As David Tolbert, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, stated, “This was the first time that a former head of state has been tried for genocide in clearly genuine national proceedings. Despite the many obstacles, its success shows the importance of justice being done nationally, even when the odds are long. It is a great leap forward in the struggle for justice in Guatemala and globally.” (Read the full ICTJ statement).

The mood of a huge gathering, including many Indian families, outside the Supreme Court building as the sentence was read out can be gauged from a video (in Spanish) published on UStream (View here). Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché Indian woman who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy on behalf of the indigenous peoples of her country, told El País “My heart feels a great sense of relief”. But she warns that the sentence will only be important if it opens the way for real changes in the relationship between ‘indios’ and ‘ladinos’ and leads to genuine equality (Read more).

The journalist, John Carlin, remembers interviewing Ríos Montt in 1983. He had the vivid impression of being in the presence of someone, like the Joker in the Batman films, “excitable, half mad and criminal”. Like Menchú, Carlin stresses the extraordinary gulf that still separates and isolates the indigenous population from the rest of society. “It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me today, after living for a number of years in South Africa and visiting many other countries that [Guatemala is] the most atrocious example of apartheid I have ever encountered.” (Read more).

However, the Ríos Montt guilty verdict is only one step along a very long road in a country where, as Cristina Chiquín told LAB’s Silvia Rothlisberger, “impunity is our daily bread”, especially for women (Read more). While the 86-year-old president was sentenced to 80 years in prison, the former head of military intelligence at the time, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, was found innocent.

If the authorities believed that sacrificing Ríos Montt would close down the ongoing investigations, revelations and protests, they were mistaken. As she read out the verdict on Ríos Montt, Judge Jasmín Barrios, one of several courageous women who played a key role in bringing Ríos Montt to justice, ordered the investigation to be widened to take in all those responsible for acts of ‘barbarism’ during the war. Next up in the list will be hard-line officers from an army where, in the words of former peace negotiator Manuel Conde, “All were hawks” (Read more).

Not least of these could be the current Guatemalan President, Otto Pérez Molina who is heavily implicated in some of the actions detailed in the Ríos Montt trial. In a video posted at Democracy Now, Amy Goodman interviews veteran Guatemala observer Allan Nairn who calls the conviction a “a breakthrough for indigenous people against racism and a breakthrough for human civilization” (View here). Nairn also draws attention to the possibility that Ríos Montt conviction could be revised in a higher court.

However, there remains considerable concern that confrontation between hard-line authorities and numerous popular campaigns for human rights, land rights and other equality causes will tip the country back into extreme violence and de facto civil war. Manuel Conde recalls that the much criticised amnesty law of 1996 “had the virtue of calming passions to the point where no-one, guerrillas or the military, felt threatened. This helped bring about a transition [to civilian rule] without selective political assassinations.”

The trial has also had considerable significance in the US, where it has revived interest in the role of politicians such as Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Eliott Abrams, who claimed in 1983, while justifying the end of an embargo on US arms shipments to the Guatemalan military, that political killings under Ríos Montt had reduced considerably and that this must be ‘rewarded’. This and other stories are recalled in news and video clips collected by the PBS Newshour team (Read and View here).

Today, Conde notes, Guatemala confronts 125 ‘short-fuse’ conflicts in rural areas caused by opencast mining, land claims or access to water, which the government is doing nothing to resolve. In such conditions, “any aggressive gesture, wherever it comes from, could be the spark that re-ignites political violence.”

Typical of the disputes Conde refers to is one at the El Escobal silver mine in San Rafael Las Flores, fifty miles south-east of Guatemala City. Guards at the mine, owned by Canadian mining firm Tahoe Resources, shot and wounded several demonstrators on April 30. A policeman and a peasant were shot and killed in the subsequent violence. The Pérez Molina government responded on May 2 by imposing a State of Siege in the surrounding area, which has since been reduced to the marginally less repressive ‘State of Prevention’. The story is covered in detail by Sandra Cuffe for UpsideDownWorld (Read more), and the same conflict is mentioned in LAB’s interview with Cristina Chiquín (Read more).

LAB Partner Unión Latino-Americana de Mujeres (See here) is monitoring the situation and has published an appeal calling on the government to cancel the State of Prevention and initiate dialogue with the company and local communities (Read more).

New blog posts

You may notice that the latest posts to LAB’s Blogs are now listed on the right-hand side of our Home Page. You can see all recent posts, and the Blogs themselves by clicking on Blogs at the top of the Home Page. Recent posts include:

Nicaragua: the never-ending hope —from LAB Editor Javier Farje in Managua

Guatemala: fighting for women’s rights —LAB contributor Silvia Rothlisberger interviews Cristina Chiquín about the impact of the Ríos Montt conviction on Guatemalan women. 

Best wishes,

The LAB Team