In Guatemala today, General Efrain Rios Montt will be prosecuted for the crime of genocide. It's the first time ever that a national court has put its own former head of state on trial for that crime. This case is being closely watched, both in Guatemala and here in the U.S. Jill Replogle
More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared in Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war. It was one of the bloodiest and most vicious of modern times. But one period was especially brutal, the one in which General Efraín Rios Montt was in charge.
As he sought to squash a bubbling leftist uprising, thousands of Guatemalans were raped, tortured and slaughtered by the army he commanded.
In a scene from the documentary “When the Mountains Tremble,” filmed in 1982, indigenous Mayan women dressed in hand-woven blouses wail as they look upon a line of corpses — victims of a recent massacre in their remote village.
“I've seen brutality and had to analyze it through these cases in many places in Latin America and other regions, and what happened in Guatemala is very specific in the intensity, the premeditation,” said Almudena Bernabeu, a Spanish lawyer at the Center for Justice and Accountability, based in San Francisco.
Bernabeu is part of the legal team that has been working for 13 years to bring former president Rios Montt to trial. A UN truth commission after the war documented more than 600 massacres carried out by the Guatemalan army and its proxies. In some Mayan territories, up to 90 percent of villages were destroyed.
A group of survivors and human rights organizations first filed genocide charges against Rios Montt in Spain, but for years he evaded extradition. In 2007, Rios Montt won a seat in the Guatemalan congress, and Guatemalan courts ruled his public office granted him immunity from prosecution.
“They didn’t want to touch him," Bernabeu said. "Nobody wanted to touch the general.”
Until recently, that is. Rios Montt's term in congress ended in January 2012. Two weeks later, he was indicted for genocide in his home country. Bernabeu said a lot of things came together to change the aging dictator's fate — an intrepid attorney general, international pressure, and mounting evidence in the form of mass graves and secret army plans. Plus, she said, survivors of the genocide have been dogged.
“Guatemalan are quiet, never in your face, never confrontational, but they never stop what they need to do," Bernabeu said.
For a Guatemalan doctor living in the U.S., it's about time Rios Montt took the stand.
“It’s been nearly three decades, 30 years of waiting for this moment to arrive," said Marvyn Perez, who lives in Los Angeles.
Perez was among a group of students captured by Guatemalan police shortly after Rios Montt came to power. They were interrogated and tortured. Perez was eventually released and his family left for the U.S. a few months later. He'll be following the trial closely. Perez actually said he’s glad Rios Montt and other military leaders are getting a fair trial.
"Today they have the chance to defend themselves, something they denied to so many people,” Perez said.
The tinkling melody of Guatemalan marimba accompanied a recent dinner held in the parking lot of a San Diego apartment complex. A group of Guatemalan ex-pats organized the dinner as a fundraiser to support rural schools back home.
More than one million Guatemalans now live in the U.S. Thousands of them arrived after fleeing the violence in their home country. Not all are gripped by the trial of their notorious former president, and some at the dinner barely knew it was happening. Still Alonso Mendez remembered the fear that plagued his country in the 1980s.
"Everyone was scared of the army," Mendez said, "of their own president, actually. The guy who was supposed to defend the country, he’s the one people were most afraid of.”
Rios Montt is now 86 years old. If he’s convicted, he’ll spend the rest of his life under house arrest — not exactly a stiff punishment for genocide. Still, Bernabeu, the lawyer, said the trial itself is a victory.
“I think it is more the symbol of the dictator, the powerful man," she said, "being forced to listen to 130 testimonies of how people suffered with [what] this, you know, jerk and his men did."
And, of course, there's the possibility of a guilty sentence.
"And hopefully they pronounce it with a microphone and with the room packed," Bernabeu said. “You know, to me, it’s the power of that symbol, and that will be there forever.”
The trial is expected to last several months.