Victoria Sanford is the director of the Lehman College Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies in New York. She is the author of Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. In 2012, she testified as an expert witness in the Spanish Tribunal’s genocide case against Guatemalan generals including Rios Montt. Breaking Down the Wall of Impunity was originally published as Rompiendo el muro de la impunidad, in El Faro, February 3, 2013. Translation by NISGUA with permission from the author.
On the first day of the historic genocide trial against former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and General José Rodríguez Sánchez, his former chief of military intelligence (G-2), the judge spent nearly four hours reading aloud the names of the 1,771 Maya-Ixil who were victims of fifteen different massacres in Guatemala during Ríos Montt’s regime (March 1982 to August 1983). During the reading, Rodríguez Sánchez asked for permission to leave early, claiming dizziness. National and international observers and surviving family members of the victims stayed to listen and pay respect to the memory of the victims.
The fact that the names of the victims are even entered into the court’s official registry is a great step towards justice in Guatemala. The Public Ministry’s presentation of approximately 1,000 pieces of evidence, 68 experts and 165 witnesses, as well as Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez’s decision to try the two ex-military officials for genocide and crimes against humanity are all part of a long process in the struggle for justice in Guatemala.
The quantity and quality of the evidence presented reflect the hard work and dedication to truth and justice of a diverse group of witnesses and human rights defenders, who have been assembling evidence ever since the massacres were committed 30 years ago. While the plaintiffs in the case – the Center for Human Rights Legal Action and the Association for Justice and Reconciliation – delivered another hundred pieces of evidence, Ríos Montt’s and Rodríguez Sánchez’s defense attorneys submitted their own seven experts, two consultants, 14 documents, and 17 witnesses – the majority of whom have military ties.
When it comes to the crime of genocide in Guatemala, the army has always taken the position of denying its own actions. In 1993, when exhumations began in the clandestine cemeteries of massacre victims, the army said that the remains belonged to guerrillas or victims of cross-fire between guerrillas and civil patrols. In 1999, when the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH – Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico) reported that as a result of the internal armed conflict, some 200,000 individuals were dead; 50,000 had been disappeared; 626 massacres had taken place; 1.5 million people had been displaced; and 150,000 individuals were in refuge in Mexico, some military officials expressed to me that “both sides committed errors” or “both sides used excessive force.” Problematically for the military, the CEH attributed 93% of the acts of violence to the military and 3% to the guerillas (the remaining 4% are unaccounted for).
Through analyzing a pattern in the massacres that took place in Quiché and Baja Verapaz during the last twelve months of Lucas García’s regime (March 1981 to March 1982) and the first twelve months of Ríos Montt’s reign of terror (March 1982 through March 1983), I found that (1) the massacres were not just acts of out-of-control military officials; (2) the massacres were part of a strategic campaign by the military as an institution; (3) Ríos Montt not only continued the campaign of violence initiated by Lucas García, but he systematized it; and (4) the series of massacres, started by Lucas García and sustained and intensified by Ríos Montt, was the army’s first genocide campaign.
On June 9, 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt announced an imminent state of siege against his own people effective July 1, 1982. This state of siege included an “amnesty” for guerrillas, but the key points were the implementation of “a vast counteroffensive” against the entire population and “the imposition of states of emergency in the departments of San Marcos, Quiché, Huehuetenango and Chimaltenango.” On August 18, 1982, Ríos Montt told a group of eight politicians: “We are declaring a state of siege in order to kill legally.” Even more clearly, when asked about his “scorched earth campaign,” Rios Montt said: “We don’t have a scorched earth policy, we have a scorched communist policy.”
Today, the defense is arguing that the former dictator was not informed about the massacres committed by the army. But during his administration, Ríos Montt declared that he would “take the water away from the fish”: the Maya being the water and the guerillas the fish. This clearly shows that the General distinguished between the guerrillas (the fish) and Maya (the water). If he really meant to “scorch communists” and “eliminate subversion,” focusing on just the fish would have been enough. If he could not distinguish between Maya and guerrillas, then the metaphor would be meaningless. Ríos Montt, like Lucas García before him, wanted to eliminate the Maya. The massacres were a campaign of genocide, begun under Lucas García and continued under Ríos Montt, which sought to destroy the Maya simply for being Maya. Seven months after Ríos Montt took power, a Maya survivor said that after the massacres, “all that was left was silence.”
In 1982, Amnesty International published a report condemning the massacres of peasant “Indians” which resulted in more than 2,600 documented deaths, “many of them women and children,” during the first six months of Ríos Montt’s regime. Even with incomplete information, at this early point it was clear to human rights observers that Guatemalan “Indians” were the subject of a campaign of terror imposed by the military.
While General Lucas García was notorious for mostly selective massacres within Maya villages, Ríos Montt maintained that his regime had scaled back the killing, even claiming that “there were no more bodies in the streets.” In a database that I developed to compare the facts and figures of different massacres under the regimes of Generals Lucas García and Ríos Montt, I found that the total numbers of massacre victims in the departments of Chimaltenango, Quiché, Alta Verapaz, and Baja Verapaz were highest during the months of General Ríos Montt´s dictatorship. For example, after the coup that installed General Ríos Montt on March 23, 1982, there were 85 massacres in the Quiché department, which took the lives of 3,180 victims over the next 12 months.
In addition to these 3,180 victims of massacres from the Quiché department during Ríos Montt’s first 12 months in office, there were 710 massacre victims in Chimaltenango, 1,033 in Alta Verapaz and 500 in the municipality of Rabinal in Baja Verapaz. Even taking into account that these figures do not include the other victims of massacres in other parts of the country, nor victims of disappearances and extrajudicial execution, General Efraín Ríos Montt is responsible for having massacred 5,423 Achí, Q’eqchi’, Quiché and Kaqchikel individuals.
During this period, General Efraín Ríos Montt had command responsibility; and control, both de jure and de facto, over the government and the armed forces. His own public speeches reveal that he was aware of the existence of these massacres and that he did not prohibit them, prevent them, or penalize anyone for them. With more power over the military than any other official in his administration, General Efraín Ríos Montt, regardless of his position as intellectual author of the genocide, not only failed to prohibit, prevent or denounce the violence, but clearly gave the green light for the army to commit massacres and genocide.
The defense has expressed its opposition to the court accepting 14 different pieces of evidence. Among the contested items are leaked army counterinsurgency operation plans, which the defense claims are not authentic. The defense also opposes the prosecution’s use of experts who participated in the peace negotiations such as distinguished analyst Héctor Rosada. The defense may challenge the other 986 pieces of evidence, experts, and documents, but will also have to face the testimonies of survivors.
This trial is breaking down the wall of impunity precisely because the victims have the opportunity to denounce the violence of genocide directly to the perpetrators and to the world. Each hearing will be a new opportunity for Guatemalan society to reconcile with its own history: that there was indeed a genocide, and yes, there was intent to commit that genocide, and that Ríos Montt did have command responsibility. And it is not only Guatemalan society that needs to reconcile with itself. Former general Otto Perez Molina, the current president of Guatemala, also has to reconcile with his role in the genocide as a commander in Nebaj. We should all think about how long it would take to not only read the names of the more than 5,000 victims of Ríos Montt, but also the names of the 200,000 victims of the entire armed conflict.