Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

The indigenous people genocide case in Guatemala: justice delayed, justice denied?

There was a military structure that designed, planned and executed operations aimed at eradicating Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. Español

Indigenous woman testifies at a law court in Guatemala, 2012. Photo: Sandra Sebastián. All rights reserved.

On Wednesday September 26, at about 7pm, in a courtroom filled to bursting point, the High Risk Court B declared, for the second time in five years, that genocide was committed in Guatemala.

Following more than two years of witness testimonies, forensic evidence and expert reports the court declared that they had sufficient evidence to prove that the Guatemalan army committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Mayan Ixil people between 1982 and 1983, one of the most violent eras of the 36 year internal armed conflict in Guatemala.

Judges elaborated in detail the “abhorrent” acts that convinced them that the Guatemalan army was indeed responsible for committing genocide and crimes against humanity.

A dehumanised army

In their declaration, lasting up to two hours, the panel of three judges elaborated in detail the “abhorrent” acts that convinced them that the Guatemalan army was indeed responsible for committing genocide and crimes against humanity.

They could verify that there were at least 60 massacres carried out in the Ixil region of Quiche and that a total of 50 villages were affected by the Guatemalan army’s counterinsurgency operations. This policy resulted in acts of extreme and dehumanized violence against a civilian population that had been singled out for their struggle to defend their rights. They were accused of being communists and guerrillas and declared an ‘internal enemy’ of the State.

The scorched earth operations, implemented by the Guatemalan army in the Ixil area, destroyed all forms of life and were carried out with the intention of exterminating the Ixil population. They documented the forced recruitment of Ixil men to the armed forces, the use of secual violence against women and commented on how children were used as bounty.

The court found evidence of arbitrary detentions, interrogation and torture, the wide-scale and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, sexual slavery, assassinations and forced disappearance.

They read how the inhabitants of the affected villages fled from the violence seeking refuge in the mountains of Quiche, but even there they did not find peace. The army pursued them in helicopters, throwing explosives from the air. Much of the population were forced into ‘model villages’ where they were ‘reeducated’, underwent forced religious conversions and subject to constant control and surveillance by the armed forces, and/or the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PAC), a paramilitary force.

The court found evidence of arbitrary detentions, interrogation and torture, the wide-scale and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, sexual slavery, assassinations and forced disappearance.

Others escaped across the Mexican border in search of asylum. Many remained there until after the signing of the peace accords in 1996.

The court highlighted that these acts of violence took place in the context of a national counterinsurgency policy that sought to eliminate the “communist guerrillas”, who were declared an internal enemy of the State, and the implementation of the national security doctrine by United States, who maintained a policy of eradicating the communist threat in Latin America throughout the Cold War.

They were able to demonstrate the existence of a military structure that designed, planned and executed operations aimed at eradicating Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. The court, in its analysis, found that the violence suffered by the Ixil people was a product of the racism that has marked relations with Guatemala’s indigenous peoples from colonial times.

There was a military structure that designed, planned and executed operations aimed at eradicating Guatemala’s indigenous peoples.

A lengthy process

This sentence is the culmination of more than 18 years of investigations, gathering testimonies, compiling forensic evidence, developing expert reports and participation in hearings before the national courts. It has been driven, above all, by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) and the Human Rights Law Firm (BDH) in collaboration with the Public Prosecutor's Office. The original trial opened in 2013 against two defendants: the ex-Head of State, General Efraín Ríos Montt, and former director of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.

2013 was the first time in history that a national court held criminal proceedings against a former head of state for genocide and crimes against humanity.

It was the first time in history that a national court held criminal proceedings against a former head of state for genocide and crimes against humanity. On that occasion Ríos Montt was found guilty on both counts and sentenced to 80 years in prison. However, 10 days later, the Constitutional Court annulled the sentence on the basis of procedural technicalities and ordered a retrial.

Following multiple injunctions and attempts to obstruct the process on the part of the defendents, the new trial opened on March 16, 2016. Due to the sudden deterioration in the health of Ríos Montt, the court declared the need for two separate proceedings and the Rios Montt case was closed to the public.  Ríos Montt in March 2018, before the case against hum could be concluded. Nevertheless, the trial against Rodríguez Sánchez continued.

A parcial justice?

Although the court on this occasion declared unanimously that genocide and crimes against humanity were committed in Guatemala, they acquitted Rodríguez Sanchéz of all responsibility for these crimes, arguing, by a majority of two, that they could not find sufficient evidence linking him to the crimes.

Moreover, the Guatemalan State was not ordered to carry out further investigations to determine who was responsible for these crimes, nor did they order for reparations to be granted to the victims and survivors of the genocide, declaring that the victims and survivors could seek redress through the civil system.

In her dissenting opinion Judge Sara Yoc Yoc declared, however, that she had no doubt that, in his role as director of military intelligence, Rodríguez Sánchez was indeed responsible for the preparation and supervision of military operations at the national and regional level in the identification of the Ixil people as an 'internal enemy.'

"The most important thing for us is to have a sentence that generates changes in society, a sentence that recognises that genocide was committed."

Edwin Canil, president of the Board of Directors of the AJR, the organisation that represents victims from seven ethnic groups, commented that, "at first we thought the sentence was very superficial. We were disappointed, we wanted to see someone in handcuffs, to see someone go to prison. But after a day of reflection we have concluded that the most important thing for us is to have a sentence that generates changes in society, a sentence that recognises that genocide was committed.”

A culture of impunity

Canil acknowledges that although they had expected a guilty sentence for Rodríguez Sánchez, the sentence is, nevertheless, clear about the State’s responsibility: "The hardest blow was for the state, the military, and the business sector because everyone is implicated," says Canil.

Indeed, on Thursday 27th, the most powerful business group in the country, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), released a statement once again denying that genocide was committed in Guatemala and calling into doubt the Court’s ruling.

Since the original sentence of 2013 there have been multiple attempts to nullify, deny and devalue the Court’s decision and hide the truth from Guatemalan citizens and the world. The plaintiffs are prepared to face these kind of actions once more as well as possible reprisals at national and local level in the Ixil region.

The sentence came at a time when Guatemala is facing the worst political crisis of the last 20 years. President Jimmy Morales, his party, composed largely of retired military officers, and his cabinet have threatened to break with the constitutional order in order to obstruct the investigations and prosecutions of corruption cases, many of which are linked to the president himself, his party and a large number of members of the national Congress.

 The Tranisitional Justice process continues 

The victims, survivors and plaintiffs all affirm that the sentence from 2013, which found Ríos Montt guilty, remains the most important and symbolic moment in the struggle for justice. They are sure that, had he survived to the end of the trial, he would have been convicted of genocide for a second time. A petition to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that would uphold the 2013 sentence as valid, is still to be resolved.

Had president Rios Montt survived to the end of the trial, he would have been convicted of genocide for a second time.

Over last two years victims, survivors and human rights organisations in Guatemala have secured two important convictions for crimes committed during the internal armed conflict: the Sepur Zarco and Molina Theissen cases. The Maya Achi genocide case, the case against Romeo Lucas García, the CREOMPAZ case and the Dos Erres case are all due to be heard over the coming year.

Camil says that "there's a long way to go" to achieve justice for the victims and survivors of the internal armed conflict. However, he emphasises that this new sentence represents the demands of the victims whom for 30 years, have insisted that in Guatemala a genocide did in fact occur: "We have no doubt that, yes, there was a genocide, and we're surprised by those (the court) who have recognised this". 

 


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.