For those who missed it yesterday, after a long and curious trial that saw plenty of twists and turns, a Guatemalan court found former general and military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and human rights violations. Ríos Montt, who governed Guatemala from 1982-1983, oversaw some of the worst human rights abuses in a thirty-six year civil war full of them. Indeed, in 1982, alone, violence and scorched earth tactics that the Guatemalan military employed killed around 75,000 people, with an overwhelming number of them Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. In its ruling, the court found Ríos Montt guilty of ordering the murders of 1771 Ixil Mayans during his time in office. Given the targeting of a particular ethnic group for extermination, Ríos Montt faced charges not only of human rights violations, but also of genocide, a first in Latin American history. With his conviction, the court sentenced Ríos Montt to a total of 80 years in prison – 50 for genocide, and 30 for human rights violations.
Of course, while the conviction marks the end of the trial, it is only the beginning of the legal processes. Ríos Montt’s defense has already begun to mount its challenges to the ruling, appealing to the Constitutional Court. Expect future appeals to refer to Ríos Montt’s age or his health (an appeal Peru’s Alberto Fujimori also recently made, albeit unsuccessfully and based on false evidence). And of course, Judge Carol Patricia Flores’s efforts to annul the trial and return it to where it stood in November 2011 (efforts that Judge Yasmín Barrios overruled) provides a legal opening for the prosecution to demand Ríos Montt be released. And even if neither Barrios or Flores ever have anything to do with the case again, there are still legal openings for Ríos Montt. Other judges can still get involved in the case, and unfortunately, as important as this conviction is, the fact remains that the elite and powerful still often benefit from their connections to judges, be it through personal connections, financial connections, or even intimidation. And there certainly was evidence of the potential for intimidation in the courtroom yesterday. Such intimidation could be used not just against the Ixil who were there commemorating the triumph of justice, but also against judges in the country. And even if intimidation is unnecessary, it’s entirely reasonable to believe the appeals process could drag on for some time. All of this is to say that the conviction is not the end of the matter, and Ríos Montt can quite possibly die outside of a prison cell.
And then there’s the question of prosecuting others involved in the human rights violations and genocide that took place in Guatemala. Though Ríos Montt is ultimately responsible for the murders of tens of thousands of people during his rule, there were still those officers and soldiers who carried out the extermination of the Ixil and others. Among those linked to what the courts have now ruled was genocide is none other than current president Otto Perez Molina, who was an officer in the “Ixil Triangle” where many of the murders took place. Though currently enjoying presidential immunity, will prosecutors eventually investigate Perez Molina himself? Or other officers who enforced Ríos Montt’s orders on the ground? This remains to be seen. Ríos Montt’s conviction should not be the last, but the first of many convictions for human rights violations and genocide; yet it is far from certain that that will end up being the case.
Yet even all of these complications cannot erase what happened yesterday. The appeals process is not limited to Ríos Montt; should any ruling come that favors him, prosecutors, victims, rights groups, and others can likewise appeal, meaning the legal proceedings can continue. Like Augusto Pincohet, who faced indictment and house arrest but died before he could be convicted, Ríos Montt, who is 86, will spend the rest of his life in legal battles. His name, his reputation, and his legal standing have fallen beyond repair; in simple (but not-unfair) terms, he’s become a “villain” in history, something that the narrative history of Guatemala has long demonstrated but that the court system itself has now upheld. Any potential legal technicalities going forward cannot undo the legal and symbolic fact that Ríos Montt became the first Latin American military leader convicted for genocide, and the first leader in the world to be found guilty of genocide in his home country’s own court system. From now on, histories of Guatemala can refer to Ríos Montt as a man convicted of genocide. The conviction provides some small (if still incomplete) sense of closure to his victims and their families. And that in and of itself is a profoundly important thing.