-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).
-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.
-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).
-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.
-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.
-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.
-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.
I was on the Burt Cohen Show yesterday, discussing the nature of the Cold War in Central America, the annulment of the Rios Montt trial, human rights and justice for ex-dictators, and the complex roles of the US in Latin America in the 1980s. You can hear the whole thing here.
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.
After much legal wrangling, the trial of former Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt has resumed and is entering its final stages. Yesterday, Ríos Montt himself finally spoke before the court, in general proclaiming his innocence. The slightly longer version – he saved the country and that, even if there were genocide (which he insisted there wasn’t, in spite of very strong arguments otherwise), the head of state can’t be responsible for the actions of the armed forces under his administration and that the chain of command only goes so high (in other words, “the buck stops somewhere below me”). Suffice to say, the arguments were full of logical fallacies, both individually and collectively, and a rich history of human rights prosecutions dating back to the Nuremberg trials and up through human rights trials in South America have created legal and philosophical frameworks through which leaders can be (and have been) found guilty. Indeed, in terms of discourse and structure, Ríos Montt’s arguments were not dissimilar to those that Alberto Fujimori’s defense team made (denying responsibility, passing the buck to his subordinates, saying heads of state can’t be guilty of governing) – and that defense did not work in Fujimori’s case, either. That’s not to say that the Guatemalan court is going to find Ríos Montt guilty, but his defense certainly did little to demonstrate his innocence or exculpate him for genocide or human rights violations.
As the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt appears to be headed back to square one after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, NACLA has a fascinating piece up on Israel’s ties to Ríos Montt:
Known as “Brother Efraín,” a fundamentalist convert of the California-based “Church of the Word” (Verbo), Rios Montt thanked his God in heaven for anointing him as Guatemala’s president, but on earth he thanked Israel for establishing his March 1982 military coup. Israeli press reported that 300 Israeli advisors helped execute the coup, which succeeded so smoothly, Brother Efraín told an ABC News reporter, “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” Through the height of la violencia (“the violence”) or desencarnacíon (“loss of flesh, loss of being”), between the late 1970s to early 1980s, Israel assisted every facet of attack on the Guatemalan people. Largely taking over for the United States on the ground in Guatemala (with Washington retaining its role as paymaster, while also maintaining a crucial presence in the country), Israel had become the successive governments’ main provider of counterinsurgency training, light and heavy arsenals of weaponry, aircraft, state-of-the-art intelligence technology and infrastructure, and other vital assistance.
[...] A February 1983 CBS Evening News with Dan Rather program reported, Israel “didn’t send down congressmen, human rights activists or priests” to strengthen Israel’s special relationship with Guatemala. Israel “taught the Guatemalans how to build an airbase. They set up their intelligence network, tried and tested on the [Israeli-occupied Palestinian] West Bank and Gaza, designed simply to beat the Guerilla.” Timemagazine (03/28/83) chimed in that Guatemalan army “outposts in the jungle have become near replicas of Israeli army field camps.” At one of these Israeli outposts replicated in Huehuetenango (among the areas hardest hit by the genocide, with the second highest number of massacres registered by a UN truth commission), Time continues: “Colonel Gustavo Menendez Herrera pointed out that his troops are using Israeli communications equipment, mortars, submachine guns, battle gear and helmets.” Naturally, as Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García had stated previously: “The Israeli soldier is a model and an example to us.”
In spite of emphasis on US support for Guatemala and other brutal regimes in Central America in the 1980s (and certainly the US absolutely was the keystone in supporting these regimes), it was not the sole actor. Both Augusto Pinochet’s government and the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 sent weapons and military aides to right-wing military regimes in Central America. That Israel, more often than not an ally of the US during the 1980s, was also a willing supporter of Ríos Montt is an untold part of the story, but not necessarily a surprising one, for rarely do authoritarian regimes work in a bubble cut off from international support from a variety of countries.
And of course, that also means Israel was directly tied to a regime that committed genocidal acts itself. There is a quotation from Ríos Montt’s own press secretary in the 1980s that gets at the heart of the mindset behind the regime’s brutal tactics, which may have killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans in 1982 alone:
Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten working behind him.” Rios Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people’. But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion.
This certainly appears to be genocide, or “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” And it is not as if the targeting of indigenous groups was a secret even at the time. As an evangelical pastor at the time himself put it,
The army doesn’t massacre Indians. [...] It massacres demons, and Indians are demons possessed; they are communists.
That is, simply put, the targeting of an ethnic group for massacre, for destruction, and it was a fact that people at the time were willing to admit. Ríos Montt’s trial may be undone by a technicality, but the historical evidence overwhelmingly points to genocide in Guatemala under the military leader. That Israel supported such a genocidal regime is tragically ironic, if somewhat unsurprising, in the context of the final decade of the Cold War.
Yesterday, I was rather pessimistic after Guatemalan Judge Carol Patricia Flores suspended the trial of former general Efraín Ríos Montt on a technicality, setting the process back a year and a half and making justice look increasingly difficult.
However, the judge currently presiding over the case, Yasmín Barrios, has rejected the annulment, calling the ruling “manifestly illegal” and saying Flores had greatly overstepped her judicial authority.
Yesterday, things appeared bleak, though not without hope; today, things appear hopeful, but not without pitfalls. The question now basically boils down to one issue: which judge is correct? Does the fact that a higher court reinstated a judge without alerting the lower courts to the reinstatement really nullify all court proceedings, as Flores argued in her annulment? Or has Flores’ ruling overstepped her authority as a higher court judge, as Barrios argues? The answer to the these questions has set up a judicial showdown, and it is not clear how the highest levels of the judiciary will rule. What is clear is that the options on rulings are further dwindling, and the ruling in this matter likely will be in no small part vital to the outcome of the Ríos Montt trial, and to the issue of justice (or impunity) in Guatemala. It’s unfortunate, if perhaps unsurprising, that the issue of justice and of addressing human rights violations may come down to an institutional showdown, but the fact remains that, among at least some members of the judiciary, the will to prosecute human rights violations remains strong. No matter what, the case will absolutely be worth watching in the following days.
Yesterday, Guatemalan Judge Carol Patricia Flores, the judge most recently overseeing the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide against indigenous peoples, suspended the trial based not on any lack of evidence, or prosecutorial wrongdoing, or on any finding of innocence of Ríos Montt, but on a technicality. The question at its core hinges on who could have been or could not have been judge during the long process that led to the trial; in making her ruling, Flores has effectively returned the case to its pre-trial stage, where it sat in November 2011, nearly a year and a half ago. The ruling itself comes just as the trial was on the verge of reaching its conclusion. Suffice to say, the ruling is farcical, a successful attempt in what has been a long string of delaying tactics Ríos Montt’s defense team deployed in an attempt to derail the trial. Though prosecutors were set to challenge the ruling this morning, there doesn’t appear to be much reason to believe they will be successful.
In the long term, it is not clear what is next, but it is unlikely to aide in the path towards justice in the case of human rights violations that Ríos Montt’s government committed. That human rights violations occurred under Ríos Montt’s 1982-1983 administration is incontrovertible; that such violations met legal definitions of genocide is also apparent, and testimony from the trial further reinforced that fact. The loss of a year and a half of legal proceedings is not nothing, and setting the judicial clock back to November 2011 makes it increasingly unlikely that the now-86-year-old dictator will live to see a conviction for his role in human rights violations that his regime committed. The situation could change – perhaps the latest development is again overturned (though given that it’s now at the highest levels of the judicial system makes that outcome seem unlikely); perhaps the trial is able to resume and Ríos Montt lives long enough to see justice. Right now, though, this is just an extremely disappointing outcome, one that simultaneously throws into question judicial effectiveness and reinforces a culture of impunity in Guatemala even while denying justice and closure to thousands of Guatemalans.
As scholarship and human rights reports have repeatedly demonstrate, the effects of torture on the human mind and body have long-term ramifications, and many of those victims continue suffer from both the psychological and the physical effects of torture decades after the regimes that committed such torture have left power. Two reports from Central America add to the demonstrated effects of torture and of the brutality of past regimes.
In El Salvador, a report on torture composed 27 years ago finally saw publication, making the stories of those who suffered torture at the hands of the state during the civil war of 1980-1992 public.
More than 40 torture techniques are described in detail and depicted in drawings in the report.
One of the most commonly used techniques was the “avioncito” (airplane), in which the victim’s hands were tied behind his or her back and the victim was suspended in the air from the wrists, often causing dislocation of the shoulders.
In the “capucha” (hood), a plastic bag was placed over the prisoner’s head, to partially suffocate them, while the “submarino” (submarine) involved simulated drowning.
Other methods were electric shock, cutting off the tongue, or destroying the eyes with chemicals. [...]
The book also provides profiles of torture victims who were forcibly disappeared.
And of course, this was not a human rights crisis that involved only Salvadorans. As a journalistic investigation uncovered, the US sent officer James Steele, a Vietnam veteran, to work with forces responsible for torture in El Salvador. Later, none other than Donald Rumsfeld sent Steele to work in Iraq.
Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency [...]
A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding.
Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.
The US’s ties to repressive regimes and torturers in Central America in the 1980s is generally well-known among those who study the region or US foreign policy; that the US then redeployed to Iraq people tied to torture in Central America is a new, if semi-unsurprising, twist. And of course, a culture of impunity prevents those in El Salvador (and those in the US who aided them) from facing trial for their actions.
While a culture of impunity continues to reign in El Salvador, the same cannot be said for Guatemala, as the trial of former general Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide continues (a trial in which current president Otto Perez Molina’s name has been tied to past atrocities, charges he unsurprisingly has rejected outright). Last week, indigenous women who suffered systematic rape in the early-1980s while Ríos Montt was in power took the stand to testify about the terror and brutality they suffered at the hands of the state under Ríos Montt’s government. As powerful as the story is, the accompanying picture is perhaps even more so – 30 years after Ríos Montt was in power, she covered her face before testifying, revealing the ways in which the crimes of the past continue to haunt her present. Nor was she the only one:
[A] second woman to take the stand wept as she told the court that she had been raped by a series of men over three days in a military post in the Quiche department in the country’s heavily indigenous highlands region in 1982.
“They tied my hands and feet,” and raped me, she said, “Not just me but my mother, too.”
Her testimony is as sadly powerful as it is sadly familiar, as military regimes from Argentina to Guatemala and numerous countries in between used rape and torture to intimidate and terrorize their populations. That , after 30 years of impunity, Ríos Montt finally has to confront these crimes in a courtroom is no small step towards justice. At the same time, it’s another remarkably sad, if all-too-familiar, reminder of the long-term legacies of the regimes that operated throughout South and Central America (often with US support) from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Mike Allison at the excellent Central American Politics blog is currently in Guatemala during the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt for charges of genocide and human rights violations. He was able to attend some of the first day’s proceedings yesterday, and had two fascinating posts on what he saw. In the first, he focuses on what it was like waiting in line for the trial and sitting in the room while it began, including witnessing Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú sitting only 10 feet away from Ríos Montt and the general’s attempt to stall the trial by getting new defense attorneys. In the second he talks about how racism towards indigenous peoples continues to manifest itself in the trial:
In blaming the foreigners for pushing for a trial, one does see a bit of racism at work as well. It does not appear that the defense believes Maya-Ixil capable of understanding, on their own, what was done to them. You cannot expect them to understand what they are accusing the government of and it is impossible to believe that they would have been able to do all this legal work without the terrible influence of those Europeans. They are just not smart enough.
Both pieces are absolutely worth reading in their entirety, and Mike’s always-excellent log will be especially worth following in the coming days and weeks as the trial progresses.
UPDATE: Mike also pointed to this set of photos, which includes Ríos Montt’s daughter, congresswoman Zury Ríos, sitting just two seats away from Menchú as well.
Today, the genocide trial for former Guatemalan leader Efraín Ríos Montt begins (in spite of his failed attempts to have charges dismissed based on an earlier amnesty law). The trial marks the first time a former Latin American leader has been tried not only for human rights violations, but for genocide, as outlined in the findings of Guatemala’s Truth Commission. The charges against Ríos Montt for genocide are thus based on the military’s targeting of indigenous communities between March 1982 and August 1983, when he was in power. Survivors who witnessed the atrocities are set to testify in the case. For those interested, you can follow the trial live here.
The New York Times ran a piece (accompanied by incredible photos) on what the trial says about judicial power in Guatemala.
Guatemala’s justice system has begun a transformation. In a show of political will, prosecutors are taking long-dormant human rights cases to court, armed with evidence that victims and their advocates have painstakingly compiled over more than a decade — as much to bear witness as to bring judgment.
“It’s sending the most important message of the rule of law — that nobody is above the law,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general, who many here say has been one of the most important forces behind the change.
Certainly, it’s good to see the courts acting, and the fact that the military obeyed a court order to turn over documents in 2009 is an important step in respecting institutional authority. However, this only comes after nearly three years of judicial inaction. Ríos Montt did not just remain free for 30 years because of his own personal power or even his ability to count on political immunity as a congressman. For far too long, too many people in positions of power were willing to look the other way on his crimes. This option of inaction was not even limited to the court system; it also counted on “elite complicity, and political immunity,” as Kate Doyle put it.
In that context, it’s understandable why so many civilians also remained silent for years. This isn’t a case of blaming the victims for the slowness of Ríos Montt’s trial; it’s a damning reminder of the long-term impacts of military regimes that violate human rights with impunity (and often with the support, tacit or explicit, of the US). As scholarship on military repression and human rights violations in Latin America and beyond has demonstrated, the scars of military regimes long outlast the governments themselves. The arbitrary use of violence and torture, the disappearing of victims, the ongoing power of post-dictatorship militaries behind the scenes, and the physical markers of death on the landscape all create conditions in which many people fear speaking out, even in times of peace. Daniel Wilkinson’s Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala cuts right to the heart of this imposed silence. And while hundreds of thousands of victims will never be able to speak out, now that the Guatemalan judiciary, the legal system, and the military itself have moved beyond forgetting and begun to address the past, those who for so many years feared and remained silent will now finally have their chance to speak directly to the justice system.
In that regard, the story is simultaneously a story of historical institutional failures and justice through institutional transformation and autonomy. And yet, it’s only occurring 30 years later, reminding us that fear of the brutal and senseless violence of military regimes does not die quickly.