Thursday, May 16, 2013
On May 10 a very courageous panel of judges in Guatemala convicted one of the country’s most entrenched political figures on charges of genocide. General Efraín Ríos Montt presided over this tiny Central American nation during the bloodiest period in its 36-year-long civil war.
He commanded a military force that razed entire villages, leaving mass graves of men, women and children and forcing others to hide in the mountains and face starvation, or flee to refugee camps in Mexico, or to the United States as undocumented immigrants.
Many Guatemalans thought he would never stand trial, while others worked doggedly for more than a decade to make it happen.
This is not to say there aren’t many people who think Ríos Montt is innocent of the charges and/or justified, if not in his methods, at least in his intent. There are.
In theory he was defending the country from the perceived evils of a communist insurgency. But more importantly, some of the population benefited from army protection during the civil war.
In particular, powerful political and economic forces benefited from the army’s willingness to remove, literally, the opposition to lucrative infrastructure projects, like dams, and allow for even greater concentration of land, often obtained fraudulently or by force.
But even on the left, there are those who think Ríos Montt should not have been charged with genocide. During the trial, an impressive group of left-leaning academics and political leaders published a statement in Guatemalan newspapers calling the accusation of genocide against the former leader “a judicial fabrication” and voicing their belief that the genocide trial would deepen social and political polarization in Guatemala and derail the peace process.
I can’t imagine a more ill-timed political statement. In a country still struggling to firmly establish the rule of law and inspire confidence among the population in its government structures, why not let justice take its course? Why not let each side present its case in court and let the judges make an informed decision?
Also, far from contributing to the peace process, the statement and subsequent fall out seemed to sow even more division among those following the trial on both sides.
I lived in Guatemala for eight years during a time both of great hope and disheartening cynicism. I first arrived four years after Peace Accords were signed, ending the war.
As a journalist, I covered and observed rampant government corruption, blatant racism against indigenous people, and vast and continued impunity for horrendous crimes committed during the armed conflict. All these things are so clearly reflected in Guatemala’s added problems today — widespread violent crime and drug trafficking, among others.
The cards have been stacked against the poor and the indigenous people of Guatemala for so long. I don’t see how the court’s decision — by all appearances fair and properly carried out — finding Ríos Montt guilty of genocide could possibly sow more division in a country still so tragically divided. My hope and belief is that it will do exactly the opposite.
By the way, the story isn't over. Challenges to the ruling could render the guilty verdict null. You can follow developments in the trial (in English) on a special website set up by the Open Society Justice Initiative.