The Pursuit of Justice in Guatemala

March 26th, 2012

Published on The National Security Archive NSA, Electronic Briefing Book No. 373, by Kate Doyle, March 23, 2012: about NACLA Report on the Americas; Full Issue, Notes, Updates, Report, Reviews etc. on

… January 26 marked a watershed in Guatemalan history. That evening, after more than eight hours of arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers, retired army general Efraín Ríos Montt—the military leader who presided over the most intense and bloody period of state repression in the country’s modern history—was formally charged by Judge Carol Patricia Flores with genocide and crimes against humanity.   

Ríos Montt now faces the real possibility of a criminal trial. Inside the courtroom on the 15th floor of the Tribunal Tower in Guatemala City, the verdict was met with the mechanical gasp of a dozen camera shutters clicking simultaneously. Downstairs, in the plaza outside the building, hundreds of massacre survivors and families of victims were watching the proceedings on open-air screens. They cheered, applauded, and wept at the astonishing news … //

… The United States took notice, and reports from U.S. defense attachés posted in Guatemala in the mid-1990s bubbled with enthusiasm and praise: one of the “Best and the Brightest,” said one cable, “intelligent, hard-working, dedicated and principled . . . unflappable under pressure, has strong command presence and possesses great self-confidence.” U.S. officials also noticed his role in the counterinsurgency, calling him one of a group of military progressives “with blood stains on their hands.”7 He was a “reformer,” not a hard-liner, a strategist, not a tactician, who believed in stabilization and pacification, what Guatemala scholar Jennifer Schirmer has called the “enlightened repression” of brutal military violence combined with population control, civic action, and development: the “Beans and Bullets” strategy of the Ríos Montt regime.8

There is no public information about where Pérez Molina served during the scorched-earth campaigns. He claims he arrived in Nebaj after the massacres in late 1982 with the goal of protecting devastated villagers, though he has refused to confirm the exact dates of his deployment.9 But the army’s own records of Operación Sofía, a violent counterinsurgency sweep through the Ixil triangle in July and August 1982, contain evidence of his presence on the field of battle. A report written on July 22 describes then major Pérez Molina and another officer, Major Arango Barrios—both listed as “paracaidistas,” the special airborne troops that led Sofía—attached to a patrol in a confrontation with “the enemy” near the settlements of Salquil and Xeipum. According to the document, the patrol killed four civilians in the clash, and “captured” 18 old people and 12 children. In a second Operación Sofía document, Pérez Molina appears as his alias, Major Tito, being transported by helicopter with another Paracaidista officer on July 27 between villages inside the killing zone.10

The Operación Sofía records, along with a key military strategy document called Plan Victoria 82 that prosecutors obtained after years of litigation, now serve as evidence in the criminal case against Ríos Montt. But by and large the Guatemalan army has successfully maintained its iron grip on its files and has avoided releasing information about the war on “national security” grounds. When Colom declared in 2008 that he believed historic military records should be available to the public, the Defense Ministry responded by creating a Commission on Military Archives that reviewed the army’s holdings for disclosure. In June the military opened what it says are 11,000 documents and established a reading room where the public can consult the material. It is a limited step toward accountability, to say the least. Although there is no guide or index explaining the contents of the archive, the army has already admitted that it includes no records from the critical period from 1980 to 1985.

Ever the operator, Pérez Molina has found a way to use the military’s continued secrecy to undermine the history of the war as established by the truth commission. In a televised conversation in July with Martín Rodríguez, director of the online news service Plaza Público, the retired general argued that precisely because the army refused to engage with the CEH and would not turn over its records to investigators, the commission was unable to arrive at the truth of what happened.

“I was the principal critic of the army!” he said. “The army should have come, spoken, responded to and participated in the CEH. The army silenced itself and did not explain what Plan Victoria 82 was. It let [the commissioners] make their own interpretations. It didn’t explain what the situation was in the country’s highlands. It didn’t explain how the EGP [Guerrilla Army of the Poor] worked, for example. What the EGP did was involve the entire family . . . they even involved women and children. And if you look at where the massacres were concentrated, they were concentrated in EGP areas.”11

In spite of Pérez Molina’s critique, his comments show just how far the tireless efforts of human rights groups have pushed the debate. The military and political right in Guatemala can no longer deny the existence of massacres. The trials have derailed that narrative.

An alarmed and angry right wing has begun to push back, often appropriating the tactics and language of the same human rights organizations that they oppose.12 One week after Pérez Molina’s presidential victory, some 200 retired military men and their families staged a march in Guatemala City demanding “Freedom for those who fought for our freedom.”

Three legal complaints have been filed since November accusing dozens of individuals on the left and in civil society of acts of terrorism and “crimes against humanity” committed during the conflict. In one, the son of Ríos Montt’s interior minister identifies 26 people he claimed engineered his kidnapping (or “attempted disappearance,” as he calls it) by guerrillas in 1982. Another, introduced by coffee businessman Theodore Plocharski, seeks indictments against 52 people for the kidnapping and execution of one Guatemalan and nine foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein, who died in a botched kidnap attempt by the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) in 1968. When asked by the Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico to explain his lawsuit, Plocharski said he sought to reveal “the truth about the war.” The complaints appear to be hastily composed and poorly conceived—those accused include well-known guerrilla leaders, human rights activists, elected members of Congress, former first lady Sandra Torres, U.S. photographer Jean-Marie Simon, and journalist Marielos Monzón, who, as she has pointed out, was born three years after the Mein assassination. The roll call more closely resembles death-squad lists from past decades than legitimate legal accusations. But the political motives are clear. All three lawsuits accuse relatives of Paz y Paz, including her father, a former head of the FAR.

“Members of the Army face accusations of war crimes,” said Plocharski. “Now the Public Ministry should investigate the criminal acts of the guerrillas.”13

Pérez Molina has suggested that Paz y Paz, whose supporters include U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, can remain as long as she performs her job with impartiality. He has given similar qualified approval to the continued presence of the international investigative unit, CICIG. But as he has assembled his government and launched his earliest initiatives to address Guatemala’s security crisis, he has already begun wielding the mano dura he promised during his campaign. The president appointed Colonel Ulises Anzueto, a retired Kaibil, as his minister of defense and placed the reviled special forces unit in charge of the fight against narcotrafficking, despite well-documented links between former Kaibiles and some of the region’s leading cartels. His interior minister, retired general Mauricio López Bonilla, is another former army commander, who will oversee the hiring of thousands of new police officers to combat drugs and organized crime. To help pay for his security program, he plans to ask the United States to lift its ban on military aid.

The Ríos Montt trial will unfold within this polarized climate. The aging dictator’s defense lawyers will undoubtedly try to derail the case through pointless appeals, challenges of the court’s competence, and other legal maneuvers. But it will be impossible to halt altogether without provoking a storm of national and international outrage. Now that the indictment has been issued—making Guatemala one of only three countries in Latin America with the wherewithal to charge a head of state with human rights crimes (along with Peru and Uruguay)—the whole world is watching.

There is nothing more electrifying than seeing a former strongman forced to face his accusers in a court of law. Unless it is seeing an image of his younger self as it appeared 30 years ago, when he was at the height of his powers, projected by prosecutors onto the courtroom wall above him. The year was 1982, the interviewer was a young documentary filmmaker, and Ríos Montt was angrily denying the existence of military repression in Guatemala.14 His words now serve as evidence of his command authority over the scorched earth campaigns.

“If I can’t control the army,” he told his visitor, “then what am I doing here?”
(full long text and Notes 1 to 14).

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