Rios Montt. AFP Photo
An interview with investigative journalist Allan Nairn, on the historic conviction of US supported Guatemalan Strongman, Rios Montt, for Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, and the continuing legal battle to sustain the verdict, and expand the genocide investigation for indigenous justice in Guatemala.
In a historic decision, Guatemalan strongman, and close US ally, General Efrain Rios Montt, was convicted by a Guatemalan court, last week, of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. According to Alan Nairn, who has covered this story closely, since the 1980s, and was in the courtroom for the recent verdict, there are two distinct battles going on right now as a result of the historic verdict. On the one hand, those who fought to have Rios Montt convicted, often risking their lives to do so, are pushing to widen the investigation, to focus on other US supported 1980's mass murderers, including the current president, General Otto Perez Molina. On the other hand, there is the powerful Guatemalan right-wing military Oligarchy, with their hands bloody from some of the same slaughters Rios Montt was just nailed for, fighting to have Montt's mass-murder conviction annulled by a higher court in Guatemala.
In this Flashpoints interview with Alan Nairn, I talk to Nairn about the fight to prevent the verdict from being overturned, and the grassroots efforts to expand the genocide investigations in Guatemala. Nairn also offers some deep background on an interview he did back in the 1980's with Guatemalan President, Otto Perez Molina, when he was a general, in which Perez Molina seems to implicate himself in mass murder. The interview also zeros in on how the US government continued its cozy relationship with mass murderers in Guatemala, by inviting one of Rios Montt's top killer generals to study at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Listen to the interview here (through 31:47)
DB: Allan, can you tell us about the verdict of last week, and the significance of the court decision?
AN: What happened is that somebody finally enforced the murder laws, impartially. In this case the murders were massacres committed in the northwest highlands of Guatemala against the Maya Ixil people. The perpetrator was a general, a military dictator who was backed by the United States, General Rios Montt. Usually, in every country in the world, a perpetrator, a killer with that kind of position and backing gets away with it. But in this case, it didn't happen. General Rios Montt was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison. As we speak, he is in prison, although he's claiming that he's ill, so he's now in a military hospital, but he's still locked up. It's a breakthrough in many ways. It's the first time that any country has been able to prosecute a former president for genocide using its own domestic criminal courts. More importantly, it's a prosecution from below. It's not a case of victor's justice where the one who wins the war prosecutes the one who lost the war. This is a case of survivors whose movement was crushed, but they were able to persist and use whatever levers of power that exist within the system to bring to justice one of the killers, a killer who represents a social order that is still in power. The same individuals and kinds of individuals who ran Guatemala in 1982 and 1983 still run it today. It's still the army and the oligarchs of kacife; the chambers of commerce, industry and finance. But due to the brave fight of the survivors of these massacres, enough political space has been opened up in Guatemala that a few honest people have been able to rise to positions of importance within the prosecutorial system and within the judiciary, so this trial was able to move forward. It is also a breakthrough on the fight against racism and for the rights of the indigenous people.
Rios Montt, when he seized power in a military coup, took two steps immediately. The army was already killing civilians -- they were doing that for many years. But Rios Montt changed the strategy. He immediately cut back on the urban assassinations, the assassinations of national leaders in the capital city, which had become politically counter-productive. Instead, he made systematic the massacres that were taking place in the countryside. He sent the army systematically sweeping through the villages of the northwest highlands where, at that time, the majority of the Mayan population was concentrated. He and his army branded them as inherently subversive. That's why the prosecution was able to make a charge of genocide and make it stick.
Of course this was all backed by the US. The US has not yet reached a level of political civilization that Guatemala, especially the Mayan population, who pushed this trial, has reached. We don't yet have prosecutions of US government officials who have been engaged in other similar killings of civilians around the world and are still involved today, but it should be done. The US prosecutors should immediately convene a grand jury regarding the Guatemalan genocide. They should fulfill their responsibility to assist the Guatemalan prosecutors by divulging to them all internal US documents regarding those massacres, everything within the CIA, State Department, Pentagon and the White House. They should also move to indict all US officials from those agencies, those who are still alive, who played the role of accessory, accomplice, or worse, to these crimes. They should be willing to extradite to Guatemala any US officials who are sought by the Guatemalan authorities as they continue their investigation.
DB: As you said, this was a slaughterous attack on the indigenous people in the highlands. Among the most poignant testimony was that from Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Peace Price laureate. Why was her testimony important, and can you remind people who she is?
AN: Rigoberta was an activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Guatemalan criminal justice system works differently than the US system. In the US, although an individual citizen can bring a civil suit against somebody else, they cannot bring a criminal action to put somebody in jail. Only the state can do that. But in Guatemala, an individual citizen is allowed to bring a criminal action against another if they can convince the state prosecutors and the courts that they should move forward. Rigoberta Menchu, quite a few years ago, initiated legal cases against a range of Guatemalan generals and colonels for their role in the slaughter. One of them was Rios Montt. Her cases were blocked in Guatemala, but one of them was eventually taken up in Spain by the ... internationale, the national high court in Spain. Under international law, crimes against humanity, such as genocide, can be prosecuted by courts in other countries because they are considered such a grave threat to humanity itself. The Spanish court took the case very seriously and it is still active to this day. They tried to extradite various Guatemalan generals to Spain, but they haven't succeeded. The work done on that case helped to lay the groundwork for the case that was brought against Rios Montt and just resulted in the sentence in Guatemala.
The particular case against Rios Montt was based on a very narrow set of facts -- massacres that took place in one particular period in the Ixil region of the northwest highlands, which is different from the region that Rigoberta and her family come from. The case was prosecuted on the basis of just 1,771 murders because the prosecution was able to get the names of the 1,771 victims killed by the Guatemalan army. In many cases, their bones were exhumed and forensic scientists were able to link the bones to names of the murdered people. But the case is far from over, because the oligarchy, military and retired military, but especially the oligarchy, are trying to get this case annulled. The constitutional court, which is the highest court in Guatemala, was supposed to give a ruling today that could have resulted in an annulment of the case and the immediate freeing of Rios Montt from prison. They postponed the ruling until Monday. The constitutional court is not taken seriously as a legal body -- it's a complete political tool of the army and the oligarchy. There is a big political struggle going on now within the Guatemalan political establishment as to whether they will take the political risk of trying to role back this verdict. It was a huge step; huge event. If they try to annul it and roll it back, there will be a big backlash from the Guatemalan public and internationally. But the leaders of the oligarchy are very jealous of their privileges, which includes their right to consider themselves superior and to continue to treat indigenous people as less than full citizens and less than human.
In many of the indigenous communities where the '80s massacres took place, people still live on just a few dollars a day. Rates of malnutrition and infant mortality are extremely high. People still cannot earn enough from the micro plots of corn that they work, so have to migrate down to the coast to work on the plantations during harvest season to try to feed their families. Most importantly, the oligarchy still wants to retain the prerogative of murdering people when they feel it's necessary, even though in Guatemala today the army does not commit the rural massacres they used to. They do not have the assassinations of national level activists, as there used to be. But there continue to be assassinations outside the capitol city, of local activists -- in particular in recent months, the people who have been fighting against mining projects involving Canadian and US companies, brought in by the current president General Perez Molina. The local communities are fiercely resisting because they fear the pollution and other damage that the mining could bring. The rich want the right to kill people who protest against them, and they fear -- and they have a rational basis for this fear -- that if the precedent of the Rios Montt trial is allowed to stand, it could cramp their style, it could be more difficult for them in the future to kill off workers who try to organize on their plantations in their factories or at their mines, so a lot is at stake here and it's not yet certain that this verdict will be allowed to stand.
DB: We were talking about Rigoberta Menchu. The story of her family isn't far from the horrors -- an extreme example -- but not far from the horrors we're talking about when we talk about this US supported slaughter machine.
AN: Yes, her family -- a number of them were burned alive or their bodies were never found. This has been life for people in rural areas, in particular the indigenous people of Guatemala. The slaughter went on for years and years and years. It all traces back to 1954 when a democratically elected government in Guatemala was overthrown in a CIA backed coup. The military ruled uninterrupted through the 1990's, assassinating and massacring whenever they felt like it. Today, even though Guatemala now has an electoral system, there's again a military man in charge, General Otto Perez Molina. He was the local commander in the field in the Ixil region, the region of the massacres that got Rios Montt convicted. At the time, in the middle of the massacres, I met him in the town of Nebas ... Nevas where he was commander. His soldiers -- lieutenants, sergeants, corporals -- described how they would go into town armed with death lists provided them by G2 military intelligence, death lists of people who were suspected of being collaborators of the guerrillas or critics of the army. They told how they would strangle people with lassos, slit women open with machetes, shoot people in the head in front of the neighbors, use US planes, helicopters and 50-gram bombs to attack people if they fled into the hills.
These are the men of the current president, describing how they did this under orders. He is now in charge of Guatemala, and is very worried about this verdict. He allowed the trial to go forward. In the Guatemalan justice system, the attorney general is politically much more autonomous from the press than the US attorney general is, so it's difficult for the president to control what the attorney general does. The current attorney general in Guatemala is very honest, with a sense of legal duty. But Perez Molina still has a great deal of clout. He allowed the trial to go forward on the understanding that it would only go after Rios Montt and his co-defendant, a general named Rodriguez Sanchez and the trial would not touch Perez Molina. He was basically willing to sacrifice Rios Montt. But to everyone's surprise, in the middle of the trial, one witness, a former soldier, named Perez Molina and said he ordered atrocities.
I had been due to testify about a week after that, and as a result of all this, I was kept off the stand because Perez Molina was furious that his name came up in the trial. There was fear that if I took the stand, it would provoke him to shut down the trial entirely. As it happened, even though I was kept off the stand and Perez Molina's name wasn't mentioned again, the trial got shut down anyway because the oligarchy and army started to realize that having the trial go on for weeks and weeks and weeks of people recounting army massacres was hurting them politically -- was causing tremendous damage with the public, so they shut it down. The trial was dead for two weeks, but it was revived because of a backlash of protest from Guatemalan activists, foreign human right supporters, and from some people in the US congress who weighed in and exerted pressure. The trial was then resumed and allowed to reach a verdict.
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