Justice Overruled? The Overturned Genocide Conviction for Guatemalan Dictator Ríos Montt

On Friday, May 10th, Guatemalans breathed a sigh of relief. Judge Yasmin Barrios read the verdict against Efraín Ríos Montt for the whole world to witness, and in solidarity, defenders of human rights from every corner of the globe sighed right along with them. In a landmark case, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide against the Ixil Mayan indigenous people during the US-backed Guatemala civil war that lasted for 36 years.

A new era of justice in Latin America?

It was the first time that any former dictator from the region had been convicted on Latin American soil. It set a precedent, and evoked hope for the future of justice and accountability for the many crimes committed against indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Today, we awoke to devastating news. The Constitutional Court overturned the verdict, and annulled all trial proceedings after April 19th. It is still unclear what this means for the trial, for Ríos Montt, and for future accountability for the crimes committed during the civil war. Yet, this is not the first obstruction to justice during this trial, as there have been many attempts to maintain impunity for Ríos Montt. The guilty verdict of the former dictator could have paved the way for more prosecutions of those responsible for the crimes. For example, Guatemala’s current president, Otto Peréz Molina, like Ríos Montt, was a graduate of the US Army School of the Americas, a US-run training center that promotes violent military tactics and which has produced many dictators in Latin America. According to an article published by Amy Goodman from Democracy now, in a 1982 interview by Allan Nairn, Molina’s troops confessed to killing whole civilian villages. Nairn also called for holding US president Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Elliot Abrams, responsible for his role in the Guatemalan genocide.

What happens next?

While this new development is not surprising, it is still disheartening—especially in the wake of such an incredible triumph for human rights in both Guatemala and the region as a whole. While those responsible for the crimes may have succeeded in convincing the Constitutional Court to retract the verdict, they cannot erase history. The Mayan indigenous people of Guatemala have told their stories, and they will forever be registered in the nation’s historic memory. The world is still watching and waiting.