Sunday, February 3, 2013

Who expected Rios Montt to go to trial?

Virginia Garrard-Burnett has a piece on the Rios Montt trial for the Oxford University Press blog. She is a Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Texas-Austin and the author of Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efrain Rios Montt 1982-1983. Hers is one of the books that I highlighted two weeks ago.
What is unusual about the case against Ríos Montt is that almost no one foresaw the day when such a trial would ever take place in Guatemala. In large part, this stems from Guatemala’s long-standing culture of impunity, where few people, from common criminals all the way up to corrupt businessmen and military officers, are held accountable for their crimes; generally speaking, the rule of law there simply does not rule. Beyond that, Ríos Montt’s continued influence in the country—among other things, he established and headed a powerful political party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco in the 1989, and he run an unsuccessful campaign for president as recently as 2003—further mitigated against expectations for his prosecution.
If you had asked me five or ten years ago, I would have totally agreed with Virginia. However, there have been a number of successful prosecutions in the last few years of people at all levels - self-defence patrols, military commissioners, military officers, Kaibiles, and police officers. Rios Montt is a big jump from these little fish but I guess it wasn't as much of a surprise to me. Then there was also Alfonso Portillo. Though he was found guilty, his extradition, arrest, and trial were pretty big deals. However, Virginia's not the only one to say how surprising the developments have been.

Now, the question is what to do next. In some ways, the Guatemalan courts, if Rios Montt is convicted, will have successfully prosecuted a number of different crimes committed by a variety of people at different levels. Does the Guatemalan state just keep going down the list? Or are there crimes / groups that they have yet to prosecute? Prosecutions, in addition to the CEH and REMHI reports, are part of the conflict's history.

There are some calls on the right to prosecute guerrillas who committed crimes that violated the rules of war. I tackled that in 20122. The guerrillas did commit crimes, but they were in a different league than those committed by the state. However, it would make sense to prosecute some guerrillas so that their crimes are entered into the official record. The right didn't do itself any favors, however, when two or three years ago they tried to get the prosecution to move against former guerrillas for kidnapping and murder. Why go after a photographer and someone else who hadn't even been born yet? That simply undermined what could have led to a legitimate investigation.

You could go after the URNG, the EGP specifically, for a massacre carried out in June 1982. It looks like the EGP killed 75-100 men, women, and children (those over ten were not spared) in Txacal Tze (Chacalte), in Chajul, El Quiche. Given the large number of those killed it would make sense to prosecute those involved. However, it was one of the rare instances of large-scale guerrilla violence. The massacre was not representative of their actions. It might make more sense to prosecute some for kidnapping for ransom or for the assassination of various diplomats. Now that they did.

Prosecuting the army for its use of sex slaves would be helpful. Shedding light on economic crimes that were committed during the war would also be an important finding. Land, homes, and cattle were stolen. Military officials somehow ended up with lots of land that they did not have prior to the start of the conflict. Neighbors also took advantage of neighbors.

PACs asking for back pay is part of rectifying economic crimes but is a little different. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous men were forced to volunteer for PAC-duty. They were often forced to walk in front of or behind military columns so that they would be the first to die in an ambush. Soldiers could then flee or have time to cover and return fire. They were also forced to build roads, bases, and other infrastructure. They didn't get paid and they lost salaries as they would have been working had they not been forced to put time in for the state. But that is a bit different from prosecuting individuals who used the war to profit economically. Stealing babies and selling them might be in this category of economic crimes as well.

Some might say US officials. Even if one could build a case, I'm not exactly sure who is alive that you would go after. George H.W. Bush is the only one I could think of off the top of my head. Any other ideas? The US gave money, some weapons, and training. However, the most important "contribution" was probably political cover. It's not that the US and Reagan didn't try to give more. First, the Guatemalan military said that they didn't need it because they didn't like the human rights conditions that were attached. And in the early 1980s, President Reagan wanted to give them more but the U.S. congress said no. The Guatemalans received aid but probably not as much as the Salvadoran or Honduran governments or the contras.

Some might also say Otto Perez Molina. I don't know. Should there be enough evidence, pursuing legal charges might even be counterproductive. I'd like CICIG to clarify his connection to hidden powers more so than what he did during the war. They're obviously connected but that might be a good way to link the war and the postwar. I am open to being convinced otherwise.

What do you think? Where should prosecutors should go next?

1 comment:

  1. I think Guatemala is poised to continue prosecutions of guilty war crimes offenders but a measured politically-balanced approach is probably the best course of action, as you suggested as a possibility. That said, finding US actors and trying them would probably irritate the US right now and I would think that the prosecuting powers in Guatemala need the Obama Admin's support

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