As I mentioned the other day, multiple efforts to support justice in Guatemala have been defeated by various actors (political, economic, and military) over the last twenty years. Last week I began to wonder what it would take for a guilty verdict in the Guatemalan genocide trial to have much of an impact outside of the victims and the left. Would a guilty verdict lead to a strengthening of the judicial system? That I thought required some embrace of a guilty verdict by unusual suspects.
Current President Otto Perez Molina is unlikely to support guilty verdicts. He continues to deny that genocide took place and the court’s ruling is unlikely to change his mind. He also faces the threat of prosecution for war crimes at some point in the future as his name came up in the trial as one of the military commanders responsible for carrying out atrocities in the Nebaj region of the country.
How about former presidents such as Vinicio Cerezo, Alvaro Arzu, and Oscar Berger? Peace talks began under Cerezo and were completed under Arzu. Berger signed the agreement to bring CICIG to Guatemala. Will the former presidents publicly embrace the ruling? Will individual members of congress, not just the handful of those on the left, voice their support for the ruling? Will a majority in congress pass some sort of resolution expressing their support for the ruling? The court’s ruling will have greater legitimacy and the potential to truly transform the justice system should current and former elected officials, on the left and the right, come out in support of the justices’ ruling. Given the statements condemning the trial by members of the Arzu government, I'm not optimistic. However, as far as I know we haven't heard from Arzu. Fifteen years ago he had to back down from his lukewarm support for the truth commissions findings. I can't say that I am optimistic that he will be outspoken this time.
A number of economic elites were responsible for helping to defeat the 1999 constitutional reforms. In March, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF) published a paid advertisement expressing its profound disagreement with the trial against Ríos Montt. Have the truly barbarous acts carried out by the government and made known once again by this trial, change any of their minds? Will economic elites, individually or through CACIF, publicly support the court’s ruling? Unlikely.
Will former and current military officials support the ruling? How about the rank and file that served in the military during the early 1980s? During the current trial, the defense has argued that the chain of command did not reach Ríos Montt. Any massacres and human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan army were the responsibility of regional commanders and other lower-ranking officials. In effect, Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez’s attorneys are trying to get those who carried out the orders to take the fall for those who ordered them. Remember we're talking about tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of soldiers who served in the military in the early 1980s plus over 1 million who served in some capacity in the PACs.
As the trial progressed, I became less and less convinced that any of these scenarios would transpire. In addition to perfectly legal challenges to the process, the defense also orchestrated a number of shenanigans (rotating of lawyers, failure to present its witnesses, excessive bathroom breaks, repeated calls for the judges to recuse themselves, etc.), all designed to undermine the legitimacy of the legal process. After failing to prevent the case from going to trial, those who deny genocide have now begun to press their case outside the courtroom by taking out paid advertisements in local papers attacking the process. The prosecution's efforts to indict Otto Perez Molina also looks like it backfired. The right mobilized and the trial is now perceived as more politicized than it was when it started.
Unfortunately, I am not that optimistic that the case will help to transform the country in a positive way. That's not a reason not to pursue the charges but it just brings up the case's limitations.