Guatemala’s former dictator convicted of genocide

Thousands of indigenous people in Guatemala were tortured or killed during the military dictatorship of José Efrain Ríos Montt.

Thousands of indigenous people in Guatemala were tortured or killed during the military dictatorship of José Efrain Ríos Montt.
© Survival International

May 21 UPDATE: Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has overturned Ríos Montt’s conviction on procedural grounds. The court has said the trial must go back to where it stood on April 19, and re-start from that point – on that day, Ríos Montt’s lawyer was briefly expelled from the court room after accusing the judge of bias. Countless days of testimonies will now have to be re-heard.

A former general who presided over a reign of terror in Guatemala during the 1980s has been convicted of genocide.

During the military dictatorship of José Efrain Ríos Montt, around 200,000 people, almost all of them members of Guatemala’s indigenous population, were killed or disappeared.

When he seized power in 1982 with a promise to restore ‘authentic democracy’, the country was already in the midst of a brutal civil war, with left-wing guerrillas launching attacks against the military regime from their bases in the countryside.

Ríos Montt’s response was to order a new military offensive against alleged guerrilla strongholds in the highlands.

At least 100,000 Indians, mostly Maya speakers, fled to Mexico, whilst thousands of indigenous men, women and children in the northwest highlands of Guatemala were tortured or killed, their villages and crops destroyed, their water supplies poisoned and their forests burned.

In 1983 Survival released its report ‘Witness to genocide’, after interviewing Guatemalan refugees along the border with Mexico. The testimonies gathered in it provide a harrowing glimpse into the terrors visited upon hundreds of villages during that time.

Survival’s researchers interviewed one 30-year old woman, for example, from the province of Huehuetenango. As described in the report, ‘At 6am on May 6th 1982, about one hundred soldiers whom she could identify by their camouflage suits and pistols, arrived on foot in her village and surrounded it. Villagers then were robbed of their clothes and money, and their houses were burned. Many were hacked, beaten and shot to death. She alone saw soldiers kill fifteen people, as she stood twenty-five meters away. She was raped. Her husband and brothers were killed inside their house. Shortly after this, she fled to Mexico.’

Ríos Montt has been sentenced to 80 years’ imprisonment. Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios said he ‘knew what was happening and did not stop it, despite having the power to.’ His lawyers have said they will appeal.