The Trial of Efrain Rios Montt

By: Daniel Nardini

I never thought I would live to see what can only be called the trial of a war criminal. Former President of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, did not come to power in the same way that an American president does. He came to power in a bloody military coup on March 7, 1982. But even then his bloody legacy was just beginning. In his twisted view of the conflict in his own country, he saw it as a confirmation of biblical passages about the end of the world. In this context, he had no problem sending out elite brigades of the Guatemalan army not to fight against Communist rebels but to kill and exterminate many of the indigenous inhabitants of Guatemala—the Mayans.

One of the most infamous of these massacres was in the village Plan de Sanchez where in that place alone 250 villagers were slaughtered. Under Montt, 600 villages would be leveled to the ground and most of their residents massacred. Until early 1983, Montt had slaughtered over 10,000 people and sent an additional 100,000 fleeing for their lives to Mexico to escape the Guatemalan army. His rule was so bad that even the Guatemalan army decided to get rid of him. He was overthrown in a military coup, and was briefly under house arrest. But he was eventually freed and remained in Guatemalan politics ever since. The crazy thing is that until recently he had been “immune” from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity until 2012.

There were attempts at bringing Montt to trail back in the 1990’s, but Montt had too many supporters in the Guatemalan military, and many Guatemalan politicians, afraid they might be someday prosecuted for any war crimes they might have committed during the country’s civil war, chose not to try Montt. In other words, it was a government conspiracy of silence. But the survivors who lost loved ones as well as neighbors and friends have been left with the bitter legacy of remembering those who were killed while the one who gave the commands to commit these atrocities could still hold a senator’s seat in the country’s congress. Trying and convicting Montt for genocide may not bring anyone back to life, but at least the living can rest easier that justice will have been done. Let us hope that justice will be done in Guatemala this time. Only when justice is done can the country and its people as a whole put their blood-soaked past behind them.

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