Kelsey Alford-Jones is the Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
“Justice is a right for victims and contributes to rule of law in our country. We believe that for a true peace to exist in Guatemala there must first be justice,” said Guatemalan Judge Yassmin Barrios. She declared General Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity on Friday May 10, a day that will be etched forever in Guatemala’s collective memory.
Ríos Montt was convicted of masterminding and overseeing the massacre of 1,771 Ixil Mayans in the department of El Quiché, as well as the forced displacement of 29,000 people, and 1,485 acts of sexual violence and acts of torture during the early 1980s. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison and was ordered into police custody. His director of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was absolved of both crimes…
During a one-hour statement, Judge Barrios recounted evidence of the indiscriminate massacres committed against the civilian Ixil population, as well as the systematic physical and psychological control meant to destroy the social fabric of the Ixil culture. She noted the brutal use of sexual violence. These acts were carried out as state policy and destroyed approximately 5.5 percent of the Ixil population.
This verdict is not only a victory for justice in Guatemala. It reverberates far beyond Guatemala’s borders. It is the first time that a head of state has been tried and convicted for genocide by national courts. Dictators and human rights violators will not take heart from this historic step; nor should those who bankroll them. In the United States, the trial has been a stark reminder of the close relationship between the United States government and General Ríos Montt, which included direct funding, training, equipment and extensive assistance in military operations during the decades-long conflict.
But this sentence was hardly assured. It took a quarter century of fighting for justice to even see the inside of a courtroom. Once the trial began on March 19 it was not the facts of the case that were in question. The prosecution constructed a formidable case based on over a hundred testimonies and thousands of documents; the defense, meanwhile, had no defense. Instead, the legal counsel of Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez made a mockery of justice and the law at every opportunity.
Outside the court, deep divisions in civil society have surfaced with tenacity. The case ignited and united sectors of society that benefit from impunity, who decided to fight the battle with public pressure. Using bribes, defamation campaigns, and paid ads, they attempted to instill fear of a repetition of past violence while simultaneously blaming those that seek justice for “disrupting the peace.” Guatemala’s current president, stationed in the Ixil as an army major during the dictatorship of Ríos Montt, has reiterated his belief that “there was no genocide.”
Meanwhile, survivors came together from across Guatemala in solidarity with Ixil victims, finding an increasingly bold voice, marching, gathering in vigils, and supporting each other amidst the constant threats.
In closing arguments, Benjamin Jerónimo, a survivor and representative of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, stated: “We are not looking for vengeance; we are looking for a true peace with justice, with respect, with equality, with dignity. That is why we are here.”
The Ixil survivors, their lawyers, Guatemala’s Attorney General and state prosecutors, Judge Yassmin Barrios and other judges, and supporting organizations all risked their lives to make justice possible. The international community must now commit to standing with them for the duration, because the danger does not end with the verdict. In fact, many challenges remain. The sentence was immediately appealed, and many fear violent retaliation.
Nevertheless, this historic case demonstrates that accountability – for even the nation’s most powerful actors – is not out of reach. It is a victory for all Guatemalans who strive to build a nation based on the rule of law, opening the door for the further pursuit of justice and the defense of historic memory.