From The New York Times: OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR: Victory in Guatemala? Not Yet
by Victoria Sanford
There is evidence that the current president, Otto Pérez Molina, may have been involved in the same mass killings for which Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted.
THE conviction last Friday of the former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is of monumental significance. It was the first time in history that a former head of state was indicted by a national tribunal on charges of genocide. It offers hopes to those similarly seeking justice in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
But it’s too soon to declare victory in Guatemala. There is serious evidence that the current president, the former military commander Otto Pérez Molina, who took office in January 2012, may have been involved in the same mass killings for which General Ríos Montt has now been convicted.
During the 17-month dictatorship of General Ríos Montt, from April 1982 to July 1983, as much as 5.5 percent of the indigenous Maya Ixil population was killed, according to testimony presented in court.
In September 1982, during the dictatorship, Mr. Pérez Molina, then a major in the Guatemalan Army, was filmed by a Finnish documentarian, Mikael Wahlforss, standing amid dead men, as soldiers were kicking their bodies, in a Mayan area known as Nebaj. One soldier says in the film that the soldiers had taken the men to Mr. Pérez Molina for interrogation, but that the men gave no information. The soldiers do not explain how the men were killed.
Mr. Pérez Molina has acknowledged that atrocities were committed during the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996 and left up to 200,000 people dead or missing. He has, however, denied committing atrocities. He won election in 2011 on a law-and-order platform that pledged to curb drug- and gang-related violence.
For many years, General Ríos Montt, who was a member of Guatemala’s Congress after he was dictator, hid behind legal immunity. He left Congress in January 2012, and that same month was charged by the tribunal. Mr. Pérez Molina is similarly hiding behind the immunity that comes with the office of president.
The Obama administration should call for Mr. Pérez Molina’s resignation and rally support among other members of the Organization of American States to join this call. This kind of action is not without precedent. In June 1979, with backing from the Carter administration, the O.A.S. successfully demanded the resignation of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
What made the Ríos Montt conviction possible was not only pressure from the international community, which had raised the possibility of an independent tribunal along the lines of the panels responsible for investigating war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but also the rise of a new generation of Guatemalans committed to the rule of law.
As General Ríos Montt’s trial moved forward haltingly over 17 months, it was nearly derailed by threats to witnesses, objections by the defense’s lawyers, and even criticisms by Mr. Pérez Molina, who denied that there was genocide. Prosecutors and judges repeatedly pushed the case back on track. At one point, when the trial proceedings were stuck, Stephen J. Rapp, the United States ambassador at large for war crimes issues, tweeted the American government’s support for the proceedings: “Identification of those responsible allows for peace.”
Upon sentencing General Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison, Yasmín Barrios, one of the three judges on the tribunal, declared. “Justice must exist before there can be peace.” She then ordered the court to reconvene to consider reparations to the victims. Significantly, she also ordered prosecutors to investigate any other individuals who might have participated in the genocide.
The problem with trying people for genocide and crimes against humanity is usually not a lack of evidence. The issue, throughout Central America, is how to bring war criminals to justice when they continue to hold significant political power.
In Guatemala, Mr. Pérez Molina is not the only former general who could be held to account. Another likely candidate is former general José Luis Quilo Ayuso, whose expert witness testimony for the defense ended up providing evidence of General Ríos Montt’s “command responsibility” for the genocide. (Under the legal doctrine of “command responsibility,” a military commander is responsible for failing to prevent or punish war crimes committed by his subordinates.)
Similar trials in El Salvador could result in the trials of the former military officers Inocente Orlando Montana and Guillermo Alfredo Benavides. In Honduras, Juan Carlos Bonilla could be a candidate for prosecution, as could Alesio Gutiérrez in Nicaragua.
None of this is to detract from the significance of General Ríos Montt’s conviction. On Monday, the tribunal ordered that March 23 — the day he came to power through a military coup — would be known as the National Day Against Genocide. Reaffirming the findings of a 1999 Truth Commission, the tribunal also recommended the construction of education centers and monuments in the Maya Ixil area, and ceremonies to remember the victims. They also directed the government to offer a formal apology to Maya Ixil women who survived sexual violence.
The trial has opened the possibility that Guatemalan society will reconcile itself with its own history of exclusion and genocide. It has strengthened Guatemala’s democracy by making domestic courts a preferable venue for these types of crimes to international or hybrid models that lack deep roots in the countries where they work. Still, the lesson of Guatemala may be that the only way to get the generals to a local court is by first prosecuting them everywhere possible. The Ríos Montt case came about only after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2004 that genocide in Guatemala had occurred and that the Ríos Montt regime was responsible, and an international arrest warrant was issued by a Spanish judge in 2006. No doubt, it is the relentless dedication of survivors that brings war criminals to justice.
Appeals in the Ríos Montt case will be inevitably be filed, and there will be much political wrangling about Mr. Pérez Molina’s presidential immunity if charges against him are pursued.
Aside from Ambassador Rapp’s visit to Guatemala in April, during the trial, the Obama administration has departed little from Bush-era foreign policy in Central America, supporting free trade and development, giving financial aid to grow the legal system, and providing equipment and training to police and military units to reduce the flow of drugs and migrants to the United States.
Mr. Pérez Molina has been lobbying the United States for direct military assistance to aid his war on drug traffickers — whom he claims to see everywhere he finds opposition to his policies. Earlier this month he declared a “state of siege” and suspended civil liberties in response to an environmental protest in four mining towns. How can the Obama administration possibly justify sending military aid to a president who does this, let alone a president who might be guilty of genocide?
Victoria Sanford, a professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Lehman College, City University of New York, is the author of “Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala.”