Guatemala atrocities trial starts

On March 19, over 30 years after the beginning of the worst massacres, rapes, and persecution in the recent history of Guatemala, a trial beginning today in Guatemala City aims to hold a former head of state and a former head of military intelligence responsible for the crimes. The charges against former General and ex-head of state Efrain Rios Montt and former G-2 commander Jose Mauricio Rodriguez
Sanchez include genocide against the Mayan Ixil people of Guatemala’s northern mountains, as reported in Sunday’s New York Times.

This is the first time genocide, as defined in both international law and the Guatemalan penal code, has been charged against a former head of state in a national court. Additional charges include violations of international humanitarian law (characterized in Guatemala’s penal code as crimes against duties to humanity) and destruction of property. The trial will pay special attention to crimes of sexual violence; the Prosecutors’ Office, led by Chief Prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz, has commissioned experts especially on the issue.

The prosecution and victims’ groups are planning to present over 120 eyewitnesses and 60 experts on various aspects of the case. The genocide charges are based on the indiscriminate nature of the attacks against the members of this ethnic group, who had long been considered unruly and “untamable.” That reputation, combined with deep-seated racism and discrimination on the part of the officer corps and the perception that the entire area supported an anti-government insurgency, led to the razing of villages, massacres, mass rapes, targeting of old people and local cultural leaders, destruction of foodstuffs and animals, and persecution of the survivors as they fled through the jungle. Rios Montt has said that he was not aware of the crimes and had nothing to do with them.

So far, the U.S. ambassador has not said whether he will attend the trial, although there are calls from many groups in the US and Guatemala for US authorities to show their support, especially in the face of threats to the judges and lawyers. Trial observers will be present for the proceedings. Their reports can be followed daily on or on Twitter at @RiosMonttTrial.

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