Our connection to Guatemala’s landmark genocide verdict

Graffiti in Guatemala by the youth group HIJOS calling Rios Montt an “assassin.” (Photo by Surizar )

Update: Ten days after this post, Guatemala’s high court threw out the verdict. The Nation calls this “the latest blow in what had been a sustained dirty war waged by Ríos Montt’s supporters since his indictment in 2012 to delay, obstruct, divert and otherwise sabotage the genocide case” and “evidence of the persistent and grievous weaknesses in Guatemala’s justice system.”

Guatemala just set a historic and world-shaking precedent, becoming the first country to convict its own head of state in its own courts for mass killings.

You know how some people say George W. Bush and Bush Cheney should be put on trial for war crimes?

Well, the genocide verdict in Guatemala on Friday was kind of like that, except that the war was within the country instead of outside it.

Even so, the US played a significant role by training and backing Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s then-president—the man convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison last week.

This was an international victory for justice and human rights, not just as a legal matter, but as a remarkable demonstration of people power. The trial itself never would have happened without years of activism and organizing.

A poster showing solidarity with indigenous Guatemalans who were plaintiffs in the trial against Ríos Montt. (Photo by  dignidadrebelde )
A poster showing solidarity with indigenous Guatemalans who were plaintiffs in the trial against Ríos Montt. (Photo by dignidadrebelde )

A component of those efforts were trips by young Americans to the Guatemalan highlands to accompany genocide survivors and shield them from violent threats.

One of those Americans was Seattle’s Phil Neff, who now works at the immigrants’ rights group OneAmerica. After college, he volunteered in Guatemala in 2008 for ten months, living alongside Maya genocide survivors—many of whom were plaintiffs in the charges brought against Ríos Montt this year—to help protect them from threats to their security.

I asked Phil to answer a few questions about the verdict and his experience in Guatemala:

Talk about the grassroots efforts that led up to the trial.

The trial is the result of more than 13 years of a grassroots movement for justice. The lawsuit that led to Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity began in 2000. The survivors and their lawyers have worked really hard during that time to move the case forward despite years of delays and the reigning impunity for both crimes of the past and present in Guatemala.

What was the US government’s role in the genocide? What was its stance on the Rios Montt trial?

The US is responsible for overthrowing Guatemala’s democratically-elected government in 1954 and backing the ensuing succession of dictatorships. It trained and equipped the Guatemalan military and intelligence apparatus and even developed the National Security Doctrine which defined “internal enemies” as the primary target of Latin American militaries.

In Guatemala those “internal enemies” included not only leftist guerrillas but union members, academics and students, and indigenous communities. Declassified documents show that the US was aware that the Guatemalan military was indiscriminately targeting civilians, and that it identified the Ixil Maya ethnicity as a military target.

The Reagan administration gave millions of dollars in military aid to Rios Montt’s government and denied reports of human rights violations. Today the US vocally supports trials for crimes of the past. Ironically, the successful prosecution of past human rights abuses could contribute to lifting current restrictions on direct US aid to the Guatemalan military.

Can you briefly describe the time you spent in Guatemala in 2008? What were you there to do?

I spent 10 months in Guatemala living alongside Maya genocide survivors participating in the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the organization which is one of the plaintiffs in the trial of Ríos Montt. I was a volunteer international observer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala’s (NISGUA) Accompaniment Project.

Groups like the AJR asked for international accompaniment as a protective measure against the possibility of retaliation for their work. The idea was that an international presence alongside local activists would discourage threats. I spent a lot of my time living in rural indigenous communities with genocide survivors, and traveling with local leaders for meetings and events. I also accompanied indigenous communities as they organized against the Xalalá dam project, which would have displaced them.

In 2010-2012 I went back to coordinate the Guatemala Accompaniment Project, during which the precedent-setting Dos Erres massacre trial and the first arrests for genocide took place.

What did you hear from people about the genocide? How are people coping with the tragedy today?

Xeni Jardin 2I heard harrowing personal testimony from eyewitnesses to massacres and survivors of displacement. I also heard inspiring stories of communities’ peaceful resistance and process of rebuilding after the war.

Above all I was impressed by the survivors’ commitment to seeking justice for themselves and their loved ones who were killed. The violence is still very present. Many people commented that the basic conditions of racism, inequality, and militarization which made the genocide possible have not been overcome, and are even intensifying as industrial development increases pressure on land and the environment.

Communities are working to change these conditions by organizing and asserting their rights, challenging harmful government policies and bringing lawsuits for human rights abuses of both the past and present.

Finally, what is the significance of the verdict and imprisonment of Rios Montt, both for Guatemala and the world?

Amazingly, Guatemala, a country infamous for violence and impunity, has become a world leader in domestic prosecutions for past human rights violations. Milestones like the imprisonment of Rios Montt (unfortunately he’s already been transferred out of prison and into a military hospital—convictions tend to be hard on the health of former dictators) for genocide and crimes against humanity contribute to a global culture of accountability that will forestall future human rights abuses.

The most profound significance, however, is for the victims and survivors who have given so much of themselves to make this verdict possible, and who may find a measure of peace in Rios Montt’s conviction. In the long term, we can hope that the recognition and punishment of genocide will help to erode entrenched racism in Guatemalan society and contribute to the construction of a more democratic society.