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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Guatemala > Justice on Trial in Guatemala: The Ríos Montt Case

Justice on Trial in Guatemala: The Ríos Montt Case

Latin America Report N°50 23 Sep 2013

This report is also available in Spanish.


Within ten days, Guatemalan courts made and unmade legal history. The trial and conviction of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt on 10 May 2013 for genocide and other human rights violations was an extraordinary achievement for a justice system that must grapple simultaneously with the legacy of a vicious internal conflict and the contemporary scourges of gang violence, corruption and illegal drug trafficking. Victims had barely finished celebrating, however, when the Constitutional Court annulled the verdict in a confusing decision that raised questions of outside interference. Widespread impunity for past and present violence continues to have a corrosive effect on the country’s democracy. Failure to renew the trial for mass atrocities against Ríos Montt and pursue justice for the victims of violent crime would undermine its halting progress toward rule of law, including a strong independent judiciary.

The case against Ríos Montt and former director of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez has been passed to a new tribunal, though legal challenges make its renewal uncertain. If and when proceedings resume, the new judges will have to rehear testimony regarding massacres, rapes, torture and the forced displacement of Maya-Ixil communities in 1982 and 1983, when Ríos Montt was the de  facto head of state. Prosecutors charged both retired generals with genocide and violations of international humanitarian law, arguing that they targeted the Ixil people for extermination to deprive guerrillas of support. Though the tribunal convicted Ríos Montt, it acquitted his co-defendant. Thanks to decades of work by victims associations, human rights investigators and forensic anthropologists, prosecutors could draw on abundant oral, documentary and physical evidence. An attorney general with a background in human rights work, Claudia Paz y Paz, pushed the case forward, along with other high-profile prosecutions of both ex-government officials and organised crime figures. The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) helped engineer creation of the high-risk court that heard the case, providing specially trained and vetted judges with extra security.

The result was a largely exemplary public trial, including testimony from more than 100 victims, plus experts from both sides, and opportunities for cross-examination. Images broadcast on national television of the ex-dictator facing witnesses from one of the poorest indigenous communities vividly demonstrated the principle that all citizens are equal before the law.

But what happened in the courtroom was only part of the story. Defence attorneys filed more than a dozen petitions to delay or derail the proceedings. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly warned that procedural actions are used in Guatemala to obstruct justice in human rights and other high-profile cases, fuelling perceptions that justice is for sale and making victims less likely to cooperate with authorities.

As the trial reached its conclusion, powerful interest groups intensified their campaigns against the process. An “anti-terrorist” foundation led by military veterans attacked human rights advocates as guerrilla collaborators in the media. The business chambers warned that the trial was fomenting polarisation and immediately after the conviction demanded that the Constitutional Court annul the verdict. President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general himself, repeatedly stated his view that the military never committed genocide, though he promised to respect the judicial process.

When the Constitutional Court short-circuited the appeal process and threw out the verdict on 20 May in a poorly explained decision, it appeared to many that the judges were responding to political pressure. Although the court technically cancelled only part of the trial, their decision forced the original three-judge panel to withdraw, sending the case to a new tribunal.

These new judges must now be allowed to work without interference, weighing carefully both prosecution and defence arguments. Although Ríos Montt authorised summary military proceedings as dictator, he has the right to a fair trial, like all defendants under democratic governments. But the victims also have rights. The Ixil people have already waited 30 years for justice. Will a new tribunal be able to reach an evidence-based verdict that sticks? Or will the process drag out, and the trial end in confusion and controversy again, casting doubt on Guatemala’s ability to prosecute powerful defendants? Whatever the answer, it will send a powerful message about rule of law under the country’s still fragile democracy.

Guatemala will face another test of its judicial system in 2014, when it begins the process of selecting nominees for a new Supreme Court and other appeals tribunals and either chooses a new attorney general or gives Paz y Paz another term. Political authorities should act urgently to ensure that candidates are selected on merit in a transparent process that enhances the prestige and independence of judges. At stake is the ability to deal with not just past abuses, but also the crime and corruption threatening democracy today.


To combat impunity and ensure accountability for human rights violations:

To the government:

1.  Provide effective protection, when requested, to all judges, prosecutors, co-complainants, attorneys and witnesses in human rights cases.

To the Supreme Court and other courts, judges and the attorney general:

2.  Expedite a new trial for the former military president, José Efraín Ríos Montt, and his ex-director of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.

3.  Continue to prosecute all persons believed responsible for massacres and other violations of international humanitarian law, including those committed by guerrilla forces.

4.  Reject patently frivolous or repetitive motions that serve only to delay and complicate trial proceedings and impose sanctions on attorneys who engage in such tactics.

To strengthen judicial institutions

To the government:

5.  Reiterate commitment to an independent judiciary by taking specific actions, including:

a) endorse publicly the attorney general’s efforts to bring both ex-military officers and ex-guerrillas to justice for human rights violations; and

b) provide full support for investigations by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in its final two years, so that it can aggressively pursue criminal conspiracies within the government and protect key institutions – especially within the justice sector – from further penetration.

To Congress:

6.  Strengthen the relevant laws so that:

a) nominating committees are required to select candidates, including those aspiring to become attorney general and judges, on merit, as determined by objective qualifications and accomplishments, and are provided with the resources necessary to verify and publicise their findings;

b) the nominating process is open and transparent, subject to monitoring by civil society and the media, and includes input from underrepresented groups, such as indigenous peoples; and

c) would-be candidates are required to reveal how they finance their campaigns, and reasonable limits are placed on the cost and duration of these efforts.

7.  Begin a serious debate on how to reform the law regulating amparos (petitions to remedy violations of constitutional law or procedure), so that these instruments are used only for the protection of fundamental rights, including due process, and not as a mechanism for delaying or obstructing justice.

To the Supreme Court and the attorney general:

8.  Guarantee the constitutional principle of autonomy of all judges and prosecutors; refrain from using transfers or other administrative measures to punish them for their decisions; and apply only such disciplinary procedures with respect to them as are approved by law.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 23 September 2013

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