News Release

Guatemala: Will Today’s Genocide Verdict Lead to U.S.?

A verdict in the trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt is scheduled to be announced today at 6 p.m. ET.

The New York Times reports today in “Ex-Dictator Denies Role in Guatemalan Massacres” that: “Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala during one of the bloodiest periods of its long civil war, faced the court trying him for genocide on Thursday and denied any role in the horrors narrated by Mayan survivors of massacres committed in the remote highlands three decades ago. …

“During General Ríos Montt’s 17-month rule in 1982 and 1983, the army swept through the Mayan highlands to flush out leftist guerrillas, slaughtering villagers, laying waste to their hamlets and crops, and killing livestock.”

ALLAN NAIRN, [in Guatemala City] allan.nairn at yahoo.com
A noted investigative reporter, Nairn said today on “Democracy Now!“: “Survivors of the Mayan highland massacres campaigned for three decades, remembering their wives and their husbands who were slit open with machetes and shot in the face and thrown into ditches while they were still alive — the fact that they were able to campaign for decades, and even though their movement was crushed during the slaughters of the ’80s, even though the army and the oligarchy to this day retain power in Guatemala, the people they crushed are on the verge of exacting some justice and may be getting a jail sentence against one of the main people responsible for the deaths of — I mean, nobody knows the exact death toll of all the slaughters.

“Ríos Montt in this case is being charged with just 1,700 murders, but the complete death toll over the years in Guatemala could amount to something like a quarter million. And no one has really been able to do this before. No one has been able to use their domestic courts to put a former leader on trial for genocide. This is the kind of move that would be unthinkable in the United States. You know, standing in the courtroom yesterday, I was trying to imagine what would the scene be like in the U.S. if, say, George W. Bush were called before a criminal court in Texas and put on trial for Iraq. It’s hard to imagine, but here it’s happening. …

“In May of ’82, a couple months after he had seized power and sent the army sweeping through the northwest highlands, including the Ixil area, as the army was just wiping out one town after another, executing the civilians, I asked Ríos Montt about the civilian killings. And he said, ‘Look, for each one who is shooting,’ meaning for each guerrilla, ‘there are 10 working behind them,’ meaning there are 10 unarmed people working behind them. And then his adviser, Francisco Bianchi, said, ‘We have to kill Indians, the Ixil people, because they have sold out to subversion.’

“Years later, after Ríos Montt was ousted from power, I interviewed him again. And I asked him whether he thought that he should be put on trial for his role in the massacres and whether he should be executed, since he, Ríos Montt, is a big supporter of the death penalty. And when I asked him that, he suddenly leapt up to his feet and shouted. He said, ‘Yes, try me! Put me against the wall!’ But, he said, that if he was going to be put on trial, the Americans should be put on trial with him. He specifically mentioned Ronald Reagan, who was one of his great sponsors. …

“So, if Ríos Montt is found guilty of genocide, then the question becomes: Well, what about the man who was the field commander for the massacres that got Ríos Montt convicted of genocide? That man is now the president of Guatemala. Pérez Molina did everything he could to see to it that his name did not come up in this trial. That was the bargain under which the trial was allowed to go forward. He let it go forward very, very reluctantly. One witness, to everyone’s surprise, a former military man, testified that Pérez Molina had ordered atrocities. I was due to testify in the trial but then was blocked at the last minute from testifying because there was fear that I would also mention Pérez Molina’s role.

“And, what about the U.S. sponsors who were providing the weapons, the money, the bombs, the bullets and the political support for the crimes for which Ríos Montt may today be convicted of genocide? Because Guatemalan criminal courts have the authority under international law to bring in U.S. defendants. U.S. criminal courts have that same authority. If there’s a verdict today against Ríos Montt, that will be the challenge sitting on the — put to the American and the Guatemalan criminal courts: What’s next? Will you now look at Pérez Molina? Will you now look at the Americans who made this genocide possible?”

Nairn noted in a recent piece on his website: “The trial was suspended on April 18 after intervention by Guatemala’s President and death threats by army associates against judges and prosecutors. But the backlash against the suspension was intense and the army appears to have retreated.”