An historic trial begins in Guatemala on Tuesday for a former U.S.-backed, School of the Americas-trained dictator accused of acts genocide committed during his brutal regime.
86-year-old Efrain Rios Montt stands accused of killing over 1,700 Ixil Mayas during his 1982-1983 regime, which took place during Guatemala's 36-year civil war that left as many as 200,000 people, mostly indigenous, killed and tens of thousands "disappeared."
The trial, the first ever in which a former head of state faces genocide charges by a national tribunal, "marks a long-awaited opportunity for justice for the victims of crimes against humanity committed against Guatemala’s Mayan communities," Amnesty International said.
NPR shares the story of Antonio Cava, an Ixil Indian, who, on Jan. 15, 1982, witnessed an event that was replicated across his country:
"The soldiers came into town at 10:30 at night and started kicking down doors. My father woke me up," Cava says. "He said, 'Son, we have to leave.' I grabbed my brothers and we ran into the forest and climbed into the trees. ... We could hear our neighbors being tortured and screaming for help. There was nothing we could do."
Two months later the soldiers returned, and this time they rounded up the entire village. The women were sent into the village's tiny school; the men into the church next door. Cava says he then heard the order come over a soldier's radio: Shoot them all.
"One by one they killed the men," he says. "They killed them, in an instant ... they killed 95 people."
Reuters reports that Rios Montt was able to avoid prosecution for these atrocities because he was "protected as a congressman by a law that grants immunity to public officials."
In 1999, a UN Truth Commission issued a report entitled Guatemala: Memory of Silence documenting a "governmental policy of genocide in Guatemala" during the civil war, and members of the commission told a press conference:
The Commission's conclusions on the genocide had been based primarily on witnesses' testimonies and the atrocious nature of some of the massacres. Entire villages had been destroyed and all their inhabitants killed. The policy had been total destruction, not only "scorched earth", but, in some cases, every human being had been killed, including women, children, babies and elderly people. Pregnant women and babies had been victimized with particular brutality, as described in the chapter of the report on atrocities committed against women.
The Commission had concluded that such atrocities could not be explained other than as an attempt to exterminate the ethnic group as such, "since babies could not make war against a well-equipped armed force", he said. The atrocities had not been isolated events, but rather a pattern. In many instances, entire populations had been killed systematically. The Commission had had available some speeches and statements by political leaders of the time, but the main basis for its conclusions were the facts of what had happened in the countryside, he added.
Were the United States Government and companies implicated in the allegations of genocide? the same correspondent asked. The United States did not bear direct responsibility for any act of genocide, Mr. Tomuschat answered. However, its Government had known what was going on in the Guatemalan countryside. It had not raised any objections and had continued to support the Guatemalan army. In that sense, the United States was implicated. As for American businesses, the Guatemalan subsidiary of Coca Cola had mercilessly pursued the trade union movement for years, and a dozen union leaders had been killed.
“Relatives of victims have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years and it is a testament to their perseverance, along with their lawyers, that a trial which has been blocked by appeals for 11 years is finally taking place," stated Guadalupe Marengo, director of Amnesty International’s Americas Program.
Standing trial for genocide with Rios Montt is his former chief of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she hoped the trial "will signal the arrival of long-awaited justice for thousands of victims of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed during the murderous 36-year conflict in Guatemala."