It's official: Guatemala's Efrain Rios Montt will be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity, making him the first ex-dictator in the region to face charges of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala the first country in the world to prosecute a former leader for genocide in its own court system. On Monday a Guatemalan federal judge ordered Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, to be tried in connection with the massacre of some 1,700 indigenous Guatemalans, as well as the forced displacement of 29,000 people during the most violent period of the country’s bloody civil war.
According to Prensa Libre, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez based the ruling on the Guatemalan military code, which maintains that the army’s high command is responsible for the actions of its soldiers on the ground. "The Army cannot be divided; it does not work like other institutions. In its hierarchy decisions are made vertically, so that each of the orders given to subordinates is also the responsibility of the military command,” the judge said at yesterday’s hearing.
The ruling is a major triumph for justice and accountability in Guatemala, but the weakness of the Guatemalan justice system may present obstacles to the trial moving forward. While intrepid Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has won praise for her willingness to take on powerful political figures and the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) has made significant progress in going after dirty judges in the country, the courts are still plagued by widespread corruption and impunity. Guatemala has one of the lowest conviction rates in the region, with less than ten percent of cases filed resulting in convictions.
One of the biggest threats to a fair trial for Rios Montt is the influence that the military exercises on Guatemala’s democratic institutions. President Otto Perez Molina is himself a former general, and has been quite vocal in his denial that genocide occurred during the Guatemalan Civil War, despite the UN Truth Commission’s finding that the military carried out several “acts of genocide” under Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule.
Earlier this month, Perez angered human rights activists by issuing a decree stating that the government would nolonger recognize rulings made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987. He later suspended the decree in response to criticism, but the move still illustrated a worrisome lack of respect for human rights norms and fueled concerns that Perez would seek to pressure the courts into dropping the case against Rios Montt.
As analyst James Bosworth points out, the charges of genocide may be the hardest for prosecutors to prove. As such, the case will likely focus more on the crimes against humanity charges and Rios Montt’s infamous “scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign, where the case against the former dictator is much stronger.
Of course, the simple fact that a former Guatemalan dictator could be made to answer for his abuses is amazing. As Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco notes, “Until recently, the idea of a Guatemalan general being tried for these heinous crimes seemed utterly impossible.” But while Judge Galvez threw out 13 appeals presented by Rios Montt’s defense team and ordered him to appear at a January 31 hearing of the evidence, elPeriodico reports that his defense team has vowed that they will present yet another appeal to the judge. Because the former dictator’s lawyers have been successfully delaying proceedings against him for nearly a year, there is reason to refrain from celebrating just yet.
- Brazil arrested four people on Monday in connection with the deadly nightclub fire in Rio de Janeiro that killed more than 230 people over the weekend. While officials have not identified the suspects, CNN reports that two of them are owners of the club and the other two are members of the band which played on Saturday night and is suspected of starting the fire with a pyrotechnic show.
- In a move which may complicate ongoing peace talks with the Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have allegedly taken two police officers prisoner in the southwest province of Valle del Cauca, El Espectador reports. The FARC had previously freed all of their uniformed captives before peace talks began as a gesture of goodwill.
- The Wilson Center and Migration Policy Institute have released a new study (.pdf) on the US response to crime and violence in Mexico and Central America analyzing the successes and failures of the Merida Initiative and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), as well as taking a look at other ways in which the US has addressed insecurity in the region.
- Writing for elPeriodico, Guatemalan journalists Claudia Mendez Arriaza and Carlos Mendoza attempt to put Guatemala’s violent reputation in perspective. The two take on the seven biggest misconceptions about homicides in the country, arguing that violence and insecurity are not as widespread as many claim.
- Mexican police believe they have found the bodies of several members of a large, popular band known as Kombo Kolombia in a well in Nuevo Leon state. The band went missing after a performance on Thursday night, and police say they were abducted by gunmen for unknown reasons, El Universal and the New York Times report.
- Over at Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde offers a thoughtful critique of the Venezuelan government’s handling of the recent prison riot which killed 55 people on Friday. He notes that “as with previous cases of prison violence, the government has pointed the finger at the media,” choosing to criticize the coverage of the riot rather than its underlying causes.
- The AP has an overview of the significance of Cuban President Raul Castro becoming head of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) on Monday. The wire agency claims it represents a “demonstration of regional unity against U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government through a 50-year-old economic embargo.
- After leaving the CELAC summit in Chile, yesterday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met with Uruguayan President Jose Mujica in Montevideo. The two discussed bilateral ties between Mexico and Uruguay, with Peña Nieto praising a successful “one laptop per child” program in Uruguay and saying he planned to implement a similar program in Mexico. According to Milenio, the two also discussed drug policy, an issue on which both leaders share very little in common in their positions. While Mujica is a supporter for marijuana legalization, Peña Nieto has rejected decriminalization proposals.