Wednesday, March 20, 2013

First Day of Guatemalan Dictator Trial Sees Courtroom Drama

The trial of Guatemalan ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt began yesterday with a curveball: the former leader had apparently replaced his previous defense attorney with a completely new lawyer, Francisco Garcia Gudiel. When the proceedings began, Garcia immediately asked the tribunal for a five-day recess in order to allow him to become more familiar with the details of the case, a request which was denied.  

According to Prensa Libre, he then accused the tribunal’s chief justice, Jazmin Barrios, of having a personal vendetta against him and said this disqualified her from presiding over the trial. He also said that another judge on the tribunal, Pablo Xitumul, should recuse himself for allegedly being on friendly terms with the defense lawyer.

The attempt to force Barrios to recuse herself likely stems from her past participation in other landmark human rights cases. As noted in Monday’s Post, Barrios presided over the 1990 case of the murder of Myrna Mack as well as the cases of the 1982 Dos Erres and Plan de Sanchez massacres. She has proven herself to be a tough crusader against military abuses, a fact which doubtlessly makes her a threat in the eyes of Rios Montt’s defense team.

Garcia also attempted to downplay the seriousness of the charges against his client, claiming that the genocide allegations were the result of a smear campaign led largely by foreign NGOs. As Central American Politics’ Mike Allison -- who was at the proceedings -- points out, there is a grain of truth to this claim as international groups were instrumental in pushing for the trial. Still, the fact that Rios Montt is the first former head of state to be tried for crimes against humanity in his own country, as opposed to an international or regional human rights court, is proof that domestic rights advocates are the main force behind the prosecution.

Prensa Libre reports that the tribunal rejected Garcia’s attempt to get the judges to recuse themselves, and promptly “ejected him from court for having lied.” Rios Montt is expected to name a new lawyer to represent him today.

Writing for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s RiosMontt-Trial.org, former Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo offers his take on the case, which he says illustrates a mix of the main problems that Latin America has been confronting over the last several decades: political violence and organized crime. While the former has become less common in the region in recent decades, Ocampo believes that the latter is “the scourge of our time.”

Interestingly, Rios Montt’s choice of Garcia as his defense attorney seems to lend weight to Ocampo’s words. In 2010, an elPeriodico investigation identified him as one of several lawyers with apparent ties to illicit activities, noting that he has served as the defense attorney in a number of high-profile corruption and drug trafficking cases.


News Briefs
  • After claiming to have killed 16 soldiers in a recent armed confrontation, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have once again called on the Colombian military to adopt a bilateral ceasefire with the guerrillas. Caracol Radio reports that Ivan Marquez, head of the FARC’s negotiating team in Havana, said that the deaths were regrettable, and accused Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon of being a “sniper” against the peace talks. The government has made no comment on the latest call for a ceasefire, and military officials have denied that the rebel attack even took place.
  • The governments of Brazil and Ecuador have signed an agreement to cooperate and exchange strategies on poverty reduction, El Comercio reports. The agreement was announced yesterday by the Ecuadorean government, which cited a recent Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) report describing the two countries as among the region’s most successful in reducing poverty.
  • Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles continues to press Interim President Nicolas Maduro to hold a public debate ahead of elections next month, El Nacional reports. Maduro said last week that he would be open to engaging the opposition in dialogue, but has so far refused to debate his rival.
  • The Venezuelan government has announced that it will honor the Cuban medical team which attended to Hugo Chavez before his death earlier this month. According to an official statement, the doctors will be named first class members of the Order of Liberators of Venezuela.
  • In a recent interview with Spain’s Cambio16, jailed former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla called on his “comrades” in the military to “reserve the duty of arming yourselves again in defense of the republic’s basic institutions, which are today being trampled upon by the Kirchner regime, led by President Cristina and her henchmen.” The remarks seemed to many to be an endorsement of a coup d’état, but Videla has denied this and said that his statement was taken out of context.
  • Ahead of a March 22 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in which the authority and independence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will be assessed, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño is drumming up support for reforming the human rights watchdog in the Caribbean. According to Telesur, Patiño will meet with government officials in Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Barbados this week in an attempt to gain approval for the Ecuadorean government’s proposal to rein in the commission’s responsibilities.
  • The AFP claims that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s decision to attend Pope Francis’ inaugural mass yesterday is yet another indication of his status as a political maverick. In doing so, Peña Nieto became the first president of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to publicly attend mass, as the PRI has had a long history of frigid relations with the Church.
  • Despite growing inflation and slowing economic growth in Brazil, a new poll by CNI/Ibope suggests that President Dilma Rousseff is more popular than ever. For the first time, the pollster’s quarterly survey found that more people said they preferred Rousseff's government to that of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
  • According to data obtained by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), the number of immigrant deaths on the U.S. southern border last year reached its second-highest level since 1998, with a total of 477 documented deaths. As NFAP notes, the high number of deaths is especially significant considering that fewer migrants are attempting to cross the border.
  • Mexican officials say that a clash between unidentified gunmen and members of the military on Tuesday in Mexico State has left 10 dead. Milenio reports that it is the most violent incident the state has seen so far this year.
  • The Associated Press reports on the Jamaican government’s concern over the fact that less and less Jamaican citizens living abroad are returning to the country, despite officials’ efforts to encourage investment and retirement on the island.