Thursday, May 9, 2013

Guatemala’s Rios Montt Trial Hears Closing Arguments

With the case against a Guatemalan ex-dictator and his former chief of intelligence on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity nearing a close, it is now up to the prosecution to lay out its best case that the two acted on a clear intent to eradicate a Mayan ethnic group during the country’s armed conflict.

After weeks of uncertainty and repeated delays in proceedings, the trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez has moved to its final phase. Yesterday afternoon the head of the tribunal overseeing the case, Judge Yasmin Barrios, made the announcement after the defense team said it was unable to present any witnesses, a claim it has made repeatedly over the past weeks, according to NISGUA’s rundown of the proceedings.

While in the past this has worked as a successful postponement tactic for the defense, its value apparently wore off.  Judge Barrios announced that she would not accept further delay in the trial, and called on the public prosecutor’s office to present its closing argument. Prensa Libre and El Periodico report that public prosecutor Orlando Lopez began by presenting an analysis of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy during Rios Montt’s 1982-83 rule, asserting that internal army documents proved that both the former dictator and his intelligence chief were aware of and promoted the military’s classification of Ixil people as an internal enemy of the state.

Along with testimony of the 98 Ixil victims, expert anthropologists and forensic scientists who participated in the trial, this is evidence that the two are guilty of both genocide and crimes against humanity, Lopez argued. As punishment, he said his office was seeking the maximum penalty under the law: 75 years’ imprisonment.

The trial will continue today, when civil plaintiffs from the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) will each provide their final arguments. After this, the defense will have an opportunity to present its closing arguments as well, the lawyers of the accused will likely focus on legitimacy of the trial itself rather than the charges, as they have done throughout the proceedings.

While the trial has revealed somewhat clear evidence of war crimes, implicating the defendants in genocide will be a tall order, despite the best arguments of the prosecution. As the Human Rights Data Analysis Group’s Patrick Ball told Plaza Publica in a recent interview, homicide data from the era is consistent with the prosecution’s argument that the Ixil were specifically targeted, but proving “genocidal intent” requires a relatively high burden of proof. For this reason, the closing statements of the AJR and CALDH today will be extremely important to the outcome of the case. Rios Montt is the first former head of state to be tried for genocide in his own country, and if a guilty ruling based on conclusive evidence would be a major victory for both Guatemala’s rickety justice system and international human rights norms in general.

News Briefs

  • Yesterday brought good news for those who believe the Obama administration has not paid enough attention to the region. The White House has announced that Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and Chilean President Sebastian Piñera will travel to Washington to meet with Obama in June, and Vice President Joe Biden will make visits to Colombia, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago next week.  
  • The visit by Humala and Piñera may present difficulties for the administration, however, as both Latin American presidents have recognized the electoral victory of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, while Obama has not. There is also a chance that the visit by Humala will spark criticism from the president’s opponents on the right, as his recent attendance of a Central American summit in Costa Rica did. Nicaragua Dispatch reports that the fiercely anti-ALBA Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has lashed out against Obama for failing to condemn Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega for his “successful attempts to violate the Nicaraguan constitution multiple times.”
  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in conjunction with Peru’s National Commission on Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA), has released a new study on “pasta base,” a cocaine derivative drug which has reached epidemic levels of use throughout the Southern Cone. The study looks at the international distribution chain of the drug, as well as domestic consumption in Peru. According to the authors’ findings, consumption has risen in Peru as well, and the median age of first use has fallen from 15 in 2006 to just 13.
  • Mexican authorities have announced that three investigators working for INTERPOL, as well as a federal officer, have gone missing in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. Excelsior reports that unofficial sources claim the agents were tracking a high-level suspect in the city before they disappeared on Monday.
  • The L.A. Times looks at the slow pace of the police vetting process in Mexico. According to data obtained by the Mexican nonprofit Common Cause, less than 50 percent of the 515,000 state and municipal police had been tested as of February, and nationwide less than one-third of the police who have failed tests have been dismissed.
  • David Smilde of Venezuela Politics and Human Rights takes a look at recent opinion polls in Venezuela, which show growing support for the opposition and majority support for a complete audit of the April 14 elections.
  • AFP reports that opposition lawmakers in Venezuela have reached an agreement with members of the ruling party majority which will allow the country’s National Assembly to resume normal proceedings, after weeks of National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello refusing to grant opposition legislators the floor because they would not recognize Maduro’s election victory.
  • The government of Bolivia has found itself clashing with yet another social movement. After three days of demonstrations the Bolivian Workers' Center (COB), the largest organization of unions in Bolivia, is demanding a pension increase by organizing a strike at the country's largest tin mine and blocking major highways. La Razon reports that police broke up one roadblock in the west of the country after demonstrators allegedly used dynamite to destroy a bridge.
  • A top Vatican official has publicly condemned the popular “Santa Muerte” figure in Mexico, which has become a venerated folk saint for many in the rural north of the country as well as many actors in its criminal underworld. Speaking at an event in Mexico City, Vatican Culture Minister Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi said the image was blasphemous and was an affront to the faith.
  • Nearly a year after the Colombia-U.S. trade agreement went into effect, the country still struggles with alarming levels of violence aimed at union workers. Julio Roberto Gomez, president of the country’s General Labor Confederation (CGT), told Caracol Radio yesterday that his union’s statistics suggest that 64 percent of all union worker killings worldwide occur in Colombia.