Ríos Montt Genocide Verdict Annulled, But Activists Ensure US-Backed Crimes Will Never Be Forgotten

Democracy Now*

HAVANA TIMES – As Guatemala’s high court annuls former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s genocide conviction, we’re joined by two people who have worked tirelessly to bring perpetrators of war crimes in the country to justice. Helen Mack, one of Guatemala’s most well-known human rights activists, fought for years to prosecute the government forces who assassinated her sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack on Sept. 11, 1990.

A Right Livelihood Award Winner, today she heads the Myrna Mack Foundation, named after her sister. We also speak with Kate Doyle, a senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America and the director at the Guatemala Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, who is featured in the documentary, “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.” Both Mack and Doyle attended Ríos Montt’s recent trial.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Guatemala. The country’s top court has overturned the genocide conviction of former U.S.-backed military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. In a historic verdict earlier this month, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity in the killings of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayan people in the early 1980s. But now the status of the verdict is in question. In a three-to-two ruling Monday, the Guatemalan constitutional court dismissed all the case’s proceedings dating back to a month ago. It was then that the court first annulled the case amidst a dispute between judges over jurisdiction. This is Constitutional Court Deputy Secretary Giovanni Salguero.

GIOVANNI SALGUERO: [translated] Everything said in the phase of moral and public debate of the legal process will be intercepted under the process of amparo from April 19, 2013. All proceedings before that date are annulled.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the run-up to its latest decision to overturn, the court had come under heavy lobbying from Ríos Montt supporters, including the military and Guatemala’s powerful business association. Ríos Montt remains in a military hospital, where he was admitted last week. His legal status is now up in the air. He will likely be released into house arrest, and it is unclear when or if he will return to court.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Helen Mack, one of Guatemala’s most well-known human rights activists, president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, named after her sister, a Guatemalan anthropologist who was assassinated in Guatemala September 11, 1990. Helen spent 14 years bringing the officers and generals responsible for her sister’s murder to justice. She recently attended and monitored parts of the Ríos Montt genocide trial.

And we’re joined by Kate Doyle, senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America and director of the Guatemala Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. She also attended the Ríos Montt genocide trial in Guatemala, filing reports from inside the courtroom for the Open Society Foundation. She is winner of the ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism and featured in the documentary Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.

Helen Mack, Kate Doyle, welcome to Democracy Now! Helen, your response to the overturning of this verdict?

HELEN MACK: It was not unpredictable. Since the very beginning, it was very clear the legal strategy that the defense wanted, they never wanted to discuss or to dismiss all the charges that were given to Rodríguez Sánchez and Ríos Montt, so everybody was expecting this. And I think that, for Guatemala, we lost an opportunity, and for the victims, it’s a misrespect. But overall is that it is in evidence that the justice system doesn’t work for everybody, that we are not equal before law. It’s just for an elite that it works. And due process is only according to what I want to be understand. It’s not what is the laws.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was the actual argument that the court used to overturn the verdict and the sentence?

HELEN MACK: Every ruling that they have been given is under illegal issues, because this is the defendant, in some—the defense. In many of this is—there is a law that says, even in the—two judges from the Constitutional Court has dissented opinions and saying, “We are not—we don’t have to rule right now, because that’s from ordinary justice.” And even though they want to do it, because they want to cancel, they have never had the intention to really discuss in a healthy way if there was or there wasn’t genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Mack, we all know about September 11th, September 11, 2001, when 3,000 people were incinerated in a moment in this country, but there was another September 11, September 11, 1990, with the murder of your sister Myrna Mack. Can you tell us what happened to her, and then how you sought justice and a conviction—in some cases, that were overturned, but later reinstated—how her story, Myrna’s story in 1990, fits into the genocide trial of Ríos Montt?

HELEN MACK: My sister was making an academic research about the displaced people. And, of course, she was documenting many of the stories and everything that happened in the Ixil area. And that’s why she was killed.

AMY GOODMAN: In the Ixil area, the northwest highlands.

HELEN MACK: In the Ixil area. And so, she documented that, and that is part of what we were discussing now in the genocide case. So, even many of her notes were part of the—in this process in the genocide case, but also it was part of the [inaudible]—the peace accords of the returning for the displaced and refugees people, her studies. And that’s why it’s like a extended justice also for my sister. Everything has been proved now academically and also by the testimonies—

AMY GOODMAN: Who killed her?

HELEN MACK: The army. It was the high presidential high command. As the genocide case took 13 years to build the case, it also took, to me, also 14 years to build the case. So that means that when they accuse us that there is no people from the guerrilla on trial, I can ask them, “How many of the military victims have had the patience to build a case for 14 years?” So those are, you know, the arguments—

AMY GOODMAN: When your sister was killed, what were you doing at the time? And what was your political orientation in Guatemala?

HELEN MACK: I was on the other side of the Guatemala. I was a—my profession is a businesswoman. I was working on construction building for housing projects, and I was also working for an educational project for illiteracy, because I really believe in education. I was really more conservative than what I am. And then I understood that justice doesn’t have any ideology. Justice is justice. It doesn’t matter if you’re right- or left-wing. Justice is justice. And what you want is punishment for those who have violated the law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kate Doyle, I’d like to ask you about the role—your role in this whole process of the trial of Ríos Montt and the importance of the National Security Archives and what you were able to uncover in assisting with this prosecution.

KATE DOYLE: Sure, Juan. The National Security Archive has worked for many years to try to uncover the hidden history of the U.S. policy in Guatemala and other places around the world. And one of the contributions that we made to this particular case was to obtain the declassification of CIA and Pentagon and embassy files that specifically identified what Guatemalan military officers, were posted where in 1982, what kind of strategy and tactics were the Guatemalan military using at that time, and even talking about some of the specific massacres that are at stake in this case. It’s important that the United States had such a close and supportive relationship with the Guatemalan army all through the civil conflict. For that reason, the U.S. files, secret files, are filled with information about how Guatemala was functioning at that time, and the Ríos Montt regime, in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the U.S. doing when Ríos Montt was in power?

KATE DOYLE: The U.S. had, some years prior, cut off overt military assistance to Guatemala under Jimmy Carter and the U.S. Congress’s restrictions on aid under human rights conditions. But the U.S. was extremely eager to embrace Ríos Montt as an ally within its own strategic interests in Central America at the time of the war against—the secret war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The U.S. was in search of partners in the region to help them promote and promulgate that secret war. And though the U.S. overt aid was cut off long before, CIA funds, millions of dollars, continued to flow to military intelligence in Guatemala, we discovered in a scandal some years later.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Mack, the case of Myrna Mack, you tried in—was tried in 2002. So, talk about who was found guilty and what happened to those verdicts.

HELEN MACK: It was done by—ordered by the presidential high command. General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitán was there; Juan Valencia Osorio, who was the convicted colonel; and Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera. What happened is that, because the reasonable doubt, they absolved the general and the other one, and they convicted Valencia Osorio. But then, when the police and the Ministério Público were going to capture him, a military unit came in, and they took him, and they helped him to flew, so—to flee, so that’s why it’s an impunity, that case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you, in terms of the implications of this—of the proceedings in this Ríos Montt trial to the current government of Guatemala, and your sense of whether current government officials were also implicated or involved in some of the genocide that was conducted against the Mayan people?

HELEN MACK: I think that the—precisely, because we have a president that is a military, many other people feel that is a threat for transitional justice. And in Guatemala, there has been a spirit of—_espíritu de cuerpo_?

KATE DOYLE: Esprit de corps?

HELEN MACK: Esprit de corps that they prefer to be convicted before they talk, because there is a blood—


HELEN MACK: Yeah. And—

AMY GOODMAN: A kind of blood oath.

HELEN MACK: Yeah. If they talk, I mean, that’s why—because that’s what had happened in Argentina. When someone started talking, it was like the domino effect. And that’s what they are trying not to happen in Guatemala. So that is why it’s so hard to get convictions in Guatemala or to make military to talk. So it’s about the importance of the documents that the National Security Archive has done, it’s a documentary evidence. And then you have testimonies that verified that that was truth and that’s what’s happened.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in the case of Myrna, your sister, an appeals court later overturned the conviction, just like we’re seeing with Ríos Montt.


AMY GOODMAN: But then, last year, it was reinstated—in 2003, rather, about 10 years ago, it was reinstated by the Supreme Court. Kate Doyle, do you see that possibility? Where can this case go? So, the case has been thrown out by this court, but it’s not necessarily over.

KATE DOYLE: Absolutely not. I mean, it’s not over by any means. The survivors of the massacres, who spoke the first time around in March and April, are waiting in the wings, and if they have to speak again, they will speak again. Excuse me. The prosecutors are preparing to fight for their case. And there is no doubt in my mind that the team that brought this case to trial, that spent more than 10 years doing that—and, really, we should talk, when we talk about the survivors, spent more than 30 years doing that, saving those stories for this moment. That team is waiting to proceed. And the kinds of legal manipulation we’ve seen in this case, as Helen pointed out, has happened over and over again. It’s not just in the case of the assassination of her sister; it’s in many other cases. And this is par for the course for the defense team in Guatemala. Unfortunately, they don’t have a legal argument to protect their client, and so they are using legal manipulation to try to game the system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And is the potential that the case will be moved to another judge possible, or will be same judge continue to hear the case?

KATE DOYLE: It is unclear today at this moment what is going to happen. There is the potential that this entire case will be moved to another tribunal so as not to pose the threat of double jeopardy to the defendant by hearing it in the same tribunal.

HELEN MACK: I just want to make a difference between this case and my sister’s case. I would say that in my sister’s case it was more clean, in that sense they allowed the system to work. In this genocide case, they haven’t allowed the system to work. They have been manipulating since the very beginning, so the rule of law, it has been weakening, especially the judicial power. And I think that is the worst thing that had happened. I think that the idea and the strategy of changing to another tribunal is to make them free and there is no conviction for genocide case.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, I want to turn to the declassified CIA documents that your organization, the National Security Archive, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. It was a February 5th, 1982, document that states, “The Guatemalan military’s plans to begin sweeps through the Ixil Triangle area, which has the largest concentrations of guerillas and sympathizers in the country could lead not only to major clashes but to serious abuses by the armed forces.” The document goes on to say Chief of Staff General Benedicto Lucas García indicated, quote, “it probably will be necessary to destroy a number of villages.”

Another declassified CIA document, also from February ’82, describes the Guatemalan army “sweep” operation through the Ixil Triangle in El Quiché. According to the cable’s author—this is the U.S. government—the army had yet to encounter a major guerrilla force in the area. Its successes were limited to the destruction of entire villages and the killing of peasants suspected of collaborating with rebels. The document says the army’s belief that the entire indigenous population of Ixil supports the guerrillas, quote, “has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”

As we wrap up, Kate Doyle, this trove of documents that you have that are the sort of heart of the National Security Archive, how can people access them? And also, just the fact that clearly the U.S. government knew exactly what the Guatemalan military was doing—this was during the Reagan years—and yet continuing, as you said, to funnel them millions of dollars.

KATE DOYLE: The Reagan administration not only continued to secretly funnel millions of dollars, but they openly flacked for this government. People like Elliott Abrams, who was the assistant secretary for human rights, for crying out loud, was out there on the television and before the press and before the Congress over and over again telling the U.S. public how democratic and what a reformist this man was and why we had to support him. If your listeners or your viewers want to take a look at the original declassified U.S. documents in this case and many others, they can go to the National Security Archive’s website, which is nsarchive.org/Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: It want to thank you both for being with us. It’s been an honor to have you with us. Helen Mack is now running the Myrna Mack Foundation and is a winner of the Right Livelihood Award. Kate Doyle, Guatemala Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

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One thought on “Ríos Montt Genocide Verdict Annulled, But Activists Ensure US-Backed Crimes Will Never Be Forgotten

  • Amy Goodman mentions certain military operation which took place in February 1982.

    Rios Montt only became president on March 23, 1982.

    There seems to be a tendency to blame all atrocities of the Guatemalan civil war on Montt and the US. There is clear evidence of atrocities throughout the long and brutal war committed by both sides of the conflict.

    Let’s call for all those who committed these crimes to be brought to justice, not just one side.

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