Despite being found guilty for genocide and crimes against humanity — a verdict hailed around the world as striking a decisive blow against the impunity of elites in Guatemala — former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt appears likely to live out his days in the comfort of his home.
Ríos Montt's conviction in May was a watershed for human rights law. It was the first time a former head of state was convicted of genocide in a national court. The short-lived celebration, however, was extinguished 10 days later when Guatemala's Constitutional Court annulled the verdict.
Two recent developments in the case’s protracted legal maneuvering cast further doubt on Guatemala's political will to reconcile with its bloody past. Originally scheduled to resume in April 2014, the trial was postponed again until January 2015, due allegedly to the court's busy docket. Survivors and their attorneys, who continue to weather threats and harassment, are determined to push forward, but delay will strain their emotional and financial resources. In late October, the Constitutional Court directed the lower court to reconsider its prior holding that the country's amnesty law did not bar Ríos Montt’s prosecution.
Ríos Montt, who was in power for 17 months in 1982-83 and was backed by the United States under President Ronald Reagan, presided over the bloodiest period of Guatemala's 36-year internal conflict, during which more than 200,000 people were killed, 50,000 disappeared, and hundreds of thousands more displaced, raped, tortured and starved. During his trial for the deaths of 1,771 Ixil — a Mayan people indigenous to Guatemala — the harrowing testimony of survivors, sociologists, and military and forensic experts revealed the unspeakable suffering unleashed by the dictator's savage counterinsurgency strategy. Assuming that the marginalized, impoverished and dispossessed indigenous population would have a natural ideological affinity with the guerrillas who opposed him, the military that Ríos Montt commanded embarked on a calculated plan to exterminate Ixil communities, which allegedly provided critical logistical support to the insurgents.
Although the conflict formally ended in 1996, Guatemala is still plagued by the violence, racism, exclusion, and social and economic inequality that engendered it. Long-standing efforts to hold those responsible for the atrocities accountable languished in the face of the country's antidemocratic institutions. But the survivors persisted. Against all odds, Guatemala has made some laudable strides against its legendary impunity and corruption, thanks especially to Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.
However, Paz y Paz has not announced whether she intends to seek another term. The resumption of the Ríos Montt trial was conveniently postponed until just after Paz y Paz's current term is set to expire. Changes in the judiciary are likely before then as well. Meanwhile, the 87-year-old former dictator is frail and his health is reportedly deteriorating. The further delay makes the prospect of the trial's completion, the exhaustion of the appeals process and Ríos Montt’s incarceration increasingly dim.