Bittersweet Justice in Guatemala

The Maya Ixil have sought justice for decades. Pictured here, indigenous leaders gathered in May 2013 after former Guatemalan military general Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide. Elena Hermosa. 


The courtroom was chaotic, the night air thick with tense anticipation. Hundreds of Mayan Ixiles filed in, hoping the justice denied them in 2013 would be delivered this time around.


In 2013, Guatemala brought charges against the former dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, and his chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, for the crimes of genocide against the Maya Ixil population. It was an historic trial, marking the first time in Guatemala that a former head of state was put on trial for serious human rights violations.


During Guatemala’s thirty-six-year civil war (1960-1996), 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed or disappeared and countless others were subjected to torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and forced displacement. Some 600 villages were destroyed. A UN commission found that ninety-three percent of atrocities were the responsibility of the Guatemalan military.


The court delivered its verdict on May 10, 2013, thirty years after the crimes were committed, finding Ríos Montt criminally responsible as the intellectual author of the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil. He was sentenced to eighty years in prison. Rodríguez Sánchez was exonerated of all charges.


Victims expressed enormous satisfaction that justice had been served.


But, ten days later, under intense pressure by economic and military elites, the Constitutional Court handed down a controversial ruling that annulled part of the proceedings, essentially erasing what had been hailed around the world as a landmark judgment. Pending a retrial, Ríos Montt was freed and returned to house arrest; Rodríguez Sánchez, who had been freed, was also returned to house arrest.


The retrial was delayed time and again, with the military lawyers finding new and creative ways to obstruct the proceedings. It was not until October 2017 that it finally got underway. This time, the co-accused were tried separately: Rios Montt, who had been diagnosed with dementia, was tried in closed-door proceedings, Rodríguez Sánchez in open court.


Argentine human rights activists conceived the term “geriatric impunity” to talk about perpetrators who escape punishment because they die at an advanced age of natural causes, before a verdict is rendered. This is what happened, in the end, with Ríos Montt, who died in April 2018 at age ninety-one, as his retrial was ongoing.

But the case against Rodríguez Sánchez continued. Hearings were held every Friday. More than one hundred survivors and family members of victims provided eyewitness testimony to the horrors they had endured. After nearly a year, the trial concluded and the sentencing hearing was scheduled for September 26, 2018.


Several of Rodríguez Sánchez’s supporters elbowed their way past the Ixil survivors who had waited patiently for more than two hours outside the courtroom for the proceeding to begin. The few police officers on the scene stood passively with their backs against the large iron door to control the entryway. But no authorities were deployed to maintain order, and the fear that violence could erupt was palpable.


Rodríguez Sánchez’s supporters yelled at the Ixil survivors, calling them liars and accusing them of wanting money, not justice. A woman working for a human rights nonprofit told me she was physically struck by one of Rodríguez Sánchez’s supporters. One of his relatives called a colleague and me “terrorists.”

Finally, after much yelling and pushing and shoving, the police began to allow people into the courtroom. About 400 people made their way inside. Hundreds more remained outside, unable to enter, and listened to the verdict as it was live-streamed on Facebook and Twitter.


In my decade of monitoring human rights trials for several international human rights groups, I have never seen such chaos outside a courtroom. I have never seen judicial authorities fail so miserably to ensure a safe and secure environment for all the parties involved.


The September 26 hearing began when the three judges entered the courtroom a little after 7:00 p.m., about an hour later than scheduled. Judge Sarah Yoc Yoc described the evidence presented by the plaintiffs—including survivor testimonies, official military documents, forensic evidence, and expert reports—that led the court to unanimously conclude that the army committed genocide against the Maya Ixil population during the de facto government of Efraín Ríos Montt.


Judge Yoc described a litany of atrocities: the destruction of some ninety villages in the Ixil region; the widespread use of torture and sexual violence, especially against women; brutal violence against infants and pregnant women; forced labor; and search and destroy operations against the displaced population. She said the evidence showed the Guatemalan army planned to exterminate the Maya Ixil people, who it saw as coterminous with armed guerrilla organizations even though the army knew, Judge Yoc said, that they were unarmed civilians.


The judge spoke of the structural racism and discrimination against the indigenous population that has characterized Guatemalan history. She addressed the long-term harm caused to the Ixil people, their culture, and their way of life, due to the violence they suffered at the hands of the Guatemalan army.


Presiding Judge María Eugenia Castellanos then affirmed that Guatemala has signed a series of international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions, that obligate it to respect human rights. She said the crimes described in the course of the trial were systematic and constituted crimes against humanity. At times, the judge addressed the victims directly, expressing her sorrow at what they had suffered. She recalled being shocked to learn of the mass graves exhumed in the Ixil region: “I was overwhelmed to learn that we had reached this level of dehumanization.”


Two hours had passed. Rodríguez Sánchez had not yet been mentioned. The tension grew as the Ixil survivors began to fear that the court was going to acquit him.


Their fears deepened as the third judge on the panel, Jaime González Marín, began speaking. His words seem to have been lifted from the very pages from which Rodríguez Sánchez had argued his plea of innocence. Rodríguez Sánchez was a simple advisor; he did not have command responsibility; he was never in the Ixil region; the plaintiffs never presented a document with his signature ordering massacres and other crimes; his superior officers were the only ones who had the ability to issue orders and command troops.


And indeed, even as the court ruled—unanimously—that the Guatemalan Army committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population, it also ruled that Rodríguez Sánchez had no criminal responsibility in the commission of these atrocities.


The court’s decision about Rodríguez Sánchez was not unanimous. Judge Yoc delivered an impassioned dissenting opinion. “He was not just an advisor,” she said. “He was the chief of military intelligence and a member of the general staff of the Guatemalan Army.”


Judge Yoc noted that Rodríguez Sánchez was responsible for collecting intelligence, through a vast network of informers, to determine who the enemy was. He was also responsible for the design, implementation, and supervision of military plans and operations.


“Because of his position in the military hierarchy,” she said, “he may not have given direct orders, but he collected, analyzed, and drew conclusions based on the information he collected and transmitted those conclusions to his superior officers, and they decided what actions to take.” She concluded: “I believe that the evidence demonstrates his culpability and that he should be sentenced to thirty years for each of the crimes [genocide and crimes against humanity].”


“I have a bittersweet feeling about the verdict,” Ramona, a Maya Ixil genocide survivor, told me the following day. “We are satisfied that the court acknowledged that the army committed genocide. We proved in a court of law, for the second time, that what we have always said is true. With all the testimonies that we gave, it was impossible for them to erase our history.”


Indeed, the judgment establishes that the Guatemalan army committed genocide against the Maya Ixil, something the country’s power elite have long denied.


“But,” Ramona added, “we all feel disappointed that Rodríguez Sánchez walked away a free man. The army committed genocide, but somehow no one is responsible. How is that possible?”


Antonio Cava Cava, also a Maya Ixil genocide survivor, gave a tentative answer to Ramona’s haunting question.

“In Guatemala. it is permitted to acknowledge the genocide,” he said. “But it is not permitted to touch the senior military officials responsible for the genocide.”


© 2017 • The Progressive Inc.

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