The Guatemala Genocide trial resumes

Scene from the Ríos Montt trial © Sandra Sebastián/Plaza Pública, ICTJ
Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada, International Justice Monitor

The criminal trial against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez resumed on October 13. As previously reported by International Justice Monitor, High Risk Court “B,” composed of presiding judge María Eugenia Castellanos Cruz and judges Sara Gricelda Yoc Yoc and Jaime Delmar González Marín, has separated the trial into two distinct proceedings.

Guatemalan law has special provisions for individuals who, like the retired general, were mentally competent at the time of the alleged crimes but currently lack the mental capacity to face a trial. Thus, the court heard the case against Ríos Montt, who was not present and was represented only by his lawyers, behind closed doors. The same tribunal heard the case against Rodríguez Sánchez in the afternoon in a public hearing.


Recap of the Genocide Trial to Date

Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for the killing of 1,771 indigenous Maya Ixil, the displacement of 29,000 individuals, and rape and torture committed in the context of 15 documented massacres. Nearly half of all the reported violations that took place during Guatemala’s bloody 36-year war occurred in 1982, the year in which Ríos Montt came to power. According to the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, eight out of ten victims were indigenous Guatemalans.

Ríos Montt was convicted and Rodríguez Sánchez acquitted in a 2013 trial. However, in a divided and highly controversial ruling that it handed down days after the verdict, the Constitutional Court partially suspended the proceedings, citing a procedural technicality that vacated the verdict. Victims’ lawyers accuse the magistrates who voted in favor of this verdict of prevarication (breach of duty) and have called for a special prosecutor to investigate.

Efforts to restart the genocide trial have faltered repeatedly. The first attempt, in January 2015—fully a year and a half after the Constitutional Court vacated the original verdict—was aborted after the defense successfully recused presiding Judge Jeannette Valdés, who had written her thesis about the concept of genocide. Two additional attempts were aborted before they had even started. The most recent attempt was on March 16, 2016, when the High Risk Court “B” launched closed-door proceedings against both of the accused.

After approximately a dozen hearings, these proceedings were suspended after the First Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a protective measure filed by the civil parties, alleging that the victims had the right to hear the case against Rodríguez Sánchez in a public trial. The court ruled that the proceedings violated the right of Rodríguez Sánchez to a public trial, while also violating Ríos Montt’s right to a private trial. The Constitutional Court upheld this ruling, establishing that the proceedings violated the due process rights of the accused and that the two defendants should be tried separately.

Yet, despite that determination, the Constitutional Court also ordered the trial court to resume the proceedings where the case left off when it was suspended in May 2016. Some 25 witnesses had presented their testimony over the course of a dozen or so hearings. The civil-party plaintiffs have expressed concerns that this could be construed as a due process violation and could result in a suspension of the proceedings or provide grounds for appeal by the defendants if the court finds one or both guilty.


The Ríos Montt Retrial

As International Justice Monitor reported, Ríos Montt was not present in the courtroom on the morning of October 13. Under the special provisions, he is not required to be present, and if found guilty, he would not face prison time. The court has designated his children, Zury Ríos and Enrique Ríos, as his legal representatives, but they have delegated legal representation to defense lawyers Luis Rosales, Jaime Hernández Marroquín, and Linda Juárez. The hearing was held in private. The press and public were not allowed in the courtroom.

The proceedings began with the defense lawyers filing a motion against the tribunal, asserting that it is not competent to hear this case because the High Risk Tribunals did not exist at the time of the alleged crimes. The court rejected this out of hand, after which the defense lawyers called upon the judges to recuse themselves. The court rejected this motion as well. The defense lawyers then filed a recusal motion, based on a criminal complaint filed by Rosales and Hernández in August 2015, accusing the magistrates of abuse of authority, violations of the constitution, and breach of duty. The court rejected all of these motions, stating that they were delay tactics. Based on Article 201 of the Judicial Organism Law, which establishes that a lawyer is prohibited from participation in a proceeding in which the lawyer’s interventions could be the cause of a judge’s recusal, the court ordered Rosales and Hernández to abandon the courtroom. This left Juárez as the sole lawyer representing Ríos Montt.

Francisco García Gudiel, Ríos Montt’s lawyer in the 2013 genocide trial, pursued a similar strategy, seeking to recuse presiding Judge Yassmín Barrios. Barrios ordered Gudiel’s expulsion from the courtroom after his strident attacks against her. In declarations to the press following Friday’s hearing, Hernández stated that his expulsion was a violation of Ríos Montt’s right to defense and of due process.


The Rodríguez Sánchez Retrial

In the afternoon session, the proceedings advanced without incident. The proceedings are not taking place in the large room of the Supreme Court building where the 2013 trial took place, but in the normal chambers of High Risk Tribunal “B.” Some 60 people attended, including representatives of victim associations and Human Rights Ombudsman Jordán Rodas, who said his role in observing the proceedings was “to ensure that the due process rights of all the parties are respected.”

Rodríguez Sánchez’s lawyers did not question the competence of the tribunal. Erick de León, a public prosecutor representing the Attorney General’s Office, introduced Plan Victoria 82 as evidence and asked to read sections of it aloud. Rodríguez Sánchez’s lawyer asked to read the entire document aloud, which the court rejected, stating that this would be too tedious and time-consuming given its length. However, the court offered the defense the opportunity to read aloud any sections they deemed pertinent.

De León proceeded to read several extracts of Plan Victoria 82. Prosecutors may be relying on the military document to demonstrate the intentionality of actions carried out in the Ixil region. Along with other key military operational plans, including Plan Firmeza 83, and Plan de Operaciones SofíaPlan Victoria 82 outlines the military’s counter-insurgency campaign against indigenous communities it perceived to be the social base of the guerrilla movement.

According to National Security Archive analyst Kate Doyle, who has extensively studied the Guatemalan military documents as well as official U.S. government declassified documents, Plan Victoria 82 makes clear that “the armed forces regarded the indigenous communities as fatally intertwined with the insurgency. In order to eradicate the base, Victoria 82 promoted a scorched-earth strategy, ordering the destruction of homes, local crops, animals, and other potential sources of guerrilla supplies.” For a full analysis, see The Final Battle: Ríos Montt’s Counterinsurgency Campaign.

The final intervention was by Santiago Choc, a lawyer at the Human Rights Law Firm led by renowned human rights attorney Edgar Pérez. Choc read a segment of Plan Victoria 82 that established that after passing a determined amount of time in the field, soldiers had the right to spend time in a “recreation zone” where they could have “contact with the feminine sex.”

After the short two-hour session, the court adjourned. The next hearing for both trials is scheduled for October 27.


Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.

This article first appeared on International Justice Monitor