By Kirsten Weld
The New York Times, February 3, 2013
"Last Monday, a brave Guatemalan judge made history. In greenlighting a public trial for the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide, the judge, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, made his country the first in the Americas to prosecute a former head of state, in its own domestic courts, for the ultimate crime. Mr. Ríos Montt, a former cold war general whom Ronald Reagan defended as having gotten a 'bum rap,' will finally face his accusers — three decades after his alleged crimes, and a year after he was indicted. Mr. Ríos Montt seized power by a coup in March 1982, taking charge of a counterinsurgency that was then two decades old. To deny the guerrillas local support, he sent soldiers to wipe out hundreds of Mayan villages. In 1999, after the war’s end, the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission tallied thousands of rapes, tortures, disappearances, violations of cultural rights and extrajudicial executions his forces committed while he held power, and concluded that he presided over acts of genocide. The dictator was ousted (in another coup) in August 1983, but this being Guatemala, he was not sent to prison but became a right-wing congressman and a presidential candidate. (He lost.) No other high-ranking Guatemalan Army or police official was brought to justice. Military rule formally ended in 1985, and a peace accord was signed in 1996. But activists seeking to shed light on the past were still threatened and killed. In 2011, Guatemalans elected as president Otto Pérez Molina, a former general who commanded troops in the Ixil region -- the focus of the genocide trial -- during Mr. Ríos Montt's rule. 'There was no genocide,' Mr. Pérez Molina insists.
How, then, to account for Guatemala's move to prosecute its most notorious public figure? Most of the credit goes to survivors and victims' families for 30 years of tenacious research and advocacy. International human rights groups, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations and foreign governments helped. And Guatemala's attorney general since 2010, Claudia Paz y Paz, has revolutionized the prosecutor's office, pushing cases involving war crimes, corruption and narcotrafficking. Still, even if found guilty, the general will never suffer a punishment commensurate with his alleged crimes. He is 86 and more likely to remain under house arrest than to be sent to prison. As the Guatemalan journalist Juan Carlos Llorca points out, maybe he has already won. Or has he? The overarching goal of the Guatemalan counterinsurgency was to destroy all oppositional thinking. But as Hannah Arendt wrote, any state’s efforts to make its opponents 'disappear in silent anonymity' are doomed to failure. That Mr. Ríos Montt now faces trial is proof of that. When the judge's decision was announced Monday, the packed courtroom erupted in cheers. The dictator had lost. [...]"