The historic trial of Efrain Rios Montt, which will shape the future of not only Guatemala but numerous other Latin American countries that have suffered the same fate of authoritarian rule and bloody civil war, has taken off today to determine whether this man is responsible for the ethnic genocide that took place from 1982 to 1983. He is the first dictator to be tried for human rights violations under his rule in a deeply divided continent whose wounds of violent "anti-communist" crackdowns still remain wide open.
Rios Montt, then a general in the Guatemalan Army, came into power by staging a militant coup d’état in 1982. In his 17-month-rule, which was overthrown by his own defense minister, he promised to end the civil war and instill rule of law. His missions were strongly supported by the anti-communist U.S. government, headed by President Ronald Reagan, which provided the Guatemalan army with military supplies. Known as the "guns and beans" campaign, Rios Montt carried out missions to exterminate the guerillas and their supporters and sympathizers under the motto of "If you are with us, we’ll feed you, if not, we’ll kill you."
In its report in 1999, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission identified about 24,000 deaths and 6,000 disappearances under his rule. More than 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed during the protracted civil war that spanned from 1960 to 1996. Most of the victims were indigenous Mayas and mestizo Ladinos in the highlands, with Mayas accounting more than 80% of all identified victims. Many times, the whole village was pillaged and burnt down, with soldiers killing every single member of the community including women, children, and the elderly.
Why is this trial such a watershed moment, when his verdict is not even determined? Because it has already broken the deeply entrenched culture of impunity in the country, where victims of massacres, torture, rapes, and kidnapping, as well as their families, have to stand and watch the perpetrators evade responsibility and even stay in politics. Rios Montt had been politically active, serving as a member of the Congress until just last year. He attempted to run for the presidential elections several times, which was thwarted by the constitutional provision that prohibits those who’ve participated in a military coup from becoming president. He had been protected under the immunity granted to public officials for nearly three decades. Rios Montt still claims innocence, referring to his indictment as a "political lynching," according to his litigator in his interview with Al Jazeera.
The Historical Clarification Commission, which recorded testimonies of victims and identified massacre sites, was an attempt to start the process of reconciliation, by finding the truth and bringing justice to those who suffered. A young human rights attorney, Claudia Paz y Paz, is the leading prosecutor of this trial. The start of this trial has already marked the history as a watershed moment, but whether it will become an actual turning point for Guatemala, which has longed for true justice and reconciliation for decades, is yet to be determined.