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Justice in Guatemala

General Ríos Montt’s trial on genocide charges compels a nation to face up to its past

The trial that opened in Guatemala against General Efraín Ríos Montt, who is charged with genocide, has once again forced this Central American nation to face up to the horrors of its past. According to estimates, the 36-year-old Civil War — which took place from 1960 to 1996 between the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) — left some 200,000 people dead. The majority of these killings occurred among the indigenous people in rural communities. In a 1999 report drafted by the Historical Clarification Commission, which was set up by the United Nations, officials concluded that the military was mostly responsible for the atrocities committed against the civilian population.

Specifically, Ríos Montt is being held to answer for the deaths of 1,771 Ixil Indians between 1982 and 1983 after he came to power by overthrowing another general, Fernando Romeo Lucas García — the perpetrator of the government's bloody counterinsurgency strategy.

It was during the tense Cold War period that Washington and Moscow moved their chess pieces across a board of Latin America countries. It was also a time when nothing was held back to defeat the Marxist guerrillas, even if it also meant labeling the civilian population as the "internal enemy."

Without a doubt, Ríos Montt's trial is an historic event. Putting a former Latin American head of state in the dock for war crimes is something out of the ordinary. But even more importantly these proceedings are taking place in Guatemala where a weak justice system — to say the least — has been responsible for impunity in both the past and present. But the proceedings against Ríos Montt are an indication that things in Guatemala are changing. This new direction in part can be attributed to the reforms in the legal system that have been taking place with the help of the international community.

The trial has once again ignited old arguments among Guatemala's polarized society. Ríos Montt has been one of the country's most popular leaders, including among the indigenous communities. His Guatemalan Republican Front party won the legislative race in 1994 and the presidential election in 1999 when Alfonso Portillo was swept into office with a majority in Congress. Until January 2012, Ríos Montt had held a seat in Congress for 12 years, which gave him immunity from prosecution.

It is imperative that all efforts to file charges in human rights crimes cases prosper, and that hundreds of thousands of families are finally awarded compensation they have long been waiting for. But this re-examination of the past should not end with the trial of this 86-year-old man. It is important that these proceedings at same time produce honest and critical reflections on the part of everyone, including those who took up arms and those who decided to look the other way. Only in this manner will Guatemala cease to be a society poisoned by hatred.

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