The 80-year jail sentence handed down by a Guatemalan court to Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and war crimes constitutes an historic decision, and not only because it marks the first time that a former head of state has been judged on genocide charges in his own country.
The court that last week sentenced the former dictator — after a process that has been on the verge of collapse on numerous occasions since starting in 2006 — considers proven that the former president knew of and did not prevent the mass murder of members of the indigenous Ixil Maya community during his brief rule of barely 18 months between 1982 and 1983. It was a time that coincided with the most brutal period in Guatemala’s civil war, which was not to end until it had entered its fourth decade in 1996.
Under the authority of General Ríos Montt, whom US President Ronald Reagan had cultivated as a trustworthy ally in the fight against the Central American guerrilla movement, the Guatemalan army unleashed atrocities upon peasant Mayan communities, particularly in the El Quiché region. The Mayans were considered collaborators with the communist insurgency. Almost 2,000 Ixil people were massacred.
Ríos Montt will appeal the sentence, having pleaded his innocence during the trial, and the practical consequences of the verdict may not end up being very significant for a man of 86. But its symbolic impact is huge in a country such as Guatemala, where indigenous people make up 40 percent of the population. These people have finally been able to make their voices heard in the courts against the impunity that has traditionally prevailed as the strong deny even the most basic human and civil rights to these communities. The significance of this decision will also resound beyond the borders of Guatemala.
The Ríos Montt trial has, however, sharpened the polarization within Guatemalan society. The old dictator’s conviction for a crime as sensitive as genocide reopens unhealed wounds in a country that is still struggling to assimilate the legacy of a civil war that caused the death of 200,000 people.
But the sentence handed down by Judge Barrios is much more than an act of justice that families of a small portion of the thousands of forgotten victims had been awaiting for decades. This historical precedent sounds as a clarion call in other parts of the world, where leaders — past and present — still enjoy their freedom and privileges, despite their proven involvement in similar atrocities.