Author: William Boardman
The guilty get some breathing room, but not safety yet
Former members of the Reagan administration are breathing easier, now that they are somewhat less likely to face criminal charges for their part in the Guatemalan genocide of 1982-1983, supported by Reagan policies.
The threat that former officials might be held accountable for genocidal policies of the Reagan administration increased on May 10, when a Guatemalan lower court convicted the country’s former president, General Efrain Rios Montt, 86, of genocide and crimes against humanity for his part in the killing of thousands of Guatemalan civilians.
Rios Montt’s conviction and sentence included an order by Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios to Attorney General Paz Y Paz to further investigate everyone else involved in Rios Montt’s crimes, an investigation that would include many Guatemalans including the country’s current president, as well as U.S. military advisors, the CIA and other American agents, and Washington officials like Elliott Abrams and others directly involved in supporting the Guatemalan governmental genocide.
But this threat of prosecution for accessories and accomplices to genocide didn’t last long, as Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, ruled by a vote of 3-2 on May 20 that the lower court’s proceedings going back to April 19 were dismissed, thus annulling the verdict.
The Genocidal General’s Trial May Yet Begin Again
But the Constitutional Court ruling also allows the trial to resume at some undetermined time in the future. The dismissal sets the trial back to April 19, when a judge who had heard earlier but separate proceedings relating to Rios Montt asserted jurisdiction over the continuing trial that had started a month earlier. Judge Barrios overruled the prior judge supported by Attorney General Paz Y Pay, who said his claim was unlawful.
The jurisdictional dispute proceeded to the Constitutional Court while Rios Montt’s trial continued to its unsurprising conviction, given the weight of the evidence against him and his administration.
Rios Montt came to power in 1982 through a military coup, after he had lost a democratic election for the second time, claiming massive fraud both in 1974 and 1982. Between elections, in 1978, Rios Montt had left the Catholic Church and become a minister in the evangelical/Pentecostal Church of the Word, based in California. His friends and supporters included Rev. Jerry Falwell, Rev. Pat Robertson, and others connected with the evangelical movement that helped elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980.
Rios Montt would be the American-supported dictator of Guatemala for only 17 months, before he fell to another military coup. But in that time he was responsible for government forces that killed more than 1,700 people, mostly indigenous Mayans, and also tortured, raped, kidnapped, and brutalized thousands more – for which he was found guilty on May 10.
Ronald Reagan and His Administration Supported Gen. Rios Montt
President Reagan praised Rios Montt for his anticommunism and claimed that human rights were improving under his rule, while human rights organizations condemned the general and the army. Amnesty International estimated that Rios Montt’s forced killed more than 10,000 rural Guatemalans from March to August 1982, and drove more than 100,000 from their homes.
Reagan evaded Congressional oversight in order to provide Rios Montt with millions of dollars of military aid. When Reagan and the general met in Honduras in December 1982, Reagan spoke warmly of him: “I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”
“The next day,” the London Review of Books reported in 2004, “one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children.” The report continued:
Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry.
They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.
On another occasion, Reagan claimed that the dictator was getting a “bum rap.”
In 1983, then assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams told PBS, “the amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step…. We think that kind of progress needs to be rewarded and encouraged.”
Guatemalans Have Struggled for Decades to Get Justice
The currently interrupted trial is part of a judicial process that began in 2001, with a ruling by the Constitutional Court on March 21, exposing Rios Montt and others of the ruling party to prosecution for corruption. The next day, two grenades were thrown in the yard of Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios. Three days later, the head of the Constitutional Court, Judge Conchita Mazariegos, had shots fired at her house.
The criminal role of the United States in Guatemala has continued at least since 1954, when the Eisenhower administration engineered a CIA-backed coup d’etat against the country’s elected president.
American reporting on the Rios Montt trial and America’s role in genocide in Central America goes largely unreported in the United States. According to FAIR, none of the three major TV networks have mentioned the trial since it began. Perhaps the most detailed coverage has come from DemocracyNOW, which summed up the present situation this way:
In the run-up to its latest decision to overturn, the court had come under heavy lobbying from Rios Montt supporters, including Guatemala’s powerful business association, CACIF. Rios Montt remains in a military hospital where he was admitted last week. His legal status is now up in the air. He will likely be released into house arrest, and it is unclear when or if he will return to court.
For the moment, that leaves surviving Reagan administration officials beyond the reach of Guatemalan law and international law.
In 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi, head of the human rights commission uncovering the truth of the disappearances associated with the military, including Rios Montt, was assassinated. His successor is Catholic bishop Mario Enrique Rios Montt, the convicted general’s brother. The trial and conviction of Bishop Gerardi’s killers in 2001 was the first time members of the military were tried in a civilian court.