On May 10, a Guatemalan court made history when it found General Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity committed while he controlled the government in the early 1980s. This represented the first time any nation has convicted a former head of state for genocide, and it was a watershed moment for global efforts to seek legal accountability for human rights atrocities. Although the Constitutional Court partially annulled the judgment on May 20, the debate it unleashed continues in full force.
The case is also an opportunity for Americans, who have generally failed to acknowledge our responsibilities for brutal Cold War-era repression in Central America, to reflect on a genocide in which the U.S. government was arguably complicit. Guatemala suffered one of the most brutal cases of government repression in the Western Hemisphere, a 34-year-long conflict whose goals were guided by U.S. foreign policy. The Guatemalan truth commission estimated that 200,000 people were killed, 50,000 of whom disappeared, while also concluding that the state committed genocide against the country’s indigenous peoples. Thousands of villages were razed, hundreds of massacres were committed, and torture, rape, and abuse were institutionalized through “scorched earth” policies that were most intense under Ríos Montt’s government.
While more than 90 percent of serious violations were committed by the state, Guatemalan courts have pursued only a handful of prosecutions. The case against Ríos Montt and co-defendant José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, his former intelligence director (who was acquitted), represents both the first time the country has brought a case against high-ranking leaders and the first time it has indicted anyone for genocide.