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Three Decades On, Ex-Guatemalan Leader Faces Genocide Charges

Guatemala's former dictator Efrain Rios Montt arrives in court Jan. 31 in Guatemala City to stand trial on genocide charges. On Tuesday, the prosecution will present its case in the trial.
Moises Castillo

In a Guatemalan courtroom Tuesday, prosecutors will present their case against a former military dictator who ruled during one of the bloodiest periods in the Central American nation's 36-year civil war.

Efrain Rios Montt is accused of genocide in the murder of tens of thousands of Guatemala's Indians. Human rights advocates and the families of victims have struggled for years to bring him before the court, and they say it is the first trial in Latin America of a former president in the country where he ruled.

Antonio Cava, an Ixil Indian with jet black hair, high cheekbones and a soft smile, remembers the exact date, Jan. 15, 1982, when his peaceful childhood high in the Guatemalan mountains came to an end. He was 11.

Members of the Ixil ethnic group who lost relatives in a massacre during Guatemala's long civil war wait to enter a courtroom where former ruler Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983) faces charges of genocide.
Moises Castillo / AP
Members of the Ixil ethnic group who lost relatives in a massacre during Guatemala's long civil war wait to enter a courtroom where former ruler Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983) faces charges of genocide.

"The soldiers came into town at 10:30 at night and started kicking down doors. My father woke me up," Cava says. "He said, 'Son, we have to leave.' I grabbed my brothers and we ran into the forest and climbed into the trees. ... We could hear our neighbors being tortured and screaming for help. There was nothing we could do."

Two months later the soldiers returned, and this time they rounded up the entire village. The women were sent into the village's tiny school; the men into the church next door. Cava says he then heard the order come over a soldier's radio: Shoot them all.

"One by one they killed the men," he says. "They killed them, in an instant ... they killed 95 people."

A Trial Years In The Making

Cava's story is not an isolated one. In 1999, a United Nations Truth Commission concluded that thousands of Ixil Indians were killed at the hands of the military. Some of the worst atrocities occurred during the 17-month rule of Rios Montt, from 1982-1983.

The commission ruled that the killings constituted genocide, but no one was ever brought to trial — that is, until a group of human rights lawyers, including a young attorney, now Guatemala's leading prosecutor, Claudia Paz y Paz, began the decades-long fight to prosecute Rios Montt in international courts and at home.

Paz says this trial sends a strong message that "no one here is above the law."

Such a statement is unprecedented in Guatemala, where impunity has long reigned and the country's powerful are used to manipulating the state's weak judicial system.

Danilo Rodriquez, a member of Rios Montt's defense team, says the former general is being railroaded. He says the prosecution is out to settle political scores and is opening old wounds.

"To prove genocide, the prosecution must show there was intent to destroy an ethnic group," Rodriguez says. He says there clearly were atrocities, but they were committed by rogue field commanders and not by Rios Montt.

Prosecutors say they have forensic evidence, declassified U.S. government files and even the former general's own words to prove their case. In 1982, he bragged to a young American filmmaker about his total control of the military.

On camera, a mustachioed, dark-haired Rios Montt smiles and says: "If I can't control the army, then what am I doing here?"

Rios Montt is now 86, with a full head of gray hair. He has been under house arrest since January. With dozens of survivors scheduled to testify, the trial is expected to last well into summer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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