The genocide conviction of Guatemala’s ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt has put respect for human rights at a crossroads, with one option to reverse the judgment and another to expand the investigation to Rios Montt’s accomplices in Guatemala and the U.S., journalist Allan Nairn tells Dennis J. Bernstein.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
In a historic decision, a Guatemalan court convicted former strong man and close U.S. ally Efrain Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing the 86-year-old ex-general to 80 years in prison.
Journalist Allan Nairn, who has covered the story of the Guatemalan genocide since the 1980s, was in the courtroom for the recent verdict and told Dennis J. Bernstein in this interview that there are now two follow-up battles going on. Those who fought to have Rios Montt convicted often risking their own lives to do so are pushing to widen the investigation, to focus on other U.S.-supported mass murderers from the 1980s, including the current president, General Otto Perez Molina.
Meanwhile, there is the powerful Guatemalan right-wing military oligarchy, with its hands bloody from the same slaughters blamed on Rios Montt, fighting to have his conviction annulled by a higher court in Guatemala. [Update: On May 20, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled 3-2 to overturn Rios Montt’s conviction, leaving legal confusion about whether a new trial will be required.]
There’s also the issue of U.S. complicity in Guatemala’s human rights atrocities both during the Reagan administration and, more recently, in the decision to invite one of Rios Montt’s top generals to study at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
DB: Allan, can you tell us about the verdict and the significance of the court decision?
AN: What happened is that somebody finally enforced the murder laws, impartially. In this case the murders were massacres committed in the northwest highlands of Guatemala against the Maya Ixil people. The perpetrator was a general, a military dictator who was backed by the United States, General Rios Montt.
Usually, in every country in the world, a perpetrator, a killer with that kind of position and backing gets away with it. But in this case, it didn’t happen. General Rios Montt was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison. As we speak, he is in prison, although he’s claiming that he’s ill, so he’s now in a military hospital, but he’s still locked up. It’s a breakthrough in many ways. It’s the first time that any country has been able to prosecute a former president for genocide using its own domestic criminal courts.
More importantly, it’s a prosecution from below. It’s not a case of victor’s justice where the one who wins the war prosecutes the one who lost the war. This is a case of survivors whose movement was crushed, but they were able to persist and use whatever levers of power that exist within the system to bring to justice one of the killers, a killer who represents a social order that is still in power.
The same individuals and kinds of individuals who ran Guatemala in 1982 and 1983 still run it today. It’s still the army and the oligarchs; the chambers of commerce, industry and finance. But due to the brave fight of the survivors of these massacres, enough political space has been opened up in Guatemala that a few honest people have been able to rise to positions of importance within the prosecutorial system and within the judiciary, so this trial was able to move forward. It is also a breakthrough on the fight against racism and for the rights of the indigenous people.
Rios Montt, when he seized power in a military coup, took two steps immediately. The army was already killing civilians – they were doing that for many years. But Rios Montt changed the strategy. He immediately cut back on the urban assassinations, the assassinations of national leaders in the capital city, which had become politically counter-productive.
Instead, he made systematic the massacres that were taking place in the countryside. He sent the army systematically sweeping through the villages of the northwest highlands where, at that time, the majority of the Mayan population was concentrated. He and his army branded them as inherently subversive. That’s why the prosecution was able to make a charge of genocide and make it stick.
Of course this was all backed by the U.S. The U.S. has not yet reached a level of political civilization that Guatemala, especially the Mayan population, who pushed this trial, has reached. We don’t yet have prosecutions of U.S. government officials who have been engaged in other similar killings of civilians around the world and are still involved today, but it should be done.
The U.S. prosecutors should immediately convene a grand jury regarding the Guatemalan genocide. They should fulfill their responsibility to assist the Guatemalan prosecutors by divulging to them all internal U.S. documents regarding those massacres, everything within the CIA, State Department, Pentagon and the White House. They should also move to indict all U.S. officials from those agencies, those who are still alive, who played the role of accessory, accomplice, or worse, to these crimes. They should be willing to extradite to Guatemala any U.S. officials who are sought by the Guatemalan authorities as they continue their investigation.
DB: As you said, this was a slaughter-ous attack on the indigenous people in the highlands. Among the most poignant testimony was that from Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Peace Price laureate. Why was her testimony important, and can you remind people who she is?
AN: Rigoberta was an activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Guatemalan criminal justice system works differently than the U.S. system. In the U.S., although an individual citizen can bring a civil suit against somebody else, they cannot bring a criminal action to put somebody in jail. Only the state can do that.
But in Guatemala, an individual citizen is allowed to bring a criminal action against another if they can convince the state prosecutors and the courts that they should move forward. Rigoberta Menchu, quite a few years ago, initiated legal cases against a range of Guatemalan generals and colonels for their role in the slaughter. One of them was Rios Montt.
Her cases were blocked In Guatemala, but one of them was eventually taken up in Spain by the national high court in Spain. Under international law, crimes against humanity, such as genocide, can be prosecuted by courts in other countries because they are considered such a grave threat to humanity itself. The Spanish court took the case very seriously and it is still active to this day. They tried to extradite various Guatemalan generals to Spain, but they haven’t succeeded. The work done on that case helped to lay the groundwork for the case that was brought against Rios Montt and just resulted in the sentence in Guatemala.
The particular case against Rios Montt was based on a very narrow set of facts – massacres that took place in one particular period in the Ixil region of the northwest highlands, which is different from region that Rigoberta and her family come from. The case was prosecuted on the basis of just 1,771 murders because the prosecution was able to get the names of the 1,771 victims killed by the Guatemalan army.
In many cases, their bones were exhumed and forensic scientists were able to link the bones to names of the murdered people. But the case is far from over, because the oligarchy, military and retired military, but especially the oligarchy, are trying to get this case annulled. The constitutional court, which is the highest court in Guatemala, was supposed to give a ruling that could have resulted in an annulment of the case and the immediate freeing of Rios Montt from prison.
They postponed the ruling until Monday. The constitutional court is not taken seriously as a legal body – it’s a complete political tool of the army and the oligarchy. There is a big political struggle going on now within the Guatemalan political establishment as to whether they will take the political risk of trying to roll back this verdict.
It was a huge step, huge event. If they try to annul it and roll it back, there will be a big backlash from the Guatemalan public and internationally. But the leaders of the oligarchy are very jealous of their privileges, which includes their right to consider themselves superior and to continue to treat indigenous people as less than full citizens and less than human.
In many of the indigenous communities where the ’80’s massacres took place, people still live on just a few dollars a day. Rates of malnutrition and infant mortality are extremely high. People still cannot earn enough from the micro plots of corn that they work, so have to migrate down to the coast to work on the plantations during harvest season to try to feed their families.
Most importantly, the oligarchy still wants to retain the prerogative of murdering people when they feel it’s necessary, even though in Guatemala today the army does not commit the rural massacres they used to. They do not have the assassinations of national level activists, as there used to be. But there continue to be assassinations outside the capital city, of local activists – in particular in recent months, the people who have been fighting against mining projects involving Canadian and U.S. companies, brought in by the current president General Perez Molina.
The local communities are fiercely resisting because they fear the pollution and other damage that the mining could bring. The rich want the right to kill people who protest against them, and they fear – and they have a rational basis for this fear – that if the precedent of the Rios Montt trial is allowed to stand, it could cramp their style, it could be more difficult for them in the future to kill off workers who try to organize on their plantations in their factories or at their mines, so a lot is at stake here and it’s not yet certain that this verdict will be allowed to stand,
DB: We were talking about Rigoberta Menchu. The story of her family isn’t far from the horrors – an extreme example – but not far from the horrors we’re talking about when we talk about this U.S.-supported slaughter machine.
AN: Yes, her family – a number of them were burned alive or their bodies were never found. This has been life for people in rural areas, in particular the indigenous people of Guatemala. The slaughter went on for years and years and years. It all traces back to 1954 when a democratically elected government in Guatemala was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup. The military ruled uninterrupted through the 1990s, assassinating and massacring whenever they felt like it.
Today, even though Guatemala now has an electoral system, there’s again a military man in charge, General Otto Perez Molina. He was the local commander in the field in the Ixil region, the region of the massacres that got Rios Montt convicted. At the time, in the middle of the massacres, I met him.
His soldiers – lieutenants, sergeants, corporals – described how they would go into town armed with death lists provided them by G2 military intelligence, death lists of people who were suspected of being collaborators of the guerrillas or critics of the army. They told how they would strangle people with lassos, slit women open with machetes, shoot people in the head in front of the neighbors, use U.S. planes, helicopters and 50 gram bombs to attack people if they fled into the hills.
These are the men of the current president, describing how they did this under orders. He is now in charge of Guatemala, and is very worried about this verdict. He allowed the trial to go forward. In the Guatemalan justice system, the attorney general is politically much more autonomous from the press than the U.S. attorney general is, so it’s difficult for the president to control what the attorney general does.
The current attorney general in Guatemala is very honest, with a sense of legal duty. But Perez Molina still has a great deal of clout. He allowed the trial to go forward on the understanding that it would only go after Rios Montt and his co-defendant, a general named Rodriguez Sanchez, and the trial would not touch Perez Molina. He was basically willing to sacrifice Rios Montt.
But to everyone’s surprise, in the middle of the trial, one witness, a former soldier, named Perez Molina and said he ordered atrocities. I had been due to testify about a week after that, and as a result of all this, I was kept off the stand because Perez Molina was furious that his name came up in the trial. There was fear that if I took the stand, it would provoke him to shut down the trial entirely.
As it happened, even though I was kept off the stand and Perez Molina’s name wasn’t mentioned again, the trial got shut down anyway because the oligarchy and army started to realize that having the trial go on for weeks and weeks and weeks of people recounting army massacres was hurting them politically – was causing tremendous damage with the public, so they shut it down.
The trial was dead for two weeks, but it was revived because of a backlash of protest from Guatemalan activists, foreign human right supporters, and from some people in the U.S. Congress who weighed in and exerted pressure. The trial was then resumed and allowed to reach a verdict.
Perez Molina is very fearful of what could happen. On the night after the verdict he gave an interview to Spanish language CNN and interviewer Fernando del Rincon pressed Perez Molina on the interviews he had with me in the middle of the massacres in the mid-1980s, and his own role in the massacres. As soon as RIncon began asking about that, the signal from the President in his palace to CNN suddenly went dead.
Back at the CNN studio they were surprised. The line remained dead for several minutes. By the time it came back on, and Perez Molina had gathered his wits, he started fiercely contesting the question, refusing to answer. In the end he said you’ve got to understand, the guerrillas had recruited entire families as collaborators – they had women and children as collaborators. It seemed he was giving a rationale for the killing of families.
After the interview was over – I was in Guatemala at the time – I got to see the second half of the interview. The CNN access to the interview on the website was blocked in Guatemala, but some viewers managed to videotape it and put it up on YouTube. The confrontational interview with Perez Molina got more than 21,000 hits in a matter of hours, which is a huge amount for Guatemala. It was a sensation. Everybody was talking about it. Then those YouTube interviews were inexplicably taken down.
Last night I did an interview on CNN en espanol on that same show. I know people in Guatemala have attempted to put that up on YouTube. We’ll see how long those stay up there. Perez Molina is clearly very worried about this.
DB: What kind of involvement and documentary evidence could come up about the U.S. relationship with the Guatemalan slaughter machine at this time?
AN: It started at the top. [Ronald] Reagan personally backed Rios Montt. He met with him and called him a man of great integrity – said he was getting a bum rap on human rights. The U.S. had U.S. personnel working inside the G2, the military intelligence agency that picked the targets for assassination and disappearance. The CIA carried much of the top Guatemalan army and leadership on their payroll. The U.S. military attachÃ© in Guatemala was providing advice to the army.
Colonel George Menas told me at the time that he helped develop the sweep strategy that sent the army into all these mountain villages. He said it was developed jointly with a General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, and that the attack had been part of the systematic strategy of Rios Montt.
The U.S. had a Green Beret there who I interviewed and who even took me out on a maneuver. He was training the Guatemalan military in, among other things, these are his words – “how to destroy towns.” The U.S. had provided weapons, bombs, grenades, planes, helicopters – you name it.
The U.S. had also arranged for Israel to step in and become the principal supplier of hardware to the Guatemalan army, in particular assault rifles, the Galil automatic rifle. This was because the administration was running into problems with Congress, which wouldn’t go along with a lot of their plans to aid the Guatemalan military, so they did an end run by using the government of Israel. That tactic started in the Carter administration. It was [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski who helped set up that approach. The U.S. was supporting the Guatemalan military in a multitude of ways as these crimes were going on.
Those kinds of actions behind a crime are a crime in itself. It’s similar to what President George W. Bush said about terrorists – if you arm a terrorist, you are a terrorist. I think he’s right about that. If you arm a genocidist, what does that make you? It certainly makes you subject to indictment. The U.S. courts should move against these surviving U.S. officials, including people like Elliott Abrams, one of Reagan’s top policymakers on Central America.
There were dozens upon dozens of other top policymakers in the U.S. apparatus when these crimes were taking place. We don’t know the full extent of U.S. complicity because although there are some U.S. documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, in censored form, there are a lot more that remain classified, including U.S. National Security Agency intercepts of communications between Rios Montt and his army, and communications within the Guatemalan army.
One interesting thing that came out in the trial, as witness after witness testified, was a very substantial number of them talked about fleeing into the mountains and being bombed, attacked and machine gunned from U.S. planes and helicopters. At the time this was going on, I was aware this was happening in some cases, but from the testimony of the witnesses, it sounded like these attacks from U.S. planes and helicopters were more frequent than we realized at the time. That’s an example of how we don’t know the whole story yet – how extensive the U.S. complicity was in these crimes.
DB: You worked on a related story about Hector Gramajo who was a general under Rios Montt and was a key player in the slaughter in the highlands. He got his masters at the Harvard Kennedy School. I called up the PR guy there and asked him if he understood that the students were going to classes with a mass murderer. The response was “I don’t know about the mass murder, but the students seem to like him.” It suggests a terrible closeness to what happened.
AN: Yes. The web of collaboration between the U.S. – not just the U.S. government, but also various other powerful institutions in the U.S. – and the mass murder in Guatemala, as in many other countries, is very extensive. General Gramajo was one of the top generals under Rios Montt and was one of those responsible for these massacres. He was brought up to Harvard, being groomed for the presidency, preparing to come back to Guatemala after Harvard and run for president.
While he was there, in his graduation robes, he was served with a lawsuit. There were a number of us who worked for the Center for Constitutional Rights, and we were able to help mount a lawsuit against Gramajo under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a civil action, because in this country you can’t bring a criminal action. It is possible to bring an action under this law, which recently has been drastically cut back under a ruling by the Roberts Supreme Court, so it’s much harder to use this law now than it was back then in the 90’s.
Under this civil action, Gramajo had to stand trial in a U.S. federal court for his role in these massacres as crimes against humanity. The court ordered him to pay money damages of about 11, 12 or 13 million dollars. He didn’t didn’t show up, or pay the money, but fled the country and went back to Guatemala. The case damaged his presidential prospects. It’s a good example that Harvard, completely knowing who he was, would have him there.
But this happens all the time. Rios Montt personally worked with an evangelical church that had its origins in the U.S., called the Church of the Word. The first time I interviewed Rios Montt was in the palace a couple of months after he seized power, and he said, “I am going to get a billion dollars from Pat Robertson.” I doubt Robertson told him that, but it’s what Rios Montt said, and they did work very closely together. He got support from Congressman Jack Kemp at that time.
Today Rios Montt’s main political spokesperson is his daughter, who is married to a former U.S. Republican congressman from Illinois, is a former member of Congress in Guatemala, and was seen as a future presidential candidate in Guatemala. It’s not like Rios Montt is an isolated monster who stands outside the U.S. orbit.
Some press accounts portray it this way – the U.S. is the virtuous observer, looking at what Rios Montt did and saying we are shocked these terrible things happen and we support the trial. No. Rios Montt was Washington’s man. They’ve now abandoned him as they’ve abandoned many others like Noriega, Gaddafi, Saddam, Marcos and so many others. But he was unquestionably Washington’s man – and not just Washington – a man of other elite institutions as well.
DB; Allan Nairn, thank you so much for your work. Whatever develops, this has already been a significant, precedent-setting case for human rights, and particularly for indigenous people.