A milestone has been reached internationally in charging leaders for human rights convictions. A Guatemalan court convicted Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala, for genocide and crimes against humanity.
As Judge Yasmín Barrios handed down the verdict, cries of "Justicia, Justicia!" erupted from the packed courtroom. The genocide conviction of Montt is the latest reverberation from a bloody past that saw the United States ignore horrific human right abuses in order to provide support for its foreign policy in Latin America.
Montt took power in a coup d'état in 1982. The government immediately suspended the constitution, shut down the legislature, set up secret tribunals, and began a campaign of terror against "political dissidents" that used kidnapping, torture, assassination, and sexual violence as its primary weapons.
The administration of Ronald Reagan would support Montt wholeheartedly due to the anti-leftist fervor that guide his foreign policy. In a 1982 speech, Reagan would say, "President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment" and "My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts."
Montt's forces would wage a war against labor movement leaders, students and teachers, and most of all the indigenous population. During the trail, prosecutors accused Montt of responsibility for the massacre of more than 1,700 Ixil Maya during a campaign that included systematic rape, torture, and the burning of entire villages to the ground.
The Reagan administration backed Montt and even sent aid to Montt's government. In 1981 the sale of $3.2 million in military trucks and Jeeps was approved for Montt’s government. Normally the sale would have required a review of Guatemala’s human rights record but the State Department sidestepped that by changing the classification of the vehicles to not require it. The change occurred on the same day that the sale was approved.
Human right organization such as Amnesty International pointed out the horrific human rights abuses that the Guatemalan government was committing in the name of "anti-leftistism." In response Reagan would say that Montt was getting a "bum rap" about the human rights violations. United States officials dismissed the reports, arguing that they were biased due to using information that had been tainted by guerilla sympathizers. The U.S. government was quick to publicly assign any reports of violence and human rights abuses to the guerillas rather then the Montt’s forces.
However, a then-secret CIA cable in 1983 noted a steady increase in "right-wing violence" and that "Kidnappings, particularly of students and educators, have increased in number and bodies are appearing in ditches and gullies, showing the telltale signs of rightist hit squad executions."
The U.S. ambassador's comments in the memo that he is firmly convinced that the violence ... is government of Guatemala ordered and directed violence" and that the executions were "ordered by armed service officers close to President Rios Montt."
The Historical Clarification Commission, a truth and reconciliation commission established after the 1994 Oslo Accords that ended the Guatemala's 36-year civil war. It took the commission five years to hear from thousands of survivors and examine clandestine graves all over the nation. It found that government forces had committed 93% of human rights atrocities. The number of those murdered or disappeared during the conflict was over 200,000. 81% of the murders and disappearances occurred from 1981 to 1983, when Montt was in power.
Former President Bill Clinton would later apologize in 1999 for U.S. backing of the Montt government and their campaign of brutal terror against the population.
The judgment of Montt is a landmark decision as it is the first time in modern history that a nation's leader has been tried and convicted for humans rights abuses in a court of their native land. Previously all incitements convictions had come from international courts and many had been unenforceable, such as the International Criminals Court’s genocide case against Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan.
Closure for the bloody history that Latin America suffered from U.S. foreign policy has been slow to come for much of the region. But the conviction of Efrain Rios Montt shows that it is possible for some justice to be given to those who had injustices inflicted upon them.