“I have a bittersweet feeling about the verdict,” said Ramona, a Maya Ixil woman and genocide survivor. It was the day after a Guatemalan courtroom handed down its September 26 judgement in the genocide trial against Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who was chief of military intelligence during the government of dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983). Ríos Montt’s 17-month rule is widely viewed as the most violent in a 36-year armed conflict that left 200,00 dead, 400 villages obliterated from the face of the earth, and tens of thousands of victims of torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and displacement left to pick up the pieces, with little government assistance.
Ramona is a member of the Asociación por la Justicia y Reconciliación (Association of Justice and Reconciliation, AJR), a coalition of survivors from 22 communities across five regions that suffered the Guatemalan army’s genocidal scorched-earth campaigns between 1978 and 1985. She joined about 150 other AJR members at the sentencing hearing the night before, and now they were holding their annual assembly to assess the ruling and their future actions in this and other cases.
“We are satisfied that the court acknowledged that the army committed genocide,” Ramona said. “We proved in a court of law, for a second time, that what we have always said is true.” Ramona is referring to the verdict in the 2013 genocide trial, which found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and sentenced him to 80 years in prison, but was erased by a controversial ruling of the Constitutional Court. “With all the testimonies that we gave, it was impossible for them to erase our history.”
“But,” she added, “we all feel disappointed that Rodríguez Sánchez walked away a free man. [The court found that] the army committed genocide, but somehow no one is responsible. How is that possible?”
The verdict was indeed perplexing. Judge Sarah Yoc Yoc began the reading of the verdict, recounting a litany of atrocities in the Ixil region, including over 60 massacres, the destruction of some 50 villages, the widespread use of torture and sexual violence especially against women, brutal violence against infants and pregnant women, forced labor, and search-and-destroy operations against the displaced population who had fled to the mountains for safety. The evidence showed that the military identified the Maya Ixil as guerrilla sympathizers and, therefore, as the internal enemy to be “exterminated,” and that the army’s scorched-earth tactics were carried out with the intention of exterminating the Ixil population.
Next, the presiding judge, María Eugenia Castellanos, outlined the international treaties to which Guatemala was signatory which obligated it to respect the human rights of its citizens. As one Ixil survivor told me, “it seemed like it was going well at first. From everything they were saying, it seemed like they were going to convict Rodríguez Sánchez.” Yet, two hours into the reading of the verdict, the general had not yet been mentioned by name.
Judge Jaime González Marín was tasked with addressing Rodríguez Sánchez’s role in these atrocities. As I heard him speak, I had an eerie feeling of déjà vu. Just hours before, I had posted an article about Rodríguez Sánchez’s final statement to the court that morning for International Justice Monitor, where I write about war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala. The judge’s words seemed to have been lifted directly from the general’s final statement to the court that very morning: Rodríguez Sánchez was merely an advisor; he did not have command responsibility; he was never in the Ixil region; the plaintiffs never presented a document with Rodríguez Sánchez’s signature ordering massacres and other crimes; and in any case, his superior officers were the only ones who had the power to issue orders and command troops.
The court secretary went on to read the court’s final determinations: the three-judge panel unanimously found that the army committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population, but on the question of Rodríguez Sánchez, the court was divided, with two judges ruling that he bore no responsibility for these atrocities. A collective gasp of surprise arose from the gallery.
Judge Yoc began to speak again, this time delivering an impassioned dissenting vote. Rodríguez Sánchez was no mere advisor, she said; he was the chief of military intelligence and a member of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army. His job was to collect intelligence, using a vast network of informants, to identify the internal enemy, and it was his categorization of the Maya Ixil as the internal enemy that fueled the army’s genocidal scorched-earth tactics against non-combatant civilians in the Ixil region. “If he had not transmitted that information, much of it obtained illegally, we would not have so many dead,” she said. She ruled to find Rodríguez Sánchez guilty and sentenced him to 30 years for genocide and another 30 years for crimes against humanity.
Survivors and the path to justice
AJR brought the first genocide complaint against the military high command, including Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez, back in 2000. Guatemala had recently signed peace accords and passed a new law barring amnesty for serious crimes including genocide and crimes against humanity, but the complaint went nowhere. It was not until a maverick attorney general, long-time human rights lawyer Claudia Paz y Paz, came into the picture that things began to move, and Guatemalan prosecutors prioritized prosecuting senior military officials who committed serious international crimes, including genocide.
Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez were indicted in 2011, and the public trial against them began in 2013. It was an historic moment for Guatemala, marking the first time senior military officials were being held to account for the atrocities committed during the conflict. But even as it was a decisive step forward for survivors, it also galvanized retired military officials and their supporters, including many in the business community, to resist these efforts to prosecute military officials for human rights abuses. These groups portrayed Paz y Paz as a guerrilla sympathizer who was seeking vengeance against the military, which in turn was portrayed as those who sacrificed to save Guatemala from a communist takeover. They attacked survivors, saying they were lying about what happened and seeking not justice but financial gain.
After two tense months of public hearings, in 2013, the trial court determined that the army had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil and found Ríos Montt guilty, sentencing him to 80 years in prison. The court acquitted Rodríguez Sánchez. However, following intense pressure from business and military elites, the Constitutional Court emitted a controversial ruling that partially suspended the 2013 proceedings based on an alleged violation of due process. This sent the proceedings back in time, which had the effect of vacating the judgment. Ríos Montt was freed from prison and returned to house arrest. Rodríguez Sánchez, who had been freed, was also returned to house arrest.
The defense lawyers filed numerous injunctions and recusal motions, successfully delaying the retrial for several years. After several false starts, the retrial finally began in October 2017. Now, however, the defendants would be tried in separate proceedings: Ríos Montt had been diagnosed with dementia, so his trial was closed to the public and the press, while Rodríguez Sánchez was prosecuted in a public trial. But the proceedings moved slowly, as the court said it could dedicate only one day a week to hear this case. The court held hearings for Ríos Montt on Friday mornings, and for Rodríguez Sánchez in the afternoon. On many occasions, survivors and expert witnesses had to deliver the same testimony twice in one day. The press barely covered the proceedings, save a few exceptional hearings when the court traveled to Nebaj, the heart of the Ixil region, to hear the testimonies of survivors who had a difficult time traveling to the capital city. No second sentence was ever handed down against Ríos Montt, because he died in April, at the age of 91, in the midst of the proceedings.
With Ríos Montt gone, all focus was on the case against Rodríguez Sánchez. Prosecutors felt confident that they had provided additional evidence not available in the 2013 proceedings to definitively prove Rodríguez Sánchez’s responsibility for the genocide.
“We touched the monster. The monster is fighting back.”
During the AJR meeting the day after the verdict, an Ixil man stood up. “I don’t feel sad,” he said. “I am pissed off! The court said that the army committed genocide! They should have given Rodríguez Sánchez a 30-year sentence, but instead they acquitted him!” There were many nods and murmurs of agreement among the AJR members in the room.
Antonio Cava Cava, also an Ixil survivor, spoke next. Cava Cava, who was 11 when the army came to his village of Ilom and killed nearly 100 people, is well-known and highly respected among his peers because of his long-time role in bringing the genocide case forward.
“This is a blow for the military, for the economic elites, for all those who are complicit with the system in Guatemala, because we succeeded, again, in proving that the army committed genocide against us,” he said. “The world now knows that the state of Guatemala committed genocide against the Mayan people. The first sentence [in 2013] says it. Now a second sentence says it.”
He stopped a moment. “In Guatemala it is permitted to acknowledge the genocide,” he said, his voice indignant with emotion, “but it is not permitted to touch the senior military officials responsible for the genocide.”
Reflecting on Cava Cava’s words, Edwin Canil, a genocide survivor from Ixcan and president of the AJR, added: “We touched the monster. The monster is fighting back.”
“We have come a long way since 2000,” he continued. “We are not accusing soldiers; we are accusing the highest military authorities. We cannot give up. We have to take from this a renewed commitment to continue the struggle for justice.” The faces in the room nodded in agreement.
I left the AJR meeting feeling more hopeful than I had the night before, convinced the verdict was a complete travesty of justice. I got a ride home with Edgar Pérez, AJR’s lawyer and a trailblazing human rights activist who has been working alongside victims for two decades. He has litigated dozens of cases before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and in the Guatemalan courts. He told me that once he and the other lawyers received the written verdict, they would study it to determine whether to appeal. The evidence to convict the Rodríguez Sánchez is there, he assured me.
Like Edwin Canil, Edgar Pérez takes a long view of the struggle for human rights and indigenous rights in Guatemala. For him, the court’s determination that the army committed genocide was of fundamental importance. “This sentence will be studied 20 or 30 years from now as a decisive moment in Guatemalan history,” he told me. “A national court acknowledged that the army committed genocide, which the state and the army have long denied.”
Jo-Marie Burt writes and teaches about human rights in Latin America. She is Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). She monitors war crimes trials in Guatemala for International Justice Monitor, a project of Open Society Justice Initiative. A long time ago she served as editor of NACLA. Follow her on Twitter @jomaburt.