An alternative obituary for Efraín Ríos Montt
Obituaries of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt tell us the following: Ríos Montt led a coup in Guatemala on March 23, 1982, that put him in charge of the country. After he took power, he carried out one of the most horrific periods of genocide in Guatemala’s history with the intent of destroying the country’s Mayan population. During Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, from 1960-1996, more than 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared. The most violent stage of the 36-year conflict was the five-year period between 1978 and 1983, under the dictatorships of Romeo Lucas García and Ríos Montt, when 81 percent of the human rights violations took place, with 48 percent occurring in 1982, according to a United Nations sponsored truth commission.
Three decades later, in 2013, Ríos Montt faced trial for genocide. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. There was justice for 10 days, and then the decision was overturned—he did not go to prison, and instead spent his remaining years under house arrest awaiting a retrial, which is still in progress, until his death on April 2, 2018.
Like so many obituaries and stories of powerful, dictatorial men, these details are factually true, but leave out what really happened to the victims of his crimes, particularly the women and girls. In Guatemala, as in all conflicts and wars throughout history, sexualized violence and rape of women were part of the genocide. The bodies of Guatemalan girls and women were used to spread terror. Rape was not the only crime committed against them. Soldiers cut and mutilated women, placed objects in their vaginas, and cut open the bellies of pregnant women to kill fetuses. The mutilated bodies of women were displayed on the road in communities to send a clear message that the Mayan population should be afraid, because this could happen to any woman—any community. Finally, the bodies of women were destroyed, and with them, the social and cultural fabric of the Mayan indigenous people.
A complete obituary of Ríos Montt would include his crimes against women and girls, but it would also focus on the people who fought to hold him accountable for his crimes. It would tell the story of the 10 Ixil Mayan women who faced Ríos Montt in a courtroom on April 2, 2013, and told the truth about how their bodies became the battlefield under his orders. In their testimony, they gave detailed accounts of the acts of violence they and other women in their community endured in an effort to eliminate indigenous peoples from the population.
As former Attorney General of Guatemala Claudia Paz y Paz stated, these 10 Ixil women confronting their perpetrators was an important experience for the country, for the region, and even the world. These 10 women dared to break the silence, and they explained to the court—in their own words—the meaning of horror, recounting the most extreme forms of cruelty they were subjected to during the conflict.
One of the witnesses was 12 years old when she was taken to the army base in Tzalbal, in western Guatemala. She testified at Ríos Montt's trial: “I thought they were only going to rape my mom, but the soldiers also grabbed me. I had a gag in my mouth and my feet were bound, and they raped me, I don’t know how many times they raped me. I want justice for everything they did to me, to my mom and to everyone else.”
Ríos Montt’s obituary should remark not just on Ronald Regan’s and other world leaders’ support for Ríos Montt despite his reign of terror, but should also tell how judges Iris Yassmín Barrios Aguilar, Patricia Isabel Bustamante García, and Pablo Xitumul de Paz convicted Ríos Montt for his involvement in the planning and execution of the genocide carried out against the Ixil Mayan people in 1982 and 1983. Because of them, Ríos Montt became the first head of state to ever be found guilty of genocide by a court in his own country.
These three judges did not ignore the women who bravely testified and did not leave out the experiences of women and girls. With their decision, they became one of the only domestic courts to ever recognize how sexualized violence and gender-based violence constitute the crime of genocide.
On May 10, 2013, when Barrios publicly read the decision, she began with the crimes committed against women and girls: “This court understands that the decision was made to rape the women not just as spoils of war, but also to destroy the social fabric and eradicate the lxil seed. Therefore, the acts of sexual violence and methods used were meant to destroy the group, thus proving the intent to destroy the entire group. The raping of women is objective evidence of the intent to destroy the Ixil group.”
This was possible due to the extraordinary efforts of the judges, prosecutors, and human rights groups that worked for years to bring this case to trial, even in the face of ongoing death and other threats. The trial was carried out by the national—rather than international—criminal justice system because of those efforts. The fight against impunity for the worlds’ horrific atrocities is only possible if nations are able to implement transitional justice mechanisms that hold human rights violators accountable for their actions. Trying Ríos Montt domestically demonstrates the will to find lasting justice and peace, even if the road is rocky.
Obituaries have rightly discussed his ultimate impunity for the crimes he committed, with Ríos Montt’s conviction being overturned on politically motivated technicalities. While some human rights activists say his death will forever perpetuate the impunity with which he committed his crimes, an obituary that focused not only on the perpetrator, but his victims, would paint a fuller picture. Ríos Montt’s domestic prosecution and the truth it revealed about his crimes against women and girls could not be silenced because these women spoke out.
Domestic law can be a powerful arena for enforcing international crimes against humanity, and thanks to fearless judges and human rights activists, nations can use their legal systems in the wake of dictatorial reigns to hold evildoers accountable.
That trial was a historic event and an opportunity for justice. The Guatemalan genocide goes down in history as one of the greatest horrors of our times, but his victims and the women who fought to tell the truth and hold Ríos Montt accountable at trial should see their story told alongside his, too. Their efforts will go down in history as one of the greatest achievements for justice in the world.
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