Moral Low Ground


Former US-Backed Guatemalan Dictator Efrain Rios Montt to Stand Trial for Genocide

Ríos Montt (Photo: SOA Watch)

Ríos Montt (Photo: SOA Watch)

A former US-backed Guatemalan military dictator will be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with the slaughter of thousands of his people.

General Efrain Rios Montt, 86, will stand trial after 13 appeals following a judge’s finding of sufficient proof linking him to crimes against humanity during his rule.

Rios Montt, who was trained at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), ordered the torture, murder and displacement of countless Mayan peasants during a US-backed war against a popular leftist insurgency.

His motto was “beans for the obedient, bullets for the rest.” Under his command, hundreds of Mayan villages were destroyed, tens of thousands of Guatemalans were kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered and a million more were left homeless. Two-thirds of his cabinet and many of his top intelligence officials were also graduates of the School of the Americas, also known as the School of Assassins and School of Coups because it graduated so many of both.

An elite unit of the Guatemalan army called the Kaibiles, which was created, trained and armed by the United States, carried out a series of horrific massacres under Rios Montt. In October 1982, Kaibiles troops slaughtered more than 200 villagers at Dos Erres. The men were tortured. Children were thrown alive into the village well. Babies’ heads were smashed against walls. Girls and women were raped before being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers. Fetuses were torn from pregnant girls and women.

On the very same day, US President Ronald Reagan met with Rios Montt and called him “a man of great personal integrity who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice.” Reagan added that the dictator had gotten a “bum rap” from human rights advocates.

Declassified State Department documents revealed that the Reagan administration was fully aware of the Dos Erres Massacre. Yet a month later, Pedro Pimentel Rios, a Kaibiles officer who had raped children during the massacre, was hired to teach at the School of the Americas and was awarded a medal for meritorious service before being allowed to settle in California, where he lived until being extradited, tried and sentenced to 6,060 years for his role in the massacre.

While a handful of other Guatemalan military personnel have been tried and convicted for their roles in the 36-year-long civil war that was precipitated by the 1954 CIA overthrow of the popular, democratically-elected reformist President Jacobo Arbenz, Rios Montt has long enjoyed impunity. Despite numerous international investigations finding him responsible for war crimes, the former dictator served as a Guatemalan congressman for 15 years ulost an election last year. He enjoyed strong support from the country’s ruling elite, whose interests, as well as those of Washington and Wall Street, he represented well during his time in power.

But beginning last year, Guatemalan judges began ruling that Rios Montt could be tried for genocide for his role in the Dos Erres massacre and other crimes against humanity committed under his orders or on his watch. His defense team successfully stalled the proceedings by arguing that he could not have controlled what his subordinates did during the war and by denying that genocide had occurred.

Judge Miguel Angel Galvez ruled that Rios Montt could be tried for genocide, specifically citing the killing of 1,771 members of the Ixiles tribe in a series of 1982-83 massacres. Prosecutors count 5,271 Ixil victims in various towns and villages in Quiche province. Rios Montt is accused of wanting to wipe out the Ixiles. The judge also ordered former D-2 director Jose Mauricio Rodriguez, who is accused of involvement in the Ixil massacres, to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

More than 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly indigenous Mayans, died during the civil war. No US officials who orchestrated the 1954 coup or who backed the genocidal Rios Montt regime have ever been tried for their roles. Rios Montt is the first Latin American leader ever to be tried for genocide.

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