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Former US-Backed Guatemalan Dictator Efraín Ríos Montt Convicted of Genocide

A former US-backed military dictator of Guatemala has been found guilty of the genocide of more than 1,700 of his countrymen during his de facto rule 30 years ago.

Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide by a three-judge tribunal in a Guatemalan court on Friday. The judges found Ríos Montt responsible for the torture, rape and murder of more than 1,771 Ixil Mayan Indians in 1982-83, when he controlled the country and its armed forces. The 86-year-old former dictator was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Yassmin Barrios, the tribunal president, said that Ríos Montt knew atrocities were being committed against the nation’s indigenous people but did nothing to stop them. The 1,771 Ixil Mayans were but a handful of the more than 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Mayans, who were killed during the country’s 36-year civil war that began after the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected reformist President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The period during which Ríos Montt ruled was the bloodiest of the conflict.

The United States counted Ríos Montt, who was trained at the notorious US Army School of the Americas, as an ally, especially during the administration of Ronald Reagan.

An elite unit of the Guatemalan military called the Kaibiles was created, trained and armed by the United States. The Kaibiles carried out a series of horrific massacres under Ríos Montt, including the slaughter of more than 200 villagers, mostly women and children, at Dos Erres in 1982. Kaibilies troops committed unimaginable atrocities at Dos Erres, including raping girls before bashing their heads in with sledgehammers and cutting fetuses out of pregnant women and girls.

On the same day that the Kaibiles were exterminating the villagers of Dos Erres, President Reagan met with Ríos 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 said the brutal dictator had gotten a “bum rap” from human rights advocates. This was no ignorance– declassified State Department documents prove that the US government was aware of Dos Erres and other massacres.

Ríos Montt maintained his innocence until the end.

“I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered these attacks against a people, ethnicity or religion,” he said on Thursday.

Ríos Montt’s genocide trial marks the first time that a former head of state was tried for such a crime by his country’s own judicial system.

“It’s historic for this country,” Guatemalan political analyst Martín Rodríguez told CNN. “Surprisingly, because many of us remain incredulous that Guatemala’s judicial system could handle a trial of this magnitude.”

The historic conviction almost didn’t happen. Last month, the trial was suspended after the country’s president, General Otto Pérez Molina, personally intervened and persuaded an appeals court to suspend the trial. Pérez Molina has also been implicated in genocidal violence against Mayans in the very same Ixil region where the massacres for which Ríos Montt was being tried occurred.

Sebastien Elgueta, a Guatemalan researcher at Amnesty International, told CNN that his country “must now follow up on this historic moment by ensuring all those who took part in the murder, torture, rape and disappearance of tens of thousands of people are brought to justice.”

Many observers point out that the United States enabled Guatemala’s genocide. The US provided the “money, the bombs, the bullets and the political support for the crimes for which Ríos Montt may today be convicted of genocide,” investigative reporter Alan Nairn said on Friday.

In addition to backing the genocidal Guatemalan regime, the United States also supported similar slaughter in neighboring El Salvador, as well as the repressive government of Honduras, the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega in Panama and the terrorist Contra insurgency in Nicaragua. The Obama administration still supports a murderous regime in Honduras which seized power in a 2009 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of popular reformist President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya.

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