May 10, 2013

Friends, I write today as history is made.

Justice, at last, will be served in Guatemala! Today, in a packed courtroom, Judge Yassmin Barrios and the tribunal which accompanied her, gave their verdict: Efrain Rios Montt, de facto military president from March 1982 to August 1983, guilty for genocide and crimes against humanity.

In her ruling, Judge Barrios declared, “There cannot be peace without justice in Guatemala.” She reiterated that genocide has affected all Guatemalans and urged the Public Prosecutors office to investigate and indict others responsible for genocide.

Barrios began by noting that genocide did occur in the Ixil region of the department of Quiche in 1982. Its purpose was to wipe out clandistine groups which the military branded as the support base for the guerrilla. The military government of the time, and its head of state – Efrain Rios Montt- saw the Ixil population as rebels to be destroyed. They used a scorched earth policy to dessimate communities and used physical and psychological violence. Hunger was also a tool, and crops were burnt down over and over again; people were forced to live in the mountains in fear. Men were forced to join the Civil
Defense Patrols (PAC). People lived with ongoing extreme stress, forced to live in model villages under constant control.

Barrios repeated that the indigenous Maya Ixil population was systematically and repeatedly massacred and that indiscriminite patterns of violence were shown. She emphasized that women were used as objects of war and that rape and sexual violence, against women, girls and the eldery, was used to destroy the Ixil culture and dehumanize the population.

Torture and rape were ways that the military tried to destroy the social fabric of the society. She also mentioned that the military tried to destroy the culture and cut the community’s ties with their ancestors by destroying cultural and religious sites. The community wasn’t able to continue its religious ceremonies and were prohibited from expressing their true identity.

Barrios reiterated that in all, 5.5% of the Maya Ixil population was destroyed in less than two years and they have waited over 30 years for justice. She also mentioned that children were left affected, indeed that generations of Guatemalans have been scarred. They were left to believe that the indigenous race was inferior. Racism is the root of genocide.

Finally, Barrios reaffirmed that through the military plans presented, Rios Montt was in constant communication with the troops on the ground. He gave and received messages at least every fiften days, often more. The violence that was committed in the Ixil region wasn’t spontaneous. The patterns, such as communities being burnt down, women raped, children captured, men tortured and killed, repeated themselves – an element of the doctrine of genocide.

In the end, she said, there was no way that as head of state, Rios Montt, was unaware of what was happening. In fact, she believes that he knew everything that was happening and did nothing to stop it. “It’s illogical to say that he didn’t know what was happening,” she said.

Rios Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil people from March 1982 until August 1983, when he was de facto president. The maximum sentence for genocide is 30 years but Barrios gave an additional 20 for the magnitude of the crime. He received an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity, totalling 80 years.

The crowd erupted into cheers upon hearing that Rios Montt was guilty. As the crowd waited for the police to come and get him to take him to jail, people starting singing, “Aqui queremos ser humanos,” the Otto Rene Castillo poem turned revolutionary anthem. Cheers for the Judge, Yassmin Barrios, the Ixil
People and for justice left the room completely energized. Outside, a receiving line was created for the Ixil survivors who left the Supreme Court of Justice. Between tears and hugs, for the first time, many people felt hope; that yes, this can happen.

Though entrenched racism is part of every level of Guatemalan society, this verdict is a step towards breaking that down. People, Ixiles and all Guatemalans were at last vindicated. One man said, “Today is the first day that I am proud to be Guatemalan.”

Rodriguez Sanchez, ex defacto head of military intelligence was absolved of all charges. The plaintiffs couldn’t prove he was responsible for what was happening in the region nor that he could stop the violence.

Claudia Samayoa from the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said, “Hopefully we will have a change in Guatemala and we will start to recognize that what is happening today with the resistance against mining or explorations without the due consultation is part of the same idea of genocide. It is the same racism. It is the same idea that people are not worthy of decision making. So if we start to learn lessons from this trial, we will change as a country.”

There will no doubt be a swarm of legal challenges and appeals. But for tonight, many will finally sleep in peace.

BTS, through the international accompaniment organization, ACOGUATE, has had the honour to accompany the witnesses and co-plaintiffs in the genocide case, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation. We admire their courage to speak the truth and extraordinary dedication to justice.

See for a complete photo essay.

See also: Wendy Mendez’s Word After the Verdict, Claudia Samayoa Speaks, Rigoberta Menchu Speaks, Canadian Government’s Voice Lacking