Rios Montt on Trial By John Lang (Article)



 John Lang

Recent reports on the trial in Guatemala City of octogenarian ex-dictator, General Efrain Rios Montt, evoked memories of my posting there which began just as Rios Montt seized power in 1982. My posting lasted only two years, which was about six months longer than the general managed to stay in office.

The court found him guilty of genocide against the Ixil Indians and sentenced him to 80 years in prison but an appeal succeeded in mandating a partial retrial on procedural grounds.

Guatemalans endured a bloody civil war over a period of 36 years during which time Marxist guerillas would occupy remote indigenous villages, set up a people’s government, take over the schools, recruit the young men as soldiers and fight any government troops that came near. The biggest number of casualties were inevitably villagers caught in the crossfire. Both sides committed atrocities.

Very little information from either side of the dispute could be taken at face value. Many journalists coming to discover the truth seemed to have written their stories before they arrived. NGOs, many of them based in Canada, were thick on the ground. Most were motivated by humanitarian concern, were well to the left politically and viewed the conflict as a one-sided clash between indigenous victims and an illegitimate neo-Nazi regime propped up by the CIA and, probably, the United Fruit Company. When they came to the embassy it was more often to berate us than to learn what we might know. In their view, the guerillas might occasionally be guilty of attacks on the army but they were driven to it out of desperation to protect the campesinos from the ravages of the government.-

A Canada-based campaign appealed to the international community to impose sanctions on the Guatemalan government. It also demanded that the Canadian Government break off diplomatic relations. The Inter-church Committee for Human Rights in Latin America (mostly United Church of Canada) urged that we relocate our embassy to Nicaragua where Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista regime was in charge of “the only country in Central American capable of meaningful social development”. We at the embassy would try to inject some balance into discussions of the conflict. Stern-faced CBC journalists were sometimes part of these visiting groups and it was clear that they had been well-briefed to regard us at the embassy as “part of the problem”. Our statements that horrors were being committed by both sides only served to confirm their low opinion of us.

In 1983, a Dutch delegate at the UN General Assembly rose to his feet to announce that as he spoke the Guatemalan Army was massacring men, women and children in the village of San Martine Jilotepeque. We received a call from Ottawa to look into the matter and our political officer drove to the village at once. He found it serene. The indigenous people he spoke with said they had come to town to escape the guerillas. He saw army trucks delivering food to the refugees. We reported to Ottawa that the Dutch claim of murder and mayhem in the village was unfounded.

However, media around the world, including Canadian, reported that the massacre had occurred. Canadian NGOs visiting the embassy would ever afterwards cite the supposed massacre in their prepared message to us. Some were upset when the officer who had been in the village that day tried to set the record straight. “We stand by our (anonymous Christian) sources”, they would invariably say, in effect calling us liars. The long Guatemalan Civil War ended with peace agreements in 1996 under terms of which the guerillas were granted a general amnesty. Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady, in an article dated May 13, 2013, feels that the legal ordeal of Rios Montt thirty years after he was pushed out of office has more to do with efforts by the current Guatemalan government to curry favour with the international left than with any pursuit of justice. She underlines that the UN experts on human rights whose opinions Guatemala values so highly are often from Cuba, China and Syria.

O’Grady also points out that Rios Montt still enjoys the overwhelming support of his putative victims, who accredit him with their deliverance from re-education and communization by the Marxist guerrillas. Under Rios Montt’s “Frijoles and Balas” program (beans and bullets) the Ixil received food aid, weaponry and training to enable them to feed and defend themselves. They are still thankful.

According to O’Grady:

Ixil people and others from the region who still view Mr. Ríos Montt as a hero have been holding protests against the verdict. It's not the first time they've shown support for him.

When he ran for president in 2003, he lost. But in the three municipalities of the Ixil Triangle, he not only beat 10 other candidates but perhaps more important trounced former guerilla leader Rodrigo Asturias 13,451 to 1,202. That hasn't been reported in the international press much, if at all, either.

I’m not at all surprised that media have reported gleefully on Rios Montt’s conviction while evincing not an iota of concern that the other parties to a dispute that resulted in more than 200,000 deaths -- guerillas such as Rodrigo Asturias -- go on talk shows but will never be brought to trial.

Nor, as far as I know, did a single journal ever bother to correct its report on the massacre that did not occur at San Martine Jilotepeque.

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