On This Day: Former Leader Of Guatemala Found Guilty Of Genocide

General Efraín Ríos Montt, the former military dictator who ruled Guatemala during its civil war, was found guilty of genocide by a Guatemalan court on this day, May 10, in 2013. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

General Ríos Montt was convicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan military under his command as an army general during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). The death toll is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands, including up to 200,000 Guatemalans killed or missing. The former army officer was convicted of ordering genocide against the Ixil Maya population during the war. The co-defendant José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who served as the director of intelligence during that period, was acquitted of both charges during that same trial.

The tribunal heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses over the previous five weeks, including military experts, psychologists, and Ixil Indian survivors who told stories of how their families were murdered and their villages wiped out by General Ríos Montt’s forces.

“We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group,” said Judge Yasmín Barrios, who read an hour-long summary of the ruling by a panel of three judges, according to a report by the New York Times.

“The judge said that as the commander in chief of Guatemala’s armed forces, the general knew about the systematic massacres of Ixil villagers living in hillside hamlets in El Quiché department and did nothing to stop them or the aerial bombardment of the refugees who had fled to nearby mountains. The crowd packed into the courtroom was quiet for much of Judge Barrios’s reading. But cries of ‘Justicia! Justicia!’ erupted when she pronounced the lengthy sentence and ordered General Ríos Montt to begin serving it immediately.”

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The Guatemalan Civil War saw the government of Guatemala and its military and paramilitary forces fight against leftist guerrilla groups. In 1968, the Guatemalan army began slaughtering the Ixil Mayan population, which led to the widespread extermination of Mayan villages in what was often called the “Silent Holocaust.” 500,000 to 1.5 million civilians fled to other countries or were internally displaced during the violence, in one of the bloodiest military dictatorships in Latin American history.

The death toll in Guatemala from its military dictatorship exceeded that of other Cold War dictatorships and civil wars in the region, including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile. The Times reported that after Gen. Ríos Montt came to office in a military coup in 1982, the civil war became one of the most violent conflicts in modern history.

“The villages of the Mayan highlands endured the worst of the army’s brutality in the early 1980s, the darkest period of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. During much of the 17 months of General Ríos Montt’s rule, the army intensified a scorched-earth policy to flush out leftist guerrillas fighting from the hills. In the cities, security forces had identified labor and student leaders as enemies of the state and snatched them off the street to be killed or disappeared. But the military campaigns against the Mayan communities did not bother to select their targets. Military planning documents simply described all the Ixil as guerrilla supporters.”

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Guatemala’s government was supported by the United States from 1982 onward as part of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, and Gen. Ríos Montt had close ties to the U.S. under the Reagan Administration. A secret cable by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), put online by National Security Archive’s page on Guatemala, mentions the genocidal intent and ideology of the Guatemalan armed forces under General Ríos Montt, and warns of atrocities.

“The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”

Another secret memorandum from the U.S. State Department stored in the Archive, dated March 29, 1968, and authored by Viron Vaky, at that time serving on the State Department’s Policy Planning Council, was even more brutally honest.

“This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists.”

Though the verdict would later be overturned, Ríos Montt’s sentence was considered a landmark case of international significance for the victims of genocide. A retrial began earlier this year, though his health was determined to be too fragile for him to attend the court sessions.

[Photo by Andrea Nieto/Getty Images]