General Jose Efrain Rios Montt took power in Guatemala in a military coup early in 1982. He suspended the Constitution, set up secret tribunals, and began a campaign of kidnapping, torture and killing to suppress opposition to the government. In order to suppress a revolutionary guerrilla movement, the Guatemalan army began a campaign of annihilation against poor Mayan Indian peasant villagers from whom the guerrillas drew their support.
Amnesty International estimated that 10,000 Guatemalan peasants and Mayan Indians were killed just from March to July 1982. A 1999 United Nations Commission said the army under Rios Montt wiped out 600 villages. Other estimates say that tens of thousands of people were killed and as many as 1.5 million were driven from their homes. Rios Montt himself was overthrown by another military coup in August, 1983, but the killings continued.
The documentary movie, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, describes the campaign to put Rios Montt on trial for his crimes. Under the Spanish Constitution, a person can be indicted for crimes against humanity even when those crimes are committed outside Spain. Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan peasant leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, filed charges in Spain of torture, genocide, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism against Rios Montt and four other Guatemalan generals, including two ex-Presidents. Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz issued an international arrest warrant against Rios Montt in 2006, but the Guatemalan government refused to hand him over. However, in January of this year, Rios Montt was indicted in Guatemala itself on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide.
This is an important precedent. It shows that just because you are the head of a government does not give you impunity to commit crimes. So long as there is impunity, mass killings and other crimes against humanity will continue. So far accountability extends only to the rules of small countries, and not to the great powers, but I hope that this case and others like it will lay the legal groundwork for ending impunity in powerful countries such as the United States.
I was brought up to believe that the English-speaking world was the home of the ideal of liberty under law. But at the present time, this principle is understood a great deal better in Spain and Guatemala than it is in Britain or here in the United States.
The documentary is nearly 90 minutes long, which is a lot to watch on a computer screen, but I think it is well worth the effort. It is divided into three segments, so you don’t have to watch the whole thing all at once.
Much of the information used to indict Rios Montt came from a 1983 documentary film When the Mountains Tremble and outtakes from that film. It, too, is nearly 90 minutes long, but broken up into segments. If you have the time, watch When the Mountains Tremble and then Granito: How to Nail a Dictator for the whole story of Guatemala since a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew the democratically-elected government in 1954.
Click on When the Mountains Tremble to view the earlier documentary.
Click on Efrain Rios Montt wiki for Rios Montt’s Wikipedia article.
Click on Network in Solidarity With the People of Guatemala for background on Guatemala.
Hat tip to Larry Lack.