Category Archives: Guatemala

Curses, foiled again!: The Rios Montt genocide trial in Guatemala

On Monday, former de facto leader of Guatemala Efrain Rios Montt was rolled into court on a gurney on day one of his retrial, and that of his co-defendant Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. I attended the opening day of the trial in 2013 and there were fireworks then. Although I was no present yesterday, Day 1 of the retrial appears to have been no different.

Rios Montt first tried to avoid attending the proceedings because of his failing health. However, the justices would have none of his antics. In the first trial, it was Rios Montt's attorney who skipped out on day one. I guess they went with another tactic this time. An ambulance brought Rios Montt to court on a gurney wearing some fashionable sunglasses like other infamous criminals. To be fair, though, I don't remember the sunglasses the first time around.

In 2013, I had hoped that Rios Montt would stand up and defend what he did. Take some ownership of the tactics that killed tens of thousands under your watch. There were glimmers of that following the 2013 ruling but, for the most part, Rios Montt has simply sought to obstruct and proclaim his ignorance.

After Rios Montt was brought to the courtroom, the defense asked for Judge Irma Jeannette Valdez's recusal from the case. As I wrote in May 2013, Judge Valdez wrote her master's thesis on the charges of genocide in Guatemala. I thought that her in-depth knowledge of the case would make her a great expert witness for the prosecution, maybe even the defense (I haven't read the thesis), much more than a great impartial judge. It's not as if she wrote her thesis on genocide in general or another country. She refused to voluntarily recuse herself from the case but her colleagues outvoted her. This should have been no surprise.

Given that Judge Valdez could have recused herself or the defense could have asked for her removal anytime in the last 18 months, it is disappointing that the issue was not decided before yesterday. It played right into the hands of the defense which has tried to obstruct and delay at all turns for the last fifteen years. However, I can't imagine that the trial would have been regarded as legitimate given the judge's close connection to the accused's actions. Hopefully, the victims and witnesses who attended yesterday's hearing knew her recusal was likely to occur.

What next? They'll have to find a replacement for Judge Valdez which could take days or months. See the Open Society's International Justice Monitor for more details on yesterday's developments as well as Sonia Perez with the AP.

Year end homicide statistics for Central America

Year end homicide statistics are starting to trickle in and it looks likes a mixed year. The worst performing country was El Salvador where authorities claim that homicides increased by 57% in 2014 compared to the previous year. With 3,912 homicides, the country's homicide rate finished at approximately 63 per 100,000. Given the large number of disappearances, it's not clear if homicides have actually increased or whether gangs are no longer hiding the bodies (that's been one of the anti-truce arguments for awhile). Speaking of the 2012 gang truce, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren admitted that the previous Funes government, of which he served as vice president, negotiated the pact with the gangs.

Honduras remains the most violent country in Central America with a homicide rate in the upper 60s. However, 2014 was a significant improvement over 2013 (79) and 2012 (85). Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela finished the year with homicide rates higher than Iraq and Syria. Not entirely a big fan of the comparison, but it does give you an indication of how desperate conditions are in those three countries.

Homicides in Belize increased in 2014 and the country finished with a rate of approximately 34, roughly a 20% increase.

On the positive side (?), Guatemala, finished the year with a homicide rate of approximately 31 per 100,000.
Carlos uses the National Civil Police's numbers. They measure murders. INACIF, which measures violent deaths, always has higher numbers that the PNC. Fortunately, they also show a decrease. Here is Carlos again with a look at homicide rates since 2009.
That's rather impressive, no? It's even pretty close to Colombia's 2014 rate but I'm sure everyone knew that.

Central America remains one of the most violent region's of the world. Maybe I am a bit optimistic that the two more populous countries, Guatemala and Honduras, were able to reduce their homicide rates once again.

Noam Chomsky on contemporary United States – Latin American relations

Louisa Reynolds recently completed an interview with Noam Chomsky that has been published in English in Plaza Publica. The lead is a not so surprising quote of “For the first time in 500 years, Latin America has begun to free itself of imperial control."
The US strongly supported the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former dictator Efrain Rios Montt...
I think “strongly supported” is an overstatement…
The US embassy in Guatemala expressed an interest in having the trial come to a conclusion…
A quick conclusion that would not implicate the United States and its allies. After all, Rios Montt wasn’t acting in isolation. He was acting with support from the Reagan administration and when Congress blocked Reagan from direct participation in the genocidal crimes, Reagan called in his international terrorist army, Israel, to train Guatemalan officers and provide the weapons, essentially as a surrogate for the United States. The US embassy made sure that none of that was going to be brought up.
What were America’s real motivations for supporting the Rios Montt trial? Was it concern over the possibility of having a failed state in its back yard? 
There were undoubtedly people in the US embassy that were interested in pursuing it but as far as government policy is concerned it seems to me it was tolerated as long as the US and its allies were excluded; that was always crucial. The US has no real objection to crimes being prosecuted locally as long as the international aspect doesn’t enter. It happens all over the place...
The US has been strongly supportive of the case against Rios Montt. Of that, I have little doubt. However, I get the impression that the US has been more of a cheerleader rather than a prosecutor which is how it should be.

For the most part, the Obama administration's approach to Central America has been to let Central Americans take the lead and for the US to nudge policy in a direction we find more acceptable. Republicans and leftist sympathizers prefer that the use a sledge hammer - just usually forcing action in opposite directions. Sometimes that happens (accepting Honduras back in to the democratic fold, CICIG and Rios Montt, arbitration against Guatemala on labor rights) and sometimes it doesn't (perhaps the Monsanto laws fall here, wanting El Salvador to do more to crack down on money laundering and corruption).

Had Guatemalans not been at the forefront of pushing for the prosecution of Rios Montt, my guess is that the US Embassy would have stayed relatively, if not completely, silent.

Speaking of which, Rios Montt's re-trial resumed today in Guatemala. Following on Twitter, there looks to have been some excitement with a demand that the former general and dictator show up in court (he had been claiming that he's too sick to attend) and a motion to have one of the justices removed (Judge Valdez wrote her master's thesis on the genocide in Guatemala - see this post from June 2013).

I was wrong. I honestly didn't think that Rios Montt would see the inside of a courtroom but there Bernie he is

[UPDATE - Not much of a surprise but Judge Irma Jeannette Valdés Rodas is off the case and a new judge will have to be appointed. No idea yet of the timeline.]