It’s been a long time coming – three decades – but the conviction and sentencing on Friday of 86-year-old former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity is no less important and welcome. The 80-year jail sentence is a vindication of what must have seen a never-ending and impossible campaign by members of Guatemala’s Maya Ixil minority which suffered so brutally at his hands, and sends out an important international reminder to dictators that a continent-wide ending of impunity is not going to be reversed.
Chile’s former president Augusto Pinochet, and El Salvador’s brutal far-right leaders Roberto D’Aubuisson and Rene Emilio Ponce may have escaped justice by dying before the courts could pronounce on their crimes, but in Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay former presidents Alberto Fujimori, Jorge Rafael Videla, and Juan Maria Bordaberry respectively have all now been convicted and jailed for human rights abuses.
If anything, however, the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that claimed as many as 250,000 lives, and the particularly bloody 17-month rule of Rios Montt in 1982-83, acquired a reputation that put even these bloodthirsty monsters in the shade. Rios Montt’s army waged war on its own people – in the cities students and labour activists, suspected of subversive sympathies, disappeared, were tortured and murdered. In the countryside soldiers randomly raped, tortured and killed indigenous people and razed their villages in a scorched-earth policy aimed at flushing out small bands of guerrillas who had taken up arms in the hills. Thousands of other Maya were forced into exile.
The court on Friday found Rios Montt responsible for deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population – the tip of the iceberg. One witness , a specialist in analysing humanitarian deaths tallies estimated that from April 1982 to July 1983, 5.5 percent of the Maya Ixil population was killed.
The war ended with peace accords signed in 1996, but the Central American nation remains deeply divided and poverty ridden, locked in a fierce debate over whether civil war crimes should be punished or are best forgotten. For the Ixil there is no doubt.