By John White

From 1960-1996, Guatemala was engulfed by one of Latin America’s bloodiest civil wars. The conflict between the government and left-wing guerrillas saw 200,000 killed or missing and 40,000-50,000 disappeared. [1]

The indigenous Mayan population and poor peasants suffered the most during this conflict. The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) set up under the Oslo Peace Accords 1994 documented human rights violations during the civil war. The CEH attributed 93% [2] of abuses to the security forces and 3% [3] to the rebels. Native Mayans accounted for 83% of the victims.[4]

Three high level military and political officials are now on trial for their alleged role in crimes against humanity. These focus on two events from 1982-83 under the presidency of General Jose Efrain Rios Montt. These are the Mayan Ixil genocide and the Dos Erres massacre.

Mayan Ixil genocide - Background

The years of 1982-1983 were one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala’s civil war. On seizing power in a coup during March 1982, General Jose Efrain Rios Montt pursued brutal counter-insurgency policies. These included the infamous ‘Frijoles y Fusiles’ (‘Beans and guns’), meaning ‘if you are with us we will feed you, if you are against us we will kill you’.[5]

The security forces pursued a ‘scorched-earth’ campaign targeting the Mayan Ixil community in El Quiché department. The CEH estimates that there were over 600 massacres in this period.[6] The Centre for Justice and Accountability estimates that 70 000 Mayans were killed or disappeared, between 500 000 and 1.5 million Mayan civilians became refugees in Guatemala or abroad.[7]

The Prosecutor Orlando López claims that Rios Montt wanted to wipe out the Maya Ixiles as they were seen as bastions of leftist support.  1771 indigenous Mayan Ixiles were killed in 15 massacres between 1982 and 1983 by the army, military officials and civil defence patrols (local men conscripted into the army).[8]

As the final commanders of the Guatemalan military, Rios Montt along with former General José Rodríguez Sánchez and former General and Army Chief of Staff Hector Mario López Fuentes, have been indicted on separate occasions for their alleged role in these massacres.

Trial History

General Hector Mario López Fuentes - Was arrested in July 2011 on counts of genocide and crimes against humanity for the events in the Ixil region. At the time he had terminal cancer, but the judge has ordered him to stand trial nonetheless. Since this time his hearings have been delayed due to ill health.

General Jose Efrain Rios Montt and General José Rodríguez Sánchez- On 28 January 2013 judge Miguel Angel Galvez decided to send the case against these two generals to trial. This will be the first time in Latin American history that a former Head of State will be tried for genocide in a national court.

Despite efforts by victims groups and NGOs no trial had been brought until now. Efforts had been made by the Centre for Justice and Accountability to bring proceedings in Spain, using Spain’s universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. Since 1999 testimony has been heard in Madrid about the human rights violations against the Mayan Ixil. Attempts to convince the Guatemalan authorities to extradite the eight accused, including Rios Montt, were unsuccessful.

For 15 years Rios Montt was immune from prosecution in Guatemala due to his place in Congress. On failing to get re-elected in January 2012 he was arrested. He was released on bail (US$ 64 000) and has been under house arrest since. As regards the allegations relating to the Ixil genocide; Rios Montt’s attorneys, César Calderón and Luis Rosales, have made a number of pleas. Firstly that he was not responsible for all the actions of his troops on the ground, that the state policies to exterminate the Ixil were in place before he came to power and that he is immune from prosecution, due to an amnesty law passed in 1996. The 1996 Law of National Reconciliation granted amnesty for ‘political crimes’. Until recently this law has been used to halt prosecutions and Rios Montt’s lawyers are appealing the court’s decision on that basis.

Dos Erres massacre - Background


In the northern El Petén department Rios Montt’s policies were pursued with equal brutality. Whole villages suspected of leftist sympathies were targeted in the region -Operación Ceniza” (“Operation Ashes”) was enacted; this was described as ‘draining the sea the fish swim in’. [9]

On 7 December 1982 the elite Kaibil unit surrounded the town of Dos Erres in La Libertad, in response to a guerrilla attack on an army patrol two months earlier. The army moved into the town and searched for weapons. None were found. Nonetheless the soldiers started to interrogate villagers.

By the end of the day over 250 people had been bludgeoned or shot. Victims were buried in a well and survivors were tortured or raped. [10] In 2011 President Álvaro Colom accepted government responsibility and made a formal apology for the massacre.


Numerous cases have been brought against the soldiers responsible. In 2009 the IACHR ruled that the 1996 amnesty law did not apply to crimes against humanity. In 2010, 17 arrest warrants were issued for soldiers implicated in the massacre.

As a consequence officials in the USA and Canada have taken action against former Kaibil soldiers on their territory. A number are under arrest for immigration offences and awaiting extradition to Guatemala.

In Guatemala four former-soldiers were indicted in July 2011. They were found guilty of over 200 counts of murder a month later and sentenced to over 6000 years in prison. Ex-Kaibil Pedro Pimentel Rios was extradited from the USA in 2011. In March 2012 he was sentenced to 6060 years in prison for his role in the massacre.


Rios Montt has been indicted for allegedly masterminding the massacre. On 21 May 2011 Judge Carol Patricia Flores held that there was sufficient evidence for him to stand trial for his role.

The prosecution is contending that while Rios did not directly organise the massacre itself, he orchestrated the state policies that gave rise to it. Furthermore as supreme commander of the armed forces he bore ultimate responsibility.

The defence is arguing that he did not command every individual soldier on the ground and could not have known of all their actions. They argue that the massacre was carried out by rogue soldiers and that the high command was not responsible.

The initial judge for the case Carol Patricia Flores, who is no longer hearing the case, declared that Rios Montt should stand trial for genocide in relation to the Dos Erres Massacre. This decision came under criticism from prosecutors, who argue that the inhabitants of Dos Erres did not form a distinct ethnic or linguistic group. Due to this, attempts to exterminate them should not be classified as genocide; by trying Rios Montt for genocide, rather than murder, the defence may have more of a chance to gain an acquittal.[11]

Current issues

For victims of Guatemala’s Civil War justice has been a long time coming. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s there were very few convictions and trials or extradition requests were hindered by the authorities.[12] A number of factors have combined in recent years to make prosecutions possible.

Firstly, the IACHR’s ruling that the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation did not extend to crimes against humanity means that claiming immunity from prosecution is unlikely to be effective. Rios Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez are nonetheless appealing on this basis.

Secondly, the new Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey has valiantly pursued war criminals. The Guatemalan state is now showing willingness to prosecute crimes against humanity committed during the civil war. This is a marked change in a country that has been described as the ‘kingdom of impunity’ by a former foreign minister, Edgar Gutiérrez.[13] Furthermore, the current president, Otto Pérez Molina, would like to see the US ban on military aid lifted, as Guatemala is now embroiled in a struggle with heavily armed drug-cartels. A condition of the ban being lifted is Guatemala prosecuting war criminals and improving its justice system.[14]

Lastly, the tireless efforts of victims groups and NGOs in bringing perpetrators to justice. Throughout the last 17 years, victims’ groups have sought to compile evidence and bring proceedings against war criminals. Without them the recent progress would not have been possible.

There are hurdles to be overcome. Old-age and ill-health may mean that it is difficult to bring proceedings against many perpetrators. Defence attorneys will seek to use the 1996 amnesty law to gain acquittals, although this may be less likely to be successful in the current climate.

here has been a resurgent right-wing in Guatemala.[15] President Otto Pérez Molina is a former soldier who served in the Ixil region in the early 1980s and there have been unsuccessful attempts to prosecute him for crimes against humanity.[16] He has denied that any genocide ever took place.

Recently, the Association of Guatemalan Veterans have campaigned against human rights lawyers and victims groups; human rights lawyers, like Edgar Pérez have received death-threats and bribery attempts; and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation was subject to an attack and death threats issued against the organisation's director and four other people.[17] Violent and threatening campaigns against justice were a significant factor in halting prosecutions during the 1990s and 2000s.[18] Lawyers and victims groups are still at risk.

The current legal proceedings are unprecedented in Latin America. They would have been unthinkable in Guatemala only a few years ago. Despite the backlash from some sections of society, these present a promising opportunity for victims to achieve justice and for Guatemala to heal the wounds of its past.


[1] Guatemala: Memory of Silence: Report of the Commission for Historical Clarifications, Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), 1999. para. 2 Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[2] Ibid. para. 82 Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[3] Ibid. para. 128  Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[4] Ibid. para. 1  Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[5] “Rev. Pat Robertson and General Rios Montt”, Nikolas Kozloff , Counterpunch, September 2005. Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[6] Guatemala: Memory of Silence: Report of the Commission for Historical Clarifications, Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), 1999.  para. 86 Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[7] “Background on Guatemala”, The Centre for Justice and Accountability. Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[8] “Guatemala Former Dictator to stand Trial for Genocide”, The Wall Street Journal, 28 January 2013. Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[9] Dos Erres Unearthed Again, Louisa Reynolds, Latin America Press, 3 February 2011. Accessed on 13 February 2013.

[10] “Still no Justice for Guatemala Massacre Victims after 26 Years”, Amnesty International, 5 December 2008. Accessed 11 February 2013.

[11] “Guatemala Genocide Case”, The Centre for Justice and Accountability. Accessed 11 February 2013.

[13] “Background on Guatemala”, The Centre for Justice and Accountability. Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[14] “Former Guatemala Dictator to Stand Trial for Genocide”, Sonia Perez-Diaz, The Associated Press, 30 January 2013. Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[15] “Change and Continuity” The Economist, 7 November 2011. Accessed on 11 February 2013.

[16] “Special Report: New Guatemala leader faces questions about past”, Mica Rosenberg and Mike McDonald, Reuters, 11 November 2011. Accessed 11 February 2013.

[17] “Emergency Alert: Security of those seeking justice for crimes committed during the armed conflict”, Peace Brigades International, 4 September 2011.[tt_news]=3044&cHash=f2a3dd144ec7346df1f97a99b93d00bf Accessed on 13 February 2013.

[18] “Background on Guatemala”, The Centre for Justice and Accountability. Accessed on 11 February 2013.