Why the Ríos Montt Trial Is Significant for the International Rule of Law

Former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt is under trial for committing genocide and crimes against humanity during his de facto presidency and the decades-long civil war.

Former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt. Credit: Reuters

Former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt. Credit: Reuters

October 13 was a remarkable day for the international rule of law. The day marked the start of a fresh trial against José Efraín Ríos Montt, once Guatemala’s most feared man and the butcher of the Maya Ixil Indians. While this is not the first time that Ríos Montt is being tried, it is likely to be the last effort to bring the man who ruled Guatemala with an iron hand to justice. Senile and demented, the 90-year-old remains the missing link for justice and anti-impunity initiatives in Latin America. With the international press reporting the trial to be a closed-door affair without Ríos Montt’s presence, given his advanced age and health, the symbolic significance of this historic judicial effort goes far beyond these factors.


Ravaged by civil strife and a brutal internal armed conflict lasting from 1960-1996, Guatemala witnessed the mass murder of more than 2 lakh people. With over a million people uprooted from their homes, 45,000 internal disappearances and destruction of scores of villages, the period from March 1982 to August 1983 marked the crescendo of violence. Ríos Montt ruled the country during this 17 month period.

With the army at the peak of its power under the Ríos Montt government, a counter-insurgency strategy to root out anti-establishment guerrillas and their supporters was given effect to. The special focus of this operation was on civilians who supported the guerrillas, especially in the area that was known as the ‘Ixil Triangle’. Comprising the regions of Santa Maria de Nejab, San Juan Cotzal and San Gaspar Chajul, the Ixil Triangle constitute a population tracing their ancestry to the legendary Mayans. The identification of the Ixils as a legitimate military target was akin to the idea of ‘draining the sea to eliminate the fish’. The Ixil people were the water – the lifeline sustaining the anti-government guerrillas. In addition, the Ixils’ opposition to Western values did not go down well with their western-backed rulers. The murder of 1771 members of the ethnic minority – for which Ríos Montt was found guilty in 2013, a ruling subsequently overturned – along with the displacement of 29,000 others, not including the countless cases of rape, torture, bombing and transfer of civilians into camps, was directly attributable to the command structure functioning under his leadership. Though Ríos Montt was ousted in 1983, accountability efforts have taken time to come to fruition.

Accountability initiatives

In June 1994 the Historical Clarification Commission, a truth commission, was formed with UN support, to document the scale of the violence unleashed. Their culminating report, ‘Guatemala Memory of Silence‘, was published in 1999. While granting amnesty to those who participated in the internal armed conflict, the 1996 National Reconciliation Law excluded genocide, crimes against humanity and torture from its ambit. This came as blow to Ríos Montt and his top military associates. In 1999, Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, a world renowned indigenous Indian activist, petitioned Spain’s National Court to try Ríos Montt, under the principle of universal jurisdiction (which permits a national court to assume jurisdiction over serious international law violations irrespective of the place of occurrence). While the court initially refused to proceed with the matter, public pressure from civil society groups compelled it to act. An international arrest and extradition warrant was issued by Judge Santiago Pedraz, who travelled to Guatemala to collect evidence from Ríos Montt. The matter ended ingloriously with the Guatemalan Supreme Court stalling any move to extradite Ríos Montt to Spain on jurisdictional grounds.

Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Credit: Reuters

Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Credit: Reuters

The first and only successful judicial attempt to prosecute Ríos Montt started on March 19, 2013 and culminated on May 10. A Guatemalan trial court, the High Impact Court ‘A’, found the former dictator guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Maya Ixil indigenous people during his de facto presidency in 1982-83. Sentenced to a staggering 80 years in prison – 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity which were a part of the domestic criminal code of the country  – to be served consequently, a dubious conglomeration of nationalistic and business forces orchestrated a systematic campaign to overturn the verdict. These vested efforts bore fruit with the Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturning the verdict in a decision that is still questioned today. The current trial is an effort to re-appraise the merits of this precise case.

Why the trial is important

The trial and conviction of Ríos Montt has remained a classic in transitional justice for four principle reasons. It was the first time that a head of state was convicted of genocide by his country’s judiciary. Secondly, the judicial system of a country, battered by the horrors of a three-decade civil war, was emphatically laying down the contours of transitional and post-conflict accountability with a measure of conviction. Thirdly, the specific holding that the Ríos Montt dictatorship made all out efforts to destroy an indigenous community, rightly identified as an ethnic community, advanced the substantive law of genocide in international law. Lastly, the unprecedented intervention by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala to reverse the holding within 10 days highlighted the complex mosaic of justice, morality, suffering and international law.

With Guatemala showing the conviction to re-try Ríos Montt, despite the obstructionist tactics adopted by the defence lawyers, transitional justice and the rule of law should emerge as rallying points for the international community. The world must keenly watch the trial of Ríos Montt and expect a logical closure to half-a-century of impunity.

Abraham Joseph is PhD candidate in international criminal law and assistant professor, School of Law, Ansal University. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Views expressed are personal