Guatemala genocide trial continues; watch or listen live

Nicolas Brito Bernal, the first witness in the genocide trial. Photo: Aida Noriega; via @PzPenVivo.

Efrain Ríos Montt, the former de facto dictator of Guatemala, is in court today for the third day of his trial on charges of genocide against some 2,000 Ixil Maya during the country's 36-year civil war. Listen here, or watch here. I also created this Twitter list so you can follow the accounts of people live-tweeting from the courtroom (or listening to the audio/video stream, where dialogue is in Spanish and Ixil Maya only).

As you can see for yourself on the video stream, the ex-general is sitting and listening in the courtroom while prosecution witnesses, Ixil Maya victims, recount in gruesome detail the atrocities they survived under his regime.

As I type this blog post, an Ixil woman, Cecilia Sánchez Sánchez, is breaking down in tears as she retells the story of how on one day in 1982, her husband, two sons, and baby were murdered, her home burned, and "flying instruments" (helicopters) swarmed overhead, dropping bombs on the villagers.

Did you ever see your husband again, the interrogator asks her. "No, I only went to carry away his bones."

This tribunal is the first and only genocide trial in history held in a domestic court against a former head of state, and is a huge historic moment for Guatemala. It's also an important moment for the United States.

Our military and our government were intimately involved in orchestrating, funding, and propping up to power the Guatemalan generals who led the bloody civil war that killed at least 200,000, and left tens of thousands more "disappeared." Ríos Montt was trained in the US Army's own School of The Americas, and aided by our CIA under the Reagan administration.

PRI's The World has a good interview with Kate Boyle of the Guatemala Documentation Project for the National Security Archive, who has been monitoring the proceedings and has been working for years to help preserve the evidence that makes this process possible. I reported on some of that work for NPR.

But denial persists. Supporters of Ríos Montt and the military legacy he represents call the trial a form of political persecution or "political lynching," and deny that any genocide took place. Here is one such example.

Rios Montt, during trial.

There's a dedicated website for trial observation: It's supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the National Security Archive (NSA), Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Plaza Pública, the Guatemalan investigative media initiative.

NISGUA has been liveblogging the proceedings, too. Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

From today's NISGUA post, a powerful documentation that I encourage you to read:

Survivor testimony continued on the third day of former dictator Efraín Rios Montt and intelligence chief Rodriguez Sánchez's trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Hours of intense first-person accounts of violence and endurance left impressions of profound grief: "They killed our fathers, our mothers, and everything we loved," said one witness; as well as resolute purpose: "I am one of the few survivors. Perhaps I was sent to be the messenger of the story here."
Outside the courtroom, bootleggers are selling copies of a documentary film credited with helping to bring Ríos Montt to trial. You can watch the film online here. Snip from the filmmakers' blog:
Guatemalan bootleggers at the scene saw this as an opportunity to sell pirated DVDs of our film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, which tells the story of how our film became evidence in the genocide case. If you look closely at the text at the top of the DVD, it says “UNA HISTORIA MAS GRANDE JAMAS CONTADA” (“A GREATER STORY NEVER TOLD”). There is no honor or award that could surpass this endorsement of our film by the Guatemalan people. Bootleggers all over the world are tuned in to their cultures, and what people want to see and hear. Having your film bootlegged in a country is a great affirmation of its value in that society, whether it be for entertainment or in this case, hunger for a suppressed history and the restoration of collective memory. The street price, by the way, is 10 Guatemalan Quetzales (US$1.25).

The filmmakers are encouraging people to send emails imploring the US Ambassador to Guatemala to attend the trial.

There's a powerful first-person essay by Yates about the making of that documentary here, on the blog. In fact, out-takes from that film were used by the prosecution to build their case against Ríos Montt:

The lawyers were as surprised as we were when they saw the outtakes.. In 1982, I had asked: “What would you say to the charges that it’s the Army that is massacring (Maya) peasants in the highlands? Is there repression on the part of the Army?”

Ríos Montt responded, “There is no repression on the part of the Army. Our strength is in our capacity to make command decisions. The Army is ready and able to act, because if I don’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?”

My filmic evidence helped prove the prosecution’s command responsibility liability theory: Ríos Montt ordered the targeted killings.

Boing Boing pal Renata Avila, who lives and works in Guatemala, has photographed many of the sites where massacres described in this tribunal took place. Here is a photoset with some images of these sites.


  1. I wonder what justice even looks like in these cases.

    I’m a very firm believer in the justice system’s primary purpose being rehabilitation and education – rather than vengeance or punishment, as ultimately neither of these things actually achieve anything, for anyone.

    But what about cases like this? You can’t ‘rehabilitate’ a past-dictator who is now an OAP. But equally, what good is it going to do sticking him in a cell to live out his last days? I’m against the death penalty because I’m more civilised than the man on trial. So where does that leave us? What can we actually do to achieve justice?

    (Of course I appreciate that the trial, like any trial, is about a lot more than the sentence)

    1. If his victims, or their survivors, would feel better knowing he’d been hanged, rather than suffering the continuing anguish of knowing that the people who victimized them did it with complete impunity, that alone would make it worth it.  Nothing about him or is cronies, including their lives, is worth more than that.

      1. Punishment is vital here, whether its the death penalty or prison. Every day he goes unpunished is an insult to his victims and their relatives. Dictators everywhere should know that there’s a chance they’ll suffer for their crimes.

          1.  If so, aside from my admiration for their tenacity and bravery (I rather imagine that nothing about testifying in this trial will be anything but harrowing), for such a philosophy, and after such cruelty to state they do not support it, they have my most deeply humble respect.

    2. Convicting him would be justice. What they do with him afterward is less important, although they could at least seize all his assets and use them for reparations.

    3. The Guardian reports between 22% and 35% of Britons regard Tony Blair as a war criminal. (Surprisingly. If you want a link I can find it again.) We can make a movie about it, but unless guys like Montt get prosecuted for crimes against humanity, there is no way Blair will stand trial. If Blair went, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Steele could go – especially since Rumsfeld and Steele were so involved in the slaughter in Latin America. 

      1. Maybe we’re crossing wires, but I wasn’t questioning the value of bringing him to justice, simply what justice for genocide looks like – it’s such an extreme, you know?

        Regarding the whole Blair thing – I have a suspicion (without seeing the source) that it may have been a Guardian instigated poll; so I’d expect the results to be skewed with a liberal slant. Bear in mind that I’m a Guardian reader, a liberal, and consider Blair a war criminal, but I would be a little surprised if that was a genuine figure. I’d be a little surprised if 35% of Britons even knew he had anything to do with the wars (I wish I were joking).

  2. Weegee would be proud of that top photograph. The snapper managed to get the dude’s hat in to the picture.

  3. Maybe the USA and Obama can learn  something about the moral value of looking at the past. But I doubt we’ll see Rumsfeld and co. on trial any time soon.

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