Guatemala: Rios Montt genocide trial, day 18. "If I can't control the Army, then what am I doing here?"

Rios Montt listens to a prosecution witness, during the tribunal.

I am blogging from inside the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, where the trial of former Guatemalan Army General and US-backed dictator Guatemalan José Efrain Rios Montt and his then chief of intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez has reconvened for the 18th day. Here's a good recap of Monday's proceedings, and here's another.

For the past two weeks, I have been here in Guatemala with Miles O'Brien, observing the trial in court and interviewing people involved in the story for a forthcoming report on PBS NewsHour. We have interviewed Rios Montt's daughter, Zury Rios, who is her father's most diligent defender. We have interviewed scientists whose work is entered as evidence in the trial. We traveled to the Ixil area where the conflict at the center of this trial took place, and we interviewed Ixil Maya survivors about their experiences in the US-backed counterinsurgency attacks. We interviewed government officials who worked closely with Ríos Montt, who believe that what happened was not genocide, but the unfortunate collateral damage of a just war against "International Communism."

As covered in previous Boing Boing posts, the past few weeks of the trial have included personal testimonies from dozens of Ixil Maya survivors of mass killings, rapes, torture, forced adoption, and displacement. More than two dozen forensic anthropologists from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) have testified about human remains exhumed and analyzed from mass graves. Many other expert witnesses, or "peritos," have testified: among them, Patrick Ball of, who analyzed data of deaths during the armed conflict, to help judges make their decision about whether the mass killings constituted a focused attack by the Guatemalan Army, led by Ríos Montt, against the Ixil Maya ethnic group.

In other words: Was this genocide?

Not according to "The Foundation Against Terrorism," which published a 20-page paid newspaper supplement over the weekend here in Guatemala. "The Farce of Genocide in Guatemala: a conspiracy perpetrated by the Marxists with the Catholic Church." It's an interesting read.

The 18th day of the tribunal began this morning with defense witnesses for Ríos Montt and Sanchez.

The first witness to be called by the defense today was General Mauricio Illescas García, a lieutenant during Rios Montt's regime. Garcia's testimony focused on the notion that Ríos Montt wasn't in the know about everything troops were during his 1982-1983 regime, nor did he know at the time about damning Army documents which have been leaked in recent years.

The second witness called by the defense today is Alfred Antonio Kallschmit Luhan, the executive director of FUNDAPI (Foundation to Help Indigenous People). As the internal armed conflict ravaged Ixil communities during Ríos Montt's rule, the Guatemalan state implemented various programs in cooperation with international evangelical Christian groups. Ríos Montt's "Frijoles y Fusiles" (beans and bullets) program was implemented first, then "Techo, Trabajo, and Tortillas" (roofs, work, and tortillas) to rebuild razed villages. These programs were officially overseen by the state organization known as the National Reconstruction Committee (CRN), originally created to rebuild after the 1976 earthquake that devastated Guatemala. But much of the state's programs in the Ixil region during Ríos Montt's rule were driven by FUNDAPI, which was a state-sanctioned NGO operated by evangelical Christian and church groups. Most prominent among them was Ríos Montt's own "El Verbo" evangelical church, which had interesting origins in Eureka, California, and was supported by American evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as well as members of the Reagan administration such as Ed Meese III and James Watt.

During Ríos Montt's rule, El Verbo operated an "emergency aid group" known as the International Love Lift, which was supported with funds from evangelical Christian groups in the United States.

Virginia Garrard-Burnet's "Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala Under General Efrain Rios Montt," includes a section detailing FUNDAPI's structure and relationship with the US government and evangelical groups.

The short version: FUNDAPI was formed by El Verbo, and inextricably linked with El Verbo. FUDAPI operated, effectively, as a "humanitarian Christian extension" of the Guatemalan Army under Ríos Montt.

In Thomas R. Melville's "Through a Glass Darkly," this section details how Christian groups in the US organized "Love Lifts" to Guatemala during the armed conflict. They raised millions of dollars and successfully lobbied for support of then-US President Ronald Reagan's policies supporting the Ríos Montt regime.

In his court testimony today, Kaltschmitt argued that the "model villages" in the Chajul/Cotzal/Nebaj area into which Ixiles were forcibly relocated in 1982-1983 were aid camps to help victims of guerrilla aggression. "They weren't concentration camps, that was a hoax invented by who knows who."

"There was so much hunger in the countryside," he added; "Crops were pulled up and destroyed by one side or the other, or stolen, because hunger was so great; this was the greatest sin during the war... The policy of the state was to help and assist the civil population and end the conflict."

"This was the army's best moment," said Kaltschmitt. "History was fixed for the Ixils, the region was pacified." He testified that Ixil people could enter and leave at free will, when they pleased, in contradiction to testimony by witnesses and experts for the prosecution. "It is clear that there was no genocide."

Kaltschmitt further explained that the civil patrols into which Mayan people were forcibly recruited "restored people's dignity."

After Kaltschmitt completed his testimony, something even more interesting happened in court.

The judge called for footage from Pamela Yates "Granito" documentary production to be played in court. Yates directed two films about Guatemala: her first, "When the Mountains Tremble," was released in the mid-1980s and amplified global attention toward Guatemala and Rigoberta Menchu, the film's narrator and central character. Yates' second film, Granito, was released in 2011 and revisits the conflict and the decades-long struggle over justice, reparations, and impunity.

The first video clip presented in court today from Yates' 1982 footage was an interview with General Jose Efrain Rios Montt.

Here in the courtroom, one could feel great tension and excitement as the video began.

On screen, a Guatemalan Army general at the height of his potency and confidence smiled, spoke rapidly, leaned towards the camera at times; his dark brown eyes glistened with conviction and force. Immediately below the screen, a grey-haired 86-year-old man leaned back, silent and expressionless.

They are the same person.

The defense of Ríos Montt in this trial has focused largely on the argument that while he was in power, he could not and did not have control of everything the Army did; he could not know everything that was going on in the remote, rural Ixil region, and cannot be held responsible for any atrocities committed by rogue soldiers.

But the video played in court seemed to contradict this argument.

"If I can't control the Army," 1982 Ríos Montt said on screen, "Then what am I doing here?"

In the interview, he effectively claimed to have total control over the Guatemalan military; they were proudly fighting a just counterinsurgency war against the threat of international Communism that was aided by the USSR, Cuba, and Nicaragua. This subversive Communist menace, he said, said threatened to destroy Guatemala.

In the 1982 footage, Ríos Montt smiles and laughs, punctuating briskly-delivered answers with a wide grin. When annoyed or emphasizing a point, he raises his voice. His posture, voice, and words reflected confidence.

Below that image in the courtroom today, Ríos Montt was not smiling.

Since the trial began on March 19, Ríos Montt has maintained silence during court sessions as an act of protest against what he believes is an unjust trial.

He said in the 1982 interview that behind every one guerrilla, there are 10 guerrilla supporters. "If people go to another country, it's because they have committed crimes," the man on screen says when asked about the thousands of indigenous refugees streaming into Mexico.

"I'll shoot anyone who doesn't turn himself in."

Is there repression against the civilian population, filmmaker Pamela Yates asked him in the film? "There is no repression being committed on the part of the Army," he replies.

As the Ríos Montt footage played, the two defense attorneys at his side appeared bored and tired. By the end of the clip, attorney César Calderón was leaning on the table, head resting on his fists, elbows on the table, periodically massaging his furrowed brow.

“Muchissimas gracias,” Pamela Yates says to Rios Ríos Montt at the end of the 1982 footage playing on-screen in court.

No, thank *you*, Ríos Montt replies to her.

End tape.

The court then screened two more interviews conducted by Yates with two other Guatemalan Army leaders in 1982: General Francisco Luis Gordillo, and Horacio Egberto Maldonado.

"Water is to the fish as people are to the guerrilla," Gordillo said during his interview, echoing a line repeated by a number of military leaders in interviews and public appearances during this era.

"A fish without water dies; a guerrilla without people dies."

And indeed, in the Guatemalan Army's attempt to wipe out the insurgency, many people died.

"The Army is fighting against subversives," Gordillo says on-screen. "Not only domestic subversives but also international subversives."

Yates: "Is it true the Army is attacking people in rural areas?"

Gordillo: "Yes, the Army is attacking the elements of International Communism."

The Gordillo interview ended, and then the court played Yates' 1982 interview with Maldonado.

"The U.S. has proven to be open to our needs," says Maldonaldo, "They are completely willing to collaborate with us."

In this footage, he, Ríos Montt, and Gordillo each emphasized how important the US-provided helicopters were in their fight against "subversives," and how valuable they were in the state-run programs that provided "aid and assistance" to devastated communities.

"The Army is no longer just to be spreading lead in these communities," he says.

"Many priests were guerrillas," Maldonado added in the 1982 footage. "I call them ungrateful. They used the indigenous as cannon fodder."

Towards the end of the clip with Maldonado, Yates asks him if he has any final comments.

"A big brotherly hug to the people and government of the United States, to thank them for their ongoing support, which we need so much now to fight this battle."

Judge Jazmin Barrios ended the court session prematurely today, because Ríos Montt's defense team did not have additional witnesses ready and present to testify. Court will reconvene tomorrow, presumably with more witnesses for the defense. Judge Barrios scolded them for not having more witnesses; you should have a dozen a day, she said. And indeed, it seems odd that the defense isn't doing more to defend.

The sense among people close to the process here is that those in charge want it to end soon. It is possible that the trial will end as early as tomorrow or Thursday; a verdict could be delivered by the end of this week, or next Monday.

(This post was prepared in part with references to live-tweets in the courtroom from @pzPenVivo and @NISGUA_Guate.)


    1. Indeed, many here are asking that. One might just as easily put Ed Meese or Reagan or the architects of our Latin American policy on trial (okay, Reagan’s dead, but still).

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