Guatemala: "I am innocent," Ríos Montt tells court in genocide trial, breaking silence

Photo: A still from iPhone video of Ríos Montt speaking, in his defense, for the first time on Thursday May 9, 2013, in Guatemala City. (Xeni Jardin)

As the trial of Guatemala's former military dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt, and his then head of intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, moved toward its conclusion this afternoon in Guatemala City, an unexpected thing happened: Ríos Montt asked to speak. He has remained mostly silent since the trial began on March 19. Today, he spoke in his own defense for the first time.

"I was not a commander," Ríos Montt shouted before the court just now, arguing his innocence, "I was head of state! I never authorized any plan to exterminate the Ixiles. There is no evidence to prove otherwise."

Photo: Xeni Jardin.

The former general and his attorneys asked the judge for permission to speak after the "debate" portion of the trial had closed, and the proceedings moved to closing arguments. Judge Yassmin Barrios first denied the request, stating that it was out of order; the defendant was given many opportunities to speak while the debate portion was open, but chose to remain silent then. After further debate and deliberation, and a tirade of insults directed at the judge and Ministerio Publico from defense attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel, the judges granted Ríos Montt the right to address the court.

I was in a press crush at the general's feet, and shot video of him speaking a few feet away from me, on my iPhone. I'll publish the video of his 55-minute monologue later. For now, a few screengrabs.

Photo: Xeni Jardin.

“Forgive me, I’m a great-grandfather,” he said to Judge Barrios, smiling, then reaching for water when his throat became dry.

But the man who spoke for nearly an hour just now was a very different Ríos Montt than the elderly gentleman who sat in court silently over these past 26 sessions. He is sharp, forceful, righteously angry, and still very much in charge. At 86, El General is still intimidating—and even frightening—when angry. "I'm going to tell you all a story," he told the court—and as he said this, he was looking at us, the cameramen and photographers gathered at his feet, sitting on the floor like children during a kindergarten story-time.

“I have never ordered genocide,” said Ríos Montt. “I am innocent. ... I never had the intent to destroy any national race, religion, or ethnic group.”

Photo: Xeni Jardin.

"The command line had a structural hierarchy that defined who was in charge of operations," said Ríos Montt. "The commanding officer in charge of the units in the region of El Quiché is accountable for the actions [described in this court]!"

Photo: Xeni Jardin.

Notable in the former head of state's testimony: one could interpret these and related statements as shifting blame towards the man who is now president, Otto Perez Molina—he commanded troops in the Ixil area town of Nebaj during Montt's 17-month reign.

"I will never accept responsibility for the charges," said Ríos Montt. "I was the head of State. What is the head of State and commander-in-chief's job? Command and control and administration of the Army. I was in charge of national TERR-I-TORY. Not the local military zones! The local commanders had autonomy!"

"Each commander is responsible for what happened in their zone, and they just updated me with reports."

"My mission as head of state was to reclaim order, because Guatemala was in ruins."

Photo: Xeni Jardin.

I agree with the observation just posted by Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive, who has been documenting the trial proceedings for "It's hard to convey how strange this is. Rios Montt is alternately shouting and whispering, cajoling and ordering, smiling and menacing... a blend of his Sunday sermons and the rant of an aged commander.

Photo: Xeni Jardin.

Ríos Montt trial enters final phase, 75 years sought for genocide, crimes against humanity
Guatemala coverage archives
The science behind historic genocide trial of General Ríos Montt: PBS NewsHour video report
Guatemalan Government declares State of Siege after Mining Protests: PBS NewsHour video report
PBS NewsHour reporter's notebook: Guatemala—Why We Cannot Turn Away


  1. Thanks for the ongoing coverage, Xeni. It’s depressing that a human rights issue of this magnitude is getting so little press coverage up here.

    1. Comes as no surprise. A lot of people have vested interests in keeping Cheney & Rumsfeld out of the dock and you don’t want other countries’ locals getting any bright ideas.

  2. The chain of command flows only one direction. Responsibility flows back up the chain.

  3. so, Rios Montt’s defense is that he cannot into chain-of-command?  yeah, alright guy.  lotsa luck.  no, actually, i retract that.  burn in hell.

  4. Xeni, we can’t thank you and Miles enough for doing this. Without your first hand account there would be little record at all of the trial of this monster. I remember the early eighties and how it seemed impossible that anyone would ever be held to account for what happened, yet here it is, imperfect though it may be. American taxes- my taxes- helped Montt carry out this genocide, and it is beyond shameful that the best coverage of this trial on all the web comes from your iPhone. 

    1. Hold your horses there. While I appreciate that there is this ENGLISH record of the trial, and so early in the procedures, however I don’t think that there wouldn’t be a record at all wasn’t it for the work of folks like Xeni. Guatemalans mastered the arts of video recording and sound archiving long ago I assure you.

      1.  My apologies. I realized this morning that I had committed a grievous error of privilege.

        I should say that Xeni’s reporting has been a premier example of  English language web-friendly reporting, exposing the proceeding to the vast horde of mono-linguistic Americans who otherwise would have little chance to learn of this important historical event.

        I never intended to slight the efforts of the journalists and others who have an even far more personal stake in this trial than I do.  My only intent was to thank X&M for their efforts and to express my contempt for what passes as “the media” in the US.

  5. “There is no evidence to prove otherwise”

    except there is.

    Merci encore Xeni and Miles for your great work on this issue

  6. Even if what he’s saying is true, failure to prevent atrocities within your chain-of-command is a capital offense thanks to the precedent set at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Good luck nailing him on it though, as setting a newer precedent would also mean that we would (rightfully) have to try Bush and Blair for their failure to prevent war crimes during the Iraq war…

  7. a few thoughts:

    it is pretty shameful that there is little coverage of this trial in the mainstream american news media. 
    rios montt is so out of touch with reality it is insane. 

    it seems like otto perez molina threw montt under the bus so that he himself could escape war crimes charges. both are guilty of genocide in my mind. 

    the difference in lifestyle between mayan campensino famers and Guatemalan elites is so stark and racism in Guate is so endemic, that I feel like people like Montt and Molina et. al. believe the poor, rural maya are from another planet.

    Really incredible coverage Xeni, thank you for it.

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