Guatemala: Nation's highest court throws out Ríos Montt genocide trial verdict and prison sentence

Ríos Montt testifying in his defense in Guatemala City, May 2013. Photo: Xeni Jardin.

Late-breaking news from Guatemala City: Impunity reigns in Guatemala tonight.

The Constitutional Court, the highest court in Guatemala (like the US Supreme Court), has just voted to annul the proceedings in the Rios Montt genocide trial from April 19th onward. That was the date on which the trial was temporarily suspended, when defense attorneys initiated a conflict between courts over which judge should oversee the case.

On May 10, Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. That verdict and sentence were today thrown out by the Constitutional Court.

Three Constitutional Court judges voted in favor of the annulment. Two voted against. The court today also upheld the not-guilty verdict in the case of Rios Montt's former head of intelligence (the director of the notorious G-2 unit), José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.

The language of the Constitutional Court's ruling states that the phase of the trial in which victim testimony was delivered is still intact. But it's possible that this effectively means the whole trial is annulled, and that there must be a new trial, or that there is no posssibility of a guilty verdict. Reporters and international observers I've spoken to aren't exactly sure what is next, as far as whether a trial on the same charges will in fact be re-convened and repeated, or whether Rios Montt, 86, is now guaranteed to be a free man for the rest of his life. The full text of the Constitutional Court's ruling will be available soon, and I'll post more after speaking with people who are still in Guatemala who have a copy of the court documents.

Bottom line: Ríos Montt is a free man tonight. The overturning of the historic guilty verdict in this trial is a huge, though not unexpected blow, to justice.

It is an unimaginable blow to each of the Ixil Maya victims, and others, who suffered abuses during the US-backed military dictator's 17-month reign.

About 100 Ixil survivors testified during the trial.

Rios Montt was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, and with the deaths of nearly 2,000 Ixil Maya from 1982-1983.

Whatever happens with the trial, however, the world is watching. The world must keep watching. The world has listened to the testimonies of the Ixil Maya victims who spoke in the courtroom, and the world must not forget.

"Si, hubo genocidio," the hashtags and the courtroom chants proclaimed. "Yes, there was genocide."

Elizabeth Malkin in the New York Times:

The attorney general’s office is expected to appeal the court’s 3-2 ruling on Tuesday.

Although the verdict was celebrated by international human rights organizations, it was controversial in Guatemala. The Constitutional Court was the target of a lobbying campaign by opponents of the verdict as it considered several defense injunctions it had failed to rule on during the trial.

Perhaps the most important campaign was by Guatemala’s powerful business federation, known as Cacif for the initials of its Spanish name. Representing the country’s deeply conservative oligarchy, Cacif urged the court to overturn the verdict. The court “has the power in its hands to contribute to the governability and assure an effective rule of law,” the business group said.

Ríos Montt and US President Ronald Reagan, 1982. Reagan lobbied effectively for military and financial support for Rios Montt's military regime, despite reports that the Army was committing gross human rights violations against the country's majority indigenous population.


  1. So if they turn back the trial to the 19th, what does this really mean?  Does this mean that a new decision will be handed down or that the trial is simply annuled?

    1. As I said in the post, no one is really certain what it really means tonight. It’s not possible to know without having seen the full text of the court’s decision. That said, it does not look good. It looks like the trial is effectively annulled and that a new trial must take place, which would not be a good thing.

  2.  Speaking from my recently endowed Chair of Cynicism. I am not surprised.  People seem to take mass murder and genocide in stride these days. (See Syria). 

      I feel defeated.  Fuck this shit. 

  3. ” A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”  ~ Joesph Stalin

    Yes, a single death is indeed a tragedy but million deaths are not just a statistic but a million tragedies.

  4. Damn, I hated Reagan.  Seeing that image makes me feel as sick to my stomach as I did during the 80s.

    1. Too much potential for collateral damage.

      We need something more targeted like a bat to the head.

  5. Looks like the invading colonialists have won again, this is a repeating story in many a South American country at the moment.

    1. The week after Bush the Younger released /Decision Points,/ I heard Tom Smith and Toy Boat play a hard-rock cover of “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” at a concert at WindyCon. I hadn’t thought of that song in years, and it was exactly the wrong time for me to hear it; I broke down crying.

      I can make excuses for myself during the Dirty Wars; I was still young, and a little dumb. But by the time of the Iraq invasion, I knew damned well that we were about to murder another couple of hundred thousand people for nothing, and I will go to my grave never knowing if I did everything I could do to stop it? Or just everything I had the guts to do?

      But I’ll know this: I didn’t have a rocket launcher. And I didn’t make somebody pay.

  6. I thought it was interesting that the NYT mentioned intense lobbying by the plutocrats, but neglected to mention that there were several death threats documented against Judges and prosecutors.  Guns put on tables accompanyed with hints that the gunmen knew where children were…that kind of stuff. 

    The Times article  has that familiar mass media sing-songy reporting style of  “this side says A…that side says B”.   It says that the “verdict was controversial” as if half of the Guatemalans support the General.  I am sure the entrenched elite support him, but my guess is most of the masses don’t.

    Luckily, we have people like Xeni Jardin to tell us what is actually happening.  Power to the Xeni!

    As a criminal defense lawyer for 10+ years, I want to see the court’s opinion before I make up my mind about the verdict’s being overturned.  Even a monster like Rios should have due process. 

    But, the opportunities for improper influence are just so damned immense. 

    When the General’s people tell one or two of five Constitutional Court judges to  do something, it’s a real-deal threat, and they have the exhumed, hands-bound corpses to back it up. 

    What actions will current President Otto Perez Molina take to save his own skin?  Surely he is the next target of la gente. 

    It looks like, on the surface at least, the Tahoe Mine killings were orchestrated by the corporation (see Guatemalan Times story here:

    But you sure hate to see Molina dropping martial law down DURING the trial that was sure to expose him.  I just hope the world keeps focused on this.

    Thank you very much for reporting on the scene and letting the rest of us know what is happening.  It takes a great deal of bravery I imagine to immerse yourself in that potential chaos.

    Glenn Dukes

  7. What a shame it makes me disgusted. The first thing that comes to my mind is is what Glen has said above.

    But, the opportunities for improper influence are just so damned immense. 

    When the General’s people tell one or two of five Constitutional
    Court judges to  do something, it’s a real-deal threat, and they have
    the exhumed, hands-bound corpses to back it up. 

    It seems to me that there is some house cleaning to do in Guatemala. I am sure that there are more guilty parties involved with this.
    And why the hell are we (the US) still sending them aid? I have had enough already with giving other struggling countries billions of $$.

    1. Did you not scroll down long enough to see Rios-Montt chumming it up with Reagan?  You suggest that we should wash our hands of it now?  When we have not cleaned house yet, either.  

  8. I am a US citizen writing this from Guatemala. I´ve not had a chance to talk to folks about this latest development but opinions  here on Rios Montt vary. Some think he did what was necessary and that many still  believe manyof the atrocities were committed by guerilla groups. Others are decidedly in favor of the Barrios´ court decision.  
    Right now I´m feeling quite demoraalized to the point of wanting to cry, even though ten years ago the bringing this to trial would have been impossible. We have to consider this and the courage of the Barrios court and Claudia Paz y Paz as progress. I know a lot of people here that have helped in small ways to document atrocities or are doing good work in small communities impacted by ¨ La Violencia¨ affecting a few lives at a time. I guess that is all we can do for now.

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