Former Guatemalan dictator convicted of genocide

What ought to have been a landmark legal victory for the people of Guatemala has been thrown into confusion by the constitutional court.

Proletarian writers

Subscribe to our channel

Proletarian writers

Subscribe to our channel

The old saying ‘The exception that proves the rule’ sprang to our minds immediately upon hearing that the murderous puppet of imperialism Efraín Ríos Montt had been found guilty of genocide in a Guatemalan court.

Imperialism usually takes good care of its stooges, if only to show the next ones that they are free to abandon any principles or basic human decency that may be lurking in the dark recesses of their minds without fear of future retribution from those they oppress. Even Pinochet, hounded as he was toward the end of his life by forces for justice in Chile and elsewhere, could still be exempted from any real punishment by playing the ‘health’ card, and his imperialist masters in Washington exerted themselves to help him die of old age in comfort.

So what was so different with Montt, we wondered? How had it come about that he has ended up with an 80-year sentence for genocide and other crimes against the people in a country that is still not free of the imperialist leash?

We certainly did not overlook the determination of the Guatemalan people to have him punished, or the strength and bravery of the judge, who, despite many very real threats of violence, tried and sentenced him and so we concluded that Montt may have been sacrificed to save bigger fish.

But it was more in keeping with the usual pattern to find that Montt, having served a mere three days in prison, was moved to a military hospital (where he is no doubt being waited upon like royalty). Meanwhile, in a contentious 3-2 decision passed just 10 days after his conviction, Guatemala’s constitutional court accepted appeals from Montt’s legal team and ordered a partial re-trial. In order to resolve an alleged ‘procedural irregularity’, all evidence given after 19 April is to be erased from the record and the trial must start again from that point.

The court’s split decision to rewind the trial means that everything that came after that point — including closing statements, the genocide conviction and the general’s 80-year prison sentence — is now invalid. The Guatemalan people understand only too well what ‘procedural irregularity’ so moved the constitutional court: quite simply, Montt, a loyal servant of imperialism, was found guilty!

Now, as lawyers haggle about whether the partial retrial will also have to be abandoned in favour of a complete retrial – accompanied no doubt by years of appeals and counter-appeals – any hope that this genocidal monster will see justice in a country still ruled in the interests of US imperialism through its local military hard-men does not seem likely at all.

But who is Efraín Ríos Montt? Like many other torturers and murderers throughout Latin America, he was trained and ‘educated’ at the US military’s ‘School of the Americas’ (SOA). So toxic was the reputation of this preparatory school for fascist paramilitaries that it was re-named the ‘Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation’ (Whinsec) in 2001.

But although the name has changed, the school’s purpose remains the same. Since 1946, thugs from all over Latin America have been transformed into willing mercenaries for US imperialism, intensively trained in all the dark arts required to crush popular struggles.

In the 1980s, torture was an officially-acknowledged part of the SOA’s curriculum. Training manuals released by the Pentagon in 1996 advocated torture, extortion and execution. No doubt those lessons have been given a more PR-friendly name in recent years, but that the policies remain intact cannot be doubted by anyone who has been following the news over the last 11 years.

Like many of his fellow graduates, Montt used his US training and military backing to come to power in Guatemala via a coup. He replaced the equally fascistic Romeo Lucas García (another graduate from SOA), and, although his reign in the top position lasted less than 17 months from March 1982, he is generally regarded as having achieved more murderous carnage and brutality in that period than any other Guatemalan puppet of the US. No mean feat in a country whose history is soaked in the blood of innocents and of those who have stood up against tyranny.

Throughout Latin America, the malign influence of the SOA has run like a thread of barbed wire ever since it was founded. US imperialism’s fingerprints are to be found on every atrocity and massacre committed in the region, as it has attempted to keep control of what it considers to be its ‘back yard’. It will come as no surprise to our readers to learn that the fascist rulers of Colombia have provided the largest number of students to the SOA, or that the coup that was mounted against Hugo Chávez’s popular government in Venezuela in 2002 was led by SOA graduates.

The SOA’s Guatemalan graduates, who ruled the country in the 1970s and ’80s, responded to the people’s demands for justice (as voiced by popular organisations such as the Committee for Peasant Unity) by implementing a systematic campaign of repression and terror.

The strategy for this ‘scorched-earth policy’ was horrifyingly simple. As a guerrilla movement developed in the countryside in response, instead of trying to identify ‘insurgents’ fighting against their brutal repression, government forces aimed to kill almost everyone in the predominantly Mayan regions of the country (the Mayan population being the most oppressed), so as to literally erase all possible sources of support for the left guerrillas. Just as Mao had said that a guerrilla fighter should be like a fish swimming in the sea of the people, so the fascists set out to drain the sea.

According to former SOA instructor Major Joseph Blair, these genocidal ‘tactics’ were taught at the SOA and based in part on Vietnam war experience. First implemented under the presidency of Romeo Lucas García, they reached their murderous height during Montt’s bloody rule. Many massacres and mass tortures were carried out in public, with the army choosing market days, religious holidays, and other times when large numbers of people would be congregating so as to cause maximum terror to the population.

When Montt came to power, his co-conspirators were SOA students Egberto Horacio Maldonado Schaad and Francisco Gordillo Martínez. Of the nine military officers in Montt’s cabinet, six had been through SOA training. The elite military unit (the Kaibiles), responsible since its founding in 1974 for the worst of all the government’s atrocities, had two commanders during Montt’s time in office. These were Pablo Nuila Hub, the founder of the unit and Eduardo Arévalo Lacs, both SOA ‘old boys’.

The intelligence service (D-2 or Las Dos), feared every bit as much as the Kaibiles for good reason, was led and staffed mainly by SOA graduates, both before, during and after Montt’s time. D-2 operatives are responsible not only for intelligence gathering using the latest spying technology but also via the tried and trusted methods of torture. People are still whisked away, never to be heard of again, by this department, whose officials can usually walk unhindered into any prison and take out whichever prisoners they choose for ‘interrogation’!

The Guatemalan Catholic Church wrote a report on the atrocities and repression entitled ‘Nunca mas’ (‘Never again’) which stated that Guatemalan military intelligence played “a central role in the conduct of military operations, in massacres, extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances and torture … It conducted extensive espionage and information-gathering operations by tapping telephones and operating a sophisticated computer network containing files on people, complete with their photographs, and information on their political and organisational affiliations.

The current president of Guatemala, Otto Peréz Molina, is another SOA graduate, who served as a field commander with the Kaibiles during Montt’s ‘period of office’ under the alias Major Tito Arias.

Examples of the Kaibiles’s cruelty and mass murder are too numerous to put into this article, but one notable incident during the Montt period followed hot on the heels of a meeting with US president Ronald Reagan, after which Reagan praised Montt as “a man of great personal integrity … totally dedicated to democracy”. That was on 5 December 1982. On 6 December, the Kaibiles entered the village of Las Dos Erres, systematically raped the women and murdered more than 300 inhabitants, 67 of them children, who they brutally despatched by clubbing their heads or bashing them against walls.

The inability of those seeking justice for the crimes of Montt and the other puppets of US imperialism to achieve their desire through the courts brings the Guatemalan people face to face with the necessity not just of trying to imprison a past tormentor – or even get rid of his current heir. They also need to stand up to US imperialism, which is the real power and malevolent director of all the horrors that have been visited upon them.

The greatest threat to the Guatemalan people and their dreams of a peaceful life without fear – carried on in health, dignity and equality – comes from US imperialism, and until the claws of that beast are extracted from Guatemalan society its people will never be free of their military tormentors.

We wish real independence for the long-suffering people of Guatemala to develop not only a justice system, but a whole society that represents their aspirations.

US imperialism out of Latin America!

Close down the SOA/Whinsec!