Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

It was a tense moment in the packed Guatemalan national courthouse earlier this year, as the president of the court, Judge Yassmin Barrios accompanied by her fellow judges, Patricia Bustamante and Pablo Xitumul calmly read the final statement sentencing the 87-year-old former general and head-of-state José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide against the Ixil Mayan indigenous population. The general had overseen horrendous acts. The worst atrocities of the Guatemalan Civil War occurred during his rule (March 1982–August 1983), when thousands of civilians were killed. The genocide trial focused on the 1,771 Ixil-Maya killed during his presidency, and the witness testimonies were gut wrenching. “Soldiers ripped out their hearts, piled them into a house and set it ablaze,” recalled one survivor.

Now, the eyes of the world were on Judge Barrios and her colleagues. She was making global history with every word she uttered. “We the judges consider that the accused, José Efraín Ríos Montt, had knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it, despite having the power to prevent these acts,” she said in her final statement. Then, taking off her glasses and looking up from her script to the courtroom, Barrios added, “We truly believe that in order for peace to exist in Guatemala, justice must come first.”

Advertisement

Moments later Barrios handed down a sentence of 80 years to the aging former dictator. A deafening applause rang out, the judge straightened and briefly closed her eyes before looking out again across the courtroom to the hundreds of observers, on their feet, cheering ecstatically.

The news of the verdict spread instantly throughout the world. It was a truly historic moment for a country that has seen its justice system fraught with corruption. And an historic moment for the world in that, for the first time in history, a former head-of-state — a dictator was charged and convicted of genocide in his own country.

The ruling has since been annulled by Guatemala’s highest court. A retrial has been set for early next year in which a different set of judges will once again review testimony and evidence against the former general.

Advertisement

But the precedent has been set, and the people of Guatemala have renewed hope and determination in their struggle for justice.

A few weeks ago, the three judges spoke about the trial, for the first time in the United States, at an event hosted by UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies and the Berkeley Law School. As the three entered the packed auditorium, the entire audience rose to their feet delivering an extended, standing ovation in recognition of the judges’ momentous achievement.

Over the next hour the judges spoke of the continuing struggle for justice in Guatemala.

The year 1960 was the beginning of an armed conflict in Guatemala that spanned more than three decades. In March 1982, Ríos Montt led a successful coup against the government and proceeded to rule the country almost single-handedly for 16 brutal months. It was under his rule that the most egregious attacks occurred against the Ixil. Villages were bombed. Men, women and children were killed indiscriminately. “They considered the Mayan communities to be subversive, enemies, and they needed to be destroyed,” Barrios said. “Being Ixil meant you would be criminalized, and it became like a death sentence for them.”

Thirty years later, Guatemalans rejoiced to see the dreaded dictator put on trial. For 20 days the court presided over the testimonies of expert researchers and more than 100 Ixil witnesses. But Ríos Montt’s bank of lawyers also put up a strong resistance, seeking to derail the proceedings, according to the judges.

Little has been made of the extraordinary struggle the judges faced. The threats against them intensified as the trial progressed, adding to the already tough challenges facing their security detail. In addition, the Ríos Montt defense team continuously sought to delay the trial. Every day they lodged a complaint, giving the judges 24 hours to respond. This meant that, after a long day of intense deliberations, the three would return to the courthouse to spend hours more responding to the complaint. “It was an effort to wear us down,” Judge Barrios said. At one point the defense team stormed out of the courtroom saying it was not within the court’s jurisdiction to try Ríos Montt. But the judges were undeterred and, days later, compelled the defense team to return.

Advertisement

It was against these enormous odds and in the face of failed genocide trials worldwide that the judges brought their country one giant step closer to realizing justice.

“It's a precedent for all of Latin America and, I dare say, not just for Latin America but for the entire world.” Barrios said in closing. “As citizens of the world, when a population is harmed, when they do not respect children and the elderly of a civilian population, then all citizens of the world need to engage to help bring justice.”

Steve Fisher is the Univision News Fellow at UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies and is currently studying at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Advertisement