On May 10, 2013, a historic moment in international criminal justice occurred. General José Efraín Ríos Montt, de facto President of Guatemala who rose to power through a military coup d’etat in March 1982 and was deposed in August 1983, became the first head of state to be convicted for genocide in a national court. After less than two months of trial, the Guatemalan High Impact Court “A” found General Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against Guatemala’s indigenous Maya Ixil people. Specifically, the court found that Ríos Montt had command responsibility and “full knowledge of what was happening,” yet did nothing to prevent the murder of 1,771 Ixiles; the forcible displacement of 29,000; sexual violence against at least nine individuals; and various cases of torture. He was sentenced to a combined total of eighty years in prison for his crimes while his codefendant, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, his former chief of military intelligence, was acquitted of all charges.
This historic moment was quickly undercut when, on May 20, 2013, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned Ríos Montt’s conviction and “reset” his trial to an earlier date. The trial’s reset resulted from his defense team’s arguments that Ríos Montt’s rights had been violated when his attorney was expelled early in the trial and that the head judge should have recused herself. Some suspect that outside factors, including pressure from Guatemalan business elites and sectors of the Guatemalan military, went into this decision. A different tribunal, High Risk Tribunal “B,” set a new trial date for January 5, 2015, but the trial was suspended after one judge recused herself from the trial over doubts about her impartiality because of her 2004 thesis on genocide.
On July 8, 2015, Ríos Montt was found mentally incapable of standing trial, with doctors claiming that he was unable to understand any charges against him. Although the court found that Ríos Montt’s diagnosed dementia rendered him incapable of facing a regular trial, Guatemalan law allowed for him to still be prosecuted. Thus, the court decided to go forward with the trial—one that would not be open to the public, not require Ríos Montt to be present, and not result in a punishment for him even if found guilty. Yet the trial was again interrupted after an appeals court found that the proceedings were illegal under Guatemalan law because codefendant Rodríguez Sánchez’s trial was required to be open and public. The High Risk Tribunal B finally decided that the trial of Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez would resume on October 13, 2017, but that they would be prosecuted separately and concurrently. In addition, another court determined that Ríos Montt should also stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in relation to the 1982 massacre at Las Dos Erres in which two hundred people were killed. Before his new trial could fully proceed, Ríos Montt died of a heart attack on April 1, 2018.
Despite his death, Ríos Montt’s case has important implications for transitional justice and international law as a whole. It showed that national courts are capable of successfully prosecuting and convicting heads of state for crimes against humanity and for genocide. In light of the ongoing negotiations on a potential international treaty on crimes against humanity, the history of his trial can provide both a positive example to other countries about how a national court can incorporate crimes against humanity into their criminal code and hold even the highest officials accountable as well as a cautionary tale about the challenges that can arise in doing so, including delays, intimidation of judicial actors, and the struggle of maintaining a post-conflict peace. It and other cases related to Guatemala’s internal conflict showed that domestic, foreign, and international courts can positively reinforce one another in enforcing justice, reducing impunity, and promoting and protecting human rights.
Most importantly, however, Ríos Montt’s trial serves as an example of justice for victims even when no final conviction was reached. To some his death without a final conviction, like those of former leaders Slobodan Milošević and Augusto Pinochet, meant that he died free and with impunity. However, numerous Guatemalan voices reject this idea. Former Guatemalan Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, tweeted that Ríos Montt “died facing justice.” The Association for Justice and Reconciliation as well as victims and survivors of the genocide in Guatemala made clear that, for them, the original May 10, 2013 sentence was valid: “Ríos Montt died under house arrest, having been convicted . . . He died guilty, facing a second trial. History will remember him that way.”
Even though Ríos Montt is gone, proceedings against Rodríguez Sánchez and others accused of violations committed during Guatemala’s internal conflict continue, leaving open an opportunity for a final resolution for victims, judicial actors, and all of Guatemala.