Piecing Together Guatemala’s Past for Present-Day Justice


General Jose Efrain Rios Montt declares a mililtary coup in Guatemala City, 1982

On May 10th, 2013, my car radio told me that former Guatemalan dictator General Jose Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of the genocide of up to 200,000 Guatemalan people (mostly indigenous Mayans) and sentenced to 80 years in prison.  Interesting… considering that I didn’t know there was a genocide in Guatemala, or a 20 year long civil war, or that the U.S. had a long standing involvement in the conflict.  Much like the indictment of Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir in 2009, Rios Montt’s conviction is historic.  Al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the ICC.  Rios Montt is now the first, living, President (and person) to be convicted of genocide by a domestic court.

Rios Montt’s case became more intriguing still, upon learning that the nail in his proverbial coffin came in the form of a 30 year old piece of 16mm film buried in a NJ warehouse.  It was a piece of footage that documentary film maker Pamela Yates ultimately decided not to use in her documentaries about the Guatemalan crisis “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” (2011) or “When the Mountians Tremble”(1984).  Years after the footage was taken, human rights attorney Almudena Bernabeu knew she had to think outside the box to build a case against the former dictator.  She solicited Yates for any note-worthy footage that didn’t make the cut of the documentary.  While digging through old film, Yates found exactly what Bernabeu needed.

In this piece of footage, Ríos Montt clearly claims command responsibility, which is one of the most difficult burdens to prove in a court of law. (src) 

“Granito” explores how a number of players’  pasts link together in a communal search for justice.  In May of this year, Christiane Amanpour sat down for an interview with Bernabeu and Yates.

As mentioned in the interview, Rios Montt’s conviction was overturned on May 20th, 2013 due to complaints  brought by Montt’s attorneys regarding the trial proceedings.  The 86 year old former general served only one day of his sentence.  So far, the trial is set to resume on April 19, 2014.

Survivors and victims’ families who gave testimonies after that day about the systematic rape, starvation and forced displacement of their villages now face having to return to court to deliver their evidence again. (src)

Citizens in Guatemala and throughout Latin America both celebrated the guilty verdict and protested the repealed conviction.  

On Sunday, September 29th, Living Ubuntu will be partnering with Amnesty International – Irvine and IUCC Advocates to screen “Granito” in Irvine, CA. All details here:  Granito: How to Nail a Dictator – Screening September 29.

Mayan citizens protest Rios Montt’s annulled conviction

Citizens in Guatemala City cheer Rios Montt’s conviction on May 10, 2013


Alicia is a cytogenetic technologist and blogger for Living Ubuntu currently working in San Diego and Orange counties


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