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)  Read more of this post