This week, Efraín Ríos Montt died from natural causes—a heart attack—at the age of 91, while living under house arrest in Guatemala City. The former dictator ruled Guatemala during one of the bloodiest periods of their 1960-1996 civil war. Those years—1982-1983—marked just a short stretch of the war, but the extent of the state violence during those years is chilling.
Over 200,000 people were killed, over 80% of whom were indigenous Maya. Over 400 villages were razed, completely destroyed. And the Guatemalan military was found to be responsible for 93% of the killing and destruction. Indeed, the very word “war” feels like a misnomer; it has since been established that what took place in Guatemala was a genocide, meaning Ríos Montt’s death is not just significant for Guatemala, but for the Americas as a whole.
Genocide is a term that did not exist before 1944. Raphael Lemkin coined it to capture the atrocities of World War II, and it was then defined in the UN Genocide Convention as the intent to destroy a group in part or in whole. This is indeed what took place in Guatemala, with indigenous Maya targeted under the catch-all of fighting Communism, or anything that potentially might become part of what was seen as subversive. As the UN was establishing the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, the Cold War was also beginning, with the United States actively seeking to protect its interests in the Western Hemisphere. To protect those interests, they turned to the National Security Doctrine, which included training and establishing a hemispheric push against anything the U.S. government saw as linked to or promoting Communism.
Ríos Montt trained at the School of the Americas, and participated in the CIA-backed coup overthrowing democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (ARbenz was perceived as dangerous to U.S. interests because of his support of land reforms which would compromise the interests of U.S. investors, especially the United Fruit Company). Years later, Ríos Montt took power through a coup in March 1982, intensifying the violence and terror suffered by indigenous Maya, a time that people simply called “la violencia” because the horror of the events exceeded any name. In Guatemala, the National Security Doctrine translated into targeting Maya groups, whose villages were destroyed and men, women, and children killed. Though there were guerrilla groups operating in Guatemala in those years, the military did not just focus its violence on insurgent combatants, but instead targeted all Maya as potentially subversive in what anthropologist Victoria Sanford recently noted was a “preemptive genocide.”
After the war ended in 1996, Guatemala started a process of reckoning with its past. That process of investigations, hearings and testimonies resulted in two truth commission reports: The Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI) organized by the Catholic Church, and the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), instituted as a part of the UN peace accords. Those reports determined that the government’s actions constituted a systematic process of genocide and became a process of transitional justice—an accounting of the past for a society transitioning from violence into democracy, when other forms of justice might not yet be possible.
However, a powerful desire for retributive justice remained. After the end of the violence, Ríos Montt remained free, protected by his political status. Since he continued to have a position in Congress, he was immune from prosecution. He remained beyond the reach of justice until 2012, when he finished his last term. Shortly after stepping down, he was put on trial in January 2013. He and his previous chief of military intelligence, José Rodríguez Sánchez, were accused of being responsible for massacres and deaths, including the destruction of 15 Ixil Maya villages, where the Guatemalan military killed 1,771 men, women, and children. The accusations and trials were a milestone for justice in Guatemala; it was the first time a former ruler was tried for genocide and crimes against humanity in a national court.
Ríos Montt claimed innocence, arguing that he did not directly oversee these acts. But this is not the first time in history that we hear that a perpetrator was “just following orders” or alleged ignorance of the full extent of the killings. In this case, though, it is well established that the intent was to destroy these Maya villages because their residents were a “potential threat” and therefore “subversive,” a policy of selective targeting that resulted in killings, torture, rape, and disappearances
After such violence, there are a number of recourses for survivors and civil society: transitional justice such as truth commissions; historical memory projects such as museums, archiving of testimony, and activism; and retributive justice through trials. Ríos Montt’s trial ended on May 10, 2013 with a resounding conviction; he was found responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Just a short 10 days later, however, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction on a technicality. A new genocide trial began again in 2017, but at that point, it was deemed that his frail health precluded him from a sentence to prison, and he lived out the rest of his days under house arrest as his new trial unfolded.
Ríos Montt is now dead. While it is no longer possible to send him to prison, it is important to support the ongoing judicial process, including the genocide trial underway against José Rodríguez Sánchez. But despite his death, another form of reckoning—through historical memory and a full accounting—is still possible. And the responsibility for the historical memory of genocide in Guatemala does not end at the borders of Guatemala.
The violence of the genocide also involves the role of the United States. The CIA supported the coup of democratically elected president Arbenz in 1954, and various U.S. administrations supported the military government during the 1960-1996 war. Reagan even called Ríos Montt “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.”
Fully grappling with this history is not just important for Guatemalans, but for citizens of the U.S. and their government. Rather than being passive bystanders to this history, it is important to recognize the role played by the U.S. in supporting the violence and terror at the root of genocide in Guatemala. Through such reckoning, even though Ríos Montt can no longer be brought to justice, perhaps historical justice might still be possible—and with it a reckoning for the future.
Natasha Zaretsky leads the Truth in the Americas project at the Rutgers University Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights.