UPDATE: 7:00 p.m. EDT Efraín Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
A verdict is expected as early as today in the historic trial against U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, the first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide. He is charged with overseeing the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Mayan region after he seized power in 1982. On Thursday, Ríos Montt testified for the first time during the trial. "I declare myself innocent," Ríos Montt said. "I never had the intention or the purpose to destroy any national ethnic group." During the trial, nearly 100 prosecution witnesses described massacres, torture and rape committed by state forces. "If Ríos Montt is convicted, the next question becomes: What about [current Guatemalan President Otto] Pérez Molina, and what about the U.S. sponsors who were providing the weapons, the money, the bombs, the bullets and the political support for the crimes for which Ríos Montt may today be convicted of genocide?" asks investigative journalist Allan Nairn from Guatemala City. In the 1980s, Nairn broke many stories about massacres in Guatemala and the U.S. backing of the dictatorship.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Guatemala. A verdict is expected as early as today in the historic trial against U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, the first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide. He is charged with overseeing the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Mayan region after he seized power in 1982. On Thursday, Ríos Montt testified for the first time during the trial.
EFRAÍN RÍOS MONTT: [translated] I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered that there be any attacks against a race, an ethnic group or any religion. I never did it. And with everything they’ve said, there has been no proof of evidence of my participation. I presented myself voluntarily to the public ministry to be tried. I didn’t want anyone to say I committed genocide, because I have never done so, and I have never done it. I have never ordered it, and I never intended it. And I want that to be known. I have never done it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt speaking Thursday at his historic genocide trial. He ended his testimony with these words.
EFRAÍN RÍOS MONTT: [translated] I declare myself innocent. I never had the intention or the purpose to destroy any national ethnic group. As head of state, that was one thing. My work as head of state was to take the reins of the country that was on the edge. Guatemala had failed. And forgive me, Your Honor, the guerrillas were at the door of the presidential palace. Thank you, Your Honor.
AMY GOODMAN: During the trial, nearly a hundred prosecution witnesses described massacres, torture and rape committed by Guatemalan state forces.
We’re joined now by investigative journalist Allan Nairn. He’s in Guatemala City. He has been attending the trial. In the 1980s, Allan Nairn broke many stories about massacres in Guatemala and the U.S. backing of the dictatorships.
Allan Nairn, welcome back to Democracy Now! Describe the significance of Ríos Montt testifying yesterday and the trial overall.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, first, it’s important that the trial was able to go forward. Yesterday, it was still possible that it would be shut down at the last minute. But now, clearly, the political decision has been made to let it go forward, and the only thing that could stop it at this point would be an assassination. The judge in the case, when she leaves the courtroom, she wears a bulletproof vest. She’s surrounded by security. Army associates have made death threats against judges, prosecutors and witnesses. But unless they carry through and pull the trigger sometime this morning, it looked like—it looks like there’s going to be a verdict.
And if there is a verdict, and Ríos Montt and his co-defendant, General Rodríguez Sánchez, are convicted of genocide and/or crimes against humanity, it would be a—it would be a step into the—into the future. It would be, I think, in a sense, the beginning of another historical phase, because all over the world, not just in Guatemala but wherever you have guns and wherever you have power, those who have the most guns are allowed to get away with murder. There is no fear of prosecution for a Guatemalan dictator, for a U.S. president. They can do things that would get an ordinary person thrown in jail.
But actions like this, where survivors of the Mayan highland massacres campaigned for three decades, remembering their wives and their husbands who were slit open with machetes and shot in the face and thrown into ditches while they were still alive, the fact that they were able to campaign for decades, and even though their movement was crushed during the slaughters of the '80s, even though the army and the oligarchy to this day retain power in Guatemala, the people they crushed are on the verge of exacting some justice and may be getting a jail sentence against one of the main people responsible for the deaths of—I mean, nobody knows the exact death toll of all the slaughters. Ríos Montt in this case is being charged with just 1,700 murders, but the complete death toll over the years in Guatemala could amount to something like a quarter million. And no one has really been able to do this before. No one has been able to use their domestic courts to put a former leader on trial for genocide. This is the kind of move that would be unthinkable in the United States. You know, standing in the courtroom yesterday, I was trying to imagine what would the scene be like in the U.S. if, say, George W. Bush were called before a criminal court in Texas and put on trial for Iraq. It's hard to imagine, but here it’s happening.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Allan, I wanted to ask you about a key aspect of Ríos Montt’s defense. Now, obviously, he was making a statement, but he was not being subject to cross-examination at all. It was just his statement at the trial. But he appeared to basically be saying, "Look, these lower-level commanders may have done this, but I did not have any involvement, and I did not give the orders." Yet, in a post that you had this week, you went back over your direct interviews with Ríos Montt back in 1982, where you actually questioned him about what he knew about the killings going on. And I’m wondering if you could go over some of what he told you back then.
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah, in May of ’82, a couple months after he had seized power and sent the army sweeping through the northwest highlands, including the Ixil area, as the army was just wiping out one town after another, executing the civilians, I asked Ríos Montt about the civilian killings. And he said, "Look, for each one who is shooting," meaning for each guerrilla, "there are 10 working behind them," meaning there are 10 unarmed people working behind them. And then his adviser, Francisco Bianchi, said, "We have to kill Indians, the Ixil people, because they have sold out to subversion."
Years later, after Ríos Montt was ousted from power, I interviewed him again. And I asked him whether he thought that he should be put on trial for his role in the massacres and whether he should be executed, since he, Ríos Montt, is a big supporter of the death penalty. And when I asked him that, he suddenly leapt up to his feet and shouted. He said, "Yes, try me! Put me against the wall!" But, he said, that if he was going to be put on trial, the Americans should be put on trial with him. He specifically mentioned Ronald Reagan, who was one of his great sponsors.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, during his testimony, Ríos Montt spoke about his relationship with United States officials and suggested that they had a better sense of what was going on in Guatemala than he did at the time. This is a clip from that.
EFRAÍN RÍOS MONTT: [translated] I had the opportunity to go to some meetings. One nice one was with Mr. Reagan. We met. He invited me. And we were there in San Pedro Sula. And we were there, and we did not ask for arms. We did not ask for aid. And that was what was most sad. We were cut off in all ways. We did not have any international aid. Guatemala survived with the resources that Guatemalans had. There was no other way to survive. And this was important. The U.S. did not give any type of aid. Nor did we get loans, because we were nearly bankrupt. So we didn’t have capital or work. And what affected us economically, the millions of dollars were fleeing the region for fear and lack of security, and there was no investment. The Central American market was reduced perhaps some 25 percent.
This is the big picture of the situation, and they could not see this. They could only what they were interested in: the region of Ixil. The Ixil area, we have seen it, feel it, and we did what we had to do. Now I tell you that it did not count with the support of the armed forces. They all got upset with me, because the ones who were about to retire did.
I had the good fortune of not having the friendship of the U.S. ambassador. And so, he would visit me constantly, Your Honor, so that we could have elections and that we could work in one way or the other. And we would say to His Eminence—oh, I don’t think he was, quote, "Eminence"—we would say to His Excellence, regarding the reports that he had, because he had more reports than we had regarding the nationals—pardon me, no, not with nationals, but those who were paid with American money were involved in the subversion. They had better information than we had. That is a small thing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Allan Nairn, what about this whole issue of what the Americans knew at the time of these killings?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, everybody knew. These massacres were not secret. They were acts of state terrorism where a big part of the point was publicity. When the assassinations were done in the cities, they would often make a point of throwing the bodies in the streets to terrify onlookers. In the massacres in the countryside, the executions would—and torture interrogations would often be carried out in the village square with all the survivors looking on so they would get a lifelong lesson that they would never forget, as they saw their families and their loved ones being strangled and shot in the head. This was all over the newspapers in Guatemala. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in May of '82, that same month that I had the interview with Ríos Montt where he talked about 10 civilians for every guerrilla, and his aide said they had sold out to subversion, they had to be killed—the Catholic Bishops' Conference issued a pastoral letter saying, "Never in our history has it come to such grave extremes. These assassinations now fall into the category of genocide."
And the U.S. was in fact supporting Ríos Montt. The meeting between Reagan and Ríos Montt was very nice for Ríos Montt, because Reagan then came out publicly and said that Ríos Montt was a man of great integrity who was totally devoted to democracy and was getting a bum rap on human rights. Ríos Montt then said, "It’s not that we have a policy of scorched earth, just a policy of scorched communists."
I think one of the interesting points about Ríos Montt’s statement yesterday and those of the defense lawyers was that they were trying to save themselves, but they were—to do that, they were willing to indict the system. None of them tried to deny the fact that the mass killings took place, or even deny the fact that it was the army that did it. In fact, Ríos Montt’s defense lawyer at one point referred to one of the prosecution documents, which was a military plan that was used by Ríos Montt describing how they would target various civilian groups. And the lawyer’s point was: This plan was not directed at the Ixil people; this plan was written for the entire country. Well, yes, it was. The defense lawyer for Rodríguez Sánchez, the intelligence chief who is Ríos Montt’s co-defendant, at one point he said, "Program of assassination, program of kidnappings—I’m not interested in those, because my client didn’t have the power to order them." So he was not denying the fact that there was a program of assassination. He was not denying the fact that there was a program of kidnapping. He was just saying that his man wasn’t responsible for them, even though he was the boss of the intelligence section.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Allan, can you talk about what this means also for the current government in Guatemala? President Obama just met Pérez Molina last week in Costa Rica. You have Efraín Ríos Montt, in his defense, saying he couldn’t be in charge, know what was happening on the ground; it was the people who were there, which, of course, goes to the current Guatemalan president, Pérez Molina, who was there on the ground at that time. You spoke to him in the highlands in Guatemala. You spoke to the current president, who was going by a different name at that time.
ALLAN NAIRN: Yes. Well, first of all, Ríos Montt knew everything that was happening. The reporting from the field back to the palace was very rigorous. There were only three, and at some points two, layers of authority between Ríos Montt and the killers, the killer commanders in the field who were going into the villages. Ríos Montt’s field commander for the Ixil region based in Nebaj in September of 1982 was Otto Pérez Molina, the current president of Guatemala. The dozens and dozens of subordinates of Pérez Molina who I interviewed there at that time described how they were under orders to torture and kill civilians, and also how they made hourly radio reports back to headquarters. They wrote up a daily diary of operations. As one Subcommander Lieutenant Romeo Sierra put it, they were on a very—they were on a very short leash.
So, if Ríos Montt is found guilty of genocide, then the question becomes: Well, what about the man who was the field commander for the massacres that got Ríos Montt convicted of genocide? That man is now the president of Guatemala. Pérez Molina did everything he could to see to it that his name did not come up in this trial. That was the bargain under which the trial was allowed to go forward. He let it go forward very, very reluctantly. One witness, to everyone’s surprise, a former military man, testified that Pérez Molina had ordered atrocities. I was due to testify in the trial but then was blocked at the last minute from testifying because there was fear that I would also mention Pérez Molina’s role. But now, as this—if this trial concludes, and if Ríos Montt is convicted, the next question becomes: What about Pérez Molina? And, what about the U.S. sponsors who were providing the weapons, the money, the bombs, the bullets and the political support for the crimes for which Ríos Montt may today be convicted of genocide? Because Guatemalan criminal courts have the authority under international law to bring in U.S. defendants. U.S. criminal courts have that same authority. If there’s a verdict today against Ríos Montt, that will be the challenge sitting on the—put to the American and the Guatemalan criminal courts: What’s next? Will you now look at Pérez Molina? Will you now look at the Americans who made this genocide possible?
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Allan. We understand there’s a list going around on the Internet made by people connected to the military, on Facebook, of traitors. They are—listed activists, NGOs, like the filmmaker Pam Yates and Kate Doyle, the National Security Archives and others?
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah, this is the army, the retired army and the oligarchy. They have been putting these lists out for years. They threaten everybody. This is their way of acting. But so far, they have not been able to stop the case—
AMY GOODMAN: Rigoberta Menchú, as well. Rigoberta Menchú, as well, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who we saw sitting in the trial.
ALLAN NAIRN: So far, they haven’t been able to stop the case. And the only way they could stop it now is if they follow through on their threats and try to kill the judge.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank very much, Allan, for being with us, investigative journalist Allan Nairn, speaking to us from Guatemala City.
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