For 36 years, from 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was stuck in a civil war in which various right-wing governments fought left-wing guerrilla groups. At all times, the military capacity of the leftist insurgents was too small to pose a serious threat to the government – which didn’t stop the latter from persecuting its opposition. 2 to 6 percent of the country’s population died, 80 percent of the victims were indigenous.
Efraín Ríos Montt took power by a military coup in 1982 and became Guatemala’s de facto president until 1983. In his mere 17 months in power, the country’s armed forces and their paramilitary allies committed half of the civil war’s massacres. The chief victims were the Ixil: a group of Maya people that suffered from racism before but were now accused of supporting leftist guerrillas and providing them with a base in the countryside.
The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea. (Ríos Montt, 1982)
The military tried to exterminate the Ixil. There were massacres against unarmed men, women and children, in multiple incidents soldiers ripped foetuses out of their mothers’ wombs. A sixth of the Maya Ixil population perished, 70 to 90 percent of their villages were destroyed. Survivors would be attacked with air strikes but often died of starvation because soldiers would burn their homes and fields, and steal or murder their animals. Women were raped and children abducted so that the Ixil wouldn’t stick together. Countries such as the US were well aware of these atrocities but supported Ríos Montt both politically and militarily because he was allegedly fighting communists.
Partly following international pressure, Guatemala re-established democracy in 1985, but the civil war only ended in 1996. In the meantime, Ríos Montt had reinvented himself as a democratic politician and could only be charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, when he lost parliamentary immunity. He was found guilty of both and was sentenced to 50 years in prison for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. This judgement was groundbreaking both on a national level because it wasn’t in the interest of the country’s elite, and on an international level because it was the first time a domestic court found a former head of state guilty of genocide.
However, Guatemala’s highest court invalidated the sentence 10 days later because of alleged judicial anomalies – which various human rights organisations have found to be a perversion of justice. In 2014, victim groups filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights so that the proceedings would be resumed. Thanks to Ríos Montt’s defence’ filibustering this was only achieved in 2015. He was found to suffer from dementia by the time, so that the trial wouldn’t be open to the public, he wouldn’t need to present in court and couldn’t be sent to prison. In 2018, Ríos Montt died at 91 under house arrest.