In a courtroom in Guatemala City, a gray-haired man sits passively through the trial of the century for the Central American country.
At 86, the former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt has escaped this criminal scrutiny for decades. Now, along with another notorious general, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, he stands accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Specifically, of orchestrating the murder of nearly 1,800 indigenous people and the forced displacement of 29,000 more. The tallies are an astounding amount of suffering for his 17-month reign in the early 1980s.
Since mid-March, dozens of Ixil people, indigenous Mayans, have taken the witness stand to describe the Guatemalan military’s campaign of extermination against them. They tell of watching families burned alive as their homes were torched, of beheadings and body parts thrown into rivers. Women were raped before being shot to death, and toddlers were hacked up with machetes.
Survivors describe hiding, starving in the mountains, fearful even to light a cooking fire, lest they alert paramilitary government troops who chased after them.
Most North Americans are unaware of the trial, and of the man at the center of it. Sadly, that’s not surprising. Most of us were oblivious when the atrocities occurred. And we remain unmoved by the fact that U.S. military shipments helped Rios Montt inflict his scorched earth campaign.
The U.S. provided aid to the Guatemalan military during periods of the country’s 36-year civil war, in which at least 200,000 people died and more than 45,000 disappeared before peace accords were signed in 1996.
A United Nations truth commission found that the Guatemalan military committed 90 percent of the atrocities, largely targeting the indigenous.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan met with Rios Montt, praising his efforts as a heroic fight against Marxist guerrillas.
President Bill Clinton would later apologize for the U.S. role.
Rios Montt studied at the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia, the alma mater of many Latin American military leaders who went on to distinguish themselves with horrific acts of brutality.
How did Rios Montt for so long escape trial for his alleged atrocities? Ousted by a coup, he ran for Guatemala’s Congress. He only recently lost his immunity when his term ended. His trial is expected to continue into April.
All of this might seem like distant proceedings except that Guatemala’s indigenous are also part of more recent U.S. headlines.