Last week, a trial court in Guatemala City decided that there was enough evidence to send Efrain Rios Montt, the former Guatemalan general who headed a military dictatorship from 1982 to 1983, and Jose Rodriguez Sanchez, Rios Montt’s former head of military intelligence, to trial. Rios Montt, along with other military chiefs, is accused of masterminding a scorched earth campaign against the Ixil Mayan group in northern Guatemala that resulted in more than 1,700 deaths in 1982-1983. It is the first time a former head of state in the Americas will stand trial for genocide.
While the trial in Guatemala still faces many obstacles, it is part of an overall regional trend toward prosecution and away from amnesty laws. Over the past decade, courts and prosecutors in a number of Latin American countries have pushed forward with investigations and prosecutions in cases involving the disappearance, murder and torture of real and perceived political opponents under former regimes.
The statistics are impressive: In Argentina, as of 2012, 1,886 people had been held for trial in cases arising from the “dirty war” of the 1970s. Many of the accused are now being tried in “mega-trials” involving dozens of defendants and hundreds of victims and witnesses, grouped together because they were involved in a particular secret detention center that the military set up to detain, torture and ultimately disappear its perceived opponents. In Chile, 800 state agents have been or are being tried in 1,342 cases for killing, forced disappearance or torture during the Pinochet dictatorship. Of these, 250 have been convicted, although few are actually serving prison time. In Peru, former President Alberto Fujimori was convicted of both human rights- and corruption-related crimes, and several of the top army brass are also in jail. Investigations and prosecutions for international crimes committed by state agents as part of repressive policies are also underway in Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil.