Guatemala's Former Dictator Faces Trial

Guatemala's former dictator — 85-year-old Efrain Rios Montt — is under house arrest, awaiting trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. During his 17-month rule from 1982 to 1983, the Guatemalan military carried out a scorched earth campaign in the Mayan highlands, in an effort to snuff out an insurrection by left-leaning guerrilla fighters. Prosecutors are now looking to hold him accountable for the deaths of at least 1,771 men, women and children. For years, Rios Montt was sheltered from prosecution because of legislative immunity, which expired earlier this month. Guatemala scholar Jennifer Schirmer talks with Melissa Block about the trial and its significance.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A judge's decision in Guatemala last week means that former dictator Efrain Rios Montt will stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Prosecutors say Rios Montt is responsible for a scorched-earth campaign of mass murder, rape and terror in the Guatemalan highlands from 1982 to '83. Rios Montt is 85 years old and is now under house arrest awaiting trial.

Human rights scholar Jennifer Schirmer is an expert on the war in Guatemala. She's interviewed both Guatemalan military officers and former guerilla fighters about this time period. Jennifer Schirmer, welcome to the program.

DR. JENNIFER SCHIRMER: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: The war in Guatemala went on for decades, but it's this period under Rios Mont that is especially notorious for its brutality. Why don't you describe what happened in this scorched-earth campaign that we're talking about?

SCHIRMER: Well, during this period of the scorched-earth, the army argued it wanted to rescue the civilian population from the guerrilla and try to separate them in certain areas. So what they did was they targeted for what they call killing zones, matazonas, and treated civilians they were to rescue as though they were combatants. And so what you find is that all living things were killed and burned within these matazonas. And so no distinction was made between combatants and noncombatants.

BLOCK: And when you think about the fact that Rios Montt is now being ordered to stand trial for these crimes, how much of a seismic shift is that in Guatemala? How much of a shock would that be two people to - that this day has come?

SCHIRMER: This is an enormous paradigm shift for Guatemala. It's the first time a former head of state and former commander of the army has been charged with genocide. The army has maintained an extraordinary control over people's lives, has created a culture of fear and a culture of impunity. Rios Montt himself, as a member of Congress, helped push through self-amnesty laws to avoid precisely what is happening today.

BLOCK: What changed? Why is he now able to stand trial?

SCHIRMER: Well, he lost his immunity as he stepped down as congressman. He has been congressman for 12 years, and he has stepped down on the 14th. And by 26th of January he was being brought into court.

BLOCK: when Rios Montt does stand trial in Guatemala, do you see that as a moment toward truth and reconciliation in that country, and perhaps in other Latin American countries?

SCHIRMER: Even at the hearing that Rios Montt attended, there were, I understand, numerous family members from the indigenous highland areas who wanted to see it for themselves and to make certain that this fear of the impunity - the breaking of the tradition - was actually real. So many people, Guatemalans I know, never believed that this day would come. Any trial against the military would have to be done outside the country. But now, we have seen that that's not the case.

BLOCK: And what would you expect Rios Montt's defense to be at the trial?

SCHIRMER: His defense has been he is not responsible for what happened because he didn't know what was happening during the campaign, that the commanders in each region were given some autonomy in what they did. But we also know that this chain of command was such that no one took decisions on their own. They always went up the chain of command. His defense, giving his subordinate commanders the blame for whatever happened, is not credible.

BLOCK: Jennifer Schirmer studies peace and conflict in Latin America at the University of Oslo in Norway. Jennifer Schirmer, thanks for talking with us.

SCHIRMER: Thank you so much.

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