Trial Of Former Guatemalan Dictator Suffers Setback

Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt is on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the 1980s and '90s. The trial suffered a setback when a new judge was assigned to the case and ordered all the witness testimony of the past two years void. Filmmaker Pamela Yates, whose interview with Rios Montt from 1982 is used as evidence against the former dictator, offers her insight.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

On Tuesday of this week, the trial against former Guatemalan dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, suffered what could be a major setback. General Rios Montt stands accused of crimes against humanity and genocide of the Maya Ixil people during a bloody military campaign against leftist guerillas in the 1980s. The highest court in Guatemala, the Constitutional Court, decided to change judges in the middle of the trial.

Now, the new judge has voided all the testimony given by genocide witnesses over the past two years of the trial. Pamela Yates is a documentary filmmaker whose film "When the Mountains Tremble" was made during the genocide in the 1980s. Some of her footage is now being used as evidence in the case against Rios Montt. She's also been filming the trial since it began. Pamela Yates, welcome to the program.

PAMELA YATES: Thank you so much, Jacki.

LYDEN: So how significant is it that General Rios Montt is facing this human rights trial in Guatemala, considering how much influence he still has there?

YATES: It's enormously significant because he is the first former president to stand trial or to be indicted for genocide in his own country. So not only does it have enormous consequences for Guatemala, it's also about Latin America and the whole world.

LYDEN: What's your opinion of the change of the judge that we just saw?

YATES: Well, it's really a shame because the prosecution built an incredible case. They built it over the last 13 years. They built it with eyewitness survivors and with experts as well as using our film as part of the evidence in the case. The defense - it became clear to all of us observers in the courtroom - had never intended to mount a defense. They brought forth a few pretty weak witnesses, some which actually helped the prosecution. And then they all got together one day and they staged a mass walkout. And so, effectively, that suspended the trial.

LYDEN: Let's go back to the very beginning, to the early 1980s. You arrived, I think, it was 1982. What drew you to the Guatemalan conflict in the first place?

YATES: I had been working as a sound recordist in Nicaragua and El Salvador during the wars there when I heard about the kind of hidden war going on in Guatemala, because so much of it was outside the capital in the indigenous highlands. I really wanted to go and find out what was going on. I also knew that the Guatemalan journalists trying to cover the story in their own country were being killed or disappeared.

And I also knew about the United States' role in Guatemala in overturning the democratically elected government there in 1954 and the success of military dictatorships afterwards. So as an American citizen, I felt a certain responsibility to go and find out what was happening and try to bring the story to the rest of the world.

LYDEN: And remind us exactly what was happening at the time that you arrived.

YATES: Well, there was an enormous student movement and there was an enormous movement of peasants in the countryside who wanted change in Guatemala. The military dictatorship was incredibly inflexible and not giving them any change. And instead, there were selective killings and disappearances of people that opposed the military dictatorship.

And, you know, what we now know is that 200,000 people were killed during this internal conflict. Ninety-three percent of the killings were done by the military and state forces; 3 percent by the guerillas. Guatemala is still healing, and I think everyone is hoping that this trial will be part of the healing process.

LYDEN: In your first film that you made in Guatemala in 1982 at the height of the Rios Montt dictatorship, you actually get quite close to him. Let's hear something from an interview that you did with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YATES: (Foreign language spoken)

EFRAIN RIOS MONTT, FORMER GUATEMALAN PRESIDENT: (Foreign language spoken)

YATES: I'm asking him if there is repression against peasants in the highlands. And he says he's the president of the country ahead of the armed forces. And if he doesn't control the army, then what is he doing there?

You know, genocide is a very hard claim to prove in court. You have to show that the orders came from the top, went down to those soldiers carrying them out on the ground. And then those soldiers reported back up to the top. And what he is saying is that he actually gave the orders. What his defense is trying to say is that he didn't give the orders and that these were rogue soldiers carrying out their own desires.

LYDEN: Take us back to that day when you went to interview General Rios Montt. What was the experience of interviewing him like?

YATES: Well, first of all, I thought he was never going to tell me the truth. I also thought he was really arrogant, you know. He treated me like a gringita, a little gringa. And one of the things that strikes me, Jacki, watching him now at trial is they're doing the same thing now as they did then, which is deny, deny, deny.

LYDEN: That's interesting because I was wondering if you had a sense of when you were interviewing him all those many years ago that someday this might be evidence against him.

YATES: Never. Because, you know, when someone's at the height of their power, you never think that they're going to lose that power, and he didn't either, and that's why he said those things.

LYDEN: How did you gain his confidence?

YATES: I think that the Guatemalan generals and the armed forces saw me as a possible megaphone to help convince Americans and to help convince congress that military aid should be resumed so they could widen their counterinsurgency campaign, their scorched earth campaign. And I tried to get as much access as I could because of it.

LYDEN: Have you been in touch with any of the victims since this trial began and learned whether or not they're feeling like they might finally get a chance at some kind of justice?

YATES: I actually had the pleasure of staying in a hotel with the Ixil witnesses and survivors of the massacres, and they're very excited that they can tell their story. So no matter what happens with this trial, having come this far is something that would've been hard to imagine 30 years ago.

LYDEN: Pamela Yates, thank you very much for speaking with us.

YATES: Thank you, Jacki.

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