On January 11, less than three weeks after celebrating Christ’s birth, the most famous in history, Guatemala’s government will go in the opposite direction. Under pressure from the Barack Obama administration, it will re-start the trial of former President Efraín Ríos Montt, and thereby attempt to blame the country’s misfortunes on a non-existent genocide.
The genocide trial and the immaculate conception cannot be compared on any human ground, but the two stories have crucial elements in common. They depend on the power of dogma. They are both attended by true believers. They come alive by the power of faith beyond objective fact.
Since its start in 2011, the genocide trial has been grossly problematic. In May 2013, the panel of judges found Ríos Montt guilty and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. But then, a few days later, the country’s highest court made a clear finding that the trial’s presiding judge had ridden roughshod over the defendant’s constitutional rights. The verdict was cancelled.
That same court allowed the trial to commence anew, but after further problems, the trial court declared the 89-year-old defendant medically unfit for trial. The Justice Ministry is proceeding to trial even in the absence of the defendant. It is also proceeding in the absence of a legitimate charge.
Rios Montt was Guatemala’s head of state for a mere 17 months, from March 1982 to August 1983. The charge against him is based on the deaths of 1,771 Ixils, an indigenous tribe. However, genocide is not the same as killing, even much killing. Genocide — a term invented during World War II — is “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.”
Ríos Montt never intended the destruction of the Ixils, and the Ixils knew it. During Ríos Montt’s tenure, Ixils served in the Guatemalan armed forces. They also fought in the civilian defense patrols, armed and trained by the military. After the fighting, the Ixils were among Ríos Montt’s strongest political allies.
During the conflict itself, genocide was never mentioned. As head of state, Ríos Montt invited the United Nations to send observers to the fighting. The United Nations filed annual reports, every year from 1983 to 1997 inclusive. Not once did the question of genocide arise in those reports.
The settlement of the conflict included an amnesty for acts of war committed by all sides. The intent was to avoid a continuation of the fighting by other means. The amnesty included an exception for crimes in a special category like genocide, but in 1996, genocide was not an issue.
The 1996 peace accords did call for a historical-clarification commission to issue a report about the conflict. In 1999, the commission alleged that “acts of genocide” had occurred.
The phrase is dubious, like saying a woman has had “incidents of pregnancy.” Genocide admits of no partial occurrences. Like pregnancy, it either is or isn’t. But thanks to this sleight of hand, and others like it, “the Guatemalan genocide” is now a byword, very near in meaning to its effective synonym, “the Guatemalan military.”
The guerrilla party has held it as a high priority to encode a finding of genocide in the country’s legal structure. It would be a splendid tool for rewriting the country’s laws and allowing the guerrilla to take power.
To seek a finding of genocide violates the spirit of the agreement that ended the conflict. It is the guerrilla’s way to continue the fighting by other means.
In 2009, a path to the guerrilla’s objective appeared when Barack Obama assumed power in the United States. Working directly and through its handmaiden the CICIG, the UN “anti-corruption commission,” the United States was able corruptly to impose the removal of an independent-minded attorney general, Conrado Reyes, and to oversee his replacement by Claudia Paz y Paz, a lifelong adherent of the guerrilla party and a dogmatic advocate of the genocide case.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Paz y Paz her full support. During the prosecution of Ríos Montt, US Ambassador Arnold Chacón lectured the Guatemalan populace on the need “to respect the legitimacy and integrity” of the genocide prosecution.
Despite the overturning of the guilty verdict, the US Department of State conferred one of its International Women of Courage awards on the trial’s presiding judge, Yassmin Barrios. In a State Department ceremony led by Michelle Obama, the US government cited Barrios’s work in the trial as “an important legal precedent for genocide cases worldwide.”
Now-declassified cables, written by US embassy personnel at the time of the conflict, show that the Obama State Department has been perpetrating a fraud in its Guatemala diplomacy. As early as 1982, the State Department had been informed by its own field observers that the genocide story was a fabrication. On August 4 of that year, the US embassy gave Washington this assessment:
“The improvement in the human rights situation can be credited to President José Efraín Ríos Montt…. Upon assuming power with the other two junta members, Ríos made clear his intention to end indiscriminate killings by government forces…”
“Ríos Montt has decided that it is time to improve the status of the Indian in Guatemalan society, and has taken on the insurgent challenge head to head…. The most important action taken by the Ríos government toward the Indian [sic] is the decision to arm them, an action that would have been unthinkable only a year ago.”
And the hard truth which the guerrilla and President Obama are working to suppress:
“Civil Defense Forces (CDFs) have been organized in remote villages and arms are slowly being provided. Whereas a central tenet of the guerrilla theology is that the armed Indians would turn their weapons upon the government, this has not been the case…. Prior to the coup, the left was gaining impressive momentum as the Indians slowly began to join its ranks. This growth however, was arrested when Ríos came to power and curtailed government abuses.”
Another US embassy cable on October 22, 1982, reported: “If the [government of Guatemala] were indeed engaged in massive extrajudicial executions — a ‘mad, genocidal’ campaign — in the highlands, one must wonder why Indians are joining civil defense patrols in great numbers, and why thousands of Indians are coming to the army for refuge…”
Those cables are a powerful comment on Obama’s revisionist policy — and on the dangers of re-starting the genocide trial.
A trial without a defendant and without a crime is a peculiar situation indeed. It is “immaculate genocide” — a slaughter perpetrated from thin air, a holocaust whose agents are invisible, but whose victims are fully human.
A genocide conviction will have a catastrophic impact. The whole society will be condemned for its supposed complicity. The result will be large compensations, massive expropriations, arbitrary punishments, and the ultimate reward for those who imposed the conviction: total political power.
Obama is consistent. In Cuba, he has rewarded a 60-year-old tyranny, while in Guatemala, he is punishing those who defeated the guerrilla militarily and then at the polls.
We know Obama’s program in its American incarnation. It promises “hope and change” while fostering division, corruption, and desperation. Guatemala would be wise to avoid it.
This article first appeared in the PanAm Post.
Steven Hecht contributed to this article.