In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Kate Doyle, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, whose work has been key to putting together the facts of the genocide against Guatemala’s Mayans under the country’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. She went into Guatemalan records and tracked the chain of command that allowed lawyers representing victims to get a ruling in Spain classifying the case as a genocide. Last year she received the ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism last year, and currently she is conducting new research into mass atrocities in Guatemala.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute. Today we’re looking at the criminal trial of Efraín Ríos Montt, who is considered to be at the center of culpability for the mass killings in Guatemala, which came to a peak under his dictatorship in the ’80s. He faces charges for 15 massacres in the Ixil region, and the deaths of 1,771 unarmed men, women, and children during his reign in 1982 and 1983. The trial opened at the end of January with Montt facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Speaking with me now is Kate Doyle, a forensic archivist working for the National Security Archive in DC. She played a major part in tracking down the chain of command that allowed lawyers to get a ruling in Spain that the case amounted to genocide, which has led us to the ongoing trial. Hello, Kate. It’s good to have you here with us.
Hi, Jared. Thanks for having me.
Can you tell us a little bit about the factors leading up to this historic trial and the work you’ve done contributing to it?
Sure. The efforts on the part of Guatemalans to bring Ríos Montt and the senior military command, and many others, to justice, since the end of the long, 36-year civil conflict in 1996, has itself traveled a very long road. The initial filing on the charges of genocide and charges against humanity against Ríos Montt and seven of his co-conspirators, in Spain, took place in 1999. So, many years ago, the case was filed by a well-known Mayan activist in Guatemala named Rigoberta Menchú, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize many years ago. Rigoberta filed the case shortly after the Spanish court had indicted General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, in an effort to try him under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes committed in his country. That took place in 1998. So Menchú and the organizations and massacre survivors that she represented decided to file a case based on the same model of international human rights justice in 1999. And that case began to work slowly, slowly through the system of the court in Spain.
And in the meantime, in 2000, the following year, again, a group of survivors that belonged to an organization called the Association for Justice and Reparations, and another group, the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action, inside Guatemala — these are Guatemalan activist organizations — filed a case in the Guatemalan national court, charging Ríos Montt and his senior military command with genocide and crimes against humanity in, again, the year 2000. That process, that parallel process, has brought us to the point we are today, with the Guatemalan case actually going to trial finally, earlier this year.
What significance does it have for the victims and their families?
Well, this is an extraordinary development, obviously. The survivors of the massacres and the family members of those who did not survive have been working to see this day for 30 years. So you can imagine that there is a tremendous amount of sort of supressed excitement — sometimes not so suppressed; people do shout out and applaud sometimes in the courtroom — but in general, people are there to observe and listen, and there is a tremendous amount of hope. People have come on buses from all over the country in this particular trial, since it focuses on an area of one of the rural departments of Guatemala known as the Quiché. The Ixil communities that were affected by the massacres in that region in 1982 have sent representatives down to Guatemala City to observe the hearings: the various presentation of evidence, and the arguments of the defense and prosecution to this point.
So it’s really been a very emotional experience for many, many people to watch this unfold, as slow and considered as it has been. And it is a very, very important victory, I think, for those communities. Just to see this man, and in this case his senior military intelligence chief, José Rodriguez, have to sit in the courtroom and listen to the presentation of the case by the prosecution. That alone has been really quite an extraordinary experience for people.
So it’s quite important, then, that this case is being tried in a national court, rather than an international tribunal?
It is. I mean, I think it’s the international case, the case introduced by Rigoberta Menchú and many others, in 1999 in Spain, has been a critical catalyst, pressure, prod for the national case. So in no way would I want to diminish the importance of that effort and that process, because that has had a very particular and powerful effect on getting this national case to move along.
That said, of course it is especially resonant for people, and powerful for people, to see Guatemalan lawyers in a Guatemalan courtroom, arguing before a Guatemalan judge, on the outlines of these terrible crimes that were committed by the Guatemalan military against its own citizens. So yeah, it has a special power, the fact that this is being held in a national court, and I think it’s important to recognize that there really isn’t another case we can think of around the world where a country has been willing and able to try one of its own former heads of state on charges of genocide, in its own court, without international support and contribution, and the presence, usually, of international judges. So this is really groundbreaking, I think, all around the world, in terms of international justice.
How do you think that Ríos Montt has been able to escape this for so long and remain immune, immune to these charges?
Ríos Montt’s ability to avoid prosecution on human rights crimes is the result of a confluence of all kinds of factors. First of all, the war didn’t end until 15 years after the crimes in this particular case were committed. So you had an armed internal conflict continuing all this time, and the Guatemalan military was an absolute front, center player in Guatemalan politics, government, security, the economy, every aspect of Guatemalan life until very, very recently. Another reason is that Ríos Montt in the early 1990s created a political party and became a member of congress. And that gave him immunity, for years and years, from prosecution of any kind related to the wars.
And that, I think, is linked to a third reason why it has taken so long for Ríos Montt to be tried, and that is the Guatemalan justice system was severely damaged during the civil conflict. The military stocked it with judges who were either former military people, relatives of military, or just friends to the military: very conservative, very supportive. Also, the judiciary system was systematically targeted for intimidation, threats, attacks, murders. There were a number of judges that were murdered both during and after the conflict.
So all of these factors — the ongoing war that lasted well into the 1990s; Ríos Montt’s own immunity that he managed to get by becoming a member of congress, even from the worst, most heinous crimes imaginable, such as genocide or the crimes against humanity with which he’s charged now; and the weakness of the justice system in Guatemala — all of that, plus the just across-the-board lack of political will to try members of the military for human rights crimes, conspired to delay and obstruct the process of justice for decades.
What implications do you see this having in the field of human rights law, specifically dealing with cases of mass atrocities?
One of the reasons this trial happened is because of the pressure that was brought to bear on the Guatemalan justice system, and the government in general. Internally, there was an incredibly sustained, committed amount of work that went on, on the part of the survivors’ organizations, the human rights groups, and the organizations committed to human rights justice there. But internationally, the role that the Spanish case played in continuing to push this on, and continuing to focus international attention on this case was also critical.
Is there anything exceptional about this particular case of these 15 massacres that allowed that to happen?
One of the elements that has been exceptional, and I think this is also critical for these trials, has been the identification of evidence. In the case of the Guatemalan Ixil region, where these 15 massacres — as opposed to the hundreds of other massacres that took place during the conflict — were carried out, is that number one, there have been multiple exhumations done: the unburying of the massacred dead over the last 15 years. And those exhumations have been done almost exclusively by a nongovernmental organization called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala.
They have been able to compile extraordinary, powerful evidence of the identification of the people found in these mass graves, hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children. They’ve been able to put together profiles on the kinds of people targeted, and clearly these were not all men carrying weapons. These were people of all ages, down to infants, who often had their hands tied, or had been blindfolded, or otherwise constrained before killed. So this kind of data, matched with a DNA laboratory in Guatemala City, where the office has its headquarters — that has been crucial for the development of the evidence in this case.
And the other piece of evidence that has been central to the case has been the appearance of documents from inside the Guatemalan military command. These are records that were provided to the National Security Archive by sources that have requested anonymity, but we’ve been able to, over the course of many months, verify the authenticity of these materials. And these are basically both the commands — on the part of the Guatemalan senior military command, back in 1982, to carry out the scorched-earth operations that targeted these Ixil communities — and the reports from the field, as the patrolling units were walking through the villages and encountering civilians and killing them; encountering fields of corn and burning them down so people wouldn’t have food to eat; encountering peoples’ homes and schools and churches, and razing them to the ground. These reports were sent back up the chain of command to the army chief of staff in Guatemala City, and we now have these reports, and they are at the heart of this case.
Sounds like this is just the beginning. Do you think there is a possibility that U.S. officials could end up being charged in connection with the crimes?
Well, who would charge them, Jared? I think that’s the problem. It is certainly going to be a closely examined question as to precisely who within the U.S. government supported, aided, abetted the doctrine and the strategy behind these counterinsurgency operations. It will be a closely examined question whether or not the United States provided material assistance of any kind. And it will be an equally closely examined question as to what extent U.S. officials were responsible for how that war was waged and the civilian deaths that resulted. The problem with that line of inquiry is what comes next? Who is going to take on an indictment of U.S. officials for the crimes of genocide in this case, or for aiding and abetting the human rights violations that took place?
I know that in Spain, Balthazar Garzón, the judge in the Pinochet case, did try to open an investigation, and I know that U.S. officials — we know through the Wikileaks documents — flew to Spain to pressure the Spanish government to drop that case. So I think that’s a fascinating and worthy investigation to carry out, and I will be very curious to see how that would be implemented, and in what court, under what legal jurisdiction.
Well, thank you so much for being here with us, Kate. It was a pleasure to have you.
All right, Jared. Thanks for the invitation. It was great talking.