Last year was a busy one for Guatemala’s criminal justice system.
January 2016 saw the arrests of 18 former military officers for their alleged part in the country’s dirty war of the 1980s. In February last year, two ex-soldiers were convicted in an unprecedented wartime sexual slavery case from the same era.
Such legal proceedings represent further openings in the judicial system following the 2013 trial and conviction of former head of state General Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the Guatemalan Constitutional Court very quickly annulled the trial (finally restarted in March after fitful stops and starts, but currently stalled again), a global precedent has been set for holding national leaders accountable in the country where their crimes took place.
And in November, a Guatemalan judge allowed a separate case against Ríos Montt to proceed. The case relates to the 1982 massacre in the village of Dos Erres.
Ríos Montt was president from 1982 to 1983, a period marked by intense state violence against the indigenous Mayan peoples. The violence included the destruction of entire villages, resulting in mass displacement.
Mayans were repeatedly targeted during the period of repression that lasted from 1954 – when the US engineered a military coup – to 1996. More than 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala during that period, 83 percent of whom were Mayans.
The crimes committed by the Guatemalan state were carried out with foreign – particularly US – assistance. One key party to these crimes has so far eluded any mention inside the courts: Israel.
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