Guatemalan path for Indonesian justice
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Guatemalan path for Indonesian justice

By Andrew de Sousa *
August 13, 2013 (slightly revised December 2013)

On a Friday afternoon last May, a packed courtroom in Guatemala City appeared to be in chaos. Many people were in tears as the room filled with cries of ¡Justicia! and indigenous songs of justice. On the floor of the courtroom, the man who had terrorized the crowd for the past thirty years, the former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, was being surrounded to ensure he would not escape. What many had assumed to be impossible had just happened – someone was being held responsible for one of the worst human rights abuses of the past century, the genocide of the indigenous Maya of Guatemala. And it had happened in an unprecedented manner – despite its notoriously corrupt judicial system, Guatemala had become the first country in the world to hold its own former leader responsible for genocide in its own territory. Just as genocide and other gross human rights abuses are recognized as crimes against humanity, having a universal nature that affects all of us, this victory should be celebrated as a victory for human rights everywhere, and much can be learned from it to also achieve victories elsewhere, including in Indonesia.

Rios Montt on trial.  

A Bloody History

While separated by some 16,000 kilometers of Pacific Ocean, Guatemala and Indonesia have shared some unfortunate similarities in their modern history, often fuelled by U.S. intervention. At the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. government was feeling threatened by progressive movements in both countries. A decade before the CIA supported General Suharto’s rise to power, the democratically elected Guatemalan President Arbenz was removed by a CIA-backed coup d’etat in 1954, just two years after legalizing the communist party (PGT) and 18 months into a modest land reform program perceived as a threat to U.S. business interests.

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. provided heavy support to both the Indonesian and Guatemalan militaries under the pretext of stopping the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Just as perceived links to PKI or Chinese ethnicity were used to justify the massacre of possibly one million Indonesians, the Guatemalan military killed an estimated 200,000 indigenous Mayans, mostly unarmed and assumed to be guerrilla sympathizers solely based on their ethnicity. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the Indonesian military’s war crimes and human rights atrocities were at their height in Timor-Leste, a succession of military regimes increased their repression of the Guatemalan people. While thousands of student activists and trade unionists were disappeared in the cities, the worst violence was directed at the rural indigenous population. The military conducted a scorched earth campaign against the entire Maya population, forcing young men to join paramilitary units known as PACs and burning entire villages to the ground. While President Reagan applauded the “wise and steadfast leadership” of General Suharto, “a senior statesman of Asia”, his praise for General Efrain Rios Montt, the military dictator during the bloodiest 16 months of the 36 year conflict in Guatemala (1982-1983), was even greater, calling him “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.”


While then US president Ronald Reagan applauded the "wise and steadfast leadership" of General Suharto, his praise for Guatemalan General Rios Montt was even more effusive, calling him "a man of great personal integrity and commitment".

The conflict in Guatemala officially ended with the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. As part of the peace process, the government agreed to uphold international human rights standards, including ratifying ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, ending extra-judicial or clandestine security forces, ending extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances, and creating a Historical Clarification Commission backed by the United Nations. The 1999 final findings of the commission found the successive military governments responsible for 626 separate massacres and 93% of the deaths during the conflict, with 83% of the victims being indigenous Maya.

However, many of the constitutional changes called for in the Peace Accords failed to pass in a referendum, and many of the players responsible for the atrocities continue to have considerable power in Guatemala today. General Rios Montt formed the political party FRG (Guatemalan Republican Front) in 1989 and Rios Montt himself represented the party in parliament from 1990-2004. Despite a constitutional ban on coup conspirators clearly banning Rios Montt from the presidency, he attempted to run for the position in 1990 and 1994. When the Supreme Court blocked another attempt to run for president in 2003, the FRG orchestrated two days of violence in the streets of Guatemala City, forcing the Constitutional Court to overrule the decision. Rios Montt eventually came in third in the election with 11% of the popular vote.

To Resist is to Win

Maintaining impunity and the status quo has not been a simple task for the Guatemalan elite. Indigenous resistance to the military regime was always active, with some 50,000 organizing themselves into the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR), preferring to hide in the mountains and forests than risk further human violations or submit themselves to military rule. The guerrilla resistance also worked with activists across the world, forming solidarity movements to pressure Western countries to end military and political support. When the country began to slowly transition away from military rule, several human rights organizations were created to pursue justice and preserve the truth of what had happened in the country.

Many efforts were made through legal challenges, and a couple of key cases eventually found justice in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. However, despite the UN-backed commission and a separate process conducted by the Catholic Church finding ample evidence of genocide, inside the Guatemalan system there were virtually no signs of accountability for the first decade of the peace process. In fact, it took almost fifteen years after the Peace Accords for the national courts of Guatemala to take the first steps towards holding high-ranking military officials responsible for the atrocities of the 1980s.

Survivors from 23 Maya villages spread across five of the regions where the military atrocities were at their worst formed the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR). In 2000 and 2001 AJR, assisted by the NGO Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), filed legal charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against two former presidents, Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt, and their high military commands. The move appeared quixotic, with the Guatemalan system being far from competent. In a country overrun by violence, less than 5% of ordinary murders were ever solved, Rios Montt enjoyed immunity as a sitting member of parliament, and his political ally Alfonso Portillo was President. With a lack of political will among the judges and public prosecutors, the case stalled indefinitely under the regularly filed appeals of defense lawyers.

Never Forgetting

Not only was the likelihood of Guatemala’s courts wanting to deal with the past remote, it was also highly dangerous. Beyond the difficulties of overcoming legal technicalities laid what Guatemalans refer to as clandestine groups or hidden powers – a parallel structure often more powerful than the official government, made of the remnants of the military dictatorships combined with the organized crime of ruthless urban gangs and drug cartels. By placing these charges against Rios Montt, AJR was attacking the status quo of impunity for the powerful, directly threatening the interests of the clandestine groups. CALDH needed formal witnesses for the legal case to be filed, and each member of AJR who agreed to be a witness was also making themselves a target for the clandestine groups. They found a solution with the international solidarity movement, which had already built a system of accompaniment to help refugee populations return as part of the peace process. A coalition of North American and European organizations known as ACOGUATE agreed to place international activists with the witness’ communities. Utilizing the strategy of protective accompaniment, foreigners would act as deterrents to any reprisals from the defendants or their allies in the clandestine groups.


As people from the US, we have an historic responsibility to accompany the survivors who have been impacted by the role our government played in the Guatemalan genocide. As members of the global movement for human rights, it is important to stand in solidarity with the struggles of all indigenous peoples seeking justice.

For this arrangement to work, long-term commitments were needed. Nobody knew how long the cases would take to come to trial, and the witnesses deserved reassurance that they would be safe for the duration. Furthermore, ACOGUATE had demands from other activists, and AJR communities as well, to provide similar accompaniment to provide safety for ongoing popular struggles. These struggles were often of a highly political nature, opposing the interests of national elites and their foreign counterparts to exploit the country through mining, hydroelectric dams, unfair labor conditions and the like. The political restrictions and short-term nature of international NGOs and funding agencies were unlikely to provide the long-term, independent support needed for this work, so sponsoring communities were formed across the USA to fund the accompaniment project. Through a variety of local fundraising initiatives, such as asking for donations from local church congregations, running fair trade businesses selling Guatemalan products and even renting out their houses in an informal bed-and-breakfast business, these sponsoring communities have helped keep the witnesses safe for over a decade in a project that would have been abandoned long ago by a traditional donor.

The largest group of these international accompaniers has come from the country most responsible for supporting the Guatemalan military throughout the atrocities, the USA. Bridget Brehen of the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) explains the organization’s motivation in providing the accompaniers: “As people from the US, we have an historic responsibility to accompany the survivors who have been impacted by the role our government played in the Guatemalan genocide. As members of the global movement for human rights, it is important to stand in solidarity with the struggles of all indigenous peoples seeking justice for crimes of the past, as well as defending their territories and natural resources. It is these values, and more importantly the courage and resilience of the Guatemalan social movements, that have inspired us to accompany the AJR and other groups on the road towards justice.”

The truth prevails

A seemingly more pragmatic approach was taken by a coalition under the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu: seeing that Spanish courts had indicted the Chilean dictator Pinochet for human rights violations, they petitioned Spain to hold eight military leaders, including the presidents Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores (Rios Montt’s minister of defense and successor as president, from 1983-1986), responsible for genocide, torture and terrorism. This case, first filed in 1999, was argued before the high courts of Spain for six years until the principal of universal jurisdiction was upheld, and international arrest warrants were issued for the defendants in 2006. Once the warrants were issued, the Spanish court also began taking testimony from witnesses, many of them also members of AJR and involved in the genocide cases that were still officially active in Guatemala.

While the Spanish case was quickly ignored by the Guatemalan courts, it did add to the pressure that activists had been putting on the system for decades. In 2006 the system began to change, with the government allowing the UN to create the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), placing an international prosecutor within the Guatemalan system to target organized crime. Then in 2011 three low-level former soldiers were convicted for their role in the 1982 Dos Erres Massacre, the first time any members of the military had been held responsible for the atrocities committed during the 1980s. And, when Rios Montt left the parliament in 2012 – and lost his parliamentary immunity – he was finally formally indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity, putting him under house arrest while waiting for the trial to commence.

Within a year the unthinkable happened – Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, were before a three-judge panel. Over six weeks, evidence was presented not just to show how the military had systematically raped, tortured and killed rural subsistence farmers merely for being from the Ixil Maya communities, but how Rios Montt was fully aware and in command of these operations, making him culpable of genocide. The defense attorneys continued their strategy of obstruction, with much more effort being aimed at challenging the merits of the trial itself rather than attempt to refute the actual charges. They were able to temporarily halt the trial at times, but never longer than a few days. In less than eight weeks the trial drew to a close. While Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez was acquitted of both charges, Rios Montt was given a sentence of 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity. He was immediately taken from the courthouse to Matamoros Prison to begin his sentence.

Three days later, Rios Montt was in a military hospital after supposedly fainting. And just ten days after the conviction, in an unprecedented ruling the Constitutional Court annulled the second half of the trial, confusing the entire legal system in how to proceed. Rios Montt was back under house arrest, and many of the international observers who had descended upon Guatemala for the trial lamented a major defeat for human rights and the pursuit of justice. But while it’s undeniable that the reversal was unwanted, for those most closely involved it was far from unexpected. In the words of Edwin Canil, a genocide survivor who now works with CALDH, “This was to be expected… [the guilty sentence] wasn't the end of this, but only the start."

It has been an incredible start. From the beginning, the trial has not been only about putting Rios Montt behind bars, but to finally have a process of justice in the larger society, for Guatemala as a whole - and the elite in particular – to admit what had happened to the poor and indigenous people over the past decades was wrong, and the systemic discrimination and oppression could no longer continue. For the weeks in which the trial occurred, the people of Ixil were finally given a national stage to tell their story – and day after day they did, their testimonies were not just given to a packed courtroom but broadcast over TV and radio, published in newspapers and event streamed and twittered live over the internet. The public heard how children were forced to watch their parents killed, fetuses ripped from their mothers’ wombs. A former solider even testified to how the current president, Otto Perez Molina, ordered troops under his command at the time to burn villages and kill anyone who tried to escape to the mountains. Many quotes from the witnesses will likely stay in the public mind for years, of how the military “came only to kill” and “viewed us as if we were not people”. But the most powerful message of all was “¡SI HUBO GENOCIDO!”, that genocide did occur. This motto was a rallying cry for an emboldened fight for justice – what was once only said in private or abroad, when safely away from the clandestine forces, was now openly held at vigils, even plastered on public buses. Once the Constitutional Court annulled the trial, one of the largest protests in recent Guatemalan history was held, and across Latin America people took to the streets in solidarity, declaring outside Guatemalan embassies ““¡SI HUBO GENOCIDO!”.

May 20 should be remembered as a day that impunity once again reigned in Guatemala. But its victory was only momentary. The testimony of dozens of survivors, built upon decades of struggle and resistance, created a hope that is much more powerful than any court ruling. By refusing to let those in power silence them, some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the Western Hemisphere were able to accomplish the impossible. By holding Rios Montt accountable in a legal system dominated by impunity, they have shown that it is possible for justice to prevail in even the most unlikely of circumstances. There is no good reason to say that the same cannot happen in the corrupt courts of Jakarta or the undeveloped system in Timor-Leste. Just as after fifteen years the work of Reformasi is far from over, the Guatemalan struggle continues. In the words of Edwin Canil, "This has got a long way to go yet. It's just a question of who gets tired first: them or us. But we're still here and staying firm."

In Indonesia, as long as those responsible for the crimes of the New Order regime enjoy impunity they will seek power. We already know what that will give us –the horrendous human rights abuses and failed economic policies that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of the few. Rather than allow them to continue to repeat these mistakes, we should follow the example of AJR and the Guatemalan people. We must continue to insist that they be held accountable, no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem.

* Andrew de Sousa is with the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and a member of the board of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN),

A version of this article was also published in Speaking Freely at Asia Times Online

(Copyright 2013 Andrew de Sousa)

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