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Former Leader of Guatemala Is Guilty of Genocide Against Mayan Group
Moises Castillo/Associated Press
The former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt waited for his verdict to be read on Friday. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Published: May 10, 2013

GUATEMALA CITY — A Guatemalan court on Friday found Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala during one of the bloodiest periods of its long civil war, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Ex-Dictator Denies Role in Guatemalan Massacres (May 10, 2013)

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Moises Castillo/Associated Press
The verdict marked the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide in his or her own country.
Judge Yasmín Barrios sentenced General Ríos Montt, 86, to 80 years in prison. His co-defendant, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who served as the director of intelligence under the general, was acquitted of the same two charges.

“We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group,” Judge Barrios said as she read the hourlong summary of the ruling by the three-judge panel. Over five weeks, the tribunal heard more than 100 witnesses, including psychologists, military experts and Maya Ixil Indian survivors who told how General Ríos Montt’s soldiers had killed their families and wiped out their villages.

The judge said that as the commander in chief of Guatemala’s armed forces, the general knew about the systematic massacres of Ixil villagers living in hillside hamlets in El Quiché department and did nothing to stop them or the aerial bombardment of the refugees who had fled to nearby mountains.

The crowd packed into the courtroom was quiet for much of Judge Barrios’s reading. But cries of “Justicia! Justicia!” erupted when she pronounced the lengthy sentence and ordered General Ríos Montt to begin serving it immediately.

As the general tried to walk out a side door, Judge Barrios shouted at him to stay where he was and called for security forces. An hour after the verdict and sentence were read, General Ríos Montt was escorted from the courtroom by a dozen police officers. He said he was ready to go to prison.

How long he will stay there is less clear than the verdict. His lawyers said they would appeal, and injunctions filed during the case still await rulings.

Wiping tears from his eyes, Antonio Caba, 41, an Ixil leader of the Mayan survivors’ group that first brought the case more than a decade ago, said the sentence had “broken impunity and achieved justice.”

“We showed them that we’re not communists,” said Mr. Caba, who was 11 when soldiers stormed his village and killed 95 men. “We are simply villagers.”

For international human rights organizations, the trial took on a significance beyond Guatemala’s own history.

Adama Dieng, the United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said last month that the case was the first in which a former head of state had been indicted by a national tribunal on charges of genocide.

The “historical precedent,” and especially a guilty verdict, he said, could serve as an example to other countries “that have failed to hold accountable those individuals responsible for serious and massive human rights violations.”

But the trial’s international significance was irrelevant to the Maya Ixil Indians who had testified. “He gave the order,” said Elena de Paz Santiago, 42, as she waited on Friday for the verdict. Ms. de Paz had testified that she was 12 when she and her mother were taken by soldiers to an army base and raped. The soldiers let her go, but she never saw her mother again.

“Each one of us who is watching,” she said, nodding at the rows of Maya Ixil sitting behind her, “has lost their mother or their grandparents. That is why we are here.

“God wants him to go to jail,” she said of General Ríos Montt. “God knows that we are telling the truth.”

The villages of the Mayan highlands endured the worst of the army’s brutality in the early 1980s, the darkest period of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. During much of the 17 months of General Ríos Montt’s rule, the army intensified a scorched-earth policy to flush out leftist guerrillas fighting from the hills.

In the cities, security forces had identified labor and student leaders as enemies of the state and snatched them off the street to be killed or disappeared.

But the military campaigns against the Mayan communities did not bother to select their targets. Military planning documents simply described all the Ixil as guerrilla supporters.

In court testimony, Patrick Ball of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group in San Francisco estimated that from April 1982 to July 1983, 5.5 percent of the Maya Ixil population were killed. The proportion for the nonindigenous population was 0.7 percent.

In reopening such a searing chapter of Guatemala’s history, the trial deepened the already profound abyss between the country’s left and right.

Allies of General Ríos Montt published newspaper supplements celebrating the army’s fight against communism. The country’s deeply conservative oligarchy, represented by a business association known as Cacif, declared that it was important to “know how to leave the past behind.”

Even a respected group of academics and politicians, including a former vice president, Eduardo Stein, warned that a conviction could embolden other Mayan groups that had endured similar atrocities. “One cannot assume that the accusation of genocide will stop with the Ixil people,” Mr. Stein said.

The involvement of the United States in Guatemala’s politics received scant attention during the trial.

The American military had a close relationship with the Guatemalan military well into the 1970s before President Jimmy Carter’s administration cut off aid. When General Ríos Montt seized power in March 1982, President Ronald Reagan’s administration cultivated him as a reliable Central American ally in its battle against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and Salvadoran guerrillas.

Those interests influenced the way American officials treated evidence of the massacres. They were quick to accept military explanations that guerrillas had carried out the killings, said Kate Doyle, a Guatemala expert at the National Security Archive, a Washington research group that works to obtain declassified government documents.

By the end of 1982, however, the State Department had gathered evidence that the army was behind the massacres.

But even then, the administration insisted that General Ríos Montt was working to reduce the violence. After a regional meeting, President Reagan described him as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 11, 2013, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Former Leader of Guatemala Is Guilty of Genocide Against Mayan Group.