President Bush will be touching down for a visit to Guatemala about two weeks before the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coup d’état that brought to power General Efraín Ríos Montt, one of the most murderous US-backed dictators of the Cold War era. While Guatemalans are engaged in a struggle to bring that man to justice, a White House press release says Bush will be visiting “to experience the rich cultural diversity of this Central American nation, meet with President Oscar Berger, and emphasize the close relationship between our two countries.”
While the President should be sure to appreciate Guatemala’s diversity and beauty, he also has the opportunity and obligation to make this trip a serious and productive one by helping bring to a close one of the bloodiest periods in Guatemala’s history, for which the US bears much responsibility.
General Ríos Montt seized power from his predecessor, President Romeo Lucas García, on March 23, 1982. During the reigns of these two leaders, more than 132,000 civilians were killed. According to a UN-sponsored truth commission, 93% of these murders were perpetrated by state security forces.
Much like former dictator Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Lucas García recently died before being held accountable for his crimes. Ríos Montt, however, is alive and still a powerful political figure in Guatemala. While he has thus far managed to evade prosecution attempts for his crimes, survivors of the general’s scorched earth campaigns began fighting to bring him and members of his military and civilian high command to justice in the Guatemalan and Spanish legal systems in 2001 and 1999, respectively. Ríos Montt’s legal team is stalling the process with unsubstantiated appeals, and the Guatemalan Attorney General lacks the political will to move the case forward.
The evidence against Ríos Montt includes thousands of recently exhumed corpses, hundreds of officially documented massacres, myriad eyewitnesses, and a chain of command that leads directly to him. An international arrest warrant restricts the former dictator from fleeing to other countries, but within Guatemala he remains free. In fact, Ríos Montt is expected to run for the Guatemalan Congress in September, motivated by the possibility of gaining immunity as a sitting member of congress.
Over the years, Ríos Montt received immense support from the United States government. He was trained in “counterinsurgency tactics” at the School of the Americas, run by the US army. He received funds and weapons from our country, and the explicit support of figures such as Ronald Reagan and Pat Robertson. President Clinton acknowledged these mistakes and apologized to Guatemala during a visit there in 1999. President Bush can now go a step further and support Guatemala’s struggle against impunity by encouraging the Guatemalan government to either move the national case against Ríos Montt and his cohorts forward or respect the international arrest warrants issued by Spain and extradite them to that country. By supporting the survivors of genocide, Bush would truly promote justice, security and stability in the region.
This issue is not just a matter of reconciliation for past events. The pervasive culture of impunity in Guatemala has fostered an alarming escalation of attacks against human rights defenders. Lawyers in the case against Ríos Montt, indigenous rights organizers, and environmentalists have recently been kidnapped, received threatening notes and phone calls, and had their offices and personal possessions vandalized.
Impunity for such abuses is exacerbated by the infiltration of organized crime into the government’s highest levels. Recently the head of the Guatemalan National Police’s organized crime unit and several of his officers were arrested for allegedly murdering three Salvadoran diplomats. The jailed policemen were subsequently murdered when gunmen bypassed eight locked prison doors to kill the men in their cells. Moving the genocide cases forward and prosecuting Ríos Montt at this important juncture would demonstrate that nobody, not even one of the country’s most powerful individuals, is above prosecution.
President Bush will be met by massive protests in Guatemala because of opposition to US trade and immigration policies that continue to exasperate poverty in the country, forcing people to leave their families, cultures, and homeland in search of work. By pushing for justice for Ríos Montt, Bush can show Guatemalans that our countries’ close relationship goes beyond economic exploitation.
Buddy Rutzke is a Program Assistant with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.