Guatemala: Ríos Montt trial implicates president

Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina was involved in some of the crimes against humanity for which former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) and his former intelligence, Gen. José Rodríguez, are now on trial in Guatemala City, according to testimony by a prosecution witness at the trial on April 4. The witness, Hugo Reyes, was an army engineer stationed near Nebaj, El Quiché department, in the Ixil Mayan region, during the early 1980s, at a time when the current president was an army major commanding troops in the area. Reyes said Pérez Molina, then known as “Commander Tito” and “Major Tito Arias,” was among the officers in charge of soldiers who “coordinated the burning [of homes] and pulling people out so they could execute them.”

Speaking by video conferencing from an undisclosed location, Reyes testified that soldiers kidnapped civilians and took them to a military base for torture and execution. “Some had their tongues cut out and their fingernails removed and other injuries,” he said. “The army officers said to them: ‘Sons of bitches, talk or we’ll cut out your tongues.'” “Indian seen, Indian dead–that was the motto they had,” Reyes said; most of the victims were indigenous. “It’s a lie,” Pérez Molina told reporters on April 5. He dismissed the events at the trial the day before as a “circus,” adding: “Bringing in false witnesses takes away all seriousness from the justice system.” (Reuters, April 5; Europa Press, Madrid, April 6)

Pérez Molina has frequently been accused of participating in the Ríos Montt government’s “scorched earth” policies, which led to thousands of civilian deaths. A 1983 documentary shows Pérez Molina being interviewed by US investigative reporter Allan Nairn while standing near several battered corpses in Nebaj; one of the soldiers told Nairn that these were captives Pérez Molina had “interrogated.”

While attention is focused on the Ríos Montt trial, the harassment and murder of activists continues, with at least five murdered in a single month. Tomás Quej, an indigenous leader who had just won a legal struggle for land for his community in the central department of Baja Verapaz, was found dead on Feb. 26 with a gunshot wound to his heart. Carlos Hernández Mendoza, an anti-mining activist and a leader in the National Union of Health Workers of Guatemala (SNTSG), was shot dead on March 8; indigenous campesino leader Gerónimo Sol Ajcot was shot dead three days later, on March 11. As reported by Amnesty International (AI), on March 17 Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, a leader in the Xinca indigenous group, was murdered and three other activists were kidnapped, beaten and then released; the group was demonstrating against mining operations by the Canadian company Tahoe Resources. Ucelo was also involved in land disputes. On March 21 Santa Alvarado, like Hernández a member of the SNTSG, was kidnapped and strangled. (Global Voices, Amsterdam, March 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 7.