Your basic guide to the Guatemalan genocide trial

A historic moment is occurring in Guatemala right now. The country is becoming the first in the world to try a former head of state (and right-wing military dictator) in their own country, rather than having an international tribunal handle it.

The man is Efrain Rios Montt. He ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983. He came to office via a coup d’etat, and was ousted the same way himself not long after. But he did plenty of damage to Guatemala in his brief time in office.

Rios Montt was facing a leftist insurgency, and he responded exactly the way one would expect a military dictator to: by launching a scorched earth campaign against the rebels. And remember, this was the eighties. So he did it with the backing of the U.S.

President Reagan lifted an arms embargo that had previously been imposed on Guatemala, allowing the U.S. to sell weapons to a man who was very obviously using them against his own people. One of Reagan’s most well known remarks about Rios Montt, in fact, is that the dictator was getting a “bum rap” in the media.

This was not one of our nation’s finer moments.

Anyway, Rios Montt, in his short time in office, essentially oversaw the destruction of about 600 indigenous villages, according to a UN truth commission. In other words, more than two a day. The result: the deaths of approximately 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans.

And that brings us to the charge in this trial: genocide.

This is particularly important because, as CNN has reported, this is the only genocide committed in the Western Hemisphere. This is also where I begin to disagree with much of the widespread coverage.

Rios Montt and his soldiers targeted the indigenous population and sought to exterminate them, and it is therefore appropriate to charge him with genocide. But he did it as part of a broader goal to achieve not just racial/ethnic homogeneity, but as a means of achieving political/ideological homogeneity. And in that, he is far from unique in Latin America.

All throughout the continent during the Cold War, right-wing dictators fought leftist insurgencies. And in doing so, they often targeted the indigenous populations of their countries. They conflated the indigenous populations with the rebels, and all too often ethnicity was considered proof of treason, without other evidence to corroborate it. It happened in El Salvador. It happened in Peru.

And of course, genocide is just one form that atrocities took in the region during the Cold War. Here’s hoping that Guatemala can help us establish a norm of holding our national leaders, past and present, accountable for their actions.

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