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Former Guatemalan dictator can't escape the past

May 22, 2012|By Sandra Hernandez
  • Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt is facing a genocide charge.
Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt is facing a genocide charge. (Johan Ordonez / AFP Getty…)

Things just went from bad to worse for former Guatemala dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt. The 85-year-old is already charged with human rights abuses committed during that country’s 36-year civil war. This week a judge added a second genocide charge against him, the Associated Press reported.

That’s extraordinary. Rios Montt seized power in 1982 in a military coup. During his 17-month rule, troops carried out a "scorched earth" policy that wiped out hundreds of villages in the name of fighting leftist rebels. Until recently, many in Guatemala believed Rios Montt to be untouchable, with good reason. As The Times' editorial board noted in 2003, Rios Montt managed to evade the courts and manipulate government power for years. He twice attempted to get around a provision in the country’s constitution that barred those who took part in a coup from the presidency. And as a member of Congress, he enjoyed immunity until January, when his term ended.

The new charge involves the Dos Erres massacre. About 200 men, women and children were killed in that village by troops. In some cases, victims were bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer; others -- still alive -- were buried in the town well, according to a truth commission report. Rios Montt also faces charges in connection with the killing of about 1,700 Maya indigenous people.

Rios Montt has repeatedly said he is innocent, and denied he ordered troops to commit atrocities.

Whatever happens, the trial is an important step forward for Guatemala’s courts, which have often retreated from holding those accused of human rights violations accountable.

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