When a Guatemalan court found the country's former dictator, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, guilty of genocide last month, it was the first time a Latin American leader had been convicted of such a crime in his own country. The verdict was hailed as a victory not only for Guatemala's fragile courts but also for Latin America generally, where weak judges and fearful prosecutors have all too often failed to bring human rights abusers to justice.
That triumph, however, is now at risk. Just days after Rios Montt was convicted, the trial court's verdict was thrown out on a procedural technicality by the country's Constitutional Court, which ordered the lower court to rehear all evidence presented after April 19, when the procedural mistake occurred.
Going back two months in time would be hard enough. But now, prosecutors are facing an additional hurdle. Today, the high court will consider whether the former dictator may indeed be tried at all, or whether he should be shielded from prosecution under a 1986 amnesty law.
Rios Montt seized power in 1982 in a military coup. He stayed in office for 17 months with the support of the United States. During that time, he presided over what is widely considered one of the most brutal chapters in the country's 36-year conflict with Marxist rebels, sending troops into the Mayan highlands where they raped, tortured and killed unarmed men, women and children accused of colluding with the rebels. Among the worst of the massacres took place at Dos Erres, where more than 200 civilians were killed and their bodies thrown into the village well.