On March 19, 2013 Guatemala became the first nation to try a former head of state, Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity in its own courts, an extraordinary achievement that led award-winning investigative journalist Allan Nairn to state that, “Guatemala has reached a higher level of civilization than the United States,” where such a trial would be unthinkable.   Ríos Montt’s took power in a March 1982 coup and his brutal military campaign that human rights defenders have characterized as genocidal received support from President Ronald Regan, though his administration denied it at the time.

Nairn had flown to Guatemala City as a proposed witness but once in Guatemala, he was asked not to testify after another witness, a former soldier, unexpectedly named current President Otto Pérez Molina as responsible for crimes against humanity.  In September 1982, Nairn had interviewed then Major Pérez Molina, a commander in the area where the crimes Ríos Montt is being tried for had occurred.  It appears that his testimony would have implicated the current president in crimes, and the victims’ lawyers were afraid that pushing the political establishment any further would endanger the case.

On April 18, the case was unexpectedly annulled by a judge not overseeing the trial, pre-trial judge Carol Patricia Flores.  She made the illegal ruling two days after former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein signed a communique published in Guatemalan newspapers, along with 11 other former members of the administration of Álvaro Arzú, calling the charges of genocide against Ríos Montt a “threat to the nation” and suggesting that if a sentence for genocide were handed down it could mean a return to political violence.

Stein, who is a member of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, is now considered to be a consummate Washington insider. For those who follow Honduras, Stein’s position on the Ríos Montt trial may come as no surprise, given that he headed up the one-sided “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that investigated the Honduran June 28, 2009 coup and its aftermath.  As the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) explained, the Hondurans who were most affected by the coup were excluded from participating in the creation of of the Commission.  Inside sources claim the Commission was actually created in Washington.

Judge Flores has made other rulings that benefit Stein’s political allies.  Stein is reported to be very close to Carlos Vielmann, who served as Minister of Governance while Stein was Vice President to Óscar Berger [2004 to 2008].  Vielmann is currently on trial in Spain, charged with directly undertaking death squad actions in 2005, apparently on behalf of the Gulf Cartel (a major Mexican drug cartel), along with then National Police Director Erwin Sperinsen, simultaneously being tried in Switzerland.  The National Penitentiaries Director Alejandro Giamattei had also been charged for some of the same crimes, but was cleared by Judge Flores of the charges after seeking asylum in the post-coup Honduran embassy. Judge Flores went on to challenge the Guatemalan Attorney General’s decision to not seek Vielmann’s extradition, preferring that he be tried in Spain. 

The hearings in Ríos Montt’s genocide case resumed on April 30, after the Constitutional Court resolved some issues raised by Judge Flores’s ruling, but did not directly address the most illegal element of it, the annulment.  This has partially satisfied the needs of the victims and justice advocates, but it leaves the case vulnerable to unresolved technicalities that could later resurface and again undermine the trial.

Guatemala’s UN backed truth commission estimated that over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s armed conflict, 93 percent of them at the hands of State security forces, and 3 percent by the guerrillas. The Guatemalan government’s commission established to compensate the victims later estimated that the number of killed or disappeared could be as high as double the UN estimate of 200,000.