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Genocide Never Again: General Rios Montt on Trial and the Abduction of Xinca Leaders in Santa Maria Xalapan

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Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt (1982- 1983) went on trial March 19, 2013, facing charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil people. This is the first genocide trial to take place in courts of the country where the crime actually occurred. [1] This challenge to impunity occurs as Guatemala finds itself at a delicate crossroads, where advances in justice system reform are crossing paths with the resurgence of repression. Recent repression is mostly related to foreign investment interests, such as mining and hydroelectric concessions, and the expansion of African palm and sugar cane plantations, especially as demand for biofuels increases globally.  For example, on March 17, even as preparations for the genocide trial were underway, armed men abducted four Xinca indigenous leaders, who were returning from a community referendum, or consultation, regarding mining in the community of San Rafael las Flores, Santa Rosa, where a U.S.-Canadian owned silver mining company (Tahoe Resources – Goldcorp) holds concessions. [2] One of the abducted leaders was killed. This attack is just the latest in a growing series of violent acts against communities standing in the way of investment interests in Guatemala.

The Rios Montt trial demonstrates that advances have been made toward strengthening the national justice system. These advances are the fruit of decades of labor by justice advocates in Guatemala and the assistance of U.N.-sponsored efforts. However, these advances are still fragile and have not yet prevented the perpetration of new human rights violations. Not until the perpetrators and their international backers are held accountable will this cycle of repression and resistance be brought to an end.

Addressing Crimes of the Past as a New Wave of Repression Looms

Guatemala is still recovering from a 36-year civil war (1960 – 1996) in which about 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and 45,000 disappeared–93 percent of them by State security forces, 4 percent by the guerrilla movement and another 3 percent by undetermined actors, according to the United Nations-sponsored truth commission “Memory of Silence.” [3] A Catholic Church sponsored truth commission entitled “Never Again” also documented abuses committed in the context of the civil war. On the night of the report’s April 26, 1998 release, the commission’s director, Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, was murdered, a shocking reminder of how much remained to be done to fulfill that imperative. [4] The Rios Montt trial and the Santa Maria Xalapan abductions are further expressions of the same dynamic of resistance and repression in Guatemala.

The Ixil genocide case is the product of almost twenty years of intense efforts by the survivors and the human rights community.  Guatemala’s justice system had been controlled by the clandestine networks of power that for three decades maintained impunity for crimes against humanity and organized crime.  However, as two decades of dedicated work by national and international justice advocates began to show fruit in an increasingly independent justice system (particularly over the past five years), some military veterans and businessmen, who are longstanding allies, are reacting, attacking the judges and the attorney general in the press, in frivolous lawsuits and even lobbying the United Nations against justice reform efforts.

Despite the still nascent advances in the justice system, the same people responsible for the crimes against humanity from the 1970s and 1980s maintain compelling political and financial power today. During Rios Montt’s dictatorship, the current President Otto Perez Molina commanded the army base in the region where the military carried out the Ixil genocide, the particular act of genocide for which Rios Montt stands trial today. [5]

The man on trial beside him, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was commander of military intelligence in Rios Montt’s regime. [6]   Perez Molina, who culminated his armed forces career in 1992 as commander of military intelligence, may well have already been active in military intelligence in 1982 when posted to the Ixil region. [7] This could mean that Rodriguez Sanchez was his commander, so it is no surprise that Perez Molina denies the genocide occurred.

Xinca Leaders Abducted in Santa Maria Xalapan

On March 17, 2013 at about 9pm, four principal leaders of the community of Santa Maria Xalapan were driving home after attending a nearby municipal referendum.  International law requires large-scale development initiatives in indigenous communities to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from those communities.  Communities in Guatemala refer to the balloting process to determine consent as a “consultation.”  On March 17, in Volcancito, San Rafael Las Flores, over 99 percent of the participants voted to reject mining in their territory. [8] This position placed the community at odds with the interests of the U.S.-Canadian company Tahoe Resources, partially owned by Goldcorp, which has begun exploring silver concessions in the area.

According to survivors of the attack, two vehicles intercepted the community leaders’ truck, and approximately a dozen heavily armed men wearing ski masks and bulletproof vests abducted the Xinca leaders. The leaders’ hands were reportedly bound by plastic handcuffs, which police often use, and their feet by rope. The president of the Xinca Parliament, Roberto Gonzales Ucelo was placed blindfolded in a vehicle and the remaining three were forced into the back of a pickup truck. [9]

Two of those abducted, Rodolfo Gonzales and Rigoberto Aguilar, threw themselves, bound, from the pickup, then rolled down the mountain and were able to alert the community of the threat that was being posed against them.  They soon found the body of Secretary of Acts of the Community of Santa Maria Xapalan, Exaltacion Marcos Ucelo, still bound.  According to forensic exams, he was killed by a blow to the head.

Human rights activists visited the Public Prosecutor, the Ministry of Governance (in charge of police forces), and the U.S. embassy to urgently request their intervention. [10] It should be noted that the U.S. embassy has forged a close partnership with the Perez Molina government in security initiatives. [11] Also, Perez Molina was reported in 1995 to be a CIA asset. [12]

About 18 hours later Roberto Gonzales Ucelo turned up alive in a hotel in the town of Chimaltenango, several hours from Santa Maria Xalapan.  He later explained that, while being detained, his captors said they were taking him to meet with the department’s congressman and the mine’s manager. However, after his captors began to receive telephone calls describing the search efforts, they left him at the hotel, warning him not to leave the room, because he was being watched.  No arrests were made. [13]


After news of the violence spread, the community of Santa Maria Xalapan was outraged and throughout the crisis blocked roads into the city of Jalapa to pressure the government to act.  An agreement was made between the government and Xinca communities that the intellectual and material authors of the crime would be investigated, and that the police assigned to the area would be rotated out as many in the community believe the kidnappers were, in fact, the police. [14]

The Vice Minister of Security Edy Juarez, a former general and military intelligence specialist, has cast doubt on the testimony of the victims, even claiming in a radio interview that Exaltacion Marcos had drowned in his own vomit “as happens with drunks.” This was a distortion of the coroner’s exam, which stated the victim had died of asphyxia after his lungs filled with fluid following a severe blow to the head. [15]

Following the attack, the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), the organization founded by the father of Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu denounced the criminalization of Xinca leaders and the existence of an organized criminal group, tolerated by the State, but in fact paid by businessmen and landholders to assassinate indigenous leaders. [16] This is exactly the manner in which the “Memory of Silence” report described the emergence of death squads in the 1970s. [17] CUC and the forum of European non-governmental organizations in Guatemala issued a statement condemning a series of recent murders of indigenous and union leaders as well as the criminalization of the leaders of Santa Maria Xalapan. [18]

A 20-Year Struggle for Justice: Ending Impunity for Genocide and Building a Functional Justice System

Victims have waited more than 30 years to testify to the crimes that they survived.  After the formalities of initiating the trial on March 19, during five days more than a dozen people managed to testify each day.  Most spoke in Ixil, with translation to Spanish.  Many wept as they described the murder of their parents, young siblings, and infant children, who were shot, hacked, and burned to death.  They described torture, rape, and the burning of homes and crops.  They recounted their survival hiding in the mountains and burying their loved ones, who died of hunger. They spoke of infants suffocated by their mothers to silence their cries so they would not be found by passing soldiers.  The presiding judge in Rios Montt’s trial, Jazmin Barrios, over the past two weeks has thanked witnesses for their testimony, apologizing for the length of time they had to wait to present it.  One man ended his testimony, “We want justice, so that our children will never live through what we lived.”


It has now been almost 12 years since the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), an organization of survivors, formally presented a complaint against Rios Montt and his high command for genocide and other crimes against humanity committed during his de facto presidency (March 1982- August 1983).  Four Mayan ethnic groups that were victim to genocide by the Guatemalan army, the Ixil, the Rabinal Achi, Kanjobal of San Mateo Ixtahuacan, and Chimaltenango K’iche presented one joint complaint in 2001.  Much later the four genocides were separated into distinct cases. [19]

While the three pending genocide cases prepared by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action of Guatemala (CALDH) have yet to be brought to court, Rios Montt is also currently formally charged with genocide in the Dos Erres massacre case that the Association of Families of the Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) has pursued for about 15 years. [20] More cases involving charges of human rights abuses promoted by other victim’s associations, such as the Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of the Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achi (ADIVIMA) are also pressing forward. [21]

Before the charges were presented, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) had spent about eight years preparing the complaint. More than a dozen lawyers and dozens of human rights activists contributed to building the case.  Given the levels of repression, at first, a large part of the team was compromised of internationals. Over time, the team became almost all Guatemalan. But, the survivors were always the driving force demanding and constructing measures of justice, naming the criminals, commemorating massacres, building monuments and even museums, advancing criminal cases against material authors, and even confronting Rios Montt in a town square during his failed 2003 presidential campaign. All the while the nation remained largely controlled by the authors of crimes against humanity.

CALDH workers and volunteers traveled between regions and collaborated with the survivors of human rights abuses in each community to piece together the evidence. They took testimonies, gathered birth and death certificates, located witnesses and mass graves, initiated legal complaints, located forensics experts to conduct exhumations, documented the chain of command of the perpetrators, and found military operational plans and reports.

The cumulative impact of these efforts is an overwhelming collection of evidence demonstrating that the governments of Rios Montt and his predecessor General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia had carried out acts of genocide under orders from Rios Montt and Lucas Garcia (ruled July 1978 to March 1982).  Though charges were presented against Lucas Garcia by CALDH and AJR in May 2000, he died in Venezuela in May 2006 without ever having been brought to trial. [22]

Even with a huge mass of evidence gathered during 16 years of investigation and placed into prosecutors’ hands, the Public Prosecutor’s office did not initiate serious investigations until 2008, when a series of cases that challenged the impunity enjoyed by the military, police and businessmen began to move forward.  The shift was clearly the result of years of efforts to purge the justice system of influence by clandestine networks. [23]

An International Movement for Justice Helped, but International Justice Forums are Limited

A series of five U.N.-backed missions assisted in Guatemalan research and investigation efforts aimed at bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice.  The United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), comprised of between 320 and 520 lawyers, anthropologists, and police, spanned 10 years of investigating, from 1994 to 2004. [24]  Within the context of MINUGUA, the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, “Blue Helmets,” deployed a three-month mission of slightly less than 140 police and military to oversee the demobilization of military backed civil defense patrols (PAC) and the URNG guerrilla movement. [25] A U.N. backed truth commission was carried out between 1997 and 1999. [26] Upon MINUGUA’s closure in 2005, an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was established. [27] In 2007, the U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) was created, a unique effort in which international lawyers act as an independent special unit of prosecutors within the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute networks of corruption within the State; its mandate extends through 2015. [28]

The Inter-American Court for Human Rights condemned the State in nine cases of extrajudicial executions or forced disappearances and three massacres, ordering the State to pay compensation and investigate the crimes. [29] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is currently examining many more similar crimes. The Court and IACHR cannot rule on individual responsibility, just on the responsibility of States that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights that establishes the Inter-American System for Human Rights (IASHR).  Currently, the IASHR is under review by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States with particular concern expressed that the United States and Canada have not ratified the Convention and are not subject to proceedings in the Court. [30]

The Menchu Foundation lodged a genocide complaint in Spanish courts, which had used the principal of universal jurisdiction to initiate prosecution of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. [31] The case has been slow to advance and the Spanish court’s application of universal jurisdiction has been subject to significant backlash.  The George W. Bush administration applied political pressure on Spain after an investigation was launched into Bush’s responsibility for the use of torture. [32] A State Department cable published by Wikileaks implicated that the current ambassador to Guatemala, Arnoldo Chacon, had discussed actions against Garzon with Spanish officials while Chacon was Charge d’Affaires in the U.S. embassy in Madrid. [33]

Economic Motives for Genocide Continue Today

It appears that many of the same military officers, who participated in crimes against humanity are benefiting from some of the mining and hydroelectric projects being advanced today.  In the 1980s, land grabbing was a characteristic of the genocide, especially in Northern Guatemala, where military officers amassed large plantations, a problem that still has not been addressed. [34] Most of Guatemala’s mineral and hydrological surveys were undertaken through international development assistance procured by the military regime in the 1960s-1980s, when the military controlled the National Geological Institute and National Electric Development Institute. [35] Today local businessmen partner with transnational investors, who are backed by free trade laws and privatizations promoted in the 2000s.

The onslaught of investment interests is resulting in conflicts throughout the country.  Communities in Santa Cruz Barrillas rejected the Canbalam hydroelectric dam, promoted by the Guatemalan corporation Hidro Santa Cruz. This corporation is reportedly partially owned by the Spanish corporation Ecoener Hidralia Energia, which enjoys funding from the Norwegian mezzanine investment fund, Norfund. The May 1, 2012 murder of a community leader and the resulting protests led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the area. Subcontractors of the dam were arrested for the murder. [36] Since 2008, residents of San Juan Sacatepequez have denounced that a death squad, run by two retired colonels, began operating after a community consultation rejected a cement mine in their territory promoted by Cementos Progreso, at that time partnered with the Swiss cement giant Holchim. [37] Communities resisting the Marlin goldmine in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, San Marcos, since it entered the area in 2004 have been subject to murder, violence, and threats. [38] In 2007, during forced evictions on behalf of a then Canadian-owned nickel mine in El Estor, Izabal, a number of women were raped.  On September 27, 2009 a local teacher, Adolfo Ich, was murdered. Witnesses blamed the mine’s head of security, retired Colonel Mynor Padilla, who was arrested three years later. [39]  A precedent setting civil case against HudBay is moving forward in Toronto. [40] These are just a few of the many cases, where communities have reported that local security forces and officials have been complicit in human rights abuses related to corporate energy and mining interests.

As this repression grows, the United States has increased its security assistance to Guatemala and the region under the framework of the “war on drugs.”  The New York Times on May 5, 2012 quoted Colonel Brown, commander of the Joint Task Force-Bravo based in Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, “By countering transnational organized crime, we promote stability, which is necessary for external investment and economic growth,” pointing out the relationship between the ‘drug war’ and external investment. The day Santa Maria Xalapan leader, Roberto Gonzales, was kidnapped, Assistant Secretary Brownfield from the U.S. Department of State was in nearby Honduras, signing security cooperation agreements, where death squads reportedly embedded in the police and military are acting against human rights and political activists across the country. [41]

Multilateral Banking Institutions Complicity in Genocide

On March 20, 2013, a representative from the Rio Negro community of Rabinal visited the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington. The Rio Negro community was victim to genocide between 1978 and 1982, including five massacres, forced disappearances, torture, assassinations, and displacement. These crimes were the result of the peaceful resistance by the community to the Chixoy dam project, according to the U.N. backed truth commission. [42]

The World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank financed the Chixoy Dam in the 1970s and 1980s, while a military regime ruled Guatemala. According to a recent report by Jubilee UK, external loans to the regime grew as gross human rights violations grew. Loans more than doubled between 1976 and 1979, when the country entered a period of massive repression, and then again more than doubled between 1980 and 1981, as the genocide campaign was launched. [43] During the genocide, military intelligence agents drew their salary form the National Electrical Development Institute and the National Tourism Institute’s bank accounts, two government agencies supported by multilateral banks. [44]

As World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank recent funding of palm oil companies reported to be associated with death squad activity in the Aguán region of Honduras demonstrates, the banks have not taken any effective measures to ensure the projects that they fund do not contribute to gross human rights violations, even after the Chixoy Dam experience. [45] The World Bank funded Goldcorp’s Marlin gold mine in Guatemala in 2004, a mine that has destroyed with violence and displacement the Maya Mam communities. Tahoe Resources, the company Xinca leaders had challenged on the day of their abduction, has announced it plans to access a $50 million USD loan facility in the first half of 2013, though it is unclear from what source. [46]

The advances in the construction of a functional justice system in Guatemala  and that system’s ability to prosecute genocide cases are being put to the test in the courtroom where Rios Montt must listen to the testimonies of the survivors of his heinous crimes. Justice is also being put to the test in indigenous communities where repressive networks are once again terrorizing people who are still trying to rebuild their lives.  It seems that “Genocide Never Again!” may only become an enduring reality if the international actors that backed the governments engaged in genocide also face some measure of justice.

 Annie Bird, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Co-Director of Rights Action

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.

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[1] “Se abre el juicio por genocidio en Guatemala: Entrevista a Claudia Paz y Paz,” Internatiional Center for Transitional Justice, March 19, 2013, (note: reference appears in the introduction in the audio version of the interview which is not transcribed online).

[2] Boche, Evelyn, “Tensión en Jalapa tras asesinato de líder xinca,” El Periódico, March 19, 2013,; Villatoro, Dani, “Asesinan al secretario del gobierno indígena de Santa María Xalapán,” Plaza Pública, March 18, 2013,;  “Annual Information Form for the ended year December 31, 2012,” Tahoe Resources Inc., Reno, Nevada, March 7, 2013,

[3] Tz’Inil Na’Tab’Al, “Guatemala Memory of Silence,” Commission for the Historical Clarification Conclusions and Recommendations, Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,

[4] “El Informe REMHI,” Guatemala: Nunca Mas, ODHAG: Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, pdf file,

[5]“Movilizando la memoria: a 10 años del REMHI,” ODHAG: Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, April 8, 2008, Guatemala,

[6] Mejía, Carlos, “Se reanuda juicio contra ex militares,” Siglo21,  April 2, 2013,

[7] Willard, Emily, “Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemalan President-Elect, with ‘Blood on his hands,’” Unredacted: the national security archive, unedited and uncensored, November 14, 2012, (note: author interviews conducted between 2000 and 2007 with genocide survivors in the Ixil area indicate that Perez Molina was a commander of the outpost in Nebaj).

[8] “Repudia la ola de violencia desatada contra los líderes de la comunidad de Santa María Xalapán, Jalapa,”CONGCOOP, March 18, 2013,

[9] “Líder comunitario de Santa María Xalapán relata su secuestro,” Emisoras Unidas 89.7, March 21, 2013,; Author interview, name withheld for security, March 19, 2013.

[10] Author interview, name withheld for security March 19, 2013.

[11] Associated Press, “200 U.S. Marines join drug war in Guatemala,” CBS News, August 30, 2012,

[12] Nairn, Allen, “C.I.A. Deathsquads,” The Nation Magazine, April 17, 1995.

[13] “Líder comunitario de Santa María Xalapán relata su secuestro,” Emisoras Unidas 89.7, March 21, 2013,

[14] Author interview with CUC staff, March 19, 2013.

[15] “Líder comunitario de Santa María Xalapán relata su secuestro,” Emisoras Unidas 89.7, March 21, 2013,

[16] “Pronunciamiento ante el secuestro y asesinato de líderes comunitarios de Santa María Xalapán,” Comite de Unidad Campesina,  March 18, 2013,

[17] Tz’Inil Na’Tab’Al, “Guatemala Memory of Silence,” Commission for the Historical Clarification Conclusions and Recommendations, Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,

[18] El Foro de ONG Internacionales en Guatemala (FONGI), March 21, 2013,

[19] Author interview CALDH activists, 2013,

[20] Vásquez, Byron Rolando, “Tribunal rechaza recurso a Efraín Ríos Montt,” Prensa Libre, February 20, 2013,; Vásquez, Byron Rolando, “Familiares de víctimas de genocidio presentan apelación en caso Dos Erres,” Prensa Libre,  June 27, 2012,

[21] Author interview with ADIVIMA representative, March 21, 2013.


[23] “Primer Juicio por Genocidio en Guatemala: Un Largo Camino Recorrido,” CALDH,

[24] Secretary-General, “Minugua-Final Report,” Wikisource, March 18, 2005,

[25] “Guatemala Minugua Facts and Figures,”United Nations,; Guatemala –Minugua Mandate, United Nations,

[26] “Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio,” Programa de Ciencia y Derechos Humanos de la Asociación Americana del Avance de la Ciencia, La Comisión para el Esclaracimiento,

[27] “OHCHR in Guatemala,” Office of the High Comissioner for Human Rights,

[28] “Mandate Agreement to Establish CICIG,” The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, 2013,

[29] “Casos Contenciosos,” Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos,

[30] “Conferencia de Estados Parte de la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos,” Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Comercio e Integración,

[31] “El Caso de Genocidio en Guatemala,” The Center For Justice and Accountability,

[32] Abend, Lisa, “Crusading Judge Faces His Own Trial in Spain,” TIME Magazine, April 7,2010,,8599,1978412,00.html; Borger, Julian and Dale Fuchs, “Spanish judge to hear torture case against six Bush officials,” The Guardian, March 28,2009,

[33]  Rosenberg, Carol, “WikiLeaks: How U.S. tried to stop Spain’s torture probe,” The Miami Herald, December 28, 2010,

[34] “Historia de Guatemala,” Comité de Unidad Compesina,

[35] Johnston, Barbara Rose, “Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Document Review: Chronology of Relavent Events and Actions,” Center for Political Ecology, March 17, 2005,

[36] “Estado de situación de la Libertad de Expresión en Guatemala 2012: Luces, Sombra e Incertidumbres,” Centro de Reportes Imformativos sobre Guatemala,; “Hidro Santa Cruz,” Central America, Norfund,

[37] Winters, Patrick, “Holcim Sells Thai Guatemalan Cement Assets fro $410 Million,” Bloomberg, December 21, 2012,; “Manifesto del Pueblo de las Doce Comunidades Kakchiqueles de San Jauan Sacatepequez en turno a la crisis ocasionada por cementos progreso y el gobierno de Alvaro Colom,”, San Juan Sacatepéquez, June 2008,

[38] “Guatemala: Exigimos el cierre de la Mina Marlin en San Marcos,” No a la mina, March 22, 2006,

[39] “Capturan a teniente coronel señalado de presunto asesino,”, September 26, 2012,

[40] Gray, Jeff, “Lawyer touts ‘breakthrough’ in HudBay lawsuit,” The Globe and Mail, February 25, 2013,

[41] “EEUU mantiene apoyo a policía Honduras,” El Nuevo Herald, March 28, 2013,

[42] “Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio,” Caso Ilustrativo No. 10: Masacre y eliminación de la comunidad de Rio Negro, Anexo 1: Volumen 1,

[43] Dearden, Nick and Jubilee Deby Campaign, “Generating Terror,” Jubilee Debt Campaign, December 2012,

[44] Schirmer, Jennifer, “The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy,” University of Pennsylvania Press, December 27, 1999.

[45] Mills, Frederick B., “Honduran Death Squads Murder Peasants in the Bajo Aguán Valley: Reflections on the Bird Report,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, March 6, 2013,

[46] Tahoe Resources, Inc., April 3, 2013,