SANTIAGO - The soldiers killed and beheaded an old woman, recounted one of the witnesses in the trial of Efrain Rios Montt, retired army general and ex-President of Guatemala. Then the soldiers used her had as a soccer ball in an impromptu game.
That might have been the most shocking testimony in the genocide trial against Montt, but it was certainly not the only disturbing story. Montt is accused of being responsible for the torture, rape and systematic killing of more than 1,700 indigenous Mayas whom he accused of supporting the armed insurgency against the government.
Montt came to power by a military coup in 1982 and was deposed by another military coup in 1983. Once he was overthrown, the dictator became a member of parliament – something that happens in Guatemala and in other, much richer Latin American countries like Chile – and in the 1990s, ran for president twice. Now he is facing a trial that is 30 years late.
But, it's better late than never. The trial against Montt has attracted international attention because it is the first time in history that a former dictator has been on trial for genocide in his own country. Whatever the court rules, it will serve as an international precedent, and if Montt is convicted it will be a warning to dictators around the world.
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A 2006 demonstration against Rios Montt in Guatemala - Photo: Firetreo
In Guatemala, Montt is only one of a long list of de-facto presidents who took power from each other or overthrew democratically elected leaders in the nearly 40 years of civil war there, which left more than 200,000 dead between 1960 and 1996.
There are many more who could be brought to justice, including the current president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina. In the trial against Montt that began this week, one of the witnesses implicated the current president in the killings of indigenous people that took place when Montt was in power. The witness said that Molina coordinated the burning and pillaging of a small village.
All of this is not just bad news. Even the fact that Montt is being tried in his home country, prosecuted by a Justice Department that takes its work seriously and before a court that has every indication of being independent shows how much the country has advanced in political and institutional infrastructure in the past several years.
No news is good news
Guatemala and the other politically turbulent countries of Central America – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – captivated world attention in the 1980s and 1990s, when the violence between governments, paramilitaries and guerrillas left dead bodies left, right, and center. But the civil wars ended in the 1990s, democracy has been established and since then the only news from the region is about hurricanes and earthquakes.
No news is good news. Between 1995 and 2012, the GDP per capita in Guatemala rose from $3,300 to $4,300 per year. The life expectancy at birth rose from 62 years to 71 years. The average schooling of the population rose from 3.1 years to 4.1 years. El Salvador – a much more educated country with less income disparity – has seen similar improvements. Even the two poorest countries in the central America, Honduras and Nicaragua, have seen major increases in the per capita GDP and reductions in the number of people living in extreme poverty, defined as the number of people living on less than $40 per month.
The problems are far from over, of course. Extreme poverty has not gone down in Guatemala, where 13% of the population has been living on less than $40 per month since the 1990s. And the decades of civil war have taken their toll throughout Central America. Honduras has the highest per-capita homicide rate in the world, with 91 homicides per 100,000 residents. The silver medal in murder rates goes to El Salvador, while Venezuela takes third. Guatemala comes in with the sixth-highest murder rate in the world, after the Ivory Coast and Jamaica. Even richer countries in Central America like Belize, Panama and Costa Rica pull their weight with high murder rates, enough to make Central America the most violent region in the world.
In spite of everything, today there are democracies in the region, institutions of civil society and all of the Central American countries have been growing economically for the past decade. And now Guatemala is giving the world a lesson in justice. Who would have ever thought?