Former U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide in a historic trial. He was the first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide. Ríos Montt was sentenced to 50 years in prison for genocide and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity for overseeing the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Mayan region after he seized power in 1982. His co-defendant, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, his former head of military intelligence, was found not guilty.
What makes this even more notable, believe it or not, is that this is the first time a state has pulled off this legal feat, not an international court. Guatemala’s Judge Yassmin Barrios also handed down the max penalty for the real crime, not a watered-down one.
Other Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil and Argentina were also ruled by cruel military despots in the 1970s and 80s and some leaders and officers were convicted for abuses.
But this is the first time an outright genocide conviction has been handed down in the region.
Activists say the verdict is also historic because this is the first time anywhere in the world that a court has found a country’s head of state guilty of genocide — a systematic attempt to eliminate an entire group of people for racial, religious, political or other purposes.
Other genocide convictions, like those stemming from Rwanda’s orgy of ethnic violence in 1994, were handed down by international courts.
PBS also compiled a number of its own reports since the 1980s, including the execrable Eliot Abrams, in which the convicted dictator’s ties to the United States and the science behind the judicial investigations are examined.