Genocide charges, mistrials and one filmmaker's fight for justice in Guatemala
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Genocide charges, mistrials and one filmmaker's fight for justice in Guatemala

Guatemala’s former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt was carried into court on a stretcher earlier this month. Accused of committing genocide in the 1980s when he ruled as the country’s de facto president, the now 88-year-old former general is undergoing health checks to determine whether or not he is well enough to face a retrial. Two years ago, he was found guilty of ordering the killings of 1,771 Mayans, but the verdict stood for only 10 days before being overruled on a technicality by the Constitutional Court.

“Ever since I filmed these Generals in 1982, I’ve wanted to see them pay for their crimes,” says documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates.

In 1982 Yates went to Guatemala, accompanied by a fierce determination to unmask a hidden war. Her resulting documentary, Cuando las Montañas Tiemblan (When the Mountains Tremble), captured some of the only footage of Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war and revealed that the Guatemalan army was killing Mayan civilians.

Three decades later, lawyers prosecuting an international genocide case asked Yates to comb through material from her film for possible evidence to build a case against Ríos Montt, who had spoken to her on camera. However, the case fell apart in 2001 when Guatemala’s Constitutional Court blocked a Spanish arrest warrant, meaning Ríos Montt could not be brought before the court in Spain.

Yates decided to make a sequel to her internationally renowned film. This one featured her trawling through boxes of 16mm film, searching for evidence for lawyers to use against Ríos Montt, and following Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú to Spain as she initiated a court case against the war criminals.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is part political thriller, part memoir, introducing undaunted Guatemalans like Antonio Caba Caba, who have never given up on their quest to uncover the truth – despite their own government’s attempts to conceal it.

Caba Caba survived one of the worst massacres of the Guatemalan civil war. He was 11 years old when 250 army officers attacked his rural village, Ilom, at 5 a.m. and killed 95 people.

“They ordered the survivors to dig a grave and made us walk past the bodies and look at them. Some people saw their parents lying dead,” says Caba Caba.

In 2013 the case against Rios Montt went before a Guatemalan judge and made history when it became the first time a former head of state had been prosecuted in his native country for genocide. However, less than a fortnight later, the Constitutional Court once again stepped in, and annulled the verdict.

“I agree with the people most affected by the genocidal acts committed by Ríos Montt, that the original trial, verdict and sentencing are still valid,” says Yates. “The second trial is just Ríos Montt’s defense attorneys continuing to deny, delay and place legal obstacles in the path of justice ever being obtained. They hope to delay until Ríos Montt dies, so that he will never have to see the inside of a prison cell again.”

Granito went on to win a host of awards, including Best Creative Documentary at the Paris International Human Rights Film Festival. Last year, it was awarded the Britdoc Award, but the case against Rios Montt is still not over.

“I believe that the search for justice is justice. And that the courage of all the survivors who came forward to testify proved to be an excellent acknowledgement of their suffering,” says Yates.

“The story of what really happened in the early 1980s in Guatemala, the role of the state and security forces, is now on the record, the historical narrative has changed, and the construction of the genocide case on the part of the prosecution and the survivors (querellantes adhesivos) will be read, studied, emulated and discussed for years to come.”

Yates is currently working on the third film in her Guatemalan trilogy, called 500 Years, about the effects of the Ríos Montt genocide trial in emboldening indigenous communities to act in non-violent resistance.

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