As Rios Montt Trial Nears End, a Look Back at U.S. Role in Guatemala’s Civil War

BY Jenny Marder  May 10, 2013 at 1:56 PM EDT

José Efraín Ríos Montt inside the courtroom where he is being tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. Photo by Xeni Jardin.

Update: 2:50 p.m. ET | After seven weeks of testimony, a verdict may be reached today on the trial of Guatamala’s José Efraín Ríos Montt, who is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, reports Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, who co-produced a PBS NewsHour piece on the subject that aired this week. She is in the courtroom, covering the trial.

That report, by NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien, focused on the role of science in the trial, namely how anthropologists use forensics to search for evidence of genocide committed during Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule, a particularly violent phase of the country’s 36-year civil war. The scientists’ process includes analyzing skeletons from clandestine graves, grinding up teeth and bones to extract DNA and poring over satellite images of the Guatemalan countryside captured before and after Ríos Montt’s rule. Watch the full report here:

Miles O’Brien reports on the role of science in the trial of former Guatemalan leader José Efraín Ríos Montt’s genocide trial.

We also have an inside look from Jardin at the reporting and wrenching interviews she and O’Brien conducted with indigenous Mayans, who say they were victims of the regime’s violence.

During the production of the piece, we dug into the vault and found this in-depth MacNeil/Lehrer Report video from Oct. 25, 1982 on the violence and instability across Guatemala and the actions of Rios Montt.


Gavin Hewitt from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports from Guatemala in 1982 on violence and instability across the country under the Rios Montt regime.

We also found this MacNeil/Lehrer Report piece from Nov. 30, 1983, on the debate over the U.S. role in Guatemala. It was filmed just after the Reagan administration announced the end of a five-year embargo on military shipments to Guatemala, citing human rights progress and claiming that Ríos Montt had been given a “bum rap.” You’ll see in these interviews a split between U.S. administration officials and human rights organizations.


A 1983 MacNeil/Lehrer Report on the debate over the U.S. role in Guatemala.

For example, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Eliott Abrams tells Jim Lehrer that political killings in Guatemala had reduced under the Rios Montt leadership, from hundreds a month to 40-50 a month and calls that “considerable progress.”

“We’re not suggesting the number of 40 or 50 a month is good, but it’s a lot better,” Abrams says. “And we think that kind of progress has to be rewarded and encouraged.”

But human rights groups, which did not support the lifting of the embargo, along with some members of Congress told a different story: one of kidnappings, refugees and massacres by government forces.

This for example, came from Robert Goldman from Americas Watch Committee.

“Rios Montt is a dictator who came in with all these promises, and yet, what did he do?” Goldman says. “He abolished all press freedom. There’s less press freedom now in Guatemala than there has been for the last 30 years. No political parties are allowed. No union activity. Search and seizure without warrants are conducted. A three-man military tribunal can sentence anybody to anything, including death.”

It’s an interesting debate to watch in light of the trial still taking place. We’ll be posting updates on the trial in the coming days and weeks and following Jardin’s coverage from the courtroom.

QUICK BITES

  • Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, “a long-feared milestone,” the New York Times reports today, calling it “a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the rate of increase has accelerated since the measurements started, from 0.7 ppm per year in the late 1950s to 2.1 ppm per year during the last 10 years. Previous to the Industrial Revolution, the global average of carbon dioxide levels was at about 280 ppm.

  • This 14-year-old’s science project shows that the iPad2 may pose a risk to heart patients. Gianna Chien’s study found that magnets used to attach the iPad’s cover may “turn off” the automatic defibrillators some patients use to restart their stopped heart. The high school freshman, whose father is a doctor, presented her results at California’s San Joaquin County Science Fair in March and came in second place.

  • Could a massive “data hole” off the Somali coast be due to pirates? Research in anthropology, plate tectonics, plankton evolution, and climate change, among other areas, has all but stopped throughout hundreds of thousands of miles of the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa, National Geographic reports.

  • Do you think you know more about science than the average American? Take this Pew test and find out.

  • This animation from the Guardian shows every meteorite since 861 AD.

  • A record-setting blast of gamma rays from a dying star in a distant galaxy has wowed astronomers around the world. The eruption, which is classified as a gamma-ray burst, produced the highest-energy light ever detected from such an event, NASA reports.

  • This very simple, fascinating graphic shows where we register on the geologic time scale.

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

From Science News: “Human ancestors living in East Africa 2 million years ago weren’t a steak-and-potatoes crowd. But they had a serious hankering for gazelle meat and antelope brains, fossils discovered in Kenya indicate.”

Tom Kennedy, Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.