PBS Premiere: June 28, 2012Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

In 1999, Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú filed a lawsuit in Spanish Supreme Court against six Guatemalan military leaders (including Efraín Ríos Montt) and two police officials linked to killings in Guatemala during that country's civil war.

The Spanish national court is a leader in applying the international legal concept of universal jurisdiction, with roots in the U.N. Genocide Convention, which holds that some crimes, such as terrorism and genocide, are so egregious that if they are not tried in the country where they occurred, they may be tried anywhere. A famous example of universal jurisdiction was Israel's decision to try Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, and the arrest warrant that the Spanish National Court issued for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

In June 2006, Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz went to Guatemala to begin an investigation into the genocide case, but he was repeatedly obstructed, making it impossible for him to gather testimony. He returned to Madrid and issued international arrest warrants for the eight military leaders and police officials named in Menchú's lawsuit.

While the Guatemalan courts initially accepted the warrants of three of the eight officials, even that acceptance was rescinded in December 2007, with the claim that Spain did not have jurisdiction to prosecute Guatemalans.

Judge Pedraz proceeded with the case, however, and the first hearings took place in Madrid on February 4, 2008. Witnesses included survivors, journalists, experts, forensic anthropologists and eyewitnesses of the killings.

Spain has a strong national interest in seeing the perpetrators of the Guatemalan genocide brought to justice. The 1980 assault on the Spanish embassy in Guatemala by the Guatemalan police left 39 people dead; during the course of the civil war in Guatemala, several Spanish priests and religious workers serving in Guatemala were assassinated.

Photo caption: Military occupation of the Guatemalan highlands, 1982. The 1998 Truth Commission concluded that the Guatemalan Army committed genocide against the Mayan population.
Credit: Jean-Marie Simon

» Center for Global Studies:. "Prosecuting Genocide in Guatemala: The Case Before the Spanish Courts and the Limits to Extradition."
» National Security Archive. "The Guatemala Genocide Case."
» International Law Update. "Constitutional Court of Spain Rules That Its Courts May Hear Genocide Cases Even If They Do Not Involve Spanish Citizens, and Holds That Principle of 'Universal Jurisdiction' Takes Precedence Over Alleged National Interests."
» Nairn, Allan. "Guatemalans Seek Redress in Spanish Courts." The Nation, February 25, 2008
» Roht-Arriaza, Naomi and Almudena Bernabeu. "The Guatemalan Genocide Case in Spain." Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies. Center for Latin American Studies, Fall 2008.
» Valladares, Danilo. "Ríos Montt to Stand Trial for Genocide." The Guatemala Times, January 30, 2012.

Evidence being used in the case includes hundreds of declassified U.S. and Guatemalan documents that detail the activities of Guatemalan security forces. One of the key pieces of evidence is the 359-page collection of Plan Sofía records, which document the military's use of scorched earth operations in Guatemala's Ixil region and will be used by the prosecution to prove the criminal responsibility of senior government and military officials, including Ríos Montt.