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

In Context

Also in 1999, massacre survivors and their Guatemalan legal advisors first brought a criminal complaint against Ríos Montt for genocide in the Guatemalan courts. While the national justice system remained paralyzed in a case that touched the highest echelons of power, people gathered evidence and built the legal case nationally and continued to bring witnesses and evidence, including a number of highly incriminating documents, before the Spanish court. After a long-time human rights activist became Guatemala's attorney general and Ríos Montt lost immunity due to his term in Congress coming to an end, the Guatemalan court finally took action. In January 2012, Ríos Montt was ordered to stand trial in a Guatemalan court on charges of genocide and placed under house arrest with bail set at $65,000.

Filmmaker Pamela Yates filed this report from Guatemala via cell phone on January 26, 2012:

A Dictator in the Dock

A culmination of decades of work by the victims and survivors of the Guatemalan genocide forced former general Efraín Ríos Montt to appear in court Thursday for a hearing to decide whether there was enough evidence to take him to trial on charges of genocide.

The prosecution spent hours presenting overwhelming evidence in the form of military documents, exhumation reports and photos linking Ríos Montt directly to hundreds of deaths and disappearances. Surviving family members, Ixil Maya in traditional dress, crowded the standing-room-only courtroom in stunned silence. Some wept.

Outside the Justice Palace, in an open area now named Human Rights Plaza, hundreds more watched the proceedings on a huge screen.

The defense's case asserted that Ríos Montt did not command his army officers' counterinsurgency campaign and should not be held responsible.

But after hours deliberating, the judge ruled to prosecute Ríos Montt on charges of genocide, and to place him under house arrest with a $65,000 bail set.

The crowd broke out in cheers and sent firecrackers into the air in loud celebration.

This is a huge victory for the victims and survivors of the Guatemalan genocide, human rights defenders and the lawyers' efforts worldwide.

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. The document was smuggled out of a secret military archive and given to Kate Doyle (featured in the film) of the National Security Archive in 2009. After months of analysis and authentication, Doyle turned "Plan Sofía" over to the Guatemalan prosecutors as well as the lawyers in the Spanish case.

Photo caption: The recently discovered Archives of the Guatemalan National Police that detail forced disappearances and murders of opponents to the military dictatorship. Over 80 million police documents were uncovered here.
Credit: Dana Lixenberg

» National Security Archive. "Operation Sofia: Documenting Genocide in Guatemala."
» North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) , "The Pursuit of Justice in Guatemala" by Kate Doyle
» PBS. "Blog/POV Films."
» Willard, Emily. "Genocide Trial Against Ríos Montt: Declassified Documents Provide Key Evidence." Unredacted, February 2, 2012.