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

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.


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

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