Guatemala: Let the judgment of Ríos Montt continue


((La Jornada photo by Blanche Petrich))

((La Jornada photo by Blanche Petrich))

Iris Yassmín Barrios interviewed

[Translation of an interview from La Jornada of Mexico City for July 31, 2013. See original here.]

By Blanche Petrich

In a middle-class neighborhood in Guatemala, the capital city, three National Police patrol cars are parked permanently across from a black metal entrance. They are guarding a judge, Iris Yassmín Barrios, whose task it was last May 10 to deliver the following ruling in a courtroom, before the traditional sounding of the gavel:

“That the accused, José Efraín Ríos Montt, is guilty of being the perpetrator of crimes against humanity and of genocide against the lives and the integrity of the civilian inhabitants of villages and settlements located in Santa María Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal and San Gaspar Chajul. For this crime, he is to be sentenced to 30 years in prison with no chance of parole.”

Despite the security deployed outside, the house is small, very modest. The doctor of jurisprudence who ruled on the charges stemming from events that had taken place 31 years earlier in the Ixil region of Guatemala lives there with her mother. The verdict took on historical proportions: no magistrate had ever acknowledged the crime of genocide and sentenced a former head of state to punishment of this magnitude.

But it was also a fleeting verdict: ten days later, with the approval of three magistrates and the opposition of two others, the Constitutional Court (CC – Corte de Constitucionalidad), the highest judicial body in Guatemala, overturned the ruling, alleging procedural errors.

Many legal experts hold that the CC went beyond its jurisdiction and that its ruling was illegal. But at the pinnacle of economic, political and military power there was a sigh of relief that impunity had been restored.


Blanche Petrich –Nothing less than the first conviction for genocide of an ex-head of state by a domestic tribunal. Were you making history at that moment?

Iris Yassmín Barrios –I was just making justice.

That day…

I left home early, as usual, very aware of my actions.

Did you have your speech ready?

No, because the procedural code establishes an order for our work and we judges do not deliberate until the arguments have ended. It was only when I struck the gavel, ending the session, that my fellow judges (associates Patricia Bustamante and Pablo Xitumul) and I retired to deliberate in secret. From nine until four in the afternoon we drafted the sentence, which we read in an abridged form.

*   *   *

From the small living room – ceramic elephants on the coffee table, pink crochet covers on the armchairs, plastic flowers in a household altar in the dining room and the pale green walls covered with her academic degrees – we can hear that the water for tea is ready in the kitchen. The judge gets up to prepare it.

Faced with propagandistic harassment by the traditional communications media, who attacked her from every possible angle, Yassmín Barrios retreated. She withdrew from continuing to judge the case and refused dozens of requests for interviews from domestic and international newspapers. Until now, when she talks at length with La Jornada.

*   *   *

Did you feel defeated after the reversal of the decision, which had culminated the Ixil people’s 15-year effort to reach a national court?

No, not at all. All told, the trial was an advance for Guatemala, above all for its judicial system. In the midst of the bombardment and the media campaign that was launched, we managed to demonstrate that judicial independence does exist here, that we have committed judges, responsible and with integrity, and that we know the law.

Do you consider yourself satisfied with the fact that in this country there has been an opportunity to deliver a sentence for genocide like yours, that the general has spent at least a weekend in a jail cell?

It’s not a matter of personal satisfaction. This should be looked at from a different point of view. The opportunity presented itself for the victims to take action within the trial. The constitutional guarantees of the accused were respected. And on May 13, after the sentencing, a hearing was held on reparations for the victims and the tribunal proceeded to perform an analysis of the petitions by the complainants and to make due reparations. And it should be said, they did not ask for economic reparations but they were much more fundamental.

We demonstrated that Guatemala, with all its economic and political deficiencies, has the capacity to carry on a debate that was observed by many legal specialists throughout the world, who verified that the strictest standards of justice were upheld in this court.

What comes next? When will the trial resume?

It is not known. That is one of the questions the Constitutional Court left pending.

You have excused yourself from continuing hearing the case. Why?

The court ordered that the debate be suspended until April 19. We cannot accept illegal orders. According to our judicial ordinance, that would not be possible because a ruling has already been issued, we cannot go back in time, act as though nothing had happened. That is not ethical or correct and it is not feasible procedurally.

In the new phase of the trial, if it should resume some day, will the testimony the victims have already given be accepted or are they going to have to travel to the capital from their villages again to testify?

It is sad but I think the victims will have to return, for one reason: the judges who come to court cannot issue a ruling if they have not heard the parties involved. The court annulled it all.

The defense attorney for ex-dictator Ríos Montt, Francisco García Gudiel, threatened in the midle of the trial that he would not rest until he saw you “behind bars.” How do you see your future?

I see myself working, holding hearings, which I enjoy a lot. Currently I am substitute magistrate for the Supreme Court and I do not know if it is in God’s plans that I will be named a full magistrate next year.

Meanwhile, the media campaign against you goes on. They even criticize your hair style, they make sexist comments, they say that you got through the university in the nighttime…

That is not true. I graduated with full honors, with the highest grades. And in the masters that I earned, too, one in penal law, the other in constitutional. And in the doctorate as well. And as for the beauty salon… Well, I happen to like it this way, a natural style.

*   *   *

The Gerardi Case: Her encounter with history

One night before the beginning of the trial for the assassination of Monsignor Juan Gerardi in 2001, Judge Barrios’ home was attacked with grenades. One of them exploded in the patio of the small dwelling. “We were right here, at this table. We were going to eat supper, my mother and I, just after eight. A terrible noise, the smell of gun powder. It was an attack.”

It was a sleepless night. “I ran to put on my rosary. I asked sweet Jesus not to let anything happen. I called the police and asked for support, I called the press. I was extremely angry. I thought, ‘If they are going to kill me, let them kill me but first they are going to listen to me.’ And the next day I arrived punctually at the courtroom for the hearing.”

If they were attempting to intimidate the judge of one of the iconic crimes of those years — Gerardi had just days earlier filed the report “Guatemala: Nunca Más” by Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI) on the atrocities committed against the civilian population during the war – they did not succeed. The trial continued and finally the judge delivered her sentence: 30 years in prison for a priest and two soldiers charged with assassinating the bishop and human rights defender. The postscript to this trial was tragic. First the Appeals Court tried, unsuccessfully, to annul the sentence, which was rejected by the Supreme Court. Then the punishment was reduced in another court to 20 years. Later, ten witnesses or participants in the murder plot were assassinated, including one of those sentenced, Sergeant José Obdulio Villanueva, found guilty of planning the execution from the office of military intelligence of the army general staff, decapitated during a prison riot. Currently, the only one still in prison is Captain Byron Lima Oliva Juan, close to current President Otto Pérez Molina.

That trial, according to Judge Barrios, was her “encounter with history.” Her life changed. She had to sell the small car she had been using, she had to accept the escorts who are with her on every side, she lost her independence. But, above all, she learned the history of her country. “It was really beginning at that point that I began to know well documented things that had happened during the war. And I understood deeply that there will never be peace if there is no justice.”

*   *   *

If you paid such a high price for being the judge in the Gerardi case, what did you think two years later when you were given the case of Ríos Montt, with much greater repercussions?

I didn’t think about the consequences because I believe that a judge should be free of prejudices and preoccupations at the time of judging. Just as I did not consider the consequences when I judged the case or Myrna Mack, that of the Salvadoran PARLACEN representatives who were assassinated, that of the Sacatepéquez girls, that of the Dos Erres (a massacre in Petén in 1981), many drug trafficking cases, including several Zetas in Zacapa, in 2011.

*   *   *

Iris Yassmín Barrios always went to public schools. In order to pay for her legal studies, she worked at the University of San Carlos. She does not come from an environment of human rights struggles nor did she see directly the effects of the armed conflict that went on during her student years.

She entered law school precisely the year that General Ríos Montt took power in a coup d’état. While the army was applying its scorched earth policy in the rural areas, Yassmín was living in the capital, “as though in a bubble,” she says. At the university she “didn’t take part in any movement except for studying.” The truth is that an entire generation of student leaders and critical academicians had been eliminated by military regimes, that of Ríos Montt and the preceding ones. Her student years were marked by “silence, withdrawal, and besides, here in the capital there was a great censorship of the press. The war was far away… It is a shame that it was much later that we learned what was happening.”

Nevertheless the most paradigmatic crimes of the war passed through the courts where she was functioning as a judge. Not only the case of Monsignor Juan Gerardi but also some from the REHMI report, the case of the assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack.

“I got out of the university just as the human rights reports were beginning to be known. And I passed the exam in the first competition for sentencing judges a little after the peace accords were signed. My position is a result of merit and fortunately I can act, think and be coherent.”

*   *   *

And she crossed paths with Ríos Montt

How did the Ríos Montt case land in your hands?

In early February the case came to High Risk Sentencing Court A, where I work.

*   *   *

The two soldiers accused by the attorney general, José Mauricio Rodríguez and Ríos Montt himself, challenged the appointment of this judge with the argument that she had already known the case of the massacre in Dos Erres, Petén. But the challenge was not accepted because it concerned a different act and persons and places.

Since the trial began on March 19, the defense opted for a strategy of attacking the jury. Currently, Barrios has more than a dozen challenges pending.

But it was the first one that was later to be used to annul the historical sentence. The incident occurred on the first day of arguments, when Ríos Montt’s acredited lawyers did not appear and in their place appeared lawyer Francisco García Gudiel, who was not duly registered, who had a long history of service to the military. He demanded Judge Barrios’ dismissal, alleging “personal hostility.” The judge expelled him from the courtroom. That was the first procedural blow meant to obstruct debate.

For a month, despite the defense’s efforts at obstruction, the public hearings went on in an overflowing courtroom, transmitted live to all the world. More than a hundred survivors of the massacres in the Ixil region passed through, relating, to the distracted face of the old general (Ríos Montt is in his eighties), the consequences of the military orders he gave to exterminate them: children and old people torn to pieces, girls and women raped to death, summary executions, hearts torn out, piles of bodies, villages burned… two percent of the Ixil population of those days exterminated; the rest, displaced and persecuted. They brought to the stand experts in forensic anthropology, in statistics, in psychology, in military law, in history, in anthropology. They submitted as evidence declassified military documents of the time. What was described was genocide inspired by the racism inherent in the upper echelons of Guatemalan power.

On April 18, the trial, which had shaken up pubic opinion, ended suddenly. A judge in a lower court, Carol Flores, managed to suspend the trial temporarily, alleging that there had been previous appeals that had not been dealt with. After struggles on several fronts, Judge Barrios managed to resume the hearings on May 7 and began the concluding phase. “That was one of the most beautiful moments because we demonstrated the independence of the judiciary, we did not obey illegal orders and we did not annul the trial.”

*   *   *

Genocide revealed to the world

What does this trial leave you with at the professional and personal levels?

Besides tranquility, many things. It was a very rich trial. At the cultural level, the opportunity the Ixil had as an ethnic group to introduce themselves and make their rights count. The simple act of introducing themselves, of standing up and speaking, of saying what they had not been allowed to say for so many years, was like a liberation, especially for the women. I could not express my opinion or show my feelings at that moment, out of duty, but I was aware of that deep pain.

It opened the eyes of the world because genocide is an important crime that matters for all of humanity. It was an important trial for lawyers and non-lawyers who followed the arguments, for academicians, for students of law, of history, for the population in general.

It had a great richness in jurisprudence because there was such a quantity of consequences and procedural obstacles that offered the opportunity to broaden our criteria and offer many solutions, and all that was not behind closed doors but in public hearings.

The work of the experts was at the highest level. Seldom have we had the opportunity to have a such a select group of experts in the courtroom, with such valuable knowledge. The forensic anthropologists, the psychologists, the experts on racism, on the psychology of victims. What was achieved was to place before the court, for its judgement, a period of Guatemalan history, from March, 1982, to August, 1983… just a small piece of a 36-year armed conflict.

One detail of secondary importance from that May 10 is still making a noise in the local media. The local television has repeated endlessly the image of the judge shouting the order, with no microphone, that prevented the condemned from leaving.

Was there that danger?

Yes. The security of the courtroom was my responsibility. When I stood I saw how they were trying to remove him from the room. Then I gave the order to stop him. But since they had turned off the microphone, I had to shout. I said, “He cannot leave until the people in charge of transporting him to the penitentiary arrive.”

When the police took Ríos Montt away under guard, already sentenced, did your role end?

No, we had five days to draw up and issue the complete sentence, because until that moment we had only read the basics. Everything was included in 718 pages of the sentence.

We delivered it on May 17 at 1:00pm, on time. And on Monday, May 20, in the evening, the annulment was handed down by the Constitutional Court.

Did you see it coming?

Honestly, no. They told me it would happen, but I still believe in justice. And I still judge people based on my nature, so I believe that others are honorable and act according to the law. So it was a surprise. I respect the decision of the Constitutional Court but I don’t share it.

Were the magistrates pressured?

I can’t say but the annulment occurred after three days of sessions held by the CACIF (Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras), which is the group that wields political and economic power in our country.

Minutes after our ruling, this group had declared its opposition, in the press and on the social networks. One thing is related to the other. The vote was three to two.

*   *   *

With all the information that came to light during the trial, a single event continues resonating in the communications media as a “major error” by the judge in the most emblematic case the country has seen so far, when she stood, to applause, to shouts of “thank you” and the looks of open gratitude from the indigenous people who simply lowered their heads before her, she stood and crossed her arms over her chest, as in a great embrace.

The defense accused her over that gesture of showing partiality; that lawsuit is still in the works. Yassmín laughs: “To salute and respond when someone thanks you is simple courtesy, isn’t it? That is not illegal.”

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