Central America / Politics
“The Guatemalan army had every right to execute the necessary actions”
JOHAN ORDONEZ

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José Luis Sanz

El Faro published this interview in Spanish on April 23, 2013.

Zury Ríos has the physical features as well as the ideological imprint of her father, General Efraín Ríos Montt. She is the heiress to his politics, and served as his star deputy at a time when the post-war ballot boxes smiled down upon their party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). In 2013, when this interview was conducted, Ríos Montt was facing charges of genocide in Guatemalan court and was not speaking to the press. Zury Ríos was the closest anyone could get to the thoughts of her father, who died in 2018.

In the month leading up to this interview, Zury Mayté Ríos Montt was also her father’s most steadfast supporter in the courtroom. Nearly every hour of every day, she sat in the front row of the hearings listening, just a few feet from the bench where her father stood accused, to the staggering succession of stories of death and torture recounted by the nearly one hundred Maya Ixil witnesses and victims who testified face-to-face with the ex-dictator. Like her father, Zury Ríos appeared unmoved.

Perhaps this was because she had already read the report from the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), which had found that 93% of the massacres committed against civilians were perpetrated by the army, and that 83% of the victims were Indigenous. Certainly, she was aware that all sides had not acted equally during the war, just as she was aware that all Guatemalans had not suffered equally, and just as she was aware that forensic examinations had disproven the claim that most of the Maya Ixil women, elders, and children killed by her father’s government had died in the heat of combat. They were slaughtered in cold blood, and Zury Ríos knows it. Just as she knows that according to every investigation conducted, the children whose remains were recovered from mass graves were not combatants; they were children. But none of this matters to her. In Zury Ríos’s telling, there is no room for such inconvenient details. Her responses are like a downpour of liquid reasoning in which names and facts dissolve like sugar.

With some interviews, the interviewer might choose to avoid interjection and confrontation — to let the interviewee’s thoughts flow smoothly in an attempt get closer to what that person might tell their children, their friends, their closest colleagues. This is one of those interviews: a journey through the thoughts of a woman who viewed the trial against her father as an unjust attempt at revenge, who denies the genocide, and who downplays the massacres, arguing that the Army was simply doing what needed to be done “to protect the state.” A person who, in the name of maintaining the myth of a united Guatemala, undivided by ethnic differences —“I don’t think we need to see ourselves as either Indigenous or non-Indigenous'— and propelled by a vague and narrow notion of national interest —“to be seen as a genocidal country is a stigma that we won’t be able to shake for generations”— asks the victims to forget.

Zury Ríos lives in a discrete but luxurious home in Guatemala City’s Zona 15. Her wood-paneled office is plastered with photographs recounting her legislative career — pictures of her standing next to heads of state of every ideological creed, diplomas for her educational achievements in political science. On one wall, there is a golden plaque featuring a small map of Guatemala, made from fabric composed in colorful Indigenous motifs. It is a gift from the Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones de Extensión de Cobertura (CONEC), thanking her “on behalf of the 800,000 families in Guatemala’s poorest and most neglected communities” for defending their access to health care. Like her father, Zury Ríos has supporters and followers from Guatemala’s broken and beaten-down Mayan population. And like her father, she believes that this fact washes away the past.

Looking around the courtroom, one gets the impression that General Efraín Ríos Montt has been left to fend for himself.

In politics, people judge you by what you do, by what you don’t do, and even worse, by what people think you do. But you get used to making decisions one way or another, and you get used to groups changing their minds about your record in a given political position. My father is unbroken. He’s a devout man and both he and my mother are holding on to God and trusting in Him, because above the highest judge there is always a higher one, and He is the only one that matters and the only one who truly knows what is in the hearts of men and women. This is just a trial, and my mother always told me that you should never be afraid of jail, or of the hospital, because you could end up there any day. You have to view life in practical terms, otherwise you’re lost. This is a legal process — a flawed one, unfortunately, with a totally biased court, but it’s just a process. Any person who has taken up the challenge of participating in public life will have to face one at some point in his or her life.

Former Guatemalan dictator (1982-1983), General José Efraín Ríos Montt, testifies on May 9, 2013 while on trial for the crime of genocide. Ríos Montt was found guilty, but the Supreme Court ordered a retrial citing procedural errors. He died before a second trial could take place. Photo: Johan Ordóñez/AFP
 
Former Guatemalan dictator (1982-1983), General José Efraín Ríos Montt, testifies on May 9, 2013 while on trial for the crime of genocide. Ríos Montt was found guilty, but the Supreme Court ordered a retrial citing procedural errors. He died before a second trial could take place. Photo: Johan Ordóñez/AFP

Why do you say the process is flawed?

The court is totally biased. Look at the attitude of its president [Yassmín Barrios] and the other two men, who have no opinions other than the ones she tells them to have. She’s totally compromised… We saw it in the Dos Erres case and in the Gerardi case. When she judges military officers, she conducts herself in a biased way. Now she’s biased against us, and I understand that, since neither I nor the general voted to confirm her as a Supreme Court justice when she was a candidate. I even lobbied for her not to be a magistrate. Which is why there’s so much enmity between us, haha.

You could have requested to remove her.

She has an interest in hearing this case. And furthermore, why the rush? Why this interest in speeding up the trial? In other cases, she’s held sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays… but never past 3:30 in the afternoon. But this time she has us in court until seven at night, and the other day until eight, in spite of the fact that General Rodríguez Sánchez is in delicate health. Her treatment of us is tainted with an ideology of revenge.

Revenge against members of the military?

Yes, against the military. And in this case, I know that she is specifically out to get me and the general.

Your father’s lawyer says this trial is ultimately one against the Guatemalan army.

That’s correct.

On whose behalf?

On behalf of those who failed at the competitive life of the country and who want to live off the post-war state of affairs. Left-wing intellectuals don’t care about this trial, nor do the leftists who took up arms. None of this is coming from the progressive left. Their children are the ones who are concerned about the trial, the young people who saw it all through the eyes of their parents or grandparents, and who are making a living off of the post-conflict fallout. They write letters to Americas Watch, to Human Rights Watch, and those groups send them money. That’s how they make a living. In this country, there are more NGOs than corporations, because people can live off of the donations they raise. The reason Rigoberta Menchú cares so much about General Ríos Montt is because for her he’s a source of income.

And the Ixil? And the victims?

The Ixil voted for General Ríos Montt in huge numbers. Out of the seven total congressional seats in Quiché, they gave the FRG five. We won more votes than any other party in the department. That was the real trial! General Ríos Montt has already been judged politically, not just once but many times! He had the largest representation in Congress and served as representative because of those votes, and in the last election, which he lost, he came in third place, not fifth, sixth, or seventh, as Menchú did. And the Ixil people voted for this party, the ruling party, which is the party of the military.

That does not erase what happened.

I don’t deny that every war has some drama and some tragedy, because that would be to ignore the reality not just of Guatemala, but of the world. But those who have come forward to testify are from communities in resistance, from the groups that went to the mountains, recruited by the guerrillas. Put yourself in the context of the time: Geographically we were the backyard of the United States, with a tremendously strong Soviet bloc that financed Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico… and here we were, providing the dead. The challenge was tremendous: the official troops, with a large number of Indigenous soldiers, Ixiles, Queqchíes, Quichés… At no time was our purpose ever to destroy for reasons of religion or ethnicity.

But the numbers speak of thousands of Ixil dead. 

You talk about the Ixil people… I went on a political tour with General Ríos Montt to Chajul, to Cotzal, and to Nebaj, and since we couldn’t arrive on the day we were scheduled to, we went the next day, and I remember that when we arrived, the children, the women, and the men looked at us, and the people had gathered in the plaza without knowing we were going to be there, because we hadn’t arrived on the day were scheduled to. An Ixil woman took the microphone, with her grandmother, and I won’t ever forget it, because I was young and new to politics, and obviously, this was the first time I had been there and I really wanted to hear what people had to say. And this woman said: “Ríos Montt, people say that your hands are stained with blood, but you gave us life, and that is why we are here.” That had an impact on me… the people in the plaza, with their grandparents, with their elders. And not because we were there to give them handouts… It was remarkable. Who’s going to vote for their own executioner? Who helps their executioner become President of Congress, and then helps them become a candidate for president of the country? You were talking earlier about being alone… The fact is that the people who sympathize with General Ríos Montt are working people, not people who are paid to sit in the courtroom or to protest outside. People come here bringing champurradas, cakes… people we don’t even know… “General, I’m with you, I’m so sorry.” General Ríos Montt is not alone.

Politically, he is. A trial like this would have been impossible five years ago. Has the map of interests changed? Has Ríos Montt lost any support?

No. This is happening because those people who live off the conflict, off the aftermath of the war, have lost the ideological battle and all their political opportunities, because time and time again, they go to the polls and they lose… Look how many representatives they have now: one. And hardly any mayors. So, they dedicate themselves to making little footholds in the justice administration agencies, in the Public Prosecutor’s Office especially, and to a certain extent in the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. And from there, they triangulate their operations. 

Even so, all of that happens through the parties, through the space of politics. It’s not possible to get into the Prosecutor’s Office without a certain correlation of political forces.

The Attorney General [Claudia Paz y Paz] was chosen by the former President of the Republic [Álvaro Colom], whose wife was a guerilla. And they carry out their operations with the help of countries like Norway and Sweden, which don’t want any competition in terms of mining, because they’re producers. When it comes to these issues, there are a lot of very fine interwoven threads, very difficult to see. And it worries me, not because General Ríos Montt or General Rodríguez might be condemned, but because to be seen as a genocidal country is a stigma that we won’t be able to rid ourselves of for generations. How is it possible that we failed to learn our lesson from the case of El Salvador? There, they compete with political proposals, and the people decide who to vote for, but it’s not about vindictiveness and vengeance.

In your view, does this trial represent a failure of the Peace Accords?

It’s a threat to the culture of peace. While we’ve been at trial, there are women whose husbands, bus conductors, have been murdered, and they have yet to have a single audience before any court. In this country, 3,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 have given birth —and this is classified as rape— and tons of perpetrators have been arrested… but not even one hearing in court. Not to mention all the Zetas waiting to be tried as well… Where is the sense that we’re tending to the needs of the people as we drag out a 30-year-long process, despite the fact that we had a peace agreement, an amnesty, a national reconciliation? Where does all this get us? It’s just dividing us, polarizing us, encouraging us to be critical… rather than to build.

You say that the judicial system has been contaminated.

A part of it has.

In contrast, President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general himself, has publicly stated that he views this trial as a sign that the country is making institutional progress and strengthening the rule of law.

As president, he has said that independence of powers should be respected, but as a person, as a private citizen, he’s also said that there was no genocide in Guatemala. And his visit [on April 10, 2013] to the Ixil triangle demonstrates once again that this is being pushed by people who are being used by outside interests, employing paid witnesses, and choosing people from just one side who aren’t telling the story impartially.

Is Otto Pérez betraying his fellow officers or the political-military project of which he was once a part?

That’s something you’ll have to ask him, haha. 

Is the army divided on the issue of the trial?

No. Actually, members of the military who have been discharged, who are retired, they’re bothered by this sort of thing. And young people, too, because there is no respect for the institution, and like it or not, here in Guatemala, the army was in charge of running the government, for years. If it hadn’t been, we would have become another Managua or Havana, or Venezuela.

Is Guatemala a racist country? 

I don’t believe Guatemala is a racist country. Some people, not just in Guatemala, but all over the world, have had problems with racism, discrimination, stigmatization. Whether it’s because of color, social class, sexual preference… And not just people; sometimes even institutions. 

You don’t think it’s a major problem...?

Not of a country, no. You’re asking me: “Do you think Guatemala is racist?” and I’m telling you: No, just some people are.

I think you understand my question. I’m asking if there is an ingrained culture of racism.

Some people are. Some people. From a very young age, in school, kids tease each other that way; somebody does something wrong and they say to each other, “mira, no seás indio” [“hey, don’t be an Indian”]. That’s wrong, that’s a bad thing to say, a bad thing to be taught. I just read Pablo Monsanto’s statements about Rigoberta Menchú and he says: “Well, it’s easy to understand Rigoberta, because she’s an Indian, and she’s always full of resentment.” And that’s a guerrilla commander saying that, not me! Interesting. Some people think like that, I don’t know why. It all depends on how you’ve been brought up.

Danilo Rodríguez, your father’s lawyer, says that the defense is not denying the facts, the massacres, the deaths in the Ixil region, but contests the responsibility for those facts, and their scale. He describes them as “excesses.”

One cannot deny that in war, there are excesses. There were excesses committed by the insurgency and on the side of the counterinsurgency. But the notion that this was a state policy is false. That this was a genocide is false. 

What do you think is owed to the victims of these “excesses”? 

Obviously, in the first place, we need to support all the victims, not just one side, but also the other side. How many thousands of officers were killed? How many left behind widows and children? Or how many from the civilian population, who weren’t part of the resistance or on the side of the military establishment, but who were threatened, who were captu… kidnapped? How many people from the private sector were kidnapped? Justly executed, in the parlance of the subversive groups. First, we have to heal the heart. But who can help heal your heart, other than God? It’s an internal process, of inner health. But to be subverting, to be seeking out and feeding hatred and resentment, that isn’t building peace. Period. And now, where is today’s generation of kids headed? What are we encouraging? What are we doing to promote investment? What are we producing? How are we generating employment? How do we generate progress, international relations, cooperation? That’s the focus. That’s what we all have to work on. On restoring internally and restoring externally, so that we can build.

You make a distinction between the communities in resistance and the civilian population.

Well, many of the communities in resistance who went to the mountain were subversives, people cooperating with the subversives. On the other hand, there is another population that was actually a civilian population, who farm, who tend to their plot of land, who are threatened by the Army or by the guerrillas. We have to support them. Many of the people from Quiché [Department] said: “Well, I guess we all have to be leftists now, we all have to be subversives.” But it’s not like that. We have to be very careful in teasing out who’s who in the bigger picture. There are people who have testified: “No, I mean, I don't know who was involved in the war,” or “Yeah, there was a war, but whose war it was, I don’t know.” Of course they know! The fact that they don’t want to say so is another thing! Because many of them are the brothers of subversives, children of subversives, grandchildren of subversives. And their names are right there, in the books written by the subversives.

You talk about them as if they were all guerillas. But children died!

That’s right. And who recruited them? Who sent them to the front? And not just now or in this war, but all over the world. Who sent them to the front? Who recruited them irregularly?

And what, in your view, should have been done with them?

What did the law say? That it’s forbidden to take up arms for any totalitarian cause. What does the law say? That I can’t traffic drugs. What does the law say? That I can’t carry arms.

You speak of the law, but no one had a fair trial.

Ah, no, when I go to the United States, I keep off the grass, but here I walk over whatever grass I want. It can’t be! That’s why I want you to look at it from a global perspective: it’s written in the law, and everyone who led people along and took advantage of their ignorance to exploit their resentment and to commit crimes, well, that has a consequence. Look at the constitution that was in force, the 1965 constitution, which said that they [these movements] were prohibited and that the army had every right to execute the necessary actions. Just imagine. The Communist Party was prohibited! It was General Ríos Montt who opened up political thinking and swore in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. And who was it that appointed a Council of State where, for the first time, all ethnic groups were represented — all of them, not only the Ixiles, but all of them — in a Council of State where they had a voice and a vote? It was General Ríos Montt. And who developed projects to protect civil society, to support and accompany them, to generate jobs and production for them, to provide food for them? It was General Ríos Montt…

Did your father not know what was happening in the Ixil area, or did he know about it but didn’t want to or couldn’t stop it? I’m talking about the “excesses,” the massacres, the violence against civilians, obviously.

I’m not going to go into things that will have to be aired in court and that I think it’s up to him to answer. But I do want to say that in those days, our ability to communicate was not what it is today. And even less so, given our geography. It would take 15 days for information on what was happening in Quiché to reach here.

When did you find out what had happened in the war? How did it affect you?

I’m 45 years old now. In 1982 I would have been 13 or 14, but I always knew we’d gone through a painful process. I lost my own brother during the war. It was a painful process for everyone. But I haven’t spent my life poking around in the past… No, no, no. My life has been focused on building, on work. If you ask people on the left, you’ll know that as a congresswoman I actually championed issues that the progressive left would never dare to champion in this country, and if I’d had a different upbringing at home, I never would have done it, never. Just ask [women’s rights activist] Norma Cruz: she knows that it was me who always supported her and had her back. If Fundación Sobrevivientes [an NGO that supports women who are victims of abuse] exists, it’s because I supported it. And then there’s my work with UNICEF, and with other organizations, not just on foreign policy issues. People say, “Oh, yes, there is cruel and inhumane treatment in the prisons.” Well, who approved the international convention on cruel treatment and punishment in places of detention? I did. I understand, as a politician, the desire of these people to continue living in a state of post-war conflict, but it’s unacceptable for the new generations, it’s unacceptable for the Guatemala we want to build. And I’m not saying this because the general might be condemned; General Ríos Montt is 87 years old — how many more years could he possibly have left? The question is: how many more prosecutions come after this one? Not only against the military, but against the sugar cane growers, against the landowners, against the whole agricultural sector?

You’re afraid of the effects a conviction might have on these sectors? 

I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not afraid of anything but God almighty! Hahaha. But I’m worried about Guatemala. I’m worried that they will open hundreds of cases, which will affect families, people in the private sector, the country’s productive and industrial sectors, in the country’s agricultural sector…  Families, families.

Why do you expect prosecutions against members of the private sector?

Because there are articles, published all over South America, where they say that the private sector cooperated with the army.

Well, didn’t they?

That’s what the Left says. We have principles to defend. I believe in having respect for the law, for private property, for individual freedom. My conception of justice is “to each what he deserves.” I don’t believe in redistributive justice. And I’m concerned that all this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the trial, when they ask the witnesses: “What did you lose? How many huipiles did you lose? How many chickens did you lose?” I mean, why are we here? I thought this was a matter of justice, of the heart, of whatever… No, no, no! It’s a financial matter! It’s an issue of “let’s put a monument here to see how much we get paid later.” But no, that’s not it. Why didn’t Mrs. Menchú take her Nobel Prize winnings and distribute them among the people? Why don’t the international organizations, instead of paying for a thousand employees, go to Quiché and invest in the communities, so the people can work, or buy land that the people can use to form cooperatives, to work, to produce, or to build a hospital? Because they want people to stay ignorant forever. But it doesn’t work like that. The more people can make decisions over their own lives, and the more purchasing power they have to do it, the freer they are.

Do you think that in the aftermath of the trial there will be a fight for land?

I’m sure of it.

And that would be totally unfair?

In light of the arguments they’re using and all the manipulation, it would be totally illegal and inappropriate.

Why inappropriate?

Because they’re being incentivized. They’re not being persecuted; they’re just sowing discord to get what they want. They’re being manipulated. Because if you have a private title to something, it’s yours. And you do with it what you want: if you want, you give it away, you subdivide it, you cut it down, you plant it… or if you don’t want to, you don’t. It’s your property. “Oh, I don’t like what you’re doing, so I’m going to take it away from you.” No. “There’s a dead person under there, so I’m going to take it away from you.” No. “It was ours, it was a sacred place, so I'm going to take it away from you.” No. I don’t think so.

Is it not true that Indigenous communities lost their land?

We’d have to ask the Spaniards how they took it from them. We’d have to go back in time to find where the chain begins, haha.

That might be the solution, but what I’m talking about is the displacement that happened during the war…

That’s how it starts! But at the time they had the land, but then they sell it and go and drink away all the money they got for it. You tell me how that’s the fault of the new owner. Again, the issue is education. That’s why social programs generally don’t give land to a single individual, but to the whole community, because if they don’t, they’ll just sell the land, and sometimes it’s the women who plant and harvest it, and then the man pockets all the money to buy a pickup and doesn’t leave a penny for food. This is where education comes into play. Why is there malnutrition when cooperatives are earning so much? Because they don’t give their families money to eat!

And according to you this is more common in Indigenous areas?

Yes, this happens much more in Indigenous areas. They plant carrots, lettuce, which is something we export… but ask them if they ever eat carrot soup? They don’t eat it! Beans and corn… that’s it. There’s no educational guidance or support. It’s a problem of development strategies.

How does the future of Indigenous peoples, who represent an enormous percentage of the country’s population, fit into these development strategies?

The thing is, I don’t think we need to see ourselves as either Indigenous or non-Indigenous. Let’s work together! Look, my father had an Indigenous lawyer during the first part of the case… The point is that they should have the same opportunities as those who aren’t Indigenous.

In recent decades, have Indigenous people had equal access to opportunities in Guatemala?

What they haven’t had is education to exercise their citizenship as Indigenous people. The laws are there, but they don’t know how to exercise their citizenship as Indigenous people, and that’s what the previous governments have not wanted to address. This is in part why I’m a progressive, because I believe that we have to support and guide this movement and teach them how it’s done. So that their daughters can be teachers, can be doctors, mayors, congressional representatives, people who have their own thoughts and can make their own decisions.

*Translated by Max Granger

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