Guatemala Dictator to Stand Trial on Genocide Charges

Christiane Amanpour
Around the World

After a U.S.-backed coup ousted its democratically elected government, Guatemala, a small Central American country, endured a brutal civil war that lasted more than three decades, from 1960 to 1996. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans went missing and 200,000 of its citizens were killed during the conflict, mostly by state security forces.

Now, relatives of the victims have a symbolic victory all these years later. Just last week, a Guatemalan court ordered a former military dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The charges against the general are a direct result of what filmmakers captured in a 1983 documentary called “When the Mountains Tremble.” During Montt’s 17-month rule in the early 1980s, the dictator allowed a young woman, Pamela Yates, to accompany and film him on a helicopter mission as he led troops on a crackdown against leftist guerrillas in the Mayan highlands. “Granito” is a 2011 documentary about that original film and how the filmmakers were able to nail a dictator.

Christiane first spoke with one of the producers of “Granito,” Peter Kinoy, last summer. He explained how the interview with Yates led to Montt’s indictment last year.

“The most damning piece of evidence was the outtakes from this interview,” said Kinoy, referring to the 1983 film. “He turns to my partner Pamela and she’s been pestering him. She’s saying ‘You know, there are questions of the army doing the stuff in the countryside and repressing people and killing people in the countryside. What do you say to this?’”

Kinoy continued: “And he’s saying, ‘Absolutely not, I would never stand for that. Because if I can’t control the army, what am I doing here?’ And this is the piece that (the prosecution) played, among other pieces, at the hearing to decide whether there was enough evidence to indict him. He was admitting that he was in complete control of the army.”

Montt is now detained under house arrest. At a daylong hearing on the genocide charges, prosecutors described torture, rape and mass killings. After three hours, the judge asked the former dictator, now 85 years old, to respond.

“I prefer to remain silent,” Montt replied.

But for the former dictator, he may have already said too much.