Field Notes: Constitutional Court of Guatemala v. Montt

An Effective and Knowledgeable Commander



Tribunal: Constitutional Court of Guatemala
What Crimes: Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity including murder, torture, sexual violence and forced displacement
Who: Jose Efrain Ríos Montt, President of Guatemala, 1982-1983
How: Command Responsibility (and Ordering)


In 1982, a young filmmaker named Pamela Yates went to Guatemala to make a movie about the ongoing genocide of Guatemala’s indigenous people. While there, she was given the rare opportunity to sit down and interview then President Ríos Montt. Part of his interview appeared in her award-winning film titled When the Mountains Tremble.

Twenty-five years later, one of the attorneys investigating President Montt learned about the interview and asked Yates if she still had the full, uncut interview. Yates went to her storage unit in New Jersey where she embarked on what she described as an archeological dig through 25-year-old outtakes of 16mm film and 1⁄4-inch audiotape.


Proving Command Responsibility

In order for prosecutors to secure a guilty conviction, they needed to prove that President Montt had:

  • Effective command and control over the forces that implemented what is now referred to as Guatemala’s “scorched-earth” military policy;
  • Knowledge about the activities of his forces; and
  • Failed to stop his forces from committing crimes.

Keeping this in mind, read the transcript below from a one-minute clip of the film, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. This film is Yates’ follow up project about the unexpected role that her footage from 1982 played in the genocide case against President Efrain Ríos Montt.

In it, Yates stands with one of the prosecuting attorneys, watching and discussing the rediscovered footage of Yates’s interview with President Ríos Montt on June 2, 1982

Transcript of Clip

Yates: What would you say to the charges that the army is massacring peasants in the highlands?

President Montt: I would say I believe in freedom of thought.

Yates: Is there repression by the army?

President Montt: There is no repression by the army. Our strength is in our ability to make command decisions. That’s the most important thing. The army is ready and able to act, because if I can’t control the army, what am I doing here?

In this clip, President Montt admits everything the lawyers need to prove. That is, he had “effective” command and “knowledge”. After watching Yates’ interview with President Montt, the prosecuting attorney explains how Montt’s statements demonstrate that, “[H]e controls the entire army. He gives orders and everybody follows. That he knows exactly at all times what the army is doing. And that if he’s not able to control the army, what kind of commander is he?”

The legal term for this type of evidence is “prima facie” evidence, because it is direct proof of two of the three elements of command responsibility: i) effective command; and ii) knowledge. The lawyers still had to prove the third element, failure to act, and corroborate his interview with other evidence. In non-legal terms this is “smoking gun” evidence. At trial, this video clip served a key piece of evidence assisting the prosecution in proving President Montt had effective command and control over his military forces and he knew what they were up to.

Take Home Points

We can learn a number of lessons from this story.

  1. First, preserve valuable footage as it can be useful years — if not decades — later.
  2. Second, while footage of the commission of crimes is certainly valuable, footage that helps us figure out “Who” committed the crime and “How” they did it can be even more critical.
  3. Third, linkage evidence won’t often be the footage that makes the nightly news, but it can be invaluable none-the-less.
  4. Finally, as the media landscape continues to evolve, some leaders may be more cautious about publicly boasting, while others may utilize video or social media to share their “successes”. So, whether it’s using footage shot by you or an ally, or finding a telling video on Facebook or Twitter, it’s important for activists and investigators to explore various platforms that might lead to clues that link remote commanders to crimes.

For More Information

Skylight Pictures produced a 23-episode short film series that takes you inside the courtroom to watch Ríos Montt stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in Guatemala. To preview some of the episodes of this historic trial, visit Dictator in the Dock: Genocide on Trial in Guatemala.

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