GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - For nearly 30 years, Efrain Rios Montt evaded trial for massacres carried out during his military rule in Guatemala’s civil war - until a diminutive, soft-spoken woman entered his life.
Since Claudia Paz y Paz became Guatemala’s attorney general 18 months ago, the former dictator’s retirement has been disrupted by efforts to make him answer for the most brutal part of the bloodiest armed conflict in modern Latin America.
In January, at the behest of her office, a judge ordered Rios Montt be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity, but the case has been held up as his lawyers lodge appeals. His opponents fear the 85-year-old general may never take the witness stand if his legal team can continue to stall proceedings.
Last week, however, another probe led to a court setting a second trial for massacres the state perpetrated under Rios Montt’s watch during 1982 and 1983.
Rios Montt denies the charges against him, saying that he did not control battlefield operations and that each commander was responsible for making decisions in his own post.
But by putting him under house arrest, Paz y Paz has sent a message that Guatemala will prosecute human rights atrocities from a 1960-1996 civil war that killed a quarter million people and left deep scars in the Central American nation.
Civil war cases that stalled for 15 or 20 years are also moving forward. Last year, in the first-ever prosecution for a war-era massacre, a court sentenced four soldiers to 6,060 years in prison for killing 201 people in 1982 in the town of Dos Erres.
Army special forces killed nearly every resident of the town - including women and children - with guns or sledge hammers and throwing them into a well.
More trials with similarly long sentences have followed.
“Claudia Paz y Paz has been a savior for Guatemala. We have seen sentences that we thought were never before possible in our country,” said Blanca Hernandez, a human rights advocate whose son was detained by security forces and never seen by his family again. “Now Rios Montt faces genocide charges. Her work has been incredible.”
Paz y Paz’s efforts to shed light on Guatemala’s troubled past have made her enemies, who accuse her of pandering to the whims of leftists seeking revenge for the wartime suffering.
Former soldiers and their family members have attacked Paz y Paz, saying she has focused too much on past crimes, politicized the judicial branch and shown bias against the armed forces.
“Because of her background, she has let special interest structures grow within the attorney general’s office and she caves in under their pressure,” said Telesforo Guerra, a lawyer who successfully defended ex-president Alfonso Portillo against a Paz y Paz bid to prosecute him for embezzlement last year.
Her office has rejected the claims and says her work is carried out in strict accordance with the law. It also points out that she is also confronting illegal violence in the present by going after drug traffickers in league with Mexican cartels.
With 39 homicides per 100,000 people today - nearly eight times the rate in the United States - Guatemala is one of the world’s most murderous countries, and Paz y Paz is dealing with both current and long-buried crimes on a shoestring budget.
Since her tenure began in December 2010, Guatemala’s homicide rate has dropped 5 percent and the number of cases resolved has nearly doubled in just a year.
After overhauling investigation procedures and improving training for prosecutors, Paz y Paz presided over a record 5,000 convictions for serious crimes last year.
“We have tried criminals who once thought themselves to be untouchable,” the short, stout 45-year-old woman with curly hair said recently. “The level of impunity in our country is embarrassing. But we have made advances in Guatemala once thought impossible.”
One of four middle-class daughters, Paz y Paz studied law at a private university as the civil war drew to a close and worked as a legal advisor to the archbishop’s office on human rights, which took testimonies from victims of army abuses.
The project’s director, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered in 1998 shortly after its findings were published.
Paz y Paz grew up among staunch leftists, and was appointed attorney general by former center-left President Alvaro Colom.
Guatemala’s civil war pitted leftist guerillas against the state, and more than a quarter million people were killed. A United Nations-backed “truth commission” found that the vast majority of abuses were committed by the army.
Considering her liberal background, many thought Paz y Paz might lose her job with the election last November of Otto Perez, a right-wing retired army general who commanded troops during some of the worst years of the civil war.
But Perez, 61, the first military man to rule Guatemala since democracy was restored in 1986, has said Paz y Paz can serve out the rest of her four-year term, despite worries he might seek to hinder the trial of former comrades.
Guatemala is under international pressure to punish those responsible for wartime atrocities, and Perez promised during his election campaign to stay out of the genocide cases.
Victims hope that he will honor that pledge if Rios Montt takes the stand as scheduled in August.
Soldiers and paramilitary groups under Rios Montt’s command allegedly committed massacres, raped women in public squares, beat children to death and hurled the dead into clandestine graves, where unidentified victims have become known as ‘XX’.
Rios Montt has used congressional immunity over the past decade to fight off attempts by Spanish prosecutors to try him.
But he lost his seat in Congress in September, and in barely a week Paz y Paz’s team had him arrested for the charges it had built up working with victims’ rights groups.
In her simple office, Paz y Paz has a framed picture of Robert Kennedy, the crusading U.S. attorney general who fought for civil rights in the 1960s. Kennedy’s run for the U.S. presidency was cut short in 1968 by an assassin’s bullet.
Paz y Paz cut her own $9,200 monthly salary by nearly 20 percent and pressured Congress to grant her office a bigger budget.
Facing international pressure to bust up Guatemala’s vast networks of organized crime, Paz y Paz has stepped up investigations and prosecuted dozens of drug traffickers.
In February, Guatemala ruled two of the country’s top drug kingpins would be extradited to the United States. On her watch, five of the top 10 most wanted criminals have been caught.
Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Kieran Murray and Philip Barbara