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Dossier Thématique Amérique Centrale
Mémoire et identités centre-américaines

Judicial space and visual memory in the Ixil Trial (Guatemala, 2013)*

Rocío Zamora Sauma


Based on the 2013 trial of Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez for genocide and crimes against humanity in Guatemala, this article seeks to analyse the relationship between judicial space and visual memory. For this I work mainly with several photographs of Sandra Sebastian published online by Plaza Pública. Extrapolating from this specific case, I explore how the spaces in which oral hearings take place present architectural conditions that impact on the visual memory of the trials, and therefore, on the imaginaries of institutions of justice and their actors. I am interested in analysing this relationship with the concept that Linda Mulcahy has called the « dematerialization » and the rupture of the « unity of the drama of the trial ».

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  • * * This article is based on my doctoral research (2016-2020): « Bodies and archives in the Courtro (...)

Tragedy gives voice to what suffers in us and in others

Simon Critchley, Tragedy, The Greeks and Us, p.9

1On 10 May 2013 the Pentecostal and anti-communist former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan criminal court of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Maya-Ixil population. In addition to former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, his intelligence director José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez was also tried. However, he was acquitted the same day Ríos Montt was convicted. The Ixil Trial – as the process is also known – was held in the Sala de Vistas of the Palacio de Justicia of Guatemala (see Image 1).

  • 1 Reconstruction made by the Costa Rican artist Diana Barquero for my doctoral research.

Image 1. Sala de Vistas, Palace of Justice of Guatemala1

  • 2 I follow Nicole Loraux’s (1999, p.29) analysis of the Greek tragedy in La voix endeuillée. In he (...)

2After the public reading of the verdict, the scene of the condemnation enacted a sort of end of a historical tragedy2. The suffering of the Ixil people was recognized and punished by a national court. The audience chanted songs and encouraged the strength of the Ixil communities after being claiming for justice during the three decades since the genocide (1982-2013). The audience also applauded the work and strength of the President of the Tribunal, Yassmin Barrios, who had prevented the defence lawyers from strategically obstructing the process. The General himself was surrounded by the press who kept photographing him, trying to capture this historical moment. The Sala de Vistas was the scene of what the Greeks called an anagnorisis, this is the moment where they recognise the truth of what has happened, and therefore, a liberation or catharsis is produced. This scene seemed to promise that the historical verdict could break with the reiteration of violence and dispossession against the Mayan people that was re-enacted during the judicial drama. Finally, a former Guatemalan dictator had been convicted of the most serious crimes known in the history of Western justice, recommending the continuation of investigations of other people involved in the genocide.

  • 3 This article also appeared in the important compilation about this trial published by Routledge, (...)
  • 4 This name was coined by one of the opponents of the Ixil Trial, Raúl González Merlo (2013).

3This trial was an unprecedented event worldwide. According to J-M. Burt (2016: 144),3 the Ixil Trial was a ‘landmark’ for Guatemala and for the international justice movement, as it was the first time that a domestic court has prosecuted a former head of state for the crime of genocide. The trial located the category of 'genocide' as the axis of reading Guatemalan history through the mise-en-scène and the reenactment of the struggle of historical memory in Guatemala. In a country with high levels of impunity (BDH, 2016; Ramírez Gutiérrez & Rodríguez, 2015), where violence against Mayan communities has not ceased (Brett, 2016: 286; Sanford, 2016) and within a region that expresses little confidence in the institutions of justice (Pásara, 2015: XIV), revitalising the image of the judicial is essential to the realisation of the active role that citizens should play in legal practices. This milestone therefore generated high expectations in many parts of Guatemalan society: the trial was dubbed as the Juicio del Siglo4 (the trial of the century). Through public engagement and the important presence of media, the Sala de Vistas staged an event that went beyond any punitive functions of justice: it installed a reenactment of Guatemalan historical memory, acted by his own historical actors and in front of the media that have recorded and reproduced the event.

  • 5 Other processes are underway in other Central American countries, although a regional investigat (...)

4This same courtroom has been the scene of other important trials in Guatemala, including the 1998 assassination of Juan Gerardi (2001), the burning of the Spanish embassy in 1982 (2015) and the Sepur Zarco sexual violence trial (2016). The Transitional Justice trials currently underway in Guatemala5 have been fundamental in making visible the role of justice in contestations over historical memory. As the judicial space has increasingly become a location of social drama, the social roles and functions of the judicial come into focus. How different social actors are represented in these trials also contributes to the process of acknowledging and contesting the national narratives through which these actors and their roles have been constructed.

5This political task of representation in judicial proceedings must also be read within the scarce research focused on the history of judicial systems in the region. Certainly, a history of judicial space in Central America is yet to be written. This is confirmed by Mathew M. Taylor (2006), for whom « The quantity of research on the judiciary does not compare even remotely to the vast literature on presidents and assemblies, under either authoritarianism or democracy » (269). It is also important to consider that criminal justice reforms (Reforma procesal penal) in Latin America are still in development. According to the report by Elvyn Díaz (Fuchs et al., 2018: 226), in 1992 Guatemala was the first country in Latin America to begin implementing reforms that adopted the accusatory (adversarial) system. This system replaced the practices of the inquisitorial system - characterized by a scriptural tendency and bureaucratic practices. This reform was carried out precisely in a context characterized by the authoritarianism of the counterinsurgency and the anti-communist regimes (see the compilation by Taracena A. & García Ferreira, 2017). The accusatory system is defined by the principles of orality, publicity, immediacy and concentration, practices that seek to replace the paper trails and extended documentation that characterise the inquisitorial system (de Mata Vela, 2007: 26) with the physical presence and proximity of the parties implicated in the cases, as well as the audience. On the other hand, it is necessary to emphasise that these reforms were contemporary to the peace negotiations in Central America in the 1990s, where their implementation and improvement have accompanied the processes of Transitional Justice in the region until the present. In this light, the Ixil trial reflected the situation of the judicial system in Guatemala, as well as the forms of representation that this type of trial fosters.

  • 6 i Certainly, there are references to the construction of the « temples » of the Republic, as Samu (...)

6In the following, I am interested in emphasising the interrelationship between the visual memory of judicial rituals and the characteristics of the spaces where they take place. My work is part of a relatively new approach to judicial spatiality, which links the relationships between the design of court spaces and the fields of ideology, politics and ethnography (Anthony & Grant, 2016; Barrera, 2012; Bernard, 2015; Garapon, 1997; Kaufman, 1991; Mulcahy, 2011; Weizman, 2017). To my knowledge, there are no publications to date that focus on judicial spaces in Central America (i.e. histories of judicial architecture and practices)6. Although the Ixil Trial has aroused the interest of academics from various disciplines (Oglesby & Nelson, 2017), none of them analyse the agency of the courtroom space and there are few analyses of the role of the press (Casaús Arzú, 2019; Rivas Santizo, 2015).

7This article aims to introduce concepts from the field of judicial spatiality by analysing the relationship between the Sala de Vistas and certain images produced by Sandra Sebastián published in the Guatemalan press (Plaza Pública), taken on the first, penultimate and last day of the hearings (19 March, 9 and 10 May 2013). In the context of the Ixil Trial, this more importantly enables us to understand these images as both bound by the specific architectural conditions, as well as shaping the visual memory of justice and the role of society in the idea of justice.

Impunity lost, and found

  • 7 The National Security Doctrine describes the authoritarian and military politics staged by Latin (...)

8The former dictator ruled Guatemala between 23 March 1982 and 8 August 1984, in what is considered one of the bloodiest periods in the history of Latin America in the 20th Century. Pursuant to the National Security Doctrine7, the military plans Plan Sofía, Victoria 82 and Firmeza 83 were executed during this period (Molina Mejía, 2010). These plans worked as a military chronicle (with authorship from the Guatemalan Army) of the massacres, massive displacements, disappearances, among many other crimes. In spite of the denunciations made since the execution of the counterinsurgency policies that marked his mandate (Jonas & McCaughan, 1984), Ríos Montt continued to hold political office until 2012. During those years, he was member of the Congress and founded a political party (Guatemalan Republican Front, FRG), which upon coming to power in 2000 made Ríos Montt President of the Congress (2000-2004).

9Thirty years after being part of the triumvirate coup d’état that installed him at the head of the government, Ríos Montt finally in 2012 lost his parliamentary immunity and had to face justice. On 10 May 2013, he was convicted by the High Risk Court ‘A’ of genocide and crimes against humanity. Ten days later, the conviction was overturned by decision of the Constitutional Court. This move of the Constitutional Court was criticised as unlawful by many commentators, since it bypassed « the normal process for appealing the verdict » (Burt, 2016: 144, see also BDH, 2016). Despite this capitulation, it was the actions of the Ixil communities, human rights organisations and lawyers which produced a historic condemnation after three decades of impunity.

Performativity of the images of the Ixil Trial

  • 8 In De la Grammatologie, 1967, Derrida claims : « l’histoire de la métaphysique est l’histoire d’ (...)

10Derrida's conception of the performativity and the archive are useful for thinking about the context of justice, and precisely about the relationships between bodies and archives, and between space and visual images. Derrida’s understanding of the performativity and the archive places the question of the sphere of reproduction at the core of his extensive historical and philosophical critique of the ‘metaphysics of presence’8. Following his critique, the ‘presence’ is never completely present nor finished but involves a process of writing (écriture) and translation.

11From the perspective of Jacques Derrida (1993: p. 89), the « performative force » implies an interpretive force that transforms by interpreting (« que transforme ce qu’elle interprète »). It is this force that brings elements from other places to the legal scene, articulating them in this new conjuncture, i.e. the scene of war to the memory of a witness to the word spoken and translated, then registered by the audience or in the videos. This conception of the performative is close to another key concept of Derrida: his definition of the archive’s logic. That is to say, that the archive never functions hermetically nor fixe. Every archive conserves and at the same time institutes and transforms that which is conserved. The problem of the archive, Derrida claims (1995), is the problem of the outside, « Points d'archive sans un lieu de consignation, sans une technique de répétition et sans une certaine extériorité. Nulle archive sans dehors » (26).

12My approach to this ‘force performative’ of the archive – read from the interaction of human bodies and from documents (bones, paper, digital archives) in the Ixil Trial – contests the thesis dominant in the field of a certain generation of performance studies, which conceives of the logic of performance and the body as ontologically opposed to the logic of the archives and reproduction (Schneider, 2011: 94-96). Contesting this perspective is important to understand the different layers of historicity that haunt the presence (Butler, 1997: 3).

13Regarding the performativity of trials, judicial performances is already functioning in the terms of reproduction. This means that the genocide trial in Guatemala not only transports the stories of the past to the present of the Court via the witnesses who have kept those stories in their memories and in their bodies, but also, that the images and videos of the trial transport what happened in the Court to us, who witness again the images of the witnesses. These translations of context are central to the logic of the archive and performativity; without this double bind, performance will be void and archives dead. That space of the memory of the trial is precisely its condition and also its future as it is transformed into an image. The task left to us, the readers, is to interpret the force left by the recordings of the trials.

  • 9 « the existence of a common and the divisions that define the respective places and shares in it (...)

14The layers of historicity can be analysed by drawing attention to the theatricality of the scenes. The attention to the performativity of judicial spaces illustrates the interrelation between aesthetics and politics, as Jacques Rancière (1998) highlights. For Rancière, politics performed through a distribution of the sensible (partage du sensible), that is « l’existence d’un commun et les découpages qui y définissent les places et les parts respectives » (12)9. In a trial, there is a distribution of the relations, functions and hierarchies of the actors involved. This distribution is related to the Code of Criminal Procedure (Código Procesal Penal) that enable « the judicial ritual » (Garapon, 1997).

15How this social distribution works depends on the enforceability of the judicial ritual and the reactions of the performers (parties, judges, witnesses, experts, audience). It is also determined by the different national, historical positions held by various social groups involved in the trial. For example, the role given by the Guatemalan State to the Mayan communities in relation to their own social organisation and production, and the way they refer to the state (see Tzul Tzul, 2018). These conditions, which go beyond matters of criminal law, have an impact in the distribution of the sensible, of what can be seen, heard or understand. The structure of the judicial space sets up historical representations of the actors of justice, which are performed in images, as we will see in Sandra Sebastian photographs.

16It is in this sense that the images of the Ixil Trial transport the force of the event, reproduce moments of the process from its technical conditions, articulating it with other elements. The images function as a point of intersection of textualities, visual and mental images that are not necessarily contemporary to the moment in which the event occurred. Rather, they demand the inquisitive gaze of their viewers. The immediate presence requires a more complex montage. Didi-Huberman (2000: 16) defines this as an « montage de temps hétérogènes formant anachronismes », a concept that is useful for thinking about the historical density that mediates the images of this trial. In turn, this is linked to the idea of spatiality suggested by Henry Lefebvre (2000). From his perspective, judicial spaces would not be considered as empty structures where the law is applied, rather they are social spaces that foster « une certaine performance » (42). The particularity of the judicial performance is not independent of the structure of the space, nor is it independent of the images of the trial, or what we make and reproduce of them.

17Antoine Garapon (1997) has contributed extensively to the study of the world of legal practices. According to Garapon, one of the reasons why the analysis of judicial performances has remained outside of studies on justice is the tendency to think of the sphere of law as a « théologie privée de litturgie » (19), from which the image of codes and norms prevails in the analysis of the field of law. On the contrary, argues the French jurist, the first gesture of justice is architectural and symbolic,

Le premier geste de la justice n’est ni intellectuel ni moral, mais architectural et symbolique : délimiter un espace sensible qui tienne à distance l’indignation morale et la colère publique, dégager un temps pour cela, arrêter une règle de jeu, convenir d’un objectif et instituer des acteurs (idem).

18The « judicial rituals » not only follow the guidelines of the procedural codes, but also inscribe characteristics of the media, social and political situations in which they take place. In the terms of Bruno Latour (2004: 15), attending to the practices of state institutions restores their materiality. This materiality is also performed by the reproduction of these practices by the media that extend the process to other spaces. The spaces of justice are occupied by practices where visitors and officials cohabit. They are spaces that allow the application (or not) of laws. They contain the expectations of those who approach the judicial institution, those who participate in its judicial rituals and, also, of those that follow it through the images. These spaces allow for forms of mobility/inertia and access through the interaction of documents, rules and people (i.e. between their corridors and cubicles), as has been analysed by Leticia Barrero (2012). The mobility in these spaces is also applicable to the production of photos and the possibilities of photojournalists, their cameras, and what they shoot.

19This is linked with the changes resulting from the penal reform, precisely the necessity of installing audio and, to a lesser extent, video systems in the courtrooms of Guatemala. The Ixil Trial was recorded entirely with two cameras set up on opposite sides of the courtroom: one looking to the tribunal and, the other seeking the Dock. As Cornelia Vismann (2003: 16) points out, « the presence of cameras has already been written into the architecture » of international courts. The audio and video systems are installed as requirements of the courts, since they have the capacity to record the decisions in real time as the hearings develop, without the need to extend the deadlines for notifying the legal parties.

20The spatial characteristics of the rooms, the way that the cameras are disposed, and the way that the photojournalists can move have in this sense an impact on the types of performances and images that are produced. As I will show, the structure of the amphitheatre of the Sala de Vistas – where the Ixil Trial took place facilitated a certain type of mobility that other rooms do not allow. This had an impact on the images that were published in the media and that allowed the internal discussions of the hearings to be extended to the external space of the courtroom.

21This displacement of the trial into images disseminated by the press is linked to the phenomenon of the « dematerialization of the courthouse » of judicial processes and the disruption of the « unity of the judicial drama », highlighted by Linda Mulcahy (2011: 163) in the framework of the immersion of new technologies. Mulcahy refers to technologies by which legal proceedings dispense with the gathering of all parties in the same space (i.e. through teleconferencing). Following Mulcahy’s statement, the press photos also allow a kind of dematerialization and re-materialization of the judicial process. Once the processes are recorded in written texts, audio or images, the internal conjuncture to these trials is in dialogue with their forms of reproduction and reception, especially in trials where social conflicts are dramatized. These are archiving operations that perform the reception of these trials, building the visual memory of justice.

Spaces and images

22In the Ixil Trial, the press played a fundamental role in the politicization that is already characteristic of transitional justice processes, of what Lisa J. Laplante (2014) has called « memory battles ». The press highlighted the active role of victims’ associations such as the Association for Justice and Reconciliation [AJR] in collaboration with human rights associations such as Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (Centre for Human Rights Legal Action, CALDH) or the Bufete de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Office, BDH). For example, Sandra Sebastián’s image (Image 2) of the Ixil women has become an iconic image, placing Ixil women at the centre of this key process for Guatemalan transitional justice. However, this confluence of social actors in these spaces endorses the idea that the strength of the images of the trial does not depend only on the structural conditions of the spaces, but also on historical and political conditions.


Image 2. May 10, 2013, Palace of Justice, Guatemala,

© Sandra Sebastian – Plaza Pública

24At the beginning of the genocide trial, the press barely had access to the judicial space. The press was located in the lateral and central aisles of the public audience’s space, which explains why pictures of witnesses’ backs were common in the photos of the press. On 19 March 2013, Ríos Montt had to take the stand in order to comply with the first procedures of the judicial ritual: the defendants were informed of the crimes for which they were being accused. Sandra Sebastian's image (see Image 3) crystallizes that historical moment.

Image 3. March 19, 2013, first day of hearings, Sala de Vistas, Palace of Justice, Guatemala

  • 10 This image was published in the visual chronicle of the first day of the trial: https://www.plaz (...)

© Sandra Sebastián - Plaza Pública10.

  • 11 See the press releases of Jerson Ramos in Prensa Libre: “Víctima señala a exjefe de Estado por m (...)

25A similar photo also appears in the images published by Prensa Libre on 20 March where moments of the trial were captured, and the characters of the trial were portrayed. For reasons of space I will not go into further detail about these images. Suffice to note that both, Prensa Libre and elPeriódico, published images of the judicial scene in which they pointed out who were the people gathered in the audience’s space11. They displayed in images the chorus of groups that occupied the chairs of the audience, including representatives of Mayan communities, survivors, witnesses, politicians, former presidents, ambassadors, filmmakers and relatives of the desaparecidos. Without this trial, the people that constituted the audience may never have shared the same space. That was a central aspect that contributed to the drama of the images published in the press. This is compounded by both the Guatemalan state’s weak recognition of its responsibility for crimes committed during the counter-insurgency war and the persistence of state violence and corporate elites against the Mayan populations and the peasant class until today (Camus et al., 2015).

26Although the Sala de Vistas was not created to hold this type of trial, it was chosen for this purpose due to the small size of the rooms in the Torre de Tribunales, an adjacent building to the Palacio de Justicia. As can be seen in the reconstruction of the space of the Courtroom (see Image 1), the Sala reproduces the same scheme of the Greek theatre structurally divided into two large spatial masses. The public’s seats are tiered making it possible for the audience to view the legal scene. In the proscenium, the parties are located at floor level, while the court is on a pedestal. The judges’ perspective is directed at the dock, while looking at the public behind it. The structure of the seats in the amphitheatre emphasises the supervising role of society as we see in the image of Sandra Sebastian (see Image 4).

27This distribution is particularly interesting if we think about the references to theatricality that appeared in the press in order to delegitimise the process from the very beginning (De La Torre, 2013; Méndez Vides, 2013). Contrary to those who used this concept to detract from the Trial (dubbing it a ‘show trial’), the question we should ask is whether the accusatory system precisely requires this theatricality in order to be carried out. That means that looking at the theatrical dimensions of trials helps to transgress the Western idea of spectacle as fraud, or as shadows – as in Plato’s well-known and influential Allegory of the cave. It is through the appearance of the bodies in the trial that the event is performed. Looking at the images and the spatial conditions will help to understand how the law is enforced and its social function. In my view, this division into two zones spatially realises the principles of publicity and orality of the accusatory system. The particularities of the theatricality of each trial are determined by the political and social situation, and in a trial for crimes of genocide, it is society as a whole that is called upon to appear.

28By the end of the Ixil Trial the press were permitted to move around the space more freely, facilitating other perspectives towards its characters. As mentioned above, at the beginning of the trial, the press was restricted to the sides of the courtroom. On 9 May 2013, one day before the verdict was due, the attorney for the former Guatemalan dictator requested to speak to indicate that his client finally wanted to testify. Surprisingly, Ríos Montt, who had been silent throughout the trial, now wanted to tell his side of the story and deny that these crimes had occurred (May 10, 2013). Having been represented in the media as an old and weak character, he then demonstrated, with his declaration, his rhetorical strength (García et al. 2013, p. 15).

Image 4. May 9, 2013, Sala de Vistas, Court perspective

© Sandra Sebastián - Plaza Pública

© Sandra Sebastián - Plaza Pública

Image 5. May 9, 2013, Sala de Vistas, public perspective

© Sandra Sebastián - Plaza Pública.

29As can be seen in Sandra Sebastian’s pictures (see Images 4 and 5), at the time of Ríos Montt’ declaration, the press was located in the middle of the proscenium, between the tribunal and the dock. The press was, in fact, helping to mediate the event. As suggested by Cornelia Vismann (2003: 15), « The presence of cameras competes with the mediality of the justice system. It is supposed to translate the criminal act into a symbolic form ». The visibility of the public and of the media in these images emphasises their comptroller role of the judicial performance, in the imagination of this event and of the justice system. In the case of the Ixil Trial, the press generated this tension throughout the prosecution, by exercising this symbolic function. The press also gave public importance to this trial and, to a certain extent, made it possible for the tribunal to respond to the complaints of impartiality made by its detractors. What was said by the witnesses and explained by the experts from the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the civil parties representing the victims (CALDH and BDH) could not be lessened by the technical language of the defence’s malicious litigation strategies – namely an excessive use of the mechanisms of the law (i.e. Amparos) to hinder the development of the process.

30This does not mean that all press publications were in favour of the debate, but rather that they raised the importance of the Trial for the society. Several media sources such as Prensa Libre and elPeriódico spread fragments of the Ixil testimonies, showing the cruelty of the genocidal politics. They transposed information from the expert reports and testimonies into the space of the newspapers and, in turn, into the domestic life of Guatemala. How Guatemalan society will process this information is certainly an issue to be debated (Olson, 2016).

31As we see in Image 4, during these two months that the Trial lasted, the court had the public on its horizon. As required by the Code of Criminal Procedures (Código Procesal Penal), there must be direct contact between the court and those who take the stand. However, directly in the background, the public was drawing its strength. As we see in the fifth Image, the counterbalanced perspective enhances the participation of the public, contradicting the philosophical perspective that sees the public as the passive part of the theatre scene. The « paradoxe du spectateur », says Jacques Rancière (2008, p.8), lies in the fact that while the audience is considered the passive part, the theatre requires its action to be carried out. This fate of the court’s image in a trial where historical memory is contested puts into perspective both the active role of the public and the aims of justice. The latter leads us to question the meaning of justice: for whom do justice systems work?

32In the same way, the public allows the principle of publicity of the accusatory system to be realised. The supposedly passive part of the legal scene – the audience – realises the purpose of a social justice that should respond to crimes perpetrated against civilians. These elements have an impact on the image that is bequeathed from these moments of the trial and on the definition of its protagonists. Although it is a general shot, there is in this image a kind of portrait of Guatemalan society: the public as a whole, as a body, as an intercultural face. Thus, as we can see in these images, both the characteristics of the Sala de Vistas and the mobility that the photojournalists had within it, made it easier to execute perspectives in high and low angles. This gives a dramatic and affective view to the subjects, as in Image 4, as well as political importance through the representation of the people, framing an image of justice.

33My main point here is that visualising the people is central to the history of countries that maintain colonial scenarios in the present, as is the case in Guatemala. On 19 March 2013, the first day of the trial (Image 6), elPeriódico published a photo of a demonstration against the murder of a community leader in Xalapán.

Image 6. © elPeriódico, March 19, 2013

34On the following page of the newspaper is the announcement of the beginning of the trial (Image 6). We see the portrait of Ríos Montt in three moments of his life, against a black background and above an exotic, orientalist image of an indigenous woman, in a rainforest atmosphere, with arms raised and hands behind her head, wearing a purple glow and a light blue güipil. Neither the clothing nor the type of jungle corresponds with the reality of the rather temperate Ixil region and the characteristically red Ixil güipil and corte (traditional woven blouse and skirt). This image reproduces another colonial notion: the women and the indigenous communities associated with the idea of nature. Hence, visualizing a person in an image does not necessarily mean making them visible, but often makes them invisible, as Carolin Emcke (2017: 102-103) has suggested. What is visible instead is the perspective of the beholder. This highlights the importance of looking at that society that Sandra Sebastian portrays in her photography.

35According to Alison Crosby and M. Brinton Lykes (2019: 108), although these trials develop "spectacles of suffering", they demand from their readers the production of schemes that allow an alternative to the re-victimization of the victims. This has been pointed out in other contexts (Hardi, 2011: 191). The images of Sandra Sebastián published in Plaza Pública allowed us to re-read the image of the Mayan communities beyond the horizon of subalternity, oppression and poverty: the survivors have not stopped fighting for justice and are the protagonists of their own stories.

36As such, they are in stark contrast to photographs of the 2017-18 retrial of Rodríguez Sánchez (acquitted in 2013). These were held in the High Risk Court “B”, on the fourteenth floor of the Torre de Tribunales (see Image 7), the adjacent building of the Palace of Justice. The first thing we notice is the absence of the structure of the amphitheatre. In addition, the legal scene is delimited by a wooden structure that prevents access and has little space for the parties themselves, much less the press.

Image 7. Photograph taken from a chair in the public space, Guatemalan High Risk Court “B”, Torre de Tribunales, Guatemala City. Second Trial against Rodríguez Sánchez

© personal registration

37Several features can be found in the images made of this tribunal. The photographs are taken from the small space reserved for the public, or from the windows outside the Hall. This tends to produce a rapprochement to the characters, preventing the generation of contrasts with other groups present in the room. The absence of the amphitheatrical structure, which would provide a better view for and of the audience, reduces the notion of spectacle (lat. spectare, culum, medium of vision). The images focused on the defendants give a higher profile to the defendants and the judicial functionaries and less to participation of the audience. The tendency to portray (foreground and close-ups) the assistants – focused on the faces of the defendants, judges or the accusing – is a characteristic element of these photographs. Somehow, this closeness to the characters causes an extraction effect, due to the loss of location from the frame, the elimination of what Bourdieu (1982) calls « la compétence statuaire » (p.65). That is, this judicial space and the images it permits eliminate the contextual frame that performs the position of the subjects in the scene (i.e. the podium, the audience's place in the amphitheatre). This has also a political meaning, the justice seems to function despite the people.

38Indeed, the very nature of the first genocide trial produced a much more powerful scenario than these 2017-2018 proceedings, not least because these later events proceeded from the Constitutional Court’s illegitimate and flawed annulment decision of 20 May 2013. In effect, there was less media and public interest in this second trial, which also contributed to the decision of the Trial being held in these smaller rooms. Conversely, the decision to use these spaces also contributed to giving less importance to the second trial. In addition, the second trial against Ríos Montt was held behind closed doors.


39The spatial conditions of the Sala de Vistas make it easier to perform the judicial drama. The photographs of the trial have the interpretative force to perform – to preserve and update – the imaginaries of the nation, the position of the Mayan communities, the role of the economic and political elites. Many of the images published dematerialized and rematerialized the judicial process within a public debate on historical memory, with the press also contributing to this. These images operated from the accounts of Ixil witnesses and experts in the Ixil Trial by exposing the cruelty of the genocidal operations during the counter-insurgency war.

40These examples show the agency of space for the production of images where the event is preserved, displaced and archived, pointing out the performative force of images. The images help to perform through the reproduction of the event the narratives about the place of the audience and the citizens in the reenactment of the “memory battles”, the trademark of transitional justice processes. In turn, this visual memory participates in the construction of the idea of justice, for example, on the inclusion (or not) of civil society in the representation of judicial events. This is linked to the type of experience that judicial spaces facilitate, the types of perspective they allow and the possibilities in the exchange of views that can be generated between the legal scene and the public. Hence the emphasis on the importance of thinking about the judges’ perspective on the Ixil Trial. This element, as we saw, diminishes as soon as the audience is organised as if they were in a waiting room, a position that reduces their participation in the scene. This also changes the media representation of the public in the process. In this sense, the idea of the spectacle as a means of observation and control that installs the mediating role of society is also diminished. Rather than detrimental (as the derogatory ‘show trial’ label suggests), these elements can be beneficial in certain processes, depending on the cases and the members of the public. However, in the genocide trial, the social projection of justice was essential to distribute responsibilities in a society still highly polarised by anti-communist rhetoric that constantly revives the social confrontation rekindled by the counterinsurgency. The images also play a hugely significant role in reframing the social position of the Mayan communities in relation to the possibilities of social transformation and justice in Guatemala.

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* * This article is based on my doctoral research (2016-2020): « Bodies and archives in the Courtroom: Performativity and theatricality in the Ixil Trial for crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity (Guatemala, 2013) ». The fourth chapter « The method of the scene: theatricality and spatiality in the Ixil Judgment » contains a similar analysis.

1 Reconstruction made by the Costa Rican artist Diana Barquero for my doctoral research.

2 I follow Nicole Loraux’s (1999, p.29) analysis of the Greek tragedy in La voix endeuillée. In her analysis, theatre stages an anti-politics, in that what is performed consists of that which is excluded from the ideology of the state. Tragedy stages « ce que l’assemblée des citoyens repousse hors d’elle, voir refuse. ».

3 This article also appeared in the important compilation about this trial published by Routledge, Guatemala, the Question of Genocide, edited by Elizabeth Oglesby & Diane M. Nelson (2017), both expert witness in the Ixil Trial.

4 This name was coined by one of the opponents of the Ixil Trial, Raúl González Merlo (2013).

5 Other processes are underway in other Central American countries, although a regional investigation is still pending. See for example the important trial for the Salvadoran case El Mozote:

6 i Certainly, there are references to the construction of the « temples » of the Republic, as Samuel Gutiérrez (1966/2015) calls the first buildings of the new Panamanian Republic. However, they are part of general history projects, that not focused on the specific study of the judicial spaces. See also Ramón Gutiérrez (1983), in Arquitectura y urbanismo en Iberoamérica.

7 The National Security Doctrine describes the authoritarian and military politics staged by Latin-American governments after Arbenz’s resignation in Guatemala (1954). His resignation was forced by the United Fruit Company’s interests and the anti-communist politics in the US during the second half of the 20th Century. See: Esparza, Huttenbach, & Feierstein (Eds.), State violence and Genocide in Latin America (2010); Taracena & García Ferreira (Eds.), La Guerra fría y el anticomunismo en Centroamérica (2017).

8 In De la Grammatologie, 1967, Derrida claims : « l’histoire de la métaphysique est l’histoire d’une détermination de l’être comme présence » (141).

9 « the existence of a common and the divisions that define the respective places and shares in it ».

10 This image was published in the visual chronicle of the first day of the trial:

11 See the press releases of Jerson Ramos in Prensa Libre: “Víctima señala a exjefe de Estado por masacres ‘Ríos Montt es el alzado’”, “Ríos Montt asumió el poder hace 31 años”, “Ríos intenta frenar Juicio”. Also in elPeriódico, “El general Ríos Montt, a debate por las 1,771 muertes en el área Ixil, elPeriódico”.

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Rocío Zamora Sauma, « Judicial space and visual memory in the Ixil Trial (Guatemala, 2013)  »Amerika [En ligne], 20 | 2020, mis en ligne le 14 septembre 2020, consulté le 20 septembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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