Guatemala’s Quest for Justice

Atitlán Lake, 2010. The picturesque scene of what is often called one of the most beautiful lakes in the world has been attracting an increasing number of tourists over the recent years. However, the peaceful landscape is misleading, it being one of the most violent areas during the civil war. (author’s own photo)

The 2011 UN Human Development Report ranked Guatemala as 109th out of 187, making it the country with the second lowest ranking in Latin America and the Caribbean after Haiti. Even though this statistical evidence does not even begin to illustrate the myriad of issues the Guatemalan population is facing today (ranging from increasing criminal violence committed by drug traffickers and criminal gangs and an “ongoing war against women” to chronic malnutrition and forced displacement of the indigenous population and resulting conflicts over land, the seriousness of these issues is even further exacerbated by the shadow of unresolved problems of the past.

In 1996 the Central American country saw the end of a 36-year civil war during the course of which around 200,000 people lost their lives.  The National Reconciliation law passed was passed that same year and ended the dispute. It grants amnesty for political crimes committed by both sides, not however for human rights abuses. Since then victims and human rights activists have been fighting for the persecution of the perpetrators of acts of torture, genocide and forced disappearances.

Human rights violations were widespread during the war, and included over 400 documented massacres of innocent rural farmers accused to be guerrilla fighters, forced disappearances of trade and student union leaders, forced recruitment of child soldiers and widespread violence against women. This has lead Human Rights Watch to accuse the government forces of committing genocide against the Mayan population before the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 2003. Since then, the case has received attention from several international bodies, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (ICHR), while many former members of the army defend their tactics as a necessary evil in the fight against the leftist insurgents.

Victims and Guatemalan and international Human Rights activists have been fighting for years to uncover the truth about these events. Their quest has been rewarded with several small successes, including the persecution of several former paramilitary leaders and the sentencing of five former members of the Guatemalan Special Forces to 6,060 years in prison each for their involvement in the infamous 1982 Dos Erres Massacre.

However, the recent dispute over granting amnesty to the former military ruler General Efraín Ríos Montt puts clouds on the horizon of the prospects of justice, truth and reparation for the victims. His 17months of rule between 1982 and 1983 is believed to be one of the most violent periods of the war and in 2004 the Guatemalan government confirmed before the ICHR that his regime was carrying out a strategy of genocide. Montt has already been rejected amnesty once last year. Nonetheless, earlier this month president Otto Pérez Molina, who himself has served as a general under Montt, announced that the government would stop recognizing the ICHR rulings on human rights violations and genocide that took place before 1987.

The government has now stepped back from this claim following intense pressure by human rights activists. Still, this case exemplifies a widespread effort towards impunity, which undermines the victims’ quest for justice by holding the perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable for their actions. And with this it not only questions the norms of international criminal justice but also puts obstacles into the Guatemalan people’s path of coming to terms with their past.

Christina Seifert


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