Print Edition: Guatemala and Genocide

Guatemala, as many other Latin American countries, underwent a brutal period of internal armed struggle during the Cold War. The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz´s reformist government in 1954, and in doing so suppressed the hopes of the poor majority for a more just social order. Guatemala was and remains one of the most unequal societies in Latin America. As elsewhere, guerrilla organisations began to emerge in the 1960’s.

Image courtesy of Elena Hermosa, ©2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Elena Hermosa, ©2013, some rights reserved.

These early insurgents drew their support base from the mostly Ladino (white peasant) population of the south and east of the county, and were quickly defeated. Regrouping in Mexico, the guerrillas re-entered Guatemala from the north, where they set up their operating centres in the mostly indigenous highlands. Traditionally and structurally excluded since the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan descendants were identified as a strategic support group by the guerrilla, and many were recruited by the insurgents under promises of a more equitable society.

The military coup of 1976 brought about a frantic and ferocious counterinsurgency campaign, which reached its peak in 1981-83, during the presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt. The Historical Clarification Commission – a truth and reconciliation commission established in 1994 – concluded in its report that some acts committed during that period legally constitute the crime of genocide.

The military never left the political arena, but ceded governance to civilians in a self-orchestrated transition in 1985. Nevertheless, factual political power and autonomy was retained by the armed forces, and guaranteed impunity to the military officials responsible for the violent excesses of the preceding years. In the following two decades, however, military pre-eminence was increasingly challenged, as Guatemalan civil society resurged from the ashes of its paralysis during the civil war.

The case against Ríos Montt was officially taken up by the judiciary in 2012; evidence and arguments for the case have, however, been under preparation for years, mostly by human rights organisations.

On the 10th of May 2013, General Ríos Montt was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison on the charge of genocide. Less than two weeks later, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court annulled the conviction over allegations of legal shortcomings of the process. The trial will resume in January 2015.

The Foreign Affairs Review was granted an interview with the woman who prosecuted General Ríos Montt, and who serves as the current Attorney General of Guatemala, Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz. We would like to thank Dr. Roddy Brett for facilitating this interview.

JO, FAR: What do these criminal proceeding signify to the Guatemalan people?

Dr. Paz y Paz: It was a possibility for the victims to access justice and be present before the perpetrator in equality before a court, and to tell the truth about what happened to them. It was a possibility for Guatemalan society to understand that under the rule of law, every person is accountable; even if it´s a former chief of government, he or she must answer before justice for his or her actions.

JO, FAR: The trial has been going on for a long time. What are the obstacles to its resolution and how have changes in Guatemalan society impacted on the dynamics of the trial?

Dr. Paz y Paz: One of the impacts on Guatemalan society is the perception that justice is possible. In terms of the obstacles: the perpetrators and groups that were in accord with the perpetrators have embarked on a media campaign of disinformation, harassing the victims and those that accompany the victims. Another obstacle is that the counsellors of the perpetrators have used a lot of legal resources to impede and prolong the trial; and ultimately to annul the trial.

JO, FAR: Can you give some examples of support or resistance that you have encountered during this trial – both domestically and internationally?

Dr. Paz y Paz: Both supporting and opposing voices of different actors were reflected in the Guatemalan media.  Internationally, there was a consensus about the importance of the trial. The debate that occurred in the media notwithstanding, every citizen in Guatemala gained the understanding, that even if you were a high-ranking government official, you could be put on trial.

A media campaign opposing the trial was conducted by a group in Guatemala called the Foundation against Terrorism. This campaign attempted to defame some of the victims and members of human rights organisations who were very active in this trial. They claimed that the demands for justice and the work of the Attorney General´s office [prosecutor’s office] were new forms of terrorism, when in fact the victims were simply exercising their rights to access justice.

There were numerous voices domestically that supported the trial. These arranged for the trial to be transmitted via the internet. Internationally, there were many newspapers supporting the trial, for example the New York Times and the LA Times. Both El País and the Guardian published articles supporting the trial.

JO, FAR: My next question moves on a bit: how does the fact that many of the victims were indigenous translate into the trial, and what role did ethnicity play in the dynamics of the trial itself.

Dr. Paz y Paz: Ethnicity played a key role in the way the war was conducted in Guatemala, as it determined if you were a victim of the war or not. Guatemala was, and still is, a racist country.

JO, FAR: Did that racism show up in the trial as well, for example in the way the testimonies of indigenous people were viewed, or in the attitude of the public at large?

Dr. Paz y Paz: There was a big effort made by the prosecutor’s office and the various human rights organisations supporting the trial to facilitate the victim’s testimonies to be given in their own language. Simultaneous translation was arranged in the courthouse; from Ixil [one of the 21 Mayan languages] to Spanish and back. There was also psychological support provided to the victims before and after every testimony.

In the courthouse itself, we don´t believe there were clear manifestations of racism. But there was a lot of racism in the words of the actors and the key players opposing the trial.

JO, FAR: Finally, my last question: what insights could Guatemala provide for countries that are, or may be in the future, going through similar processes?

Dr. Paz y Paz: It is very important to say, that the case was built over many years, when the trial itself was just a remote hope. All this work, over all these years, permitted that when the political and judicial moment was right, the case itself could be presented before the court. The message could therefore be that the moment will come, and you have to be ready for it. You will have the opportunity to present the case before the courts for mass human rights violations.

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