Justice in Guatemala: New Efforts, Continuing Threats

Even bringing these cases would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Almost 20 years after the end of Guatemala’s bitter civil war, victims of human rights atrocities are still waiting for offenders to be brought to justice. An independent justice system—and the accountability that would come with it—remain elusive. Guatemalan victims, civil society groups, prosecutors, and some courageous judges, nonetheless continue to push for justice, and upcoming trials offer an important test of the rule of law.

The UN’s Historical Clarification Commission report, published in 1999, found Guatemala’s justice system to be one of the most corrupt in the region: “The courts were incapable of investigating, trying, judging, and punishing even a small number of those responsible for the most serious human rights crimes.”

Fifteen years later, Guatemala’s justice system is still at the mercy of powerful economic and political interests. However, critical reforms and notable efforts by independent prosecutors and judges—supported by civil society and victims’ groups—have allowed for some accountability for serious crimes committed during the country’s armed conflict, as well as more recent abuses of power.

The UN commission estimated that 200,000 people were killed or subjected to forced disappearance during the 36-year conflict—and that 93 percent of the violations were committed by security forces. Until recently, no one had been held accountable for these crimes. Investigations and prosecutions either never started, or remained perpetually stalled.

Finally, the first prosecution for forced disappearance took place in 2009. There have now been only 17 prosecutions for international crimes, 15 of them resulting in convictions. But virtually all prosecutions have been of low-level soldiers or members of civilian patrols.

Last year’s conviction of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his head of military intelligence was a watershed moment in Guatemala’s quest for justice—a sign that powerful but brutal rulers could be held to account for their crimes. But then the verdict was annulled on a technicality, the presiding judge was reprimanded on spurious grounds, and the pioneering attorney general who oversaw the prosecution was forced out before her time. The case now sits largely dormant.

The frustrated prosecution of Ríos Montt can easily be seen as representative of Guatemala’s ongoing struggle to bring powerful perpetrators to justice. But the current situation is more complex. Efforts at accountability continue, and the quest for justice in Guatemalan is now at a critical crossroads.

Under a new attorney general, Thelma Aldana, there are cases of historical significance coming to trial. On October 1, a trial related to the 1980 fire set at the Spanish embassy, which killed dozens of largely campesino protesters inside, opened. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, whose father died in the fire, was in the gallery. A potentially paradigm-setting trial for sexual slavery at the Sepur Zarco military base was approved on October 14.

There are also other important criminal investigations and pending trials regarding: mass graves (holding over 500 bodies) uncovered at a former military base, now a training site for UN peacekeepers; a prison money laundering operation implicating the top brass and a politically well-connected prisoner; and a legislator attempting to improperly influence judges in a case involving the vice president.

Threats to judicial independence remain substantial. Most notably, the recent election of all of the country’s appellate and supreme court judges has been widely criticized as corrupt. Following a wave of dissent and the resignation of a prominent judge in protest, earlier this month the Constitutional Court suspended the finalization of the nomination process. With its integrity called into question, the process should be re-initiated with greater guarantees of impartiality and independence.

And the current high-profile prosecutions only scratch the surface, given the immensity of crimes committed during the armed conflict, and abuses of power and rampant impunity then and now. But they are nonetheless significant—a national reckoning with horrific crimes, evidence that these can be punished, and in some rare cases, indications that the powerful are not inherently untouchable.

Even bringing these cases would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Their progress will show whether the reforms of the past five years are harbingers of greater accountability in Guatemala, or whether impunity will continue to reign.

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