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Inconsistent Justice and Missed Opportunities in Guatemala

By       Message Kali Wright-Smith     Permalink
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The buzzword in Guatemala is impunity. Since the end of its thirty-six year civil war in 1996, the state has attempted to construct a functional system of justice. In recent years, Guatemala has struggled to reform its judicial and security sectors, leading to an erratic mix of advances and setbacks. A groundbreaking moment was the decision to prosecute one of the most infamous figures of the civil war: former leader General Jose Efrain Rios Montt. Rios Montt was charged with overseeing the deaths of 1,771 Ixil Maya during the state's scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign of 1982-1983. On May 10, Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to eighty years in prison. Unfortunately, on May 20, Guatemala's Constitutional Court annulled this verdict and pushed the state off of its path forward.

Guatemala's recent progress on impunity results from international and domestic cooperation. In 2006, Guatemala worked with the United Nations to establish the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, with the goal of making impunity a chief priority and improving coordination among institutions, such as the police force and the prosecutor's office. This body has aided prosecution, resulting in a lower crime rate, convictions of drug traffickers, and efforts to address civil war-era crimes. Much of the credit for these advances has been given to Guatemala's impressive attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who was appointed in 2010.

But, as the Attorney General's office grows stronger, other institutions hold the state back. Guatemala's contradictory approach to justice is visible in its relationship with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. For years, Guatemala has cooperated with orders from the regional court to make reparation to victims for past abuses, but it has rarely punished perpetrators. There have been encouraging recent developments in several cases, including the 2012 conviction of five former paramilitary members for their involvement in a 1982 massacre at the Plan de Sanchez. Nevertheless, progress has been accompanied by regression. In 2012, the Guatemalan Congress decided to limit the Inter-American Court's jurisdiction, making it difficult for victims of civil war violations to seek justice. This decision was only rescinded by President Otto Perez Molina following immense civil society pressure.

The Rios Montt case is another illustration of the problematic inconsistency in Guatemala's justice system. A case was brought in 2012 after Rios Montt lost the immunity that came with his congressional seat. It is true that this trial was a major feat for Guatemala. Prosecuting a former head of state for genocide in a domestic court is not something any country can claim. Given the nature of this case, it has unsurprisingly been a bumpy ride. The trial has forced Guatemala to peer into an ugly past. It also revived the debate over whether civil war massacres constitute "genocide." This issue led Perez Molina to insert himself in the case as he questioned the genocide charges. There has been speculation that the president's motives are personal, since one of the witnesses who testified also implicated Perez Molina, a military officer during Rios Montt's rule, in civil war-era human rights abuses. The case has been complicated by legal obstacles, delays, a defense walk-out, and objections from several powerful domestic groups.

Following the guilty verdict, the Constitutional Court voted to void everything that had transpired since a brief suspension of the trial on April 19, due to a legal challenge by a lower-court judge formerly attached to the case. Consequently, the verdict was set aside and the trial must be restarted from that date. Since it is difficult to "rewind" a trial and press "play" in the middle, the trial will likely start over with new judges. The Constitutional Court upheld this decision on May 30, so for the moment the trial stands still while the finish line moves farther away. This sudden annulment sends a troubling message to Guatemalan society. Indigenous communities have faced great obstacles in Guatemala, the most important being the extreme violence of the early 1980s. The Rios Montt case highlights the significance of ending impunity for a former leader whose approach to fighting rebels was "if you cannot catch a fish, you have to drain the sea."

This trial represents an opportunity to show Guatemala's citizens that justice is worth pursuing. The importance of this cannot be overestimated in a country in which witnesses, activists, judges, and lawyers face threats of violence. Theories of post-transitional justice examine the relative importance of truth and justice. Many have correctly noted that this trial was a success because it brought truth to Guatemala. However, as Guatemala has already had one truth and reconciliation commission, this trial needs to restore faith in justice as well. If the state is going to "reopen past wounds" in Guatemalan society it needs to show that it is doing so for a purpose.

 

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Kali Wright-Smith is a professor of Political Science at Westminster College in Fulton, MO (home of Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech). She researches international law, human rights, women and politics, and international organizations. She (more...)
 

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Inconsistent Justice and Missed Opportunities in Guatemala