In Guatemala, a long road to justice

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A woman from the indigenous Ixil community holds a cross with the name of a family murdered in 1986 in the village of Sajsiban. (WNV/CPR Urbana)

Two weeks ago, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the historic guilty verdict of the nation’s former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who had been convicted of committing genocide and crimes against humanity during his short reign from 1982 to 1983. The Constitutional Court’s decision annulled Montt’s 80-year prison sentence and ordered that the final weeks of the case be retried. At 86 years old, Ríos Montt was the first former head of state in Latin America to be sentenced for genocide by his own country.

In response, human rights organizations across Latin America organized actions protesting the sentence annulment, supporting the victims of genocide and condemning legal impunity. In Guatemala, an estimated 5,000 people marched through the capital on May 24. Simultaneous actions occurred in front of the Guatemalan embassies in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Mexico City, Mexico; Managua, Nicaragua; Lima, Peru; Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Additional protests occurred in El Salvador and Costa Rica.

Competing interests

David Oliva, a member of the human rights organization HIJOS Guatemala, said that the march in Guatemala was the biggest mobilization he has seen around the issue of memory and unmasking impunity in the justice system.

“Today there are more people out than the day that Guatemala mobilized to protest the assassination of Monseñor Gerardi,” he said, referring to the Guatemalan bishop and human rights defender who was murdered two days after the 1998 publication of the groundbreaking report Guatemala: Never Again. The report compiled hundreds of testimonies about crimes committed during the nation’s protracted civil war and genocide against indigenous communities, and it laid the groundwork for Montt’s subsequent trial.

At the march, human rights activists who had spent years organizing for Montt’s trial asserted that the ruling and sentence was still valid.

Pilar Maldonado of the Center for Justice and Accountability — one of the two co-counsels on the trial — has spent the last 13 years seeking justice for Montt’s crimes. He explained, “The sentence was definitive, and we are going to defend it. This ruling from the Constitutional Court cannot stop justice in Guatemala. We are not disposed to repeat the trial, because it is disrespectful to the Ixil victims and the other communities who were also victims of genocide.”

Montt’s legal battle began in 1999, when he was indicted for torture, genocide and crimes against humanity. In 2012, he was re-indicted, and indigenous Ixil communities began presenting testimonies about the reign of terror and murder that occurred under Montt’s military dictatorship from 1982 to 1983.

But at the same time, the business elite of Guatemala began openly positioning itself against Ríos Montt’s trial. The nation’s leading business association, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, publicly stated that it “defends the importance of knowing how to leave the past behind.” To Oliva, this stance clearly exposed those who financed genocide in Guatemala — and who now benefit from burying this history.

According to Nelson Rivera, a human rights activist and member of the Community Press, genocide, historical memory and today’s business practices are all connected. “They are all involved,” he said. “Those who are in the right-wing parties, those in organized crime and drug trafficking, the traditional elite families — and now transnational economic interests.”

But while elites worry that the admission of genocide threatens international investment, those in indigenous communities who have felt state terror argue that overturning the ruling is a national disgrace.

Andrea Ixchiu Hernandez, a young indigenous woman from the Quiché community in Totonicapán, was one of the thousands of people who marched in protest of the annulment. Ixchiu explained that what is happening now is an offense, not only to the dignity of the Ixil people, but to all of the people of Guatemala.

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Indigenous Ixil women marched in Guatemala City on May 24 to protest the annulment of former military dictator Rios Montt’s sentence for genocide. (WNV/CPR Urbana)

“Unfortunately we are used to these dirty tricks by the justice system, which benefits those with money,” she said as the march passed Guatemala’s Supreme Court. She took a moment to read aloud the signs: “Genocide is written with a G, for military Government.” “You can retry them but they’ll never be innocent.” “My heart is Ixil.”

Ixchiu explained that she and others are fighting for the integrity of Guatemala’s justice system, but also for a legal recognition of Maya law and the laws of all indigenous communities.

A female face

Across Latin America and Spain, feminist organizations led the solidarity movement. In Honduras, one of the core organizers of the protest outside the Guatemalan embassy in Tegucigalpa was Helen Ocampo, a member of a feminist studies group.

“We are in solidarity with the women who were attacked, raped and killed,” she explained in a phone interview.

Neesa Medina, from the Center for Women’s Rights in Honduras, was also at the protest in Tegucigalpa.  “It was an action of solidarity among women that transcends what happens in our own country,” she said. She explained that the call for solidarity protests came from a group of women in Guatemala rather than from organizations or political parties. Medina joined the solidarity effort, she explained, because she recalled the images from the trials, in which she could see the women’s pain, and she identified with them. “I can’t erase the images of the Ixil women from my mind, nor their stories. That’s why we will keep standing up for the role of women in indigenous communities, not just as victims but as fighters,” she said.

In Madrid, Mercedes Hernández, the president of the Guatemalan Women’s Association, also helped organize solidarity protests. To her, the entire struggle for human rights has a female face, and the history of resistance in Latin America can be seen as the history of the rights and struggles of women. In Guatemala, widowed women spent decades organizing to defend human rights, assuming community leadership roles and full responsibility for the children when men were killed in the conflict. All Latin American countries have these women. In Argentina, for example, the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo — an organization of women whose children or grandchildren disappeared during the country’s military dictatorships — are the most prominent group defending human rights.

Yet, this organizing history is often buried, in part because the original violence is never fully acknowledged. Hernández explained that the truth commissions that have narrated the conflicts of Latin America have often hidden the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In Honduras, for example, femicides increased 160 percent after the 2009 coup d’état, prompting Medina and others to begin an organizing effort that has not stopped to this day. “We didn’t let ourselves be forgotten,” she said. “Because we have the constant fear that something similar may happen again.”

According to Hernández, these commissions have also obscured the gender violence in Guatemala’s past, in which unarmed women constituted more than 40 percent of those murdered during some of the worst moments of the crisis.

A continent looking for justice

Twenty-nine-year-old José Guadalupe Pérez Rodríguez was one of hundreds of people who joined the solidarity protest at the Guatemalan embassy in Mexico City. Pérez Rodríguez explained that he is connected to Guatemala not only by geographical proximity but also by the countries’ shared histories of forced disappearances — a history that claimed his own father in 1990. In Mexico, he explains, more than 20,000 people have disappeared over the last six years — during a time in which the country is allegedly under democratic rule. 

Despite the annulment of the sentence, Pérez Rodríguez still sees Montt’s trial as an example of how Latin American nations can address state-sanctioned violence — both past and present. “They sought for 31 years to bring one of those responsible for genocide to trial, and in Mexico we are very far from achieving anything similar,” he said.

For many across Latin America, the trial against Ríos Montt was a global demonstration that a national judicial system can put its own history on trial without the introduction of a third party. On the ground in Guatemala, it brought the debate about genocide into the streets, challenging those who were convinced that genocide never took place. It also opened the door for further investigations, not only into genocide enacted against the Ixil people between 1982 and 1983, but into the crimes that occurred throughout the course of Guatemala’s 36-year war — and during other periods of mass violence in Latin America.

Organizers explain that the next struggle is to have Montt’s sentence — and the dignity of the trial — restored. Forty-one-year-old organizer Daniel Pascual is from El Quiché, a region in southern Guatemala. In his community, half of the entire population was massacred. Three of his six brothers were murdered, as well as many of his aunts and uncles. He explains that the next step is to continue the battle over the memory and dignity of Guatemala.

Bridget Brehen, who works with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, agrees. She recalls that at the end of Montt’s trial, many exclaimed, “‘We did it!’”

“But now we face the next challenge,” she said. “With any victory comes the next phase of struggle.”

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