December 29, 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords in Guatemala. The Peace Accords brought an end to one of the most brutal and prolonged internal armed conflicts in contemporary Latin American history (1960-1996), with 200,000 dead, including 45,000 forcibly disappeared; the destruction of 440 rural villages; and the forced displacement of some one million people. The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), which found that eight of ten victims were indigenous Guatemalans, determined that the Guatemalan army committed genocide in five regions of the country, particulary during the worst years of the violence between 1978 and 1985. Today, as Guatemala finds itself in the midst of a dramatic effort to reverse the spirit and intent of the peace accords by restoring institutionalized impunity for those responsible for grave acts of corruption, organized crime and grave human rights abuses through efforts to undermine judicial independence, the rule of law, and anti-impunity efforts, it is critical to assess the ongoing efforts of survivors and families of victims in pursuit of truth and justice. Despite an increasingly unfavorable climate for justice efforts, there are currently over a dozen human rights cases connected to Guatemala’s internal armed conflict making their way through the courts, pressing forward against great odds, largely due to the persistence of survivors and families of victims and their allies in local and international civil society.
Over the past decade, networks made up of members of the political and military elite, criminal groups, and private sector have mobilized to push back against Guatemala’s anti-impunity efforts. These groups have found common cause in the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei. Powerful elites have coopted the judiciary by removing and attacking independent justice operators and facilitating the infiltration of corrupt officials. Giammattei has overseen the wholesale dismantling of the country’s peace institutions that were put in place to ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the Peace Accords, threatening to undermine the ability of victims of grave human rights violations to access justice, truth and reparations.
The Giammattei administration dissolved the Secretariat of Peace (SEPAZ), the Secretariat of Agrarian Issues (SAA), and the Presidential Coordinating Commission for Executive Policy on Human Rights (COPREDEH), all key elements of the peace institutions created after the Peace Accords. He created in their place the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights (COPADEH). However, in the decree that created the COPADEH, it does not explicitly state that it would take over the functions of the SEPAZ, SAA, or COPRADEH, and the body was not allocated funds in the budget proposal for 2021. Since its creation, COPADEH has been more of a ghost institution than anything else. By April 2021, only 1.66% of the activities related to human rights had been implemented, while those related to the promotion and creation of a culture of peace, human rights, dialogue mechanisms, and conflict prevention had zero percent execution.
The shuttering of peace institutions has been coupled with attacks on judicial independence and rule of law in order to serve the interests of illicit networks. Ongoing efforts by these elites to criminalize and attack the credibility of independent judges such as Erika Aifan and Pablo Xitumul and Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas are clearly designed to undermine their work and rid Guatemala of officials who uphold the rule of law in order to guarantee impunity for corruption and human rights abuses. Judge Xitumul faces the possibility of losing his judicial immunity through legal action that he describes as efforts by powerful figures to seek revenge for his convictions in the Ríos Montt genocide case and the Molina Theissen case.
In addition to direct attacks on officials actively pursuing justice, 25 years later there are still efforts to pursue blanket amnesty to those implicated in war crimes and undo decades of progress. In 2019, the Guatemalan Congress considered amending the National Reconciliation Law of 1996 by passing legislation that would have terminated all ongoing grave crimes proceedings, freed all convicted military officials and guerrilla leaders already, and extinguish all future investigations into such crimes. In February 2021, the Constitutional Court indefinitely resolved the injunction against Congress that would have reformed the law. While this attempt to grant amnesty for war crimes was tabled, efforts of this kind are not unique. In June of this year, officials from the Valor political party, which promoted the 2019 presidential candidacy of Zury Ríos, daughter of former dictator Ríos Montt, presented legislation that would end any criminal proceedings or sentences related to crimes that took place during the internal armed conflict.
The actions taken during Giammattei’s presidency represent a barrier to the transitional justice cases currently before the courts and attempt to do away with the important legacy of Guatemala as a global leader in seeking truth and justice for wartime atrocities. The Guatemalan peace accords were instrumental in setting out a vision for a post conflict process of reckoning with the legacy of grave human rights abuses through the creation of a truth commission, a mandate to provide reparations for victims and to help families of victims of forced disappearance identify their missing loved ones, and through the pursuit of justice, as outlined in the 1996 National Reconciliation Law. Though it took Guatemala a long time to strengthen its legal system to adequately investigate and prosecute these crimes, once it did so, it unleashed a process that while under intense pressure, continues to press forward.
Although the moment looks grim in the fight for truth and justice in Guatemala, victims continue to push for their rights through searching for missing loved ones, local memorialization, and pursuing justice in the 13 cases currently before the courts. Just last week, remains of 112 people that were murdered during the civil war were buried by their family members, neighbors and human rights organizations. Last month, victims protested against Attorney General Consuelo Porras for transferring head human rights prosecutor Hilda Pineda from her post and for Porras’ supposed protection of military veterans and corrupt politicians.
While the fight for justice in Guatemala continues, the international community should support efforts to ensure that Guatemala fulfills its international obligation to investigate, prosecute, and punish grave human rights violations. This should include paying close attention to and lifting up the open transitional justice cases and actions by victims, civil society, activist groups, and the few independent justice operators left in their pursuit of justice.