This article is part of WOLA’s series looking at some of the most significant human rights trends and events of the 2010s.
See the full series here.
Over the last decade, victims of human rights abuses and their families, defenders, prosecutors, and other advocates for justice persisted in their efforts to fight for truth and accountability.
Justice advocates see the battle against impunity as a key tool for improving human rights, as it shows power holders that those who commit grave human rights abuses are not above the law. Unchecked impunity undermines justice and equality before the law, and has prevented many states across the region from consolidating into truly independent and functional democracies. Moreover, international law has come to recognize the fundamental rights of victims to seek redress for abuses. Such redress is critical for individual healing, but reckoning with the past is crucial for broader societal healing from collective trauma. From Mexico to Peru to Guatemala, survivors of atrocities and families of victims have fought with courage and resilience to build a future based on respect for justice and the rule of law.
One front of the battle for accountability was the prosecution of high-level military officials for war crimes. The pursuit of these cases gained significant momentum in Guatemala, thanks to an early push by former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who helped make human rights prosecutions of the country’s top military brass a priority. Under her leadership, Guatemala set a historical precedent for international justice norms when a court convicted former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity, the first time anywhere in the world that a former head of state was found guilty of genocide in their own country. While Guatemala’s Constitutional Court later erased that verdict in a controversial ruling and ordered a partial retrial—which ended with Ríos Montt’s death, at age 91, in 2018—his conviction remains a landmark moment for international human rights and the struggle against impunity.
Guatemala made other important strides in addressing past war crimes committed by the military with cases such as the 2016 conviction in the Sepur Zarco case, the first time that a Guatemalan court prosecuted a case of sexual violence and sexual slavery that occured during the civil war; the 2018 conviction of four senior military officials, including the former chief of staff of the Guatemalan army, for crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, and forced disappearance in the Molina Thiessen case; and a series of convictions for the Dos Erres massacre, in which 200 people were killed by military special forces in 1982. Moving into the new decade, there are key ongoing cases against former members of the military high command under the governments of Ríos Montt (1982-1983) and Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982), who stand accused of genocide against the Maya Ixil population.
In El Salvador, prosecutions against ex-military, government officials, and guerrillas for wartime-era human rights crimes became possible after a 2016 Constitutional Court ruling invalidated the 1993 Amnesty Law, forged at the end of the country’s 12-year civil war. One of the most immediate impacts of the Amnesty Law’s nullification was the re-opening of the El Mozote case, widely considered one of the worst massacres perpetrated in recent Latin American history, in which the Salvadoran army killed over 900 civilians. A decision in the evidentiary phase of an ongoing trial—involving 17 senior military officials—is expected soon.
Other politically sensitive cases involving wartime human rights crimes—including the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests and a mother and daughter at the University of Central America in San Salvador—have not progressed significantly in El Salvador, although a case involving the slain Jesuits is ongoing in Spain. In 2017, Inocente Montano, the former Vice Minister of Public Security in El Salvador in 1989, was extradited from the United States to Spain to stand trial for the murder of five of the Jesuits, who were Spanish nationals. Prosecutors have called for a 150-year prison sentence.
The fight to end impunity in post-conflict societies has galvanized backlash from those seeking to protect powerful interests from prosecution. The question of how to establish a transitional justice system was one of the most controversial debates in Colombia’s four-year peace process; upholding aspects of the 2016 accords related to transitional justice has been a major political battle in recent years. Guatemala’s success in prosecuting human rights cases spurred efforts to pass a blanket amnesty law for military officials; a similar effort provoked outcry in El Salvador. In Peru, the unjustified humanitarian pardon of jailed ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori—which was eventually annulled—sparked widespread outrage within Peru and internationally. The pardon was eventually overturned, and Fujimori was returned to prison to fulfill his 25-year sentence for human rights violations.
Across Latin America, the question of accountability and justice for mass enforced disappearances also helped define the decade. Mexico’s acute crisis of forced disappearances—with some 47,000 cases officially registered—took place not in a context of civil conflict, but in the framework of a “war on drugs” declared against the country’s cartels. The unsolved case of 43 students from Ayotzinapa who disappeared while in police custody in 2014—and the ensuing government cover-up—became emblematic of the Mexican government’s broader failure to guarantee truth and justice to victims and families of the disappeared. There were moments of progress across the region, such as the passage of Mexico’s General Law on Disappearances in 2017, Peru’s approval of a law to establish a National Committee to Search for Disappeared Persons in 2016, the formation of a search unit for the disappeared under Colombia’s peace accords, and the establishment of a government-sponsored committee to search for the disappeared in El Salvador. In all of these cases, the challenge is ensuring there is political will, as well as sufficient human and financial resources, to make these initiatives effective.
For other high-profile investigations and trials involving human rights crimes, the challenge is ensuring that the masterminds behind the crime—not just those who executed it—are held accountable. Seven people have been convicted for the 2016 murder of environmental activist and human rights defender Berta Cáceres in Honduras, but the architects and financiers of her murder have not been held accountable. In Mexico, WOLA research has highlighted how most investigations involving alleged human rights crimes committed by the military were opened against rank-and-file soldiers, rather than the top commanders who have ordered soldiers to “shoot to kill.”
See also WOLA Senior Fellow Jo Marie Burt’s monitoring of human rights trials in Guatemala for the International Justice Monitor.