Genocide, Judicial Power, and Justice in Guatemala

Today, the genocide trial for former Guatemalan leader Efraín Ríos Montt begins (in spite of his failed attempts to have charges dismissed based on an earlier amnesty law). The trial marks the first time a former Latin American leader has been tried not only for human rights violations, but for genocide, as outlined in the findings of Guatemala’s Truth Commission. The charges against Ríos Montt for genocide are thus based on the military’s targeting of indigenous communities between March 1982 and August 1983, when he was in power. Survivors who witnessed the atrocities are set to testify in the case. For those interested, you can follow the trial live here.

The New York Times ran a piece (accompanied by incredible photos) on what the trial says about judicial power in Guatemala.

Guatemala’s justice system has begun a transformation. In a show of political will, prosecutors are taking long-dormant human rights cases to court, armed with evidence that victims and their advocates have painstakingly compiled over more than a decade — as much to bear witness as to bring judgment.

“It’s sending the most important message of the rule of law — that nobody is above the law,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general, who many here say has been one of the most important forces behind the change.

Certainly, it’s good to see the courts acting, and the fact that the military obeyed a court order to turn over documents in 2009 is an important step in respecting institutional authority. However, this only comes after nearly three years of judicial inaction. Ríos Montt did not just remain free for 30 years because of his own personal power or even his ability to count on political immunity as a congressman. For far too long, too many people in positions of power were willing to look the other way on his crimes. This option of inaction was not even limited to the court system; it also counted on “elite complicity, and political immunity,” as Kate Doyle put it.

In that context, it’s understandable why so many civilians also remained silent for years. This isn’t a case of blaming the victims for the slowness of Ríos Montt’s trial; it’s a damning reminder of the long-term impacts of military regimes that violate human rights with impunity (and often with the support, tacit or explicit, of the US). As scholarship on military repression and human rights violations in Latin America and beyond has demonstrated, the scars of military regimes long outlast the governments themselves. The arbitrary use of violence and torture, the disappearing of victims, the ongoing power of post-dictatorship militaries behind the scenes, and the physical markers of death on the landscape all create conditions in which many people fear speaking out, even in times of peace. Daniel Wilkinson’s Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala cuts right to the heart of this imposed silence. And while hundreds of thousands of victims will never be able to speak out, now that the Guatemalan judiciary, the legal system, and the military itself have moved beyond forgetting and begun to address the past, those who for so many years feared and remained silent will now finally have their chance to speak directly to the justice system.

In that regard, the story is simultaneously a story of historical institutional failures and justice through institutional transformation and autonomy. And yet, it’s only occurring 30 years later, reminding us that fear of the brutal and senseless violence of military regimes does not die quickly.


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Amnesty, Guatemala, Guatemala's Civil War, Human Rights Issues, Human Rights Violations, Impunity, Indigenous Peoples, Latin American Militaries, Memory Struggles, Truth Commissions. Bookmark the permalink.