Impunity Still the Rule for Grave Crimes Committed during Guatemala’s Civil War

This year has seen astonishing developments in the rule of law in Guatemala. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), together with the Attorney General’s Office, has uncovered various alleged criminal networks working within state institutions and siphoning off the country’s revenues. Joint investigations by CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office have reached the highest levels. In a clear example that no one is above the law, former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti are currently in jail, awaiting trial on corruption charges.

However, 2015 has seen remarkably little progress on cases related to grave crimes committed during Guatemala’s internal conflict, for which impunity still seems to be the rule. So far this year, no new case related to conflict-related crimes has been presented in the courts.

Following the signing of the 1996 peace agreements, which put an end to 36 years of brutal civil war, a UN-backed truth commission was established to investigate gross human rights violations committed during the conflict. According to the commission, more than 200,000 people were killed or subjected to enforced disappearance during Guatemala’s civil war, the majority of them indigenous people. The commission also found that state security personnel and paramilitaries were responsible for 93 percent of the violations.

Despite these findings, since the end of the conflict, few have been prosecuted for such grave crimes as enforced disappearance, murder, or sexual and gender-based violence. Moreover, most of those who have been prosecuted and convicted have been low-ranking military officials and paramilitaries. Efforts to prosecute high-ranking soldiers on the basis of command responsibility for atrocities have faced numerous judicial obstacles.

Most notably, in 2013, former dictator Efraín Rios Montt and then-head of military intelligence Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez were tried for genocide and crimes against humanity in relation with the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Ixiles between March 1982 and August 1983. Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison while co-defendant Rodriguez Sanchez was acquitted, but a majority of the Constitutional Court overturned the verdict on technicalities ten days later and ordered a retrial. This new trial has faced a series of challenges in the ensuing years, and on August 25, 2015, the first instance high-risk court, after finding that Rios Montt no longer has sufficient mental capacities to face justice, ordered special procedures under which a new trial cannot result in a criminal conviction―but can establish certain facts related to the civil war. An appeals chamber has subsequently provisionally suspended the trial, which had been scheduled to open on January 11, 2016.

In recent years, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has urged Guatemala to promptly and effectively investigate, prosecute, and punish the alleged perpetrators of atrocities committed during the war. This includes two landmark judgments rendered by the regional court in 2012.

The first case concerns the destruction of the Maya Achi community, which had settled in Rio Negro, Baja Verapaz department, following local resistance to the construction of a major hydroelectric dam in 1978. The military linked the Maya Achi community to the guerrillas and committed four massacres against it. To date, only eight low-ranking members of civil patrols have been convicted for their roles in the deaths of several victims during one of the four massacres.

The other case is linked to the enforced disappearance of at least 183 purported political opponents of the former military regime between August 1983 and March 1985. In 1999, a Guatemalan government death squad diary that revealed their last moments was leaked. More than 30 years after the disappearances and more than 15 years after the military logbook was leaked, there have been no prosecutions.

These are only two of 11 judgments from the Inter-American Court that Guatemala has failed to comply with. The state has justified its non-compliance by arguing that it does not recognize the court’s competence in relation to facts that occurred before March 9, 1987, the date on which the country officially accepted the court’s competence to hear cases related to human rights violations, and also that it disagrees with the court’s conception of continuous violations to justify findings against Guatemala for ongoing failures to investigate and prosecute grave crimes that occurred before March 1987.

The election of former comedian Jimmy Morales as president two weeks ago appears unlikely to spark new momentum for national trials of grave crimes in Guatemala.  The right-wing National Convergence Front party, with which Morales was elected, was founded by retired soldiers, many of them members of the Guatemalan Army Veterans Association. During the 2013 genocide trial against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, the association launched a political and media campaign denying the genocide and discrediting judges, prosecutors, and witnesses participating in the trial.  Moreover, the first legislator elected to the Congress from Morales’s political party, Edgar Ovalle Maldonado, served as a military officer in locations where atrocities were committed during the early 1980s.

In the fight against grand corruption, Guatemala has become an unlikely source of inspiration to neighboring countries. During the election campaign, President-elect Jimmy Morales promised transparency in the administration of his government, which takes office on January 14, 2016. He has announced his intention to renew CICIG’s mandate until 2021. However, with regard to grave crimes, he has thus far been silent.

Even if the Morales administration does not actively promote criminal accountability for conflict-related atrocities, it may not be able to influence the course of prosecutions and trials, as previous administrations have.  Attorney General Thelma Aldana, emboldened in her independence by ground-breaking corruption prosecutions and the continued presence of CICIG, could decide to make a renewed push for justice in cases important to wide swathes of Guatemala’s population and the international community.