“Impunity does not die quickly”: Transitional Justice in Post-Civil War Guatemala

(Photo: Elena Hermosa)

(Photo: Elena Hermosa)

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Guatemala is a country grappling with how to address the horrors of its recent past. Between 1960 and 1996, the country was engaged in a tortuous civil war between the authoritarian government, installed through a CIA-backed coup in June 1954, and a coalition of leftwing rebel groups, typically from poor, rural, Mayan communities. Over 200,000 civilians were killed or ‘disappeared’ (the practice of US-trained death squads capturing, torturing, and executing opponents, then disposing their bodies into the Pacific). A human rights truth commission sponsored by the United Nations was published in 1999 and attributed 93% of the atrocities to government forces.[1] According to the commission, the activities of the Guatemalan government amounted to genocide against the Mayan people.

In 2013, after years of wrangling, former dictator José Efrían Ríos Montt was finally brought to trial, as was the former Director of Military Intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. In May 2013 the prosecution secured a guilty verdict against Ríos Montt on the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, and against Rodríguez Sánchez for committing crimes against humanity. However, the victory in the fight against impunity was short lived. Ten days after the verdict, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala controversially ordered a portion of the trial to be repeated, citing a supposed violation of a legal technicality in the oral debate. Subsequent efforts to reinitiate the trial have not been successful. In the words of Edgar Gutiérrez Girón, foreign minister between 2002 and 2004, post-conflict Guatemala has become “a kingdom of impunity”.[2]

Like a number of other countries recuperating after civil war, Guatemala has pursued policies of transitional justice. A product of the late Cold War, transitional justice was conceived as a way for formerly repressive regimes to transition to more peaceful, democratic, just societies. It involves a range of measures that identify and redress the legacies of past misdeeds, including investigating historic human rights abuses, putting perpetrators on trail, and providing reparations to victims. In the past decade, transitional justice has been advocated in a range of different contexts, from gang violence to urban poverty to public education, but it is in foreign policy that it remains most closely associated. Indeed, in a series of policy papers released by the US State Department in June 2016, the promotion of transitional justice programs was identified as a distinct US foreign policy imperative.[3]

Alejandra Castillo Díaz is the Assistant Director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos, CALDH), the organization that led the prosecution against President Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez. In this interview with Rebecca TeKolste and Erik Woodward, Ms. Díaz discussed the mechanisms of transitional justice currently operating in Guatemala.

YJIA: In the current Guatemalan context, what does transitional justice refer to?

Alejandra Castillo Díaz: When we talk about transitional justice, we’re are talking about the search for memory, truth, justice, and just reparations. We’re talking about how, as a result of these processes, survivors become political actors with the capability to generate political transformations at the national level and, through social movements and spaces, also at the community level. These processes develop organically over a long period; it is impossible to achieve in the short term.

Sentencing is not the ultimate goal of judicial processes. Instead, as in the processes of searching for justice, you generate other conditions, which fortify and recuperate political identity, community identity, and the ability of communities to break the silence about what happened. This search for justice also allows people to see reforms happening in the judicial system and to integrate themselves into these spaces for justice.

YJIA: When I think about transitional justice, I always think about a tension between forgiveness and retribution in the eyes of the victim of violence. But there is also tension surrounding how to treat the person that committed the crime, right?

ACD: Well, we talked about this in a community and community members said to me: “how can I forgive if I don’t know who committed the violations?”

I think that the first act that we have to address is to search for mechanisms that guarantee that these acts won’t be repeated. When we are looking for transitional justice, what we are saying is, “no person, whatever position they may have, can commit human rights violations, not during conflict nor in times of peace.” And this is what the men and women have said, and testified, in the trials. When they are asked by the judge, “why are you testifying,” they respond, “I don’t want my children, my grandchildren, to live what I lived.”

So, I think that it is broader than forgiveness. Transitional justice gives you a system that recognizes that violations were committed, that no dictator, in this case, is going to commit violations or corruption, not even acts that denigrate the life of a citizen. In the communities in which these processes are managed, this is not a reconciliation but a dialogue that permits knowing where exactly the “disappeared” are. There are mechanisms that aim to guarantee non-repetition: one is justice and another is truth, understanding what was it that happened and how can we learn from how we have lived. I think that it is beyond the victim/victimizer relationship. It is a transformational process, engaging the continuing structural problem of racism.

YJIA: Can you speak to us more specifically about this in the Guatemalan context?

ACD: It is important to consider how Guatemalans live in a context where racism and classism and patriarchy have been part of the construction of the state. They have always been a part of the history of Guatemala, beginning with the Spanish invasion [in the early sixteenth century], when the nation was constructed. Racism, classism, and patriarchy have been internalized in decisions and decision-making processes, and are a motor of human rights violations. So, after an internal armed conflict that lasted 36 years and included crimes against humanity, sexual violence, and genocide, we should ask: how do we use the processes of transitional justice to re-envision ourselves as a society? How can we identify these structural problems, principally racism and the recognition of the human rights of indigenous populations? It is necessary to identify these problems and to speak about them in order to transit to this path of change.

After an armed conflict that lasted 36 years, how do we use the processes of transitional justice to re-envision ourselves as a society?

YJIA: Your law firm was involved in the 2013 trial that found former dictator Efrían Ríos Montt guilty of committing the crime of genocide, and former head of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez guilty of committing crimes against humanity. While the verdict has never been nullified, the case itself has been reopened due to alleged technical irregularities in the judicial process. What is happening with this case?

ACD: Well, impunity does not die quickly. After the verdict was recalled, there were several attempts to initiate a new trial. The last attempt was successful. Ríos Montt is in poor health, he doesn’t have the mental ability to be able to participate in a trial. However, there is a detail in the judicial system that says that when a person isn’t able to participate in court, a representative can be assigned for him, but the trial must occur behind closed doors. The problem with this is that, since the beginning, the tribunal decided to conduct the two trials against Rodriguez Sánchez and Ríos Montt together. This was a violation of the right of Rodriguez Sanchez to his own trial. Incredible. If they are divided, the trial would have to return to the beginning in separate trials. This would be the fourth attempt to bring these two to trial. Guatemalan law also says that a trial can be halted for a maximum of fifteen days. We have already passed more than this, so we would have to, no matter what, return to the beginning.

YJIA: The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an anti-corruption commission under the joint auspices of the United Nations and the Guatemalan government, has helped to uncover corruption in the highest levels of government, including investigations which led to the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in 2015. What is the role of the CICIG in creating institutional capacity to pursue transitional justice initiatives in Guatemala?

ACD: The CICIG entered at a moment in which even they could not tackle previous cases. But they have helped significantly. In the case of the Public Ministry, they transferred investigation tools and created criminal investigation protocols, and this strengthens the investigation conditions of many of the units of the public ministry. On the other side, it strengthened the judicial system, through the creation of the High Risk Tribunals, which heard the cases of transitional justice. From there we can see how the authorities are bringing cases of corruption or drug trafficking.

YJIA: We have talked about the work of the CICIG and other organizations but I assume that the objective is that transitional justice solutions ultimately come from Guatemala. So, what changes in Guatemala will aid this process?

ACD: Purifying the judicial system. For every major case – I’m referring to corruption, drug trafficking, transitional justice – you can find out who is the judge, you can find their connections, where they come from, who they talk to. And you can have the knowledge to say, “This judge is acting according to a context of impunity.”

Another [change] is to separate the work of the army and the national police. You cannot have an army together with the police. They have two distinct mandates. The police or the army do not have the capacity to do the work of a citizen. It was not made for this. It is always said that the army should exist because the police are corrupt or because the police don’t have the capacity. Yes, the police have to be purified. But it should also have its own budget and we should strengthen this budget to create a citizen’s police, which is the goal of the Peace Accords.

Finally, I think the 1996 Peace Accords, which brought an end to the war, must be recuperated. We have to go back to revisit them, see what has advanced, and everything that hasn’t advanced, we must ask why it hasn’t advanced.


About the Interviewee

Alejandra Castillo Díaz is the Assistant Director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos, CALDH). CALDH specializes in cases of transitional justice, representing victims of state sponsored violence during the country’s 36-year civil war, from 1960-1996.

Translation by Erik Woodward and Zack Devlin-Foltz.

Edited by Alex Defroand


[1] United Nations Truth Commission: Guatemala; Commission for Historical clarification, 1997-1999

[1] “The Novelist and the Murderers”, Nathaniel Popper, June 18, 2008 https://www.thenation.com/article/novelist-and-murderers/

[1] https://www.justsecurity.org/31722/us-policy-transitional-justice/


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