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

(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 U.S.-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 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, also at the community level. These processes develop organically over a long period; it is impossible to achieve immediately.

Sentencing is not the ultimate goal of judicial processes. Instead, in searching for justice, you generate conditions that recuperate and fortify political identity, community identity, and the ability to break the silence about what happened. This search needs people to see reforms in the judicial system and to integrate themselves in the judicial process.

YJIA: When we think about transitional justice, we think about a tension between forgiveness and retribution in the eyes of the victim. How is this tension reconciled in Guatemala?

ACD: The primary objective of transitional justice is to find mechanisms that guarantee that these acts won’t be repeated. It must build a system that recognizes that violations were committed and that no dictator will commit violations or denigrate the life of a citizen again. This message is shown in the testimonies of men and women in the trials. When they were asked by the judge, “why are you testifying,” they responded, “I don’t want my children and grandchildren to experience what I lived through.”

This broader than forgiveness. It is a transformation of the structures of Guatemalan society.

For them, this broader than forgiveness. People say to me: “how can I forgive if I don’t know who committed the violations?” So there are two parts to the process of transitional justice: one is justice, another is truth. This is not a reconciliation with the perpetrators but a dialogue. They want to to understand exactly what happened, where the ‘disappeared’ are, and how can we learn from this experience. So this moves beyond the victim/victimizer relationship. It is a transformation of the structures of Guatemalan society.

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

ACD: It is important to recognize the prevalence of racism, classism, and patriarchy to the lives of Guatemalan people. Since the Spanish invasion [in the early sixteenth century] when the state was constructed, they have always been a part of the nation’s history. They 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 thirty-six 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 disregard of the rights of indigenous populations, and rectify them?

After an armed conflict that lasted thirty-six 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 crimes against humanity. While the verdict has not been nullified, the case itself has been reopened due to alleged technical irregularities in the judicial process. What is happening with this case?

ACD: Impunity does not die quickly. After the verdict was recalled, there were several attempts to initiate a new trial alongside Montt’s director of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. The last attempt was successful. However, Ríos Montt is in poor health and doesn’t have the mental ability to be able to participate in a trial. 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 is that this is 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. This would be the fourth attempt to bring these two to trial.

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: First, we must purify the judicial system. For every major case – corruption, drug trafficking, transitional justice – you can find out who the judge is, their connections, where they come from, who they talk to. And you can use this knowledge to say, “This judge is acting according to a context of impunity.”

Second, we must separate the work of the army and the national police. They have two distinct mandates. It is always said that the army should exist because the police are corrupt or because the police don’t have the capacity to protect citizens. Yes, the police have to be purified. But it should also have its own budget, 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 and revised. 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 thirty-six-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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