Ten Years After Genocide Trial in Guatemala, Justice System Suffering Trust Deficit

People sit in court to attend the trial of Guatemala's former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges in Guatemala City, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

On May 10, 2013, a trial in Guatemala City found former de facto president Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Maya Ixil population in the municipalities of Santa Maria Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul, and San Juan Cotzal in the department of Quiché between March 1982 and October 1983. It was the first time a former head of state was prosecuted in a domestic court for genocide. However, ten days later, the country’s Constitutional Court annulled the verdict citing technicalities, revealing the fundamental contradictions in the justice system tied to the enduring legacies of the war.

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The verdict acknowledged the abuses against the Indigenous Maya population and set an important precedent, marking a brief glimmer of hope for war-time prosecutions. Its subsequent annulment also triggered a backlash against key players in the case, including disbarment and legal complaints against presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios and former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, which have been increasing over the years through legal attacks against war-time prosecutions and human rights more broadly.

The ten-year anniversary of the historic trial coincides with a process of erosion in judicial independence in the country, with judges and prosecutors seeking protection and going into exile. Between 2021 and 2022, the United Nations (UN) human rights office (OHCHR) in Guatemala documented a more than 70 percent rise in the number of judicial system workers facing intimidation and criminal charges for their work on corruption or human rights violations, particularly those that occurred in the context of the civil war from 1960 to 1996. UN High Commissioner Völker Turk issued a statement expressing “deep concern” with the persecution of judicial officials investigating corruption and impunity at the highest levels of government, asserting: “It is dramatic, given Guatemala’s history, that those fighting for accountability for gross human rights violations are the ones now being persecuted.”

Restoring Impunity: A New Pattern of Persecution?

The undoing of the genocide verdict revealed a fundamental contradiction in the justice system in Guatemala. That a domestic trial court could maneuver through obstacles to deliver a ruling in a complex case involving international crimes, including genocide, and crimes against humanity was no small accomplishment. At the same time, the structural flaws of the justice system were revealed to be tied to the enduring legacies of the war.

One decade after the Ixil genocide trial, the threats to the Guatemalan rule of law are rooted in impunity. The overturn and recent years of persecution underscore how corruption operates at the core of its justice system. The level of backsliding that has occurred since the expulsion of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, by its Spanish acronym) in late 2019 has persisted at an unbridled pace. Under the current administration, the public prosecutor’s office is now criminalizing—i.e., arbitrarily using penal law to persecute—justice operators deemed as detractors, and over 30 judges and prosecutors have gone into exile.

Moreover, organizations and individuals regularly and systematically initiate judicial or disciplinary proceedings in retaliation against judges and prosecutors. The pro-military organization Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT) has used intimidatory tactics to obstruct and stop human rights trials, including twice presenting allegations of abuse of authority against Orlando López, lead prosecutor in the genocide case. FCT previously had an active role during the campaign portraying the 2013 genocide hearings as divisive and an obstacle to peace and reconciliation. The small group made up of retired military officers, many of whom participated in the counterinsurgency war and are intensely opposed to criminal trials in human rights cases, circulated a series of pamphlets and paid advertisements, calling the genocide charges mere fabrications and accused those involved of sympathizing with guerrilla movements.

The recent case of Guatemala’s most well-known and respected judge, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, shows how organizations like the FCT continue to be engaged in acts of intimidation against justice operators who work on corruption and human rights cases, especially in cases involving military members. Judge Gálvez presided over the “Death Squad Dossier,” or Diario Militar case, Guatemala’s most important transitional justice case since the 2013 Maya Ixil genocide trial. The case involves the forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual abuse of at least 195 Guatemalans during the military government of Humberto Mejía Víctores (1983-1986), who succeeded Ríos Montt after another coup d’état. Judge Gálvez began hearing the evidence against the first suspects in May 2022, but when he was about to initiate the evidentiary phase hearings against the defendants, the FCT ramped up its campaign to criminalize and intimidate the judge. Six months later, in November 2022, Judge Gálvez announced his retirement from the court and now lives in exile in Costa Rica.

The Institutional Legacies of War

The 2013 genocide case must be understood as a constitutive element in Guatemala’s contemporary politics of memory. The current attack on independent prosecutors is the latest iteration of counterinsurgency state tactics. The institutions in the Guatemalan justice sector that once effectively conducted a historic trial now work together to target those same high-risk judges whose prosecutions dismantled corrupt networks ingrained in the state since wartime.

Although the 2013 justice system and the public prosecutor’s office in Guatemala were able to investigate and prosecute genocide, judicial independence buckled under the pressure of elite groups determined to overturn the conviction once punishment was handed down. While victims of grave violations sought remedy through legal recourse, those opposed to the genocide trial launched a sinister campaign that sought to demonize and discredit human rights organizations, victims of human rights abuses, and judicial operators linked to the genocide case, highlighting that some sectors remained willing to resort to old practices of threats and intimidation to protect their interests, rather than abide by the rule of law. That political disciplinary mechanism characterizes what in 2023 is becoming a “kleptocracy” in Guatemala, as described by novelist Francisco Goldman.

As this publication has noted in the past, the case of Guatemala is complex, and the development issues in the largest economy in Central America are grounded on unfulfilled promises of the peace accords. The hope for positive peace in Guatemala is vanishing with an increasingly “co-opted justice system,” and most judges exiled or beholden to unscrupulous politicians. The trust people had started to feel in the Public Ministry and the judiciary has now been nearly entirely erased. Still, ten years ago, the court demonstrated the crime of genocide in a court of law with deliberate and sound prosecutorial methodologies. Despite the overwhelming challenges, the victims’ intergenerational struggle for memory, truth, and justice continues.

Vaclav Masek is a Guatemalan political sociologist who studies social movements in democratizing contexts.