A Noble Dream: The Tenacious Pursuit of Justice in Guatemala


By Marcie Mersky

Bring General Ríos Montt and other high-ranking members of the military to trial in the Guatemalan courts for genocide? In 1999 it was a noble dream for justice for the thousands of Mayan victims of the country’s civil war, and for the entire country, but one with little apparent possibility of ever coming true. The UN-backed Guatemalan truth commission where I worked, the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), had just released its findings that state forces had committed genocide in at least three regions of the country. The report vindicated human rights defenders and hundreds of Mayan communities who had for years denounced the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples and the razing of their villages during the early 1980s at the height of the war. It sent shock waves through the military and the elites who had supported the genocidal counterinsurgency effort.

But a trial? In the severely weakened and compromised Guatemalan justice system, which had tried only one case of an extrajudicial killing related to the conflict in over 30 years?

I was among the doubters on that front. By then I had spent some 20 years living and working in or on Guatemala, first on land issues and later with a stronger focus on human rights and redress for the victims of the war. In the 1990s, through my work with the CEH and REMHI, the Catholic Church’s project for the Recovery of Historical Memory, I heard testimony from hundreds of victims. Their vivid stories of atrocity, suffering, and the enormous efforts to rebuild their lives, told with great dignity and often with a certain sense of disbelief at their own survival, are still very present with me. They wanted the truth to be known and affirmed about the injustice and indignities that they had experienced. The right to truth for them was a clear form of justice.

At the same time, others began to build “the case.” The CEH's finding of genocide helped catalyze these efforts further. Over the next 14 years, dozens of people, mostly Guatemalan, worked diligently, taking tiny steps forward and overcoming many setbacks to bring the genocide case to trial in the most unlikely of settings. That determination combined with the growing skills of Guatemalan lawyers and human rights defenders; the emergence of a small and very courageous group of judges and prosecutors in a justice system slowly developing some degrees of independence; and above all the insistent demand for justice from the victims themselves led to the day in March 2013 when two generals — one a former head of state, the other the former head of military intelligence — came face-to-face with the court, and their victims, to stand trial for genocide.

The trial allowed the victims to be heard in public as they never had been before, and for a society to confront the truth about horrible events that they may have ignored or denied. It also brought to the fore Guatemala’s very deep and persistent structural divides: fault lines that divide along axes of wealth, ethnicity, and power. In the end, in order to force the overturn of the conviction, the country’s elites laid themselves bare, in their exercise of their raw, unchecked power.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. In the in-depth narrative that follows, ICTJ's Marta Martínez tells this compelling story through the words and reflections of some of the main protagonists. The struggle for justice never comes down to one person. It’s the result of a constellation of known and unknown people, whose relentless efforts and commitment over a long period of time finally align and make something extraordinary happen. This is a story of some of the stars that made up that constellation in Guatemala. On this International Justice Day, I hope you will find it as insightful and inspiring as I have!

Walk the long road to justice in Guatemala

Also available in Spanish

PHOTO: Scene from the Ríos Montt trial. (Sandra Sebastián/Plaza Pública)