Human rights and victims organizations in Guatemala have worked tirelessly to achieve important victories in the fight against impunity, but much remains to be done to achieve accountability and redress for violations during three decades of internal armed conflict. ICTJ has worked here to assist with reparations and criminal justice initiatives.

Image of a quilt in the memory of the disappeared and murdered from Chimaltenango

A quilt in memory of the disappeared and murdered from Chimaltenango. (Photo from Flickr by d∂wn) 


Background: Justice Delayed

Guatemala’s history is marked by great structural injustice, the marginalization of the indigenous population, and a 36-year internal armed conflict between the government and insurgents.

UN-brokered peace accords were finalized in 1996, ending the war and bringing a promise of truth, reparations, and reforms to address deep-rooted problems.

Under this framework, the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) estimated total deaths and disappearances at 250,000. Its 1999 report—ground-breaking at the time, with its focus on historical and structural factors—found the state’s military operations against some Mayan communities constituted genocide. Earlier, the Catholic Church sponsored one of the most comprehensive unofficial truth commissions ever conducted.

Both commissions concluded that the war took a disproportionate toll on indigenous communities and that more than 90% of the violations—including more than 600 massacres—were committed by the State, which had denied these actions.

Victims groups demanded reparations, but it took almost ten years after the peace accords to start the National Reparations Program. In design, the Program includes many different measures, both to improve people’s material conditions and to provide symbolic recognition to the victims. But in practice, the focus is on small, individual payments, leaving many deeply dissatisfied.

Hundreds of exhumations of have been conducted, and a DNA bank has been set up by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team to help identify remains for their return to families.

In 2005, human rights activists uncovered a trove of millions of National Police files, rotting in a warehouse. A national project was set up to organize the archive and make it available to the public. That work is now bearing fruit as documents from the archive are being used in the first court cases on disappearances.

Only a handful of cases have been prosecuted after years of efforts by victims; dozens of other cases are trapped in a maze of institutional neglect, lost evidence, and judicial stall tactics. Several cases have been tried in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and have served to highlight the negligence and corruption of the national justice system.

In 2004 the Guatemalan State admitted formally for the first time there had been a genocidal policy in its campaign against the Mayan peoples in the landmark Plan de Sanchez case before the Inter-American Court. While reparations were paid, justice has remained as elusive as ever.

Demands that the government provide information on the fate of some 40,000 disappeared have gone unheeded.

On May 10, 2013, 86-year old former military dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to a total of 80 years in prison. This was the first time that a former head of state has been tried for genocide in genuine national proceedings. During the trial, dozens of survivors gave testimony at trial, some of whom were women who were repeatedly raped, others were children when the Guatemalan forces attacked their villages.

The Rios Montt trial came 14 years after the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission concluded that agents of the Guatemalan state had committed acts of genocide against the Mayan Ixil people and other ethnic groups, and that the “state had an obligation to investigate and sanction those crimes.”

Soon after the sentence, the Constitutional Court annulled part of the proceedings on fraudulent procedural grounds, effectively ordering the case to be “back to square one.” A new trial date has tentatively been set for January 2015.

ICTJ's Role

ICTJ has provided assistance to civil society and state institutions on criminal justice initiatives. Most recently, ICTJ partnered with the Open Society Justice Initiative for a website devoted to covering the trial of Rios Montt.

ICTJ also partnered with Impunity Watch to produce a report on the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—a hybrid mechanism created by the UN and Guatemala to strengthen prosecution of criminal groups that grew out of former military intelligence structures. In 2010 we advised local organization on improving advocacy efforts on reparations.

Earlier work included:

  • Advising the government on best practices in reparations policy.
  • Facilitating an exchange between a representative of Guatemala’s Reparations Commission with Peruvian counter-parts for a regional discussion on implementing reparations.
  • Training attorneys, prosecutors, and judges working on human rights cases resulting from the armed conflict.
  • Providing a long-term consultant to work inside the Attorney General’s office to offer technical advice on the criminal investigations of alleged massacres in an attempt to move the cases forward.