Anniversary of Guatemala’s Genocide Verdict Marked by Denial and Polarization



On May 10th 2013, a Guatemalan court convicted former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Mayan Ixil population during the country’s civil war in the early 1980’s. Yet the victims could enjoy their long overdue vindication for only 10 days, before the Constitutional Court ordered a retrial. The trial will begin again in 2015.

As Guatemala and the international community mark the first anniversary of this historic verdict, the country’s political elite and its institutions refuse to acknowledge or address its legacy of atrocities, which has led to outright denial that the genocide even took place: On Tuesday, Guatemalan Congress approved a non-binding resolution that denies there was any attempt to commit genocide during the civil war, and at the same time, called for "national reconciliation."

For insight into these developments, we talked with Marcie Mersky, ICTJ’s Director of Programs, who just returned from Guatemala. In this interview with ICTJ’s Marta Martínez, Mersky analyzes the impact of the Ríos Montt verdict on a very polarized society, including the departure of Claudia Paz y Paz from the position of Attorney General, and the recent effort to disbar Judge Yassmín Barrios –the presiding judge in the trial of Ríos Montt.


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“[Guatemala] remains a deeply polarized society where the structural injustices and problems that led to conflict in the first place have mostly been unattended,” says Mersky. “Those same frustrations, those same power dynamics that played out and led to the war itself, while maybe softened around the edges, in some cases are still very present.”

She notes that opinions about the genocide conviction are very polarized. “For victims, it’s been an incredible vindication of their right to justice, their very deep understanding of what an injustice feels like, and that they have been right in insisting that genocide was committed against them,” Mersky explains. “They feel pride in what they were able to accomplish, but also deep frustration that the system in the end proved that in fact it did not defend their rights.”

On the other hand, the verdict “has shown how deeply unremorseful and unreformed the country’s power elites remain,” said Mersky, who says is concerned about the “absolute unwillingness to accept deep wrongdoing” by the Guatemalan elites because it sends a message that under similar circumstances, crimes could be repeated.

Mersky also discusses the Constitutional Court’s decision to make Claudia Paz y Paz step down as Attorney General, seven months earlier than her term was due to expire. The decision cited a transitory element of the Constitution as its basis, but the move is being seen in the country and internationally as politically-motivated. “Almost certainly, it was at its core a form of retaliation for her decision to have the prosecution move forward on the genocide trial, but it’s also very much related to the presidential elections, which will take place in 2015.”

With regards to the newly appointed Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, Mersky doesn’t expect prosecutions of serious crimes from the past to move forward. “There will be no more high-level prosecutions that prosper,” she said.

Despite these grave challenges, Mersky stresses that the trial of Rios Montt offers some positive lessons for other transitioning countries: First, the process demonstrated the importance of long-term reform of institutions to ensure their independence. In addition, the trial displayed the critical role civil society has to play in pursuit of human rights prosecutions. Lastly, Mersky says the trial showed why during prosecutions of this kind, the focus should be on the victims. “It was the victims’ voices—their testimonies, their conviction to move this case forward and to try and achieve justice—that was at the center of the process.”

PHOTO: An indigenous woman following the Ríos Montt trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Mayan Ixil population during the country’s civil war in the early 1980’s. Guatemala City, April 1st, 2013. (Sandra Sebastián/Plaza Pública)