Guatemala’s Search for Justice Continues: A Conversation with Prosecutor General Claudia Paz


The prosecution of Guatemala’s former military dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, moved forward on March 29 when the prosecutor general presented the indictment and accompanying supporting evidence in the case. The indictment charges Rios Montt with genocide and “crimes against humanitarian duties” under the national criminal code in respect of alleged atrocities committed between March 1982 and August 1983.

Earlier this month, five former members of right-wing paramilitary groups that were active during Guatemala’s civil war were sentenced to a total of 7,710 years in prison for a 1982 massacre in the central highland community of Plan de Sánchez. A Guatemalan soldier was sentenced to 6,060 years imprisonment for his role in the deaths of 201 people in the village of Dos Erres, also in 1982.

The search for justice in Guatemala continues, more than 15 years after the end of its long and brutal civil war. Claudia Paz, Guatemala’s prosecutor general and head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, spoke with ICTJ about the struggle of victims and survivors to obtain justice for the crimes they suffered.

What has the transitional justice process in Guatemala been since the end of the Civil War?

We lived through a conflict in Guatemala that lasted more than thirty years, ending with a peace accord signed in 1996. There were widespread and grave human rights violations during the war, many of which remained unpunished until recently. These crimes were documented in 1998–1999 by the Commission for Historical Clarification [CEH], a truth commission which collected the testimonies of victims. But despite efforts to obtain truth and reparation for those crimes, a justice and accountability deficit remained.

"The advances we have made are important but they are still not enough."
    Efforts to obtain justice for these crimes have fallen on the shoulders of the victims and survivors, including the relatives of people who were disappeared or who died in massacres. These efforts have led to some historic sentences, such as the Cándido Noriega case, the Río Negro case or the Myrna Mack case.

However, the majority of the crimes have remained unpunished thanks to numerous appeals hindering the justice process, and because there has been no real political will to take these cases to court.

The advances we have made are important but they are still not enough; we can count on one hand the number of convictions obtained for cases that occurred during the war.

What were the most important crimes for which trials were being sought and who was responsible for them?

The CEH speaks of crimes like torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, genocide, sexual violence and rape, as well as violations of international human rights law. According to the commission, both state groups and non-state entities were responsible. State groups included the army, the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PAC), and members of the national police; the non-state entities were guerrillas.

The commission’s report says that roughly three percent of the crimes were committed by the guerillas and the rest were committed by state groups.

Guatemala is one of the few cases in the world to have recognized genocide was committed during the war. Who was responsible and who were the victims?

The CEH report speaks of genocide being committed against four peoples: the Maya-ixil, the Maya-achi, the Maya-k’iche’, and the Maya-q’anjob’al in northern Huehuetenango.

A lawsuit was filed for these acts of genocide, which didn’t really advance until about 2009–2010, when the case was taken up by the Prosecutor’s Office. The office issued arrest warrants in mid-2011 for three people: Óscar Mejía Víctores, defense minister during the period these acts of genocide are said to have taken place; Héctor López Fuentes, then army chief of staff; and José Rodríguez, director of the secret police. Mejia Víctores, however, was declared unfit to stand trial, which has led to proceedings being suspended, and it is still being determined whether Fuentes is fit to stand trial as well.

How does the struggle against impunity benefit a society like Guatemala’s, which is so polarized about its past and has so many other challenges to face?

It is very important for my country to strengthen the rule of law. Acts as serious as those that happened during the civil war must be penalized to make sure they never happen again, regardless of who carried them out. If the criminal law system doesn’t act, if it is indifferent in the face of torture, forced disappearance, or genocide, that creates the impression that some people can kill and others can’t or that it is ok for some people to be killed. To the extent that we succeed in trying these cases, we are strengthening the rule of law.    
"If the law is not applied equally to all, the moral force of the application of the law starts eroding."

When impunity is tolerated for some acts it opens the door for tolerating impunity for many others; if the law is not applied equally to all, the moral force of the application of the law starts eroding. In addition, those structures that operated during the war can now continue operating for other purposes, like personal profit, and they remain untouchable. It is thus very important for the present security that people who have committed a criminal act be brought to justice and, if proven guilty, that they serve out their sentence.

The president of the country recently apologized for crimes committed during the war. There has also been state-level acknowledgment of the genocide against the Maya population. What value do these kinds of symbolic measures have?

The acknowledgment of responsibility, and apologizing in the name of the state, are of very great value to the victims, just as justice has a reparative meaning for them, because at last they can face the perpetrators on an equal footing. The justice system can never be seen as isolated from other transitional justice measures.

Transcript adapted from an interview conducted in Spanish.

Photo: A woman with her daughter view the pictures of people who lost their lives during the Guatemalan civil war. JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images.