I conduct field research in Guatemala, an exceedingly beautiful country that is home to many incredibly kind and generous people, who largely have great senses of humor, to boot. When I tell Americans who happen to have visited Guatemala where I do my research, they’re invariably jealous. They’re likely thinking of the charming town of Antigua (a UN World Heritage site), gorgeous Lake Atitlán, or Quetzaltenango, all fun places to visit on your next spring break. No, I’m not being paid by INGUAT.
However, Guatemala also has one of the highest crime rates in the hemisphere, compounded by the fact that upwards of 95 per cent of crimes go without prosecution.* Much of the violence is related to organized crime, drug trade, and gang activities and is exacerbated by high rates of economic inequality and poverty. In 2010, a 13-year-old boy shot and killed a woman in exchange for 100 quetzales (about $12).
Underlying all of this is the very recent history of internal armed conflict (1960- 1996) during which 200,000 people were killed. Testimonies collected by the Catholic Church and United Nations after the fact revealed that the military (rather than the rebelling guerilla forces) was responsible for 93 per cent of the violence. 80% of the deaths and disappearances were of Maya people, leading the UN to classify the conflict as genocide. Until recently, none of the military leaders responsible for civil war violence had been brought to trial. The handful of lower-ranking soldiers who have been arrested for crimes related to the war either had their cases thrown out before reaching trial, or have received abbreviated sentences. The same corruption and social inequality that contribute to present-day violent crime and impunity also hamper the pursuit of justice for civil war crimes.
The country made international headlines in 2012, however, when former dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt was arrested and put on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. As an elected member of congress, he had previously received immunity from prosecution for crimes committed from 1982-83. When his congressional term was up in January 2012, so was his immunity. In the past this may not have made a difference to Ríos Montt– he maintains a certain level of popularity, and even ran for president in 2007. Just a few years ago, he might have continued to live out his life in relative peace and quiet, likely surrounded by his private bodyguards. Instead, he became the first former dictator in the world to be tried for war crimes in his own country.
Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s first female attorney general, was appointed in 2010 and has received much of the credit for this shift in the Guatemalan justice system. Despite the praise, she maintains that she is “just doing her job.” Earlier this week she became one of 259 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize. If she wins (which may, sadly, be a long shot), she would join Rigoberta Menchú Tum as the second Peace Prize winner from Guatemala. Menchú Tum won the Prize in 1992 for her work to raise international awareness of civil war violence in Guatemala. It’s notable that both of these peace advocates are women, in a country with significant gender discrimination, and that both are recognized for their work related to civil war violence and its aftermath. While it’s depressing to acknowledge that 11 years after Menchú Tum’s Nobel, peace and justice are still not the norm, it’s also incredible that Paz y Paz has accomplished so much in so little time.
Chief judge Yazmín Barrios and her two co-judges convicted Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity in May of this year. One week later, the Guatemalan Supreme Court overturned the verdict on a technicality, setting the trial back to a stage prior to witness testimony. Nevertheless, the trial and verdict remain a symbolic victory. Nothing can undo the oral testimonies from Ixil-Maya witnesses to the massacres, nor the reaction of the courtroom audience when Judge Barrios read the verdict. The simple fact that Ríos Montt was arrested and forced to sit in a courtroom while people openly accused him of these atrocities in itself was a landmark event, made possible by Paz y Paz’s actions as attorney general.
This piece has a 15-minute video (produced by Dateline) on crime in Guatemala and Paz y Paz’s work. It gives a bit too much credit to the national police, in my experience, but it’s a nice profile of the attorney general. My favorite part is when she’s talking about being profiled in a national magazine, and having to be made up to meet certain standards of “femininity”– “I had to sit for two hours while they did stuff to my face… I don’t look that made-up, considering all they did to me.”
Around 11 minutes they explain a bit about the Ríos Montt case, and at 14 minutes they feature some of the important work being done by forensic anthropologists.
*Lest I be accused of fear mongering or scaring away the valuable tourist dollars (tourism is one of the highest grossing industries in Guatemala), most tourists will not experience anything more than petty crime in Guatemala– and then only if they’re either very stupid or very unlucky. Plus, there’s a highly effective tourism police force that deals with any crime involving foreigners. The high rates of violent crimes affect primarily Guatemalans for a variety of political, economic, and historical reasons that are too complex to get into in this short blog post.
For more on the Ríos Montt case and trial, please visit the incredibly complete site http://www.riosmontt-trial.org/