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Amnesty and Guatemala’s Civil War

Guatemala’s civil war was, by far, Latin America’s bloodiest, leaving approximately 200,000 people dead. A United Nations-supported truth commission found that more than 90 percent of the human rights violations were committed by the military, including over 600 massacres in primarily indigenous villages. Since the conclusion of the war in 1996, the pursuit of accountability has not gone well. This past August, a Guatemala City judge sentenced four former soldiers to over 6,000 years in prison, for having participated in a massacre in 1982. This was a good thing, but it is nowhere near enough.

Earlier this month, human rights activist Jennifer Harbury (who has been outspoken on questions of accountability in Guatemala for decades), has cited that some people within Guatemala suspect former army personnel will attempt to turn amnesty into official policy. Harbury has said that “within the next few weeks it is very likely that the army officers facing war crimes charges will push through a de facto amnesty, either by removing Claudia Paz, the amazing attorney general, an illegal congressional amnesty (‘punto final’), or through a court ruling canceling international human rights law.”

Since any of the three above mentioned developments would obviate the prospect of any former army official being held accountable for what was undoubtedly genocide, Harbury has implored people to act quickly. This includes her suggestion that people make “emergency” calls to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the coming weeks. Whether such a plan is actually in the works is not clear; such a scheme certainly would not be surprising.

During his campaign, Otto Pérez intimated that he might sack Attorney General Paz if he were elected president. Although earlier this month, Pérez publicly reiterated that he would not remove Paz from her post once he became president. Was the president-elect being disingenuous? More recently, Paz has bravely been demanding that on-going Guatemalan genocide cases continue. Even though she is not necessarily an impartial analyst of Guatemalan politics, Harbury is both knowledgeable and well-sourced—so her claims should not be discounted.

Conversely, it seems unlikely that current president Álvaro Colom or incoming president Pérez would try to get rid of Attorney General Paz. A Paz Attorney Generalship fits in so nicely with Pérez’s firm anti-crime stance and his forthcoming battle against drug traffickers. She is probably not going anywhere. Pérez could reserve the right to remove her later for any number of reasons, like ineffectiveness or baseless allegations of corruption.

There is also a sad and bitter reality that the current dialogue about amnesty in Guatemala has missed: To a great extent, former Guatemalan security personnel have already won. In Guatemala, one rarely sees justice of any kind. About two months ago, a court ruled that erstwhile Guatemalan dictator Óscar Mejía was “too sick” to face charges of war crimes. Similar judicial decisions would not be surprising.

Like anywhere else, holding former military personnel accountable for past atrocities or violations of international humanitarian law poses enormous challenges. In spite of the progress Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has made, human rights supporters are going to be dissatisfied regarding Guatemalan war crimes trials and broader questions of accountability. Guatemala’s impunity-laced past only helps foment on-going human rights violations and pervasive lawlessness which outgoing president Álvaro Colom has done nothing to address. According to the US State Department, Guatemala’s current prosecution rate is somewhere between two and three percent. The current White House petition that Harbury and others are pushing could be a helpful awareness-raising exercise, although it is unlikely to have a significant impact on Guatemalan or US policy.

Few of Guatemala’s former military men will ever be brought to justice. The November election of former General Otto Pérez-Molina served as a rather sickening reminder of this. What could possibly further exemplify a resounding post-conflict “army victory” than an Otto Pérez presidency?

If Harbury is right and a push for amnesty is in the works, US intelligence assets in Guatemala would be well-aware of such a plan and would have probably already briefed the White House. President Obama should publicly denounce any move by Guatemalan army officers for amnesty related to war crimes. It is also important to remember that Guatemala’s civil war was not just a battle between a well-funded Latin American army and a leftist insurgency; that is an oversimplification. There were far more actors than that, including United States civilians and military personnel.

For starters and principally for ideological reasons that arose during the Cold War, the US had much to do with the Guatemalan military’s past “successes.” Through financial support, training, and other forms of assistance, President-elect Otto Pérez is a product of those mistakes. President Obama called Pérez to congratulate him on his electoral victory in late November, but only mundane talking points were released to the public. One would hope President Pérez receives a tepid response when he makes his first trip to Washington, even though history suggests otherwise.