New Bad Old Times for Guatemala?

It has been only a year since a court convicted Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, a former president of Guatemala, of genocide, a step hailed as a breakthrough for the country’s fragile democracy. And yet Guatemala’s hard-won progress is starting to falter; if nothing is done, it could easily slip back into authoritarianism, violence and disregard for basic human rights.

The trial of General Ríos Montt, who as the unelected president from 1982 to 1983 oversaw the murder of tens of thousands of Guatemalans, was the first time in history that a head of state anywhere was tried and convicted of genocide in a domestic courtroom. It was also supposed to be a major turning point for Guatemala’s court system, which, until recently, punished only 2 percent of all crimes.

New Bad Old Times for Guatemala?

But less than two weeks later, the verdict was annulled on procedural grounds. The decision was a cruel disappointment for the victims of General Ríos Montt’s regime, whose expectations had been raised by the trial, and a huge relief for former military leaders, who feared that they might stand trial next, and for powerful businesspeople who financed the country’s civil war.

Nevertheless, as Guatemala faded from headlines, a flurry of political mobilization and maneuvering began. The poor, who had borne the brunt of General Ríos Montt’s regime, were emboldened by the trial and demonstrated en masse when the verdict was annulled.

Despite the disappointing outcome, the country’s indigenous majority believed the justice system might actually be made to work in their favor, that their voices had been heard and their rights respected. Since then, there have been sustained and increasingly defiant organizing and protests by peasants in rural areas of Guatemala, especially in regions plagued by land conflicts and growing tensions over the development of hydroelectric plants and subsoil mining.

But the country’s elite, threatened by the idea of a justice system that might begin to work against them and by growing peasant activism, soon pushed back. The Guatemalan Bar Association first struck against the judge who ruled against General Ríos Montt, temporarily revoking her license to practice law. Then, last month, secret recordings surfaced in the Guatemalan press in which several politicians and lawyers could be heard bribing and blackmailing one another, in an effort to stack the supreme and appellate courts.

Business groups also maneuvered behind the scenes to pressure the constitutional court, and force Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general who had been a standard-bearer for the reformers by prosecuting gangsters and generals, out of office.

The commission that was established to nominate a new attorney general removed Ms. Paz y Paz from the list of contenders, even though its own assessment ranked her as the second-most qualified candidate. Asked whether politics intervened in the process, the commission president acknowledged, “It is possible.”

Then, on May 10, the first anniversary of the genocide conviction, President Otto Pérez Molina appointed a lawyer named Thelma Aldana as the new attorney general. The move was a slap in the face to reformers: Ms. Aldana has been accused of having close ties to the political party once run by General Ríos Montt and to the current vice president, Roxana Baldetti, who has been exposed by the Guatemalan press for having used her office for personal enrichment.

Ms. Aldana’s own statements are worrisome as well: She has been openly critical of her predecessor, Ms. Paz y Paz, whom she describes as having “favored the political left,” and has stressed her willingness to consider granting amnesty to members of the Guatemalan military who participated in crimes of genocide during the civil war.

The government and the country’s wealthy landowners, meanwhile, have wasted no time in violently putting peasants back in their place. Instead of entering into a dialogue with protesters, the president has openly branded them criminals and terrorists. In such a climate, it is no surprise that Guatemala is ranked the most dangerous place in the world to be a union activist: Eighteen human rights defenders, mostly peasant activists, were killed this past year — the highest number of attacks on activist leaders since the end of the civil war.

In early April, security guards for a wealthy landowner shot six unarmed peasants protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam. In a separate incident just two weeks later, armed assailants murdered a 16-year-old girl, who was the leader of an anti-mining youth movement, and critically wounded her father, who had organized his community to vote against a local mining project.

For all this, the rest of the world has been silent. Distracted by conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the United States has not replaced its ambassador in Guatemala, a position that has been open since October.

A United Nations commission that has been instrumental in taking down organized crime bosses is nearing the end of its allotted time in the country, and there is nothing in line to replace it. President Molina, who in the past has lobbied the Guatemalan Congress to keep the commission in the country, has been silent this time, and neither the United States nor the United Nations has pressed him on it.

Abandoned and isolated, Guatemala’s poor have been left to fend for themselves against the people who see any steps toward a fairer, more functional system as a threat to their fortunes and their legacies. Without a watchful eye from abroad, they have been able to revert to their old behavior, making sure the unjust structures that serve their needs stay in place, even at the expense of rising unrest, polarization and violence.

Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College and the author of the forthcoming book From Victims to Citizens: The Politics of Transitional Justice in Postwar Guatemala.

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