On the Brink of Justice in Guatemala

For over a week Guatemala has been consumed with the court proceedings against Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the country in the early 1980s, on charges of genocide. But he isn’t the only one on trial.

I have spent the past 15 years researching and writing about postwar justice in Guatemala. I am encouraged that, a decade and a half after peace accords ended 36 years of civil war, Guatemala is being given a chance to show the world how much progress it has made in building democracy. The trial gives the Guatemalan state a chance to prove that it can uphold the rule of law and grant its indigenous Mayan people, who suffered greatly under Mr. Ríos Montt, the same respectful treatment, freedoms and rights the rest of its citizens enjoy.

Still, the trial process could be the trickiest part. Given how weak the former general’s case is, the defense has already set its sights on appeal, on the grounds that Mr. Ríos Montt was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial — a denial of justice that the veteran defense team itself is supposedly trying to engineer.

Of course, win or lose, the case could still be a victory for the government if it gives voice to Mr. Ríos Montt’s Mayan victims. So far, the prosecution has gone to great lengths to do just that.

The prosecution opened the proceedings with testimonials from indigenous people, provided interpreters so they could speak in their native language (which, as one witness explained to me, is “so much easier because I know the words”) and is listening aghast to the unimaginable horrors they tell. Giving each individual the chance to speak in his or her own words, to be heard and affirmed, is a long overdue acknowledgment that Mayan lives demand protection.

The witnesses included a man testifying about how the Guatemalan Army under Mr. Ríos Montt killed his wife and two children, slashing his 5-year-old son’s face with a machete and smashing his toddler’s head. Another described how his pregnant sister was tied to a stake and burned alive, along with her child and six additional children. One witness, Nicolas Brito, told of seeing soldiers cut out and stack victims’ hearts on a table.

But it has become difficult to keep this up. The agenda is packed, patience will wear thin and the testimonies will begin to sound more or less the same, especially as listeners grow immune to hearing about the brutality they now find so shocking. Pressure will mount to quicken the pace through the remaining dozens of witnesses.

And it is becoming clear that, however shocking these stories are, and however cathartic the experience may seem at first glance, the trial process is ill suited to dignifying Guatemala’s victims. They are limited in what they can say in court; they must address only the specific question posed and limit their testimony to the suffering endured during the 17-month Ríos Montt regime.

That regime ended in 1983. But discrimination and violence against the indigenous Mayans continued long after, and persist today. The victims and their advocates have pleaded on the stand for the court to allow them to tell more, and they emerge from testifying dazed and frustrated. They blame themselves as much as anyone else; as one said: “We didn’t get to say what happened. Now no one will know.”

Then there is the adversarial nature of a criminal trial itself. The defense team’s case rests on debunking the prosecution’s case, establishing that indigenous victims were not innocent civilians, indiscriminately massacred by a racist state.

Cross-examination of the victims has become increasingly aggressive, humiliating and even traumatizing. Defense lawyers impugn Mayan witnesses, challenging the veracity of their testimonies, linking them to guerrillas — arguing that the indigenous victims were really subversives and that the army was merely trying to defend Guatemala against an insurgent threat.

Convicting Mr. Ríos Montt is not about sending one person to jail. Survivors are adamant that justice will not bring back their loved ones and that it can never be commensurate with the brutal massacres described in court. As one widow told me, “He is 86 years old, he got to live his whole life; my husband was just 18 when they killed him.”

Indeed, the real test may actually come after the verdict. Those implicated in wartime atrocities hope the trial will satisfy victims’ demands for retribution. Survivors, however, see the trial as opening up the floodgates of justice. They have a long list of perpetrators they want to see punished next.

Nor is the right to try perpetrators for war crimes the only right demanded by indigenous Guatemalans. Having mobilized for over a decade to bring Mr. Ríos Montt to justice, they take enormous pride in making the trial happen. They are emerging more confident and resolved to continue fighting to claim all the political, social and economic rights they are owed as Guatemalan citizens.

The contours of Guatemala’s democratic future are up for grabs, and the stakes have never been higher. While a failure to convict could be the greatest blow to the rule of law since the genocide itself, success has also never been so close within Guatemala’s reach.

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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