Guatemalan Achi women, victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996), react at the end of the trial against five former Guatemalan Civil Patrol (PAC) members, outside the Justice Palace in Guatemala on January 24, 2022. Five former Guatemalan paramilitaries were sentenced Monday by a court to 30 years in prison for sexual violence committed against indigenous women in the municipality of Rabinal in the 1980s during the civil war (1960-1996). (Photo: Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

Guatemala's Long Quest for Justice

Recent convictions for crimes against humanity committed during Guatemala's civil war are encouraging, but they are overshadowed by a governmental backlash and impunity for the military's erstwhile backers in the US.

On 24 January, a Guatemalan court convicted five former paramilitary officers--members of a self-styled "Civil Self-Defense Patrol" (Patrulla de Autodefensa Civil) affiliated with Guatemala's military during the country's decades-long civil war--of crimes against humanity. The court found that the defendants committed acts of rape and sexual assault against Indigenous women from the Achi people, as part of a systematic policy of sexual violence against Achi women employed by the military in the 1980s. Celebrated by rights groups and survivors, the judgment marks the end of an 11-year-long process and a step towards justice for serious human rights violations in Guatemala, but significant challenges remain.

The time is long overdue for an honest reckoning with US Cold War support for dictatorial regimes across the Latin American continent, from the military governments in Guatemala and El Salvador to the tyrants of Operation Condor.

Guatemala's civil war, the longest on the Latin American continent, lasted from 1960 to 1996 and pitted a series of autocratic military governments (interspersed with periods of civilian rule) against left-wing guerrilla groups which in 1982 joined forces as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). By the time the war came to an end, with the December 1996 signing under UN auspices of the Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace in Guatemala City, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were dead, of which over 40,000 had been forcibly disappeared. A commission of inquiry tasked with investigating human rights violations committed during the war later found that 83% of the victims were Mayan--who in light of centuries-long discrimination and structural inequality tended to support the guerrillas--and that 93% of the atrocities could be attributed to the state military and allied paramilitary groups.

The atrocities reached their height in the early 1980s under dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a former Catholic-turned-Evangelical who was allegedly fond of saying that "a true Christian carries the Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other." As part of his US-backed crusade against communism--President Reagan once called him "a man of great personal integrity and commitment"--Rios Montt unleashed a violent scorched earth campaign particularly against Indigenous villages. During his first five of only 17 months in office, his soldiers obliterated an estimated 600 villages and killed over 10,000 civilians; those who fled to the highlands to escape the onslaught were bombed by government forces. His repeated professions of innocence notwithstanding, Rios Montt was eventually tried before a Guatemalan court and, in 2013, sentenced to 80 years' imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity. Controversially, Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned the decision later that year, and Rios Montt died in 2018 while on retrial.

This should come as no surprise since for the most part, the powers that be in Guatemala--the military remains a key player in politics--have resisted, and pushed back against, civil society efforts to bring about criminal prosecutions. Guatemala's President at the time of the genocide trial, former general Otto Perez Molina, is himself alleged to have commanded troops involved in the scorched earth campaign during the 1980s. (In 2015, he was arrested on corruption charges and remains in prison.) Current President Alejandro Giammattei too has been criticized for his close ties to the military and the so-called Foundation Against Terrorism, a far-right group opposed to anti-corruption and human rights activism. Meanwhile, Guatemala's Congress previously considered a legislative proposal that would amend a 1996 law prohibiting amnesty for international crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity which would require the immediate release of convicted persons and block future prosecutions; and a controversial NGO law first introduced in 2020 and recently upheld by the country's highest court imposes onerous registration and reporting obligations on civil society organizations, even authorizing the government to dissolve them under certain circumstances.

While such attempts to undermine civil society engagement and the pursuit of justice in Guatemala merit condemnation, so too does impunity amongst the military's erstwhile backers to the north: Rios Montt and Perez Molina both attended the infamous School of the Americas military academy at Fort Benning, Georgia (amongst other illustrious graduates are Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina and Hugo Banzer of Bolivia); and declassified documents reveal that the CIA provided training to Guatemalan soldiers on torture and execution methods. The significance of the recent paramilitaries trial notwithstanding, accountability cannot and should not end with those that organized and carried out the atrocities on the ground. The time is long overdue for an honest reckoning with US Cold War support for dictatorial regimes across the Latin American continent, from the military governments in Guatemala and El Salvador to the tyrants of Operation Condor.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.