Guatemala in Crisis: the Death of Justice

By Rob March 23, 2023 1 Comment

I’ve been back in Guatemala for only a short while, but it’s already become abundantly clear to me that the country is in crisis. Terrible crisis. Failed-state-kinda crisis.

Visitors to Guatemala’s lovely, touristy hot spots -Antigua, Tikal, Lake Atitlan, etc.- might spend their perfectly wonderful vacation here without ever realizing just how dire the situation has become.

That’s because this crisis is internal: a sickness, a rotting, a cancer. Its symptoms are visible, but only if you know what you’re looking for.

“Rivers of Blood” Montt

Freedom for Orlando Lopez, a prosecutor in Guatemala who is being criminalized.
Freedom for Orlando López

Recently it was reported that a lawyer named Orlando Salvador López was arrested. “A lawyer accused of misdeeds? That’s hardly news,” you might -somewhat cynically- think.

But if we dig just a bit deeper, we’ll see that Mr. López is a state prosecutor. And not just any prosecutor. He was part of the legal dream team that brought General Efrain Ríos Montt –one of Guatemala’s bloodiest and most brutal dictators– to justice in 2013. Montt was found guilty of committing genocide against the Mayan people and for committing crimes against humanity. It was arguably the highest profile trial in Guatemala’s history.

Unfortunately, the verdict was later suspended (the result of a highly questionable legal decision) and Ríos Montt died before he could be retried. 

A History of Horror

Guatemala’s civil war lasted for 36 years, from 1960-1996. Over 200,000 civilians were killed, and 45,000 people were disappeared. Most of the victims were indigenous Mayan men, women, and children. They were massacred in a “scorched earth” policy designed to destroy any potential support for the guerrillas. 

After the Peace Accords were signed, an independent Truth Commission determined that the State’s security forces –military, paramilitary, and police– were responsible for at least 93% of all war crimes.

The guilty verdict that Mr. Lopez helped bring about will forever stand as a watershed moment in the struggle for justice and historic memory. After decades of waiting in silence, survivors and family members finally had the chance to come face-to-face with Rios Montt in a court of law. Their testimonies -agonizing, heartbreaking, damning- will forever remain as a matter of record… the unspoken truth finally made public.

Corrupt to the Bone

At the same time that high-ranking military officials were finally being held accountable for their horrific crimes, there was a concurrent effort to root out corruption in the highest levels of government. 

Assisted by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the Attorney General’s Office began to investigate and dismantle organized crime networks encrusted within the government. These anticorruption efforts were so successful that a former president and vice-president, members of Congress, a Supreme Court judge, ministers of government, police officers, and drug traffickers were indicted and arrested.

For a brief, shining moment it seemed as if justice was finally beginning to take root in Guatemala.

One Step Forward, A Hundred Steps Back

"We do not want acts of this nature to ever occur again. We really believe that for peace to exist in Guatemala, there must first be justice." Genocide Sentence in Guatemala, 2013
“We do not want acts of this nature to ever occur again. We really believe that for peace to exist in Guatemala, there must first be justice.” Genocide Sentence, 2013 

They say that history is like a pendulum. There are advances, but then come the inevitable pushbacks. In this case, however, it isn’t so much a pushback as a punch to the throat, a knee to the groin, a kick to the … well, you get the idea.

As efforts to seek justice for the crimes of the past and the present began to bear fruit, the powers-that-be began to bristle. A coalition of nefarious actors, including military officials, high-ranking politicians, and members of the economic elite, began to move in the shadows. They became known as the “Pact of the Corrupt.

Using every means at their disposal (even hiring a right-wing lobbying firm from Washington DC) they began to undermine, attack, and even expel national and international actors working for justice in Guatemala. Smear campaigns, bogus criminal charges, threats, and intimidation were utilized in an attempt to halt –and even undo– the advances that had been so painstakingly achieved.

Your Choice: Exile or Prison

During the past few years, dozens of journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, prosecutors, judges and even Attorneys General would be forced to flee into exile. Others, who remained, have been arrested and imprisoned, including Virginia Laparra, an anticorruption prosecutor; José Rubén Zamora, director of El Periódico newspaper; and now, Orlando Salvador López.

We have lost confidence in the attorney general and her intention to cooperate with the US government and fight corruption in good faith.

Jalina Porter, US State Department spokeswoman

People who have dedicated their lives to seeking truth and justice are now being prosecuted (although ‘persecuted’ might be the more appropriate word) by the Guatemalan government. Leading these reprehensible efforts is Consuelo Porras, an Attorney General that the U.S. State Department affirms has “repeatedly obstructed and undermined anti-corruption investigations in Guatemala”.

And On It Goes

This week the Attorney General’s Office announced that is seeking to bring charges against Edmond Mulet, a conservative politician running for president in this year’s elections. His supposed crime? He questioned a judge’s motive in prosecuting journalists.

A recent poll in Guatemala showing that Edmond Mulet is a threat to the candidacy of front-runner Zury Ríos.

Earlier this year Thelma Cabrera, a highly-regarded indigenous leader, and Jordan Rodas, a well-respected former Human Rights Ombudsman, were denied the right to participate in the current presidential elections by Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). Given the current situation in Guatemala, the decision was as unsurprising as it was unscrupulous. 

But threat of criminalization against Edmond Mulet is equally revealing. Why him? Why now? It turns out that Sr. Mulet – according to a recent poll— has a recognition and approval rating that places him firmly in 2nd place among all the current candidates.

So who is the current frontrunner? Who is the person who stands to gain the most if Mr. Mulet is removed from the race? None other than Zury Ríos … daughter of the genocidal General, Efrain Ríos Montt.

The Takeaway

The rule of law in Guatemala –that which guarantees that the justice system functions independently, security forces act responsibly, international treaties are respected, and human rights are upheld– is in critical condition. The Attorney General’s Office is being weaponized to criminalize human rights defenders, independent justice workers, journalists, and opposition politicians.

The most frightening part? No one that I’ve talked to sees an easy –or even feasible– solution to this crisis.

1 Comment
  1. Adri says:

    Despite how beautiful this country is, there is always a dark cloud of inequality over it. It always has been and always will be -apparently- a playground for corruption.

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