Corruption, Genocide, and Guatemala’s Twenty-Year Battle Against Impunity
by Caroline Kuritzkes
There are three stories about the spate of elections that rocked Guatemala this past October. The first is that a former First Lady lost the country’s highest political office to a TV comedian notorious for donning blackface: Jimmy Morales, an entertainer whose primary involvement with Guatemalan politics has been limited to his mockery of government officials. The second is that Morales, a self-described political outsider, won a runoff race on a platform against graft, assailing the Guatemalan political establishment with a simple catchphrase––“Ni corrupto, ni ladrón” (“Neither corrupt, nor a thief.”) The third is that the National Convergence Front (FCN), a political party launched and backed by retired military officers, has taken power. Each of these stories is about impunity.
“Impunity is the norm in Guatemala and has been for decades,” says Kate Doyle, a senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute and public interest law firm that declassifies government documents. From 1960 to 1996, the country was mired in a brutal civil war between leftist guerrillas and state security forces; by the end of the 36-year conflict, over 200,000 civilians had been killed or disappeared. Eighty-three percent of the victims were indigenous Ixil Maya. The UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission concluded in 1999 that the Guatemalan State committed genocide against the Maya population in Quiche between 1981 and 1983, and that the Guatemalan military was responsible for 93 percent of the war’s atrocities. As part of the 1996 peace process, the Guatemalan National Assembly passed a sweeping amnesty law for “political crimes” that insulated hundreds, if not thousands, of military perpetrators from prosecution. After seventeen years, Efraín Ríos Montt, the President of Guatemala at the height of the conflict, was tried and convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in his country’s own national court––only to have the ruling overturned ten days later.
Former military officers who were never brought to justice still wield considerable influence over Guatemala’s current political landscape. Morales’ election to the presidency proves as much. Ex-officers from the right-wing Military Veterans Association formed Morales’ political party––the FCN––in 2007 to restore the army’s reputation, sullied by civil-war genocide. The Party’s founders, Jose Luis Quilo Ayuso and Luis Felipe Miranda Trejo, were once generals who led counterinsurgency operations targeting Guatemala’s rural poor. According Jeff Abbott’s reporting for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Quilo Ayuso even admitted in a September 2015 interview with Plaza Pública, a Guatemalan investigative news source, that shielding Guatemalan military officials from indictment was part of the logic embedded in the FCN’s creation. And beyond the Party’s engineers, the stain of decades-old brutality extends to Morales’ own cabinet. One of his top advisors, Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, oversaw 77 state-sponsored massacres in Quiche between 1981 and 1982 as a high-ranking military commander, and he currently enjoys immunity as a representative of Guatemala’s Congress.
Doyle believes impunity is the connection between civil-war amnesty and the corruption scandals embroiling members of the political class today, most notably former President Otto Pérez Molina, who was pressured to resign in September 2015 over his involvement in a multimillion-dollar customs fraud case.“Retired military people often pop up in these investigations because the same networks of impunity that helped protect the officers connected to grave human rights crimes continue to exist,” Doyle says. Not surprisingly, Molina also served as a military general during the civil conflict and as Director of Military Intelligence from 1991 to 1993. Defense Intelligence Agency cables declassified by the National Security Archive in 2011 linked him to scorched earth campaigns carried out under the Ríos Montt regime.
With the slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief,” current President Jimmy Morales not only insists upon his own moral cleanliness, but also invokes the popular anti-corruption protests that swept Guatemala over the summer and demanded the removal of his predecessor, a movement ignited by incriminating evidence that the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) released the previous April. Despite his Party’s ties to military officials who dodged prosecution for civil war crimes, Morales has marketed to voters a political image detached from impunity in its current incarnation, wrapped in the guise of graft and fraud. “The problem is that the other candidates were worse,” says Carlos Dada, the founder and editor of El Faro, an online news site based in San Salvador. “Morales has no record on corruption to point to, so against all odds, the comedian without experience emerges victorious.” The resemblance to Donald Trump on the U.S. presidential playing field is an eerie one indeed.
Those who have swallowed Morales’ promise to end corruption with doubt and disappointment have opted for the streets. Their demonstrations are an outgrowth of the country’s enduring history of amnesty, a policy that has bankrupted party politics and the judiciary. “Guatemala has never had a justice system to go after criminals, period. That’s what’s helped provoked this outcry,” Doyle explains. “People are recognizing that impunity still functions effectively in Guatemala, and they feel so cheated by that. They draw the line historically between today and the destruction of that democratic moment in 1954,” referring to the year Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup. According to Lisa Knauer, an Anthropology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies Guatemala, some of the protesters invoke Árbenz directly with a photograph of his face plastered onto their T-shirts and posters. “The coup of 1954 is really what set the stage for the unrest today,” she says. The anti-corruption demonstrations involve hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country, including residents from Guatemala City, sectors of the indigenous population, students, and significant portions of the middle class, and the protesters are hyper-aware of the continuity between military dictatorship and the impunity that persists 20 years after the civil war’s end. People often attend rallies with handwritten signs testifying to how corruption is rotting the social fabric of the country. Many of them are messages of local lived experience: “You’re getting rich, and meanwhile, when I go to the hospital next door, I don’t have Band-Aids.”
Despite today’s corruption, transitional justice stands as a powerful, complicated social process that can make dents in the historical impunity sheathed in the civil war’s shadow. “The fact that a breakthrough judicial trial condemned a former head of state to genocide in his own national court is amazing. It was a turning point, a revelation. Throwing out the case was the norm,” Doyle explains, alluding to the 2013 Ríos Montt ruling that was subsequently nullified. According to Dada, “The elites have always managed to keep their own version of history, but that all changed with the Ríos Montt trial. Guatemalans realized that the most disenfranchised could bring down the most powerful: a former military dictator.” The trial itself grew out of a complaint filed in 2001 by victims who worked tirelessly with the Center for Human Rights and Legal Action––a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lodged petitions on their behalf before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights––to gather testimonies, analyze military documents, and build a case through 12 years of labor. “All the disappointments seen from the outside are interpreted differently from the inside, and society is trying to push back in all kinds of creative ways,” Doyle says.
The strength of the prosecution, though important, isn’t everything. Truth commissions also play a crucial role in the recovery of historical memory and societal healing. And even when testimonies have been aired for decades, as was the case in Guatemala by the year the Ríos Montt trial took place, transitional justice can empower victims, organizations in civil society, and the prosecutors themselves. Doyle reflects on a moment when she, as an audience member at the 2013 trial, viewed Ríos Montt watch himself at the height of his power in a 1982 film clip screened by the prosecution. “Transitional justice is about seeking the truth about something that has been silenced, but it’s also about forcing once very powerful people to come into a courtroom and listen to their accusers.” To see the grey and grizzled Ríos Montt look at the mirror image of himself as a once-powerful dictator is also part of the process of remembering.
The fact that a comedian can win the Guatemalan presidency on an anti-corruption platform, while backed by officials who both committed human rights crimes and evaded prosecution, is a testament to the enduring political power of decades-old impunity over the country’s party politics. But it also speaks to the connections that sectors of civil society are etching between the amnesty of the past and of the present, their thirst for a justice system that can one day deliver, and their persistence in tackling impunity in a number of experimental sites: be it in the courtroom, on the streets, or in the ballot box of a comedian with a dubious slogan.
Caroline Kuritzkes is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.