Human rights and victims organizations in Guatemala have worked tirelessly to achieve important victories in the fight against impunity, but much remains to be done to achieve accountability and redress for violations during three decades of internal armed conflict. ICTJ has worked here to assist with reparations and criminal justice initiatives.

Quilt in memory of the disappeared and murdered from Chimaltenango. (Photo from Flickr by d∂wn)

Antecedentes: Justice Delayed

Guatemala’s history is marked by great structural injustice, the marginalization of the indigenous population, and a 36-year internal armed conflict between the government and insurgents.

UN-brokered peace accords were finalized in 1996, ending the war and bringing a promise of truth, reparations, and reforms to address deep-rooted problems.

Under this framework, the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) estimated total deaths and disappearances at 250,000. Its 1999 report—ground-breaking at the time, with its focus on historical and structural factors—found that the state’s military operations against some Mayan communities constituted genocide. Earlier, the Catholic Church sponsored one of the most comprehensive unofficial truth commissions ever conducted.

Both commissions concluded that the war took a disproportionate toll on indigenous communities and that more than 90% of the violations—including more than 600 massacres—were committed by the State, which had denied these actions.

Victims groups demanded reparations, but it took almost ten years after the peace accords to start the National Reparations Program. In design, the Program includes many different measures, both to improve people’s material conditions and to provide symbolic recognition to the victims. But in practice, the focus is on small, individual payments, leaving many deeply dissatisfied.

Hundreds of exhumations of have been conducted, and a DNA bank has been set up by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team to help identify remains for their return to families.

In 2005, human rights activists uncovered a trove of millions of National Police files, rotting in a warehouse. A national project was set up to organize the archive and make it available to the public. That work is now bearing fruit as documents from the archive are being used in the first court cases on disappearances.

Only a handful of cases have been prosecuted after years of efforts by victims; dozens of other cases are trapped in a maze of institutional neglect, lost evidence, and judicial stall tactics. Several cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have served to highlight the negligence and corruption of the national justice system. In 2004 the Guatemalan State admitted formally for the first time there had been a genocidal policy in its campaign against the Mayan peoples in the landmark Plan de Sanchez case. While reparations were paid justice has remained as elusive as ever.

Demands that the government provide information on the fate of some 40,000 disappeared have gone unheeded.

El papel del ICTJ

ICTJ has provided assistance to civil society and state institutions on reparations and criminal justice initiatives.

Most recently, we worked with partner Impunity Watch to produce a report on the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—a hybrid mechanism created by the UN and Guatemala to strengthen prosecution of criminal groups that grew out of former military intelligence structures. In 2011, we will release a briefing on CICIG (in English) that identifies issues important for policy makers with interest in hybrid justice.

In 2010 we also advised local organizations on improving advocacy efforts on reparations.

Earlier work included:

  • Advising the government on best practices in reparations policy.
  • Facilitating an exchange between a representative of Guatemala’s Reparations Commission with Peruvian counterparts for a regional discussion on implementing reparations.
  • Training attorneys, prosecutors, and judges working on human rights cases resulting from the armed conflict.
  • Providing a long-term consultant to work inside the Attorney General’s office to provide technical advice on the criminal investigations of alleged massacres in an attempt to move the cases forward.