The impossible has happened in Guatemala. The onetime dictator, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, is going on trial for crimes of genocide committed during a civil war in which the army massacred more than 200,000 civilians. This is a landmark event not only for Guatemala but also for the cause of justice worldwide.
As the first ever domestic trial of a head of state on charges of genocide, the case shows that international tribunals are not the only avenue for postwar justice. It is also a sign that, in the long term, building democracy does not have to come at the expense of accountability for war criminals.
Until now, international actors have been the ones meting out justice to war criminals. Conventional wisdom had it that legal systems in post-conflict societies were too weak and corrupt to try their own.
And so, building on the Nuremberg precedent, Yugoslavian and Rwandan genocidaires were tried by international tribunals, while cases against Latin American dictators were taken up mainly by Spanish prosecutors. In 1998, the United Nations established the International Criminal Court in Rome, with the goal of centralizing international prosecutions of war criminals.
The problem with that approach, though, is that the trials occur thousands of miles from the places where the horrific crimes took place. That has left victims feeling removed from the justice process and has had no real impact on local judiciaries, which could surely benefit from being included in such trials.
The Guatemalan case offers another path forward. In 2007, the U.N. and the Guatemalan government jointly set up a commission to help nurture the country’s justice system which was known for being dysfunctional and corrupt.
Staffed by local and international lawyers, the so-called International Commission Against Impunity has tirelessly worked alongside the attorney general’s office to whip a cadre of young prosecutors into shape, and root out corruption within their ranks.
The commission also helped create a new tier of courts to hear high impact cases staffed by the most well respected judges. It is this type of court, presided over by the Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, that decided to go forward with the Ríos Montt case.
The trial will undoubtedly create political tensions. Ríos Montt’s cronies are likely to threaten judges, lawyers and witnesses in a frantic last-ditch effort to derail the legal proceedings. Yet those setbacks should not overshadow the enormous progress that the justice system has had to make even to get to the point of a trial.
With Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz at the helm, the public prosecutor’s office has come into its own, trying foot soldiers and local officers, as it worked its way up the chain of command to the very top.
Guatemala’s quest for justice has also brought the country together in unexpected ways. Indigenous victims groups and human rights organizations are collaborating closely — something that has eluded them in the past — as they focus all their resources on achieving their shared ultimate goal of seeing Ríos Montt on trial.
Their mobilization is also helping build democracy from the ground up. It is sowing the seeds of collective political participation — the social capital that Alexis de Tocqueville singled out as key to the success of 19th century U.S. democracy. By demanding justice, Guatemala’s Maya indigenous peoples are also claiming citizenship rights they have never enjoyed. To the extent that the courts are responding in kind, Guatemalans are making their democracy more inclusive and equal.
On the surface it may look like little has changed in Guatemala. President General Otto Pérez Molina, who still denies that genocide ever took place, served as an army colonel under Ríos Montt and has surrounded himself with military colleagues from that era. Meanwhile, the indigenous population, which suffered the brunt of wartime atrocities, still suffers from crushing poverty, malnutrition and widespread political exclusion.
Yet there are grounds for cautious optimism. Today, few commanding army officers have any ties to the war, or to the ideology and interests that fueled the counterinsurgency. Instead they are mostly concerned with preserving internal order in the face of escalating organized crime and drug violence.
As for the old officers, the fact that they are letting this trial go forward without intervening is a sign that times have changed. It seems that even for them, the former commander in chief’s trial is a sacrifice they may have to make. By simply tolerating victims’ and advocates’ relentless pursuit of Ríos Montt, the old guard is proving that justice is possible, even in Guatemala.
Anita Isaacs is the Benjamin R Collins professor of social science at Haverford College and is finishing a book on justice in postwar Guatemala.