The Struggle against Human Rights Violations and Impunity in Guatemala

By Mann, Jason | Washington Report on the Hemisphere, March 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Struggle against Human Rights Violations and Impunity in Guatemala


Mann, Jason, Washington Report on the Hemisphere


This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Jason Mann

Guatemala has a longstanding history of human rights abuses dating back to the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors enslaved the indigenous Mayan population and seized their land. Despite the ancient nature of these disgraces, many of Guatemala's human rights abuses have occurred within the past century. In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz was elected to a four-year term as President of Guatemala and soon thereafter he ushered in a flurry of populist policies. This included a system of land redistribution that severely affected the interests of the U.S. agricultural multinational corporation, The United Fruit Company. In 1954 the United States helped facilitate a coup d'état in Guatemala, led by Carlos Castillas Armas, which seized control of the government and installed an authoritarian regime. These events would eventually escalate into a 1960 civil war that continued for the next 36 years. The conflict peaked during the reign of dictator Effain Rios Montt from March 1982 to August 1983. In what was known as the "scorched earth" campaign, the Montt regime sanctioned a number of deplorable human rights practices, including the pillaging of 626 villages, in which thousands of indigenous people were raped, tortured, and mutilated. The Commission for Historical Clarification estimated that from 1981 to 1983 anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million people were displaced. At the end of the grisly conflict more than 200,000 people were murdered, 83 percent of whom were of indigenous, Mayan decent. It was not until 1996 when a UN-backed Peace Accord was impaneled that the conflict ended indefinitely.

Nearly two decades have passed in the post civil war era, both characterized by persistent human rights violations and impunity. Security forces have been reported to engage in a variety of violent and corrupt acts. Abuses on human rights defenders and journalists are widespread. The judicial system in Guatemala is insufficient due to both a marginal supply of judges and rampant corruption. In particular, cases of violence towards women experience disproportionate amounts of impunity. Recent decisions by Guatemalan leaders have severely hindered human rights efforts in Guatemala, including a controversial Constitutional Court ruling in February that reduced Attorney General Paz y Paz's term by seven months.

Particularly alarming in Guatemala have been human rights violations perpetrated by the Guatemalan police force, also known as the National Civil Police (PNC), and exemplified by reports of bribery, torture, and rape. Moreover, several leaders within the PNC have been arrested and convicted of violent charges, including murder. In August 2013 Victor Hugo Soto Dieguez, the ex criminal investigations director of the PNC, was convicted for the killing of three inmates in September 2005.

In the past two decades, attacks on individuals who have exposed human rights violations have been commonplace. Among the most controversial were the killings of human rights activist Myma Mack Chang, who was murdered in 1990 by military death squads, and Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, who was beaten to death in 1998. Today, attacks on activists continue. In 2013 Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit (UDEFEGUA) reported 18 killings of human rights defenders by November of that year. During that same time period, 622 at- tacks against human rights defenders were also reported. In such a violent environment, human rights advocates and journalists struggle to carry out their respective duties. The Public Ministry of Guatemala reported 113 complaints regarding attacks against journalists in the country from January to September of 2013. Four journalists were murdered in Guatemala in 2013 and intimidation against this sector was widespread.

While many of these atrocities are reported, not nearly enough have been prosecuted. In Guatemala there are only 918 judges in total. …

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