The Past is Never Far Away: Prosecutions for Human Rights Violations in Guatemala

News that Guatemalan prosecutors have announced the arrest of 14 former military officials on charges connected to massacres and disappearances during the country’s protracted and bloody civil war is a cogent reminder that impunity for systematic human rights violations is diminishing.

Serial human rights violators have reasons to be nervous: The passage of time does not diminish accountability claims, nor does it eliminate the zeal of prosecutors. Practice across numerous countries (Spain, Argentina, Chile) illustrates that time also does not necessarily minimize the claims of victims, families, and their communities for redress and restitution in the aftermath of conflict or repression.

The Guatemalan detentions involve high-ranking former officials including Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, an 83-year-old former general and the brother of former President Fernando Romeo Lucas García. Lucas García was defiant when speaking to reporters following his arrest. “I fought the guerrillas in combat, fighting gun to gun, and not like a coward or a psychopath,” he said. A former minister of the interior was also arrested. The status of those indicted sends a powerful message that those most responsible and exercising command and control during systematic human rights and humanitarian law violations should not rest easy once transitional deals and peace agreements are signed. This is true even when those agreements appear to maintain the status quo or create a short-term gentleman’s agreement on non-investigation and non-prosecution of heinous crimes.

The indictments also demonstrate the Prosecutor’s desire to address large-scale disappearances of persons from military zone in Cobán, in the northern department of Alta Verapaz. Hundreds of persons are estimated to have been disappeared over a seven year period in Guatemala. Notably, most of those disappeared were indigenous. Such groups’ claims upon the state have received little sustained attention in the aftermath of a comprehensive peace agreement, and their already marginal status in Guatemala was compounded by the scale of the atrocities visited upon individuals and communities during the civil war.

The Guatemalan Truth Commission estimated that 80 percent of the human rights violations experienced during the conflict were perpetrated by state actors. Guatemalan NGOs have welcomed the arrests as an important vindication of the rights of victims and as a definitive step in promoting equality and procedural justice for all citizens. But they should also be heralded for their broader import: The days of official impunity for systematic human rights violations is waning. 

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About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).