The genocide trial in Guatemala of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt is the latest sign that decades of impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Central America during the Cold War conflicts may be coming to an end.
“We’re starting to see the first cracks in the dam,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “This would have been unthinkable a few years ago.”
Daniel Wilkinson, of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the trial is a testament to the tenacity and courage of human rights defenders in Guatemala. He also noted the support of outside groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based National Security Archive.
The trial could set the stage for improved rule of law in the country, Wilkinson said.
“Once accountability is an option, it changes the calculation for potential perpetrators of future abuses,” Wilkinson said. “They realize it’s no longer a safe assumption that they can get away with anything.”
The United Nations Truth Commission, formed as part of the country’s peace agreement that ended a 30-year civil war in which more than 200,000 people died, found that Ríos Montt’s “scorched-earth” campaign in the Ixil Triangle in northern Guatemala amounted to genocide of the Ixil people.
Now, Ríos Montt is charged in a Guatemalan court with the killing of 1,771 Ixils and the forced displacement of 29,000 more.
In recent days, the court has heard harrowing testimony from survivors of the scorched-earth campaign – some with their heads covered to conceal their identities – including horrifying tales of pillage and rape in Ixil villages.
Leading the charge against official impunity in Guatemala is a courageous attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who has been unflinching in challenging the authority of the once all-powerful Guatemalan Army.
Last October, after soldiers killed eight protesters in the southwestern town of Totonicapán, Paz y Paz ordered the arrest of Col. Juan Chiroy and eight soldiers for the extrajudicial killings.
Paz y Paz ordered police into the town’s army garrison to make the arrests, something Wilkinson said would never have happened a few years ago, given the power of the army.
“It’s impressive that the attorney general was able to obtain the arrests,” he said.
The conditions in Guatemala, where according to the United Nations the rate of impunity for crime is 98 percent, and where prosecutors are under a constant threat, make the arrests all the more surprising.
“Under the circumstances, making a little bit of progress is pretty remarkable,” Wilkinson said.
Such actions offer reason for hope in a country where the human rights situation is so grim that the government signed a treaty in 2006 with the U.N. to create the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a special prosecutor from outside (currently former Costa Rican Attorney General Francisco Dall’Anese) to prosecute corruption and organized crime cases likely to otherwise cost a local prosecutor his or her life.
A remade political landscape
Ríos Montt’s genocide trial comes on the heels of a Dec. 10 decision by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights to condemn El Salvador for the 1981 El Mozote massacres, which took the lives of 1,000 people in the country’s northern Morazán department.
The court ordered El Salvador to fully investigate the massacres carried out by the U.S.-trained Atlácatl Battalion, and compensate the survivors of those killed – about half of them children.
The court also found that the 1993 amnesty passed by the country’s legislature could not cover the massacres. But the government – which said it accepted the court’s ruling – has yet to overturn the amnesty.
If history seems to have a long memory in Central America, it’s because the 1980s, and the Cold War-driven conflicts in the region, remade a political landscape that formed around the wars and their political resolution.
In Guatemala, President Otto Pérez Molina, a former army general, served in the Ixil triangle in the ’80s and was army intelligence chief in the ’90s. The general also was the chief government negotiator of the U.N.-backed peace accords.
In El Salvador, President Mauricio Funes represents the political party created out of the former rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, who fought the government for 12 years before laying down their arms under the terms of a U.N.-brokered peace agreement in 1992.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front occupies the same post he held when the Sandinista government held off U.S.-backed Contra rebels until a peace accord set up a 1990 election. That vote turned out the Sandinistas for 16 years before Ortega staged a comeback in 2006.
Even in Costa Rica, which has no army and was spared armed conflict in the ’80s, current President Laura Chinchilla is a protégé of two-time former President Oscar Arias (1986-1990, 2006-2010), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his peace-making efforts.
“It was a defining period for Central America,” Isacson said. “It was the first time that people dared to challenge the power of ruling elites. It changed the balance of power that was locked in for 100 years.”
The era of war and bloodshed led to the Central American Peace Accords in Esquipulas, Guatemala, signed by the presidents of the five Central American nations in August 1986.
From political wars to drug wars
The peace accords, negotiated and signed despite fierce resistance from the Reagan Administration in the United States because it called for the disarming of the Nicaraguan Contras, raised hopes for an era of peaceful democratic development in the region.
The bright promise of Esquipulas was dashed, however, by seemly intractable cultures of violence that morphed from armed conflicts into drug trafficking and gang violence, which replaced insurgencies as the root of killings that make the northern triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala the world’s most dangerous region.
Drug trafficking brought with it corruption that has made large swaths of the region a no-man’s land. Governments struggle against the insidious power of drug dollars and fight well equipped and well financed drug traffickers.
The process of democratization envisioned by the Esquipulas accords also has been uneven and unsteady, especially in the case of Honduras, which suffered a coup in July 2009 after President Manuel Zalaya was rousted from bed by soldiers and packed off to Costa Rica.
In El Salvador and Nicaragua, elections have seen both right- and left-leaning candidates win, though in the case of Nicaragua observers say tainted municipal elections in 2012 could portend an effort by Ortega to extend his hold on power beyond the end of his current term in 2016.
In Guatemala, the army’s scorched-earth campaign all but obliterated the leftist guerrilla movement, but the guerrillas remained enough of a thorn in the side to the government to force peace talks that ended in a 1996 U.N.-brokered peace accord. But the remnants of guerrillas have not been able to mount significant electoral campaigns at the presidential level.
The process set in motion by the peace accords has also shaken the once rock-solid hegemony of the U.S. over the region.
Washington finds itself short of compliant partners in countries that have been emboldened by a newfound sense of independence to join the rest of Latin America – including Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Venezuela – in a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States that excludes the U.S.
Washington is even feeling push-back from Central American leaders in its regional centerpiece policy of combatting drug trafficking, with Pérez Molina leading a call for an end to the drug war.
Emerging regional powers like Brazil also are making their presence felt.
While the U.S. remains the big kid on the block, recent developments show that official impunity can no longer be considered business as usual.
John McPhaul is a freelance writer living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He covered Central America in the 1980s and ’90s for The Tico Times.