Jul 112013

On May 10, 2013, a special tribunal ordered to judge the case against Ríos Montt found the former dictator of Guatemala guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.1 This decision was received by the international community with great relief and approval, having demonstrated the country’s desire to end the reign of impunity in its justice system. Ten days later, on May 20, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala annulled the tribunal’s decision, setting the stage for a new trial.2 It was clear to most observers and to the two dissenting judges of the supreme court that something more than merely due process and rule of law was at work in the decision of the majority judges.3

The annulation was in fact the latest, most extreme expression of the culture of impunity and racism that has long gripped Guatemala. It should, among citizens and within the national discourse, raise a flood of questions about the prospects for democracy in Guatemala and the legitimacy of the state itself. Yet there has been strikingly little reaction at all–in comparison to the gravity of the crimes–among those, particularly politicians, whose responsibility it would be to raise such questions of national concern. The following reflections are offered as points of discussion toward a better understanding of what the future may hold for Guatemala.

If the essence of all, and in particular of political, action is to make a new beginning, then understanding becomes the other side of action, namely, that form of cognition, distinct from many others, by which acting men (and not men who are engaged in contemplating some progressive or doomed course of history) eventually can come to terms with what irrevocably happened and be reconciled with what unavoidably exists.4


When the highest legal authorities in the country have been bought and coerced by interests of the same oligarchy that is the subject of legal proceedings, the resulting conflicts of interests and nullification of justice create a practical and philosophical problem. A gap is created between law and justice, past and future. The same legal system at the root of the problem can’t be called upon to correct itself. All the checks and balances have been exhausted; from the supreme court to the congress and the president of the republic, all those responsible for ensuring the equal opportunity of all citizens before the law and the just operation of the legal mechanisms have long abnegated their responsibility.

Practically, how can the legal system move forward with this case and any other of importance when all pretense of credibility and impartiality has been lost in the eyes of victims of war crimes in Guatemala? A retrial of the Ríos Montt case is tentatively scheduled for early 2014, but its not likely that any of the conditions which produced the current miscarriage of justice will have been corrected by then. In fact, its much more likely that the defense attorneys and powerful interests defending the former dictator will have learned the lesson and will return with confidence in their plan for impunity.

Philosophically, the question has to be asked, what future can the current political and legal structures have in Guatemala? Does the current state have enough legitimacy to continue as it is, or is it so broken that a radical change is necessary? There are some who have for years called for the restablishment or refounding (la refundación) of the Guatemalan state, including a new constitution with new political and legal structures. The Ríos Montt case may be the final proof of such a project. There may be no options left to remedy these institutional failures within the existing institutions themselves.

However, for now, politicians and mainstream media within the country have all but sanitized the discourse to exclude any such ideas, and without an organized movement to propose a radical project, the status quo of impunity will surely continue into 2014, the retrial of Guatemala’s former dictador, and beyond. If the theoretical questions aren’t asked, if the function of law is not reevaluated in Guatemala, any solutions going forward are destined to be merely reorganizations of the special interests state.


Justice does not consist in an impartial due process. The behavior of defense attorney Gudiel demonstrates that the due process of law can be manipulated in such a way that all legal requirements and codes of conduct pertaining to attorneys, judges, and courts can be followed diligently and yet result in the negation of justice. When impartial due process or manipulation of courts results in such a wholesale negation of justice, it is now the very due process and legal system that must be the subject of critique.


Justice is not the same as law. Law is just insofar as it serves justice. If laws or legal systems fail at this role, people will eventually seek to change them in accordance with contemporary concepts of justice.


The society has to decide between using historical fact and reason or ideological fear as the basis for political discussion moving forward. Currently Guatemala is gripped by the false mandate of fair discussion that says all perspectives are valuable and deserving of representation even if they lie, cheat, steal and have no basis in reality. This has the effect in the self-censored media of over-representing the opinions of the oligarchy and business class, which remain committed to the same 80’s-era anti-communist ideology that incited the overthrow of democracy in 1954 and the following 36 years of civil war. The mainstream media, in television and print, cannot be relied upon to present historical fact nor to curb the influence of the ideology of fear in political discourse.5


El olvido es el enemigo de la justicia — Oblivion is the enemy of justice. Negationism, the distortion of historical events in favor of an ideology, has become a powerful force in Guatemala. It permeates much of the popular culture through media, religious, even educational programs that want to propel the country into a future of progress by forgetting the crimes of the past and marginalizing the victims of those crimes. Because the war crimes committed are many, the denial of them requires the denial of whole villages, ethnic groups, and social classes that refuse to be abandoned to oblivion. This denial of history reinforces the already racist attitudes towards the indigenous groups and their cultures. Apart from communists and subversives, they are now labeled as enemies of progress, obstacles to prosperity–anachronisms.


La impunidad es el último baluarte de la tiranía — Impunity is the last stronghold of tyranny. With supposedly democratic political structures and transparent legal processes in place, there should be nowhere left for tyrannical government or rule by military or business classes to hide. However, in Guatemala, impunity rules from the top down. While the government continues to promote its facade of mano dura–a campaign commitment by current president Pérez Molina to increase security and combat crime in the streets–it does little to prevent the crimes of power and impunity of former leaders, which is the real sickness that plagues the society.

Even the outrage over the annulation of Montt’s conviction for genocide wasn’t enough to produce an awakening. There have been protests against the decision of the Constitutional Court, but mostly by the victims who, after the fanfare of the trial, have been left alone to continue their search for justice. Further, a month later, the same court annulled an arrest warrant for former president Serrano Elías, also accused of crimes during his administration.6 What good will serve efforts to fight crime at the bottom if impunity still offers a stronghold for the oligarchy?


Silence, oblivion, and impunity converge to do battle against reason, history, and justice. This is the current state of things in Guatemala. The outcome will largely depend upon the citizens. Will Guatemalans wake from their slumber, come out of their comforts, and stand alongside the victims, who for decades have alone sought a more democratic state? Or, will the political and legal inertia of the status quo, defended at every turn by an enamored media, continue to blind the conscience of the society? What Octavio Paz said of Mexico applies even more in this moment to Guatemala:

The person who creates Nobody, by denying Somebody’s existence, is also changed into Nobody. And if we are all Nobody, then none of us exists. The circle is closed and the shadow of Nobody spreads out over our land, choking the Gesticulator and covering everything. Silence—the prehistoric silence, stronger than all the pyramids and sacrifices, all the churches and uprisings and popular songs—comes back to rule…7




  1. http://www.elperiodico.com.gt/es/20130510/pais/228103/
  2. http://www.elperiodico.com.gt/es/20130520/pais/228541/
  3. The dissent reasoning (votos razonados) is a fascinating look into Guatemala’s highest court and reveals a struggle between justice and impunity amongst the judges. It can be read here: http://www.cc.gob.gt/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=925&Itemid=130
  4. Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics”, Essays in Understanding (Harcourt, New York: 1994), pp. 321-322.
  5. For more on the various ways in which media marginalize the poor and victims of racism in Guatemala, see http://www.dissoc.org/ediciones/v01n04/DS1(4)Verdugo.pdf
  6. Sala deja sin efecto orden de captura contra Serrano Elías. http://www.lahora.com.gt/index.php/nacional/guatemala/actualidad/179799-sala-deja-sin-efecto-orden-de-captura-contra-serrano-elias
  7. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (Grove Press, New York: 1985), pp. 45-46.
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