12 Delayed and Impossible Justice…For Now
When this paper was first published, I argued that femicide (the killing of women or other crimes against women) in Guatemala was rooted in the country’s long history of political violence. I also argued that the oligarchy and the army were unreachable by the justice system for crimes they committed during the country’s 36-year Civil War. Using a media analysis, this brief update shows how the justice system briefly changed in 2012. In November that year, the Public Attorney’s office penetrated the immunity and impunity walls that protected military strongmen. The Public Attorney charged former dictator Efrain Rios Montt with crimes against humanity and a trial ensued. Most media articles were in favour of the trial, but they faced an unorthodox, yet expected, opposition: the oligarchy’s paid media ads.
General Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, had, for three decades, enjoyed judicial and constitutional immunity for crimes he committed during his short presidency. On May 10, 2013, following a two-month trial, he was found guilty of committing genocide against the Ixil-Maya people and sentenced to eighty years in prison. However, his conviction was overturned eight days later by the Constitutional Court. Eventually, he was found mentally unfit to stand trial. Although justice for the Ixil-Maya was achieved in a court of law, the trial by media, especially by paid media ads, favored Rios Montt. Despite some journalists’ investigative work in exposing the oligarchy-army partnership and the atrocities they committed during the war, the pro-Rios Montt paid ads showed how far the Guatemalan economic elite was going to go to defend its interests and, above all, help its member to avoid justice.
On one side of the media spectrum, Journalist Martin Rodriguez wrote that some members of Guatemala’s elite participated in the general’s 1982 to 1983 government in various cabinet positions and were directly involved in bombing the Ixil Maya communities (Rodríguez Pellecer). According to Rodriguez, Zury Rios, the general’s daughter, went into a crusade to remind the elite of the imminent legal trouble they could face if her father was found guilty. Further, a friend and former collaborator of Rios Montt, Prensa Libre columnist Alfred Kaltschmitt, confirmed the elite’s participation in the 1980s massacres in his April 2, 2013 column lamenting that such elite abandoned the general during his trial. Zury Rios and Kaltschmitt were on the minority side because most Guatemalan columnists were in favour of the trial.
A survey conducted between April 18 and May 8, 2013, found that fifty-six columnists wrote in favour of the trial against Rios Montt, fifteen were neutral, and eighteen were against the trial and the allegations of genocide. However, the journalists who expected justice for the Ixil Maya to prevail were drowned out by the paid opinions and editorials favoring Rios Montt. For instance, the Alfred Kaltschmitt column and paid pages (campos pagados) ran in all national newspapers on April 8, 2013. The ads not only defended Rios Montt but also warned the public of renewed political violence if he was convicted.
Even more, Rios Montt enjoyed the support of a rare group composed of members of Guatemala’s economic elite and former rebel leaders, “The Group of Twelve,” who bought whole newspaper pages to deny genocide and other crimes attributed to Rios Montt and the state. The piece “Traicionar la Paz y Dividir a Guatemala” (Betraying Peace and Dividing Guatemala), defended the Guatemalan state and warned the population of more political violence if the trial proceeded. A second group paid for an ad published the day after, on April 17. The opinion “Reflexión de la Asociación Amigos del país sobre la verdadera Reconciliación Nacional” (Observations from the Association Friends of the Country about the true National Reconciliation) stated: “The [Rios Montt] genocide trial betrayed peace and the reconciliation spirit of the peace agreement signed by the State and the Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity in 1996.” The ad warned all involved in the massacres that if Rios Montt was found guilty “the state is obliged to prosecute all those who were involved [in the thirty-six-year war]. Their paid media ads did not succeed; at least not at that historical moment. Rios Montt was found guilty by a panel of three judges. After the sentence was read, the Association declared “justice lost!” With the cheers and tears of survivors and their supporters in the background, the general was taken to jail. In a surprising ruling, the Constitutional Court overturned the sentence on May 18, 2013. The general went home and a series of appeals and counter-appeals took place.
These events showed how most media, even though they serve a non-Indigenous audience, were against the decision to free the general. A survey done by the program “Public Opinion” of the private university Rafael Landivar included four different media outlets, all based in Guatemala City: three national newspapers and one online magazine showed support for justice to be done. Despite the majority siding with the Ixil-Maya people, the trial, and the final verdict, the opposition’s paid ads did have a political effect on the Constitutional Court. It is worth mentioning that Guatemalan judges are political appointees.
Rios Montt evaded justice, but Guatemala’s Public Attorney, Thelma Aldana, went after other military men. Aldana and the United Nations Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) continued their investigations, even when facing threats and attempts against their lives. They detained other generals, including General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, former Minister of Defence during his brother Fernando Lucas Garcia’s (1978–1982), term as president. Benedicto Lucas is now in prison for crimes he committed against humanity, including sexual slavery against Kekchi-Maya women.
This updated context shows how difficult is to achieve justice in Guatemala where the oligarchy and the army remain in control of the country. Moreover, they used their economic power to buy media ads to warn the public of more political violence and to influence the Constitutional Court’s decision to favor Rios Montt and other potential war criminals. The current government (2016 to 2020) is headed by comedian James, “Jimmy,” Morales. Under pressure from the oligarchy and the army, they outlawed Thelma Aldana, who now lives in exile, and unilaterally ended CICIG’s work in Guatemala. Morales is also attacking prominent journalists; arrests for political crimes that target male and female community leaders have skyrocketed, and justice for femicide offenses and crimes is taking a back seat.