Guatemala is a multiethnic, multilingual nation that has been plagued by violence and exclusion directed at the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens, specifically indigenous Mayan communities.
Spain’s colonial legacy left power in the hands of an elite minority, and a series of U.S.-backed dictators throughout the first half of the 20th century made consistent use of the familiar tools of repression.
A pro-democratic military coup in 1944 initiated a decade-long revolution which led to sweeping economic and social reforms. The United States backed another military coup and dictatorship in 1954, initiating what would become a bloody civil war between the Guatemalan military and leftist rebels. In the civil war that raged from 1960 to 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or forcibly disappeared. The 1996 peace accords opened the path to economic growth and successive democratic elections, though that path has not always been smooth.
In April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi presented a four-volume report of The Guatemalan Catholic Church’s Recovery of Historical Memory Project, the first truth commission for Guatemala. This report summarized testimony and statements of thousands of witnesses and victims of repression during the civil war and blamed 80% of the atrocities on the Guatemalan Army and its collaborators within the social and political elite. Two days after the release of the report, Bishop Gerardi was found beaten to death in the garage of his home.
A second truth commission, the U.N. mandated Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), published its report in 1999. The CEH attributed 93% of the atrocities, including massacres of civilian men, women, and children, to government forces, while only 3% of the atrocities were attributable to the guerrillas. Out of 200,000 documented victims, the CEH report found that 83% were indigenous. According to the CEH, recorded cases of extrajudicial killings of ethnic Mayan individuals rose from fewer than 100 in 1978 to over 10,000 in 1982. The overwhelming number of these killings occurred in the state of Quiché. The report concluded that Guatemala had committed genocide.
In December 1999, a group of Guatemalan victims and survivors, including Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, filed a criminal case in Spain under its universal jurisdiction law against eight high-ranking officials of the Guatemalan government for torture, genocide, arbitrary detention, and state-sponsored terrorism.
Promising steps toward justice and a peaceful transition were taken throughout the decade that followed:
- In August 2000, the president of Guatemala accepted state responsibility before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for the disappearance of Molina Theissen. This was the first time the Guatemalan state had accepted responsibility for human rights violations during the civil war.
- In May 2003, the Guatemalan government established a National Reparations Program. Two years later, in March 2005, the Public Ministry established the Internal Armed Conflict prosecution unit to investigate violations identified in the CEH report.
- In July 2005, prosecutors discovered a vast collection of files abandoned on a police base in downtown Guatemala City. The documents once belonged to the National Police, the central branch of Guatemala’s security forces – an entity so deeply involved in repression during the armed conflict that the 1996 peace accords mandated it be completely disbanded. This collection of files proved to contain useful evidence for future prosecutions.
- In September 2007, the Guatemalan government and the United Nations established the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to assist the state in investigating organized crime and parallel power structures that had emerged during the civil war.
- In August 2009, Felipe Cusanero, a former paramilitary leader, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the forced disappearance of six indigenous people between 1982 and 1984.
The conviction of Cusanero was the first of many convictions to be handed down by the Guatemalan courts. Among them, former president Rioss Montt was prosecuted in 2013, convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years of imprisonment. The conviction of this former president, however, was overturned by the Constitutional Court that same year, derailing further proceedings until his death.
Despite the efforts of two truth commissions and an ambitious reparations program, prosecutions for past (and present) crimes have been obstructed by the lingering influence of former officials implicated in human rights abuses and by the intimidation and corruption of the domestic legal system.
After several years of path-breaking domestic trials for grave crimes committed during the war, hostile reactions and counterattacks from powerful quarters have continued to mount. Prior to leaving office in 2020, Guatemala’s president, who had come under investigation for corruption, expelled the commissioner of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and then refused to extend the mandate of this internationally hailed organization. His allies have proposed the prosecution of reformist prosecutors and judges who cooperated with CICIG’s work, and an amnesty law for those accused of conflict-related crimes. On January 14, 2020, a new arch-conservative president, Alejandro Giammattei, took office. Giammattei himself had come under CICIG’s investigation, and he is closely aligned with powerful former members of the military.
The issue of whether Guatemala’s military committed a genocide in the 1980s touches these same political nerves, and the prosecutors in the internal armed conflict unit as well as victims and their lawyers pursuing their cases continue to conduct this work despite very real personal and professional risks.
 Conclusions: Human rights violations, acts of violence and assignment of responsibility. Guatemala: Memory of Silence. Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, Conclusions and Recommendations (1999) at ¶¶ 17-20.
 Conclusions: Human rights violations, acts of violence and assignment of responsibility. Guatemala: Memory of Silence. Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, Conclusions and Recommendations (1999) at ¶¶ 15, 21.
 Percentage of identified victims by ethnic group, Guatemala (1962-1996). Guatemala: Memory of Silence. Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, Conclusions and Recommendations (1999). Page 85.