Arrest In Guatemala Highlights Longstanding Calls For Indigenous Justice

General elections held in Guatemala on 16 June became the venue for a high-profile arrest that signified—at least in part—justice for the Maya Ixil people, many of whom lost loved ones in a 1982 genocide under the dictator, Efrain Rios Montt. The 36-year Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), during which 80 percent of victims were Indigenous Maya, saw nearly 200,000 people killed. The struggle for justice for Indigenous people persisted after a peace accord was signed in 1996 and continues to this day. The nearly four decade-conflict between state military forces and left-wing guerilla groups (including Indigenous enclaves, particularly Maya communities) was fraught with violence; a United Nations-backed truth commission found that military forces engaged in “multiple acts of savagery” against Indigenous communities during the civil war, including bombing villages, burning people alive, disembowelling civilians, inflicting sexual violence, and impaling victims, among others. The commission found the Guatemalan government, which carried out over 600 massacres during the war, responsible for over 90% of deaths.

On Sunday, officials arrested Luis Enrique Mendoza, military head of operations under Montt’s rule (1982-1983) and subsequent defence minister and representative in the Guatemalan Congress. Mendoza went into hiding after charges were filed against him for his alleged role in the genocide, and a warrant for his arrest was issued in 2011. Mendoza’s arrest on Sunday came 37 years after a massacre of 1,771 Maya Ixil villagers, a period sometimes referred to as the “Silent Holocaust.”. While Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison, his conviction was overturned on technical grounds. Montt died during his re-trial this past April. His chief of military intelligence, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was acquitted. In spite of Montt and Sanchez’s lack of a formal and lasting conviction, the judicial tribunal unanimously concluded the state committed genocide during Montt’s rule. Mendoza’s arrest remained one of the longstanding demands of genocide survivors and Indigenous activists.

With respect to judicial accountability in Guatemala, courts have been unreliable. Edgar Perez, an Indigenous lawyer for the Bufete de Derechos Humanos human rights law firm, told Al Jazeera, “The accused have faced a weak judicial system, but on two occasions it has said that genocide occurred in Guatemala.” The precarious nature of the judicial system in Guatemala means that justice for genocide survivors and their families remains to be seen. “We cannot speak of democracy if the justice system does not work to protect life and human dignity,” Miguel de Leon told reporters. De Leon is a traditional Maya Ixil authority. In previous years, efforts to prosecute Guatemalan authorities responsible for the genocide have taken place overseas; the Center for Justice and Accountability, joined by the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, filed claims in the Spanish National Court against Montt and other Guatemalan authorities since 1999. The Guatemalan court took up the case in 2012 and ultimately convicted Montt only for the case to go to re-trial soon after. Mendoza’s arrest is an important step in holding accountable those who enabled crimes against humanity in past decades, but his future trial verdict will be more telling of Guatemala’s state of democracy.

The actions of foreign entities—or lack thereof—are particularly relevant to Guatemala’s current situation. In 1954, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported a military coup d’état against a democratically-elected president who was viewed as a communist threat. Guatemala’s existing democracy only declined afterwards as voting rights were stripped and land reforms were rolled back. Eventually, guerilla groups began resisting the oppressive Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan Civil War ensued. The Guatemalan army received high-grade military equipment from the United States to bomb villages and execute residents. Under the Reagan administration, a $2 billion covert CIA program, $19.5 million worth of military helicopters, and $3.2 million worth of military vehicles were sold to the Guatemalan army. Later, the Reagan administration approved only 3% of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases and denied allegations of human rights violations, according to Medium. The coup installation of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt received US support; Reagan referred to Montt (who would later be convicted of committing genocide) as “a man of great integrity” who was “totally dedicated to democracy.”

The flow of U.S. military-grade weapons and support to Guatemala forces against its own civilians is undeniably reason for the persistence of the Guatemalan Civil War and ongoing ethnic conflict. The disregard for the rights of Indigenous peoples perpetuated by the U.S. led to thousands of Maya Ixil deaths. U.S. involvement in the Guatemalan Civil War demonstrates that arms and military assets provision is inappropriate—and evidently lethal—if a “communist threat” arises. Rather, diplomatic relations and sanction-type measures would likely have saved lives, at least in the Guatemalan case. In instances where international pressures are leveraged wisely, as the UN Commission for Historical Clarification did post-civil war—they can be effective.

The Guatemalan Public Ministry can provide checks on the executive overreach of power, particularly because it works in conjunction with the UN-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. But the rule of law is not completely safeguarded, and Morales has tried to terminate the institution after becoming the subject of many of its investigations. A report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service found that Guatemala’s current executive, President Jimmy Morales, as well his predecessor, have been investigated for corruption despite Morales’s campaign on an anti-corruption platform. Beyond corruption, safety and human rights remain under threat, in addition to high rates of violence, poverty, and malnourishment. Further, Human Rights Watch finds “impunity for human rights abuses remains widespread” in the country, citing threats and violence towards human rights activists, non-governmental organizations working in the country, and journalists.

Rather than hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable, the Guatemalan Congress has taken steps to provide these individuals amnesty and free high-profile prisoners held for corruption. Subversion of the rule of law to this extent should be of deep concern to international peers and demand a strong international response. The response must be two-fold. First, international actors must advocate for the rights of civilians and invest in their livelihood. Secondly, steps must be taken to pressure Guatemalan authorities to uphold the rule of law and protect residents of Guatemala.

International actors must work to support communities affected by violence and deprivation, including Indigenous communities such as the Maya Ixil, who have been victims of such adversity for decades. Consistent or increased foreign aid can help mitigate areas lacking basic provisions such as food and water. Efforts on the part of the Trump Administration, for instance, to cut aid to Guatemala can only contribute to worsening conditions for civilians. International pressure can be applied to Guatemala to follow appropriate judicial protocol, for judicial institutions must be able to maintain the rule of law and hold individuals like Mendoza accountable. As a press release by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action put it, “Genocide cannot remain in impunity!” Such pressure might be derived from a UN resolution or on a state-by-state basis. But arms provision must remain off the table at this moment, given its history as an enabling force in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Justice for the Maya Ixil people must remain a priority in the international community, just as it has been for Indigenous authorities. Diego Ceto, a traditional Indigenous Maya Ixil authority, emphasized the tenacity in this pursuit to Al Jazeera, and his statement should be considered a call to action: “We have never stopped in our search for justice and truth. It is a struggle of all the [indigenous] peoples.”

Isabelle Aboaf