The Specter of Guatemala’s Dirty War

Between 1960 and 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and 40,000 more “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. A U.N.-backed truth committee discovered in 1997 that the Guatemalan government was responsible for 93 percent of these deaths and that over 83 percent of those killed were Mayan [1]. This period, known as the Guatemalan Civil War (or Dirty War), marks one of the darkest periods in the country’s history—and is typically regarded as a closed chapter. However, recent events in Guatemala demonstrate that the corruption and violence that characterized this hellish period are rapidly returning, and a closer investigation reveals that perhaps this Dirty War never really ended.

The Civil War was particularly tough on Guatemala’s large indigenous population, and even after the war officially ended, the indigenous peoples continued to be persecuted and disadvantaged economically and socially.  Three events in recent politics point to a possible return to the oppressive military regime that ruled during the Civil War and suggest that Guatemala’s population may be at risk for further suffering because of governmental corruption and infringement on civil rights.

The current Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, has been the subject of scrutiny since his election. The U.N., U.S., and E.U.-backed commission assigned to investigate corruption in the Guatemalan government, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known as the C.I.C.I.G.), attempted to investigate Morales and his cabinet, but the president made the unpopular (and likely unconstitutional) decision to expel the C.I.C.I.G. from the country in early January. The C.I.C.I.G. provided instrumental support in cracking down on corruption in Guatemala, including disbanding criminal networks and organized crime structures, training local officials in honest practices, and supporting legal reform combating corruption [2]. The president’s decision to expel this commission harkens back to the oppressive, violent past of Guatemala’s Civil War. Removing any kind of oversight means that the possibility of mass government-perpetrated violence, not to mention embezzlement and fraud, looms over the country once again.

Another disturbing shift in Guatemalan politics is the introduction of two laws that could seriously impact Guatemalan citizens’ political rights. Law 5377, which is being debated in the country’s congress for a second time, would grant amnesty to those convicted of war crimes committed during the Civil War. While unlikely that these war criminals would return to the crimes they were convicted of in the first place, their freedom would symbolize the government’s indifference to the suffering inflicted upon its citizens during the war and could possibly inspire similar hate crimes. There is already significant evidence to suggest that those who were most targeted during the Civil War—Guatemala’s indigenous peoples—are already at risk for higher rates of violence. Just in the last year, 26 indigenous rights activists have been murdered. One of these activists, Juana Raymundo, was a 25-year-old indigenous woman and rising political leader whose body showed signs of torture when it found days after she disappeared [3]. By passing Law 5377 and granting amnesty to war criminals who committed atrocities such as these, the Guatemalan government will be sending a message that the lives of indigenous people and other Guatemalans are less valuable than the freedom of a few once-powerful, well-connected people.

The Guatemalan congress is also discussing Law 5257 which, if passed, would restrict the activity of non-governmental organizations in the country. The government would be able to shut down any N.G.O. for broadly defined reasons, including “disturbance of public order” [4]. This kind of broad power would make it easy for the government to heavily restrict the actions of government opposition groups, many of which are comprised of indigenous Guatemalans. As the country slides toward a constitutional crisis after President Morales’ expulsion of the C.I.C.I.G., this law’s passage would mark a further restriction of civil rights and represents the possible return of the oppression and violence of the Civil War.

Unfortunately, since Guatemala already has high rates of both poverty and violence, it is unlikely that much attention will be paid on the international stage to this growing crisis. We should care because people’s lives matter, and no one should have to live in constant fear of unprovoked violence. However, if simple human decency isn’t enough motivation, there are selfish reasons to act too: If the Trump administration is worried about the influx of immigrants from Central America now, they need to take this human rights crisis seriously. People won’t want to stay in a country where they could be abducted, tortured, or murdered at any time without consequence, especially when many residents of the country already lived through this kind of horror. U.S. intervention in Central America doesn’t have a great track record, but something has to be done soon—lest Guatemala be forced to return to its dirty past.

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[1] https://www.usip.org/publications/1997/02/truth-commission-guatemala

[2] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/guatemala-edge-abyss-190109211600314.html

[3] https://www.npr.org/2019/01/22/685505116/killings-of-guatemalas-indigenous-activists-raise-specter-of-human-rights-crisis

[4] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/02/guatemala-legislative-initiatives-seriously-threaten-human-rights/

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Amelia Campbell

Amelia Campbell is a senior studying Interdisciplinary Humanities and Spanish, with a minor in Global Women’s Studies. She grew up in Seattle and served her mission in Guatemala, and finds Utah’s dry climate almost unbearable. She works for Dr. Deidre Green at the Maxwell Institute of Religion, researching feminine and maternal imagery in the philosophical writings of Søren Kierkegaard. When she is not touting the merits of interdisciplinary education and intersectional feminism, she can be found baking, reading, playing in BYU’s Balinese Gamelan Orchestra, and attempting film photography.

Amelia Campbell

Amelia Campbell is a senior studying Interdisciplinary Humanities and Spanish, with a minor in Global Women’s Studies. She grew up in Seattle and served her mission in Guatemala, and finds Utah’s dry climate almost unbearable. She works for Dr. Deidre Green at the Maxwell Institute of Religion, researching feminine and maternal imagery in the philosophical writings of Søren Kierkegaard. When she is not touting the merits of interdisciplinary education and intersectional feminism, she can be found baking, reading, playing in BYU’s Balinese Gamelan Orchestra, and attempting film photography.

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