Last month, a bill that would grant freedom to dozens of Guatemalans convicted and incarcerated for crimes relating to the country’s brutal civil war passed the “first of three congressional readings.” There’s reason for worry amongst international observers. If passed, the bill would set a worrying precedent in Guatemala, not to mention distract from the deepening constitutional crisis in the country, as President Jimmy Morales and other elected officials fight back against internationally-backed anti-corruption missions, like CICIG.
If enacted, the bill would mandate the release within 24 hours of dozens of officials and military officers convicted of crimes related to the 36-year armed conflict and a halt to ongoing or new investigations of internationally recognized rights violations connected to the civil war.
During the fighting that lasted from 1960 to 1996 between leftists and the government, about 200,000 people were killed. Among the bloody actions was a military campaign against indigenous communities considered allies of Marxist guerrillas fighting the government.
A United Nations-backed truth commission found security forces guilty of “multiple acts of savagery” and genocide against Maya communities, and held the government accountable for more than 90% of the killings, disappearances and other human rights violations.
The United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has helped strengthen the capacity and autonomy of the attorney general’s office and the judiciary in Guatemala, which was critical to the progress made in war crimes prosecutions in recent years, wrote Jo-Marie Burt, a Latin American Studies expert at George Mason University, in an email.
Verdicts between 2008 and 2018 resulted in more than 30 convictions of military officials and state actors, as well as one of a guerrilla fighter, according to Burt. That included the 2013 sentencing of former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. (His conviction was later overturned and he died while he was being retried last year.)
But those backing this bill have found support in the party of Morales, who was elected in 2015. They have recently stood by Morales in his clashes with institutions tasked with investigating crime and corruption.