By Adrienne Wiebe, MCC Latin America Policy Analyst/Educator
Former Guatemalan Dictator, Ex-General Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, 2013.
However, he has only spent one night in jail.
He was under house arrest for that past year, awaiting trial. After the sentencing, the ex-General spent one night in jail, and then the next day he was taken to a military hospital because he apparently had problems with hypertension.
Then today (May 20),the announcement was made that the Constitutional Court of Guatemala has annulled the conviction because of a technicality midway through the trial. It appears that the last half of the trial is invalid. Ríos Montt has been transferred back to house arrest.
This sentence was historic. It was the first time in Latin America, that a former head of state has been found guilty of genocide in his or her own country. For human rights organizations and civil society groups, it seemed to signal an end of the impunity that has protected the powerful elite in Guatemala for decades.
The Bloodiest Period of the Armed Conflict
During the armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, 250,000 people were killed or disappeared, the majority indigenous and civilians. According to the UN, 93% of the crimes were perpetrated by military or paramilitary forces. Four-hundred villages were completely razed. Thousands of women were sexually assaulted.
Ríos Montt presided over the bloodiest period of the country’s 36-year civil war. He took power in a military coup in March 1982, and was ousted by another coup 17 months later in August 1983.
In this short period a “scorched-earth” strategy was used by the military against indigenous communities thought to be helping leftist rebels. Hundreds of Mayan villages were destroyed, houses and fields burned, women raped, and people brutally killed by soldiers.
Vultures and Butterflies
The conviction of Ríos Montt has been controversial in Guatemala. Some people argue that this case is reopening wounds from the armed conflict that should be left closed. The Peace Accords of 1996 ended the armed conflict, and now the country needs to move on. The best way to achieve peace is to forget about the past. Similar arguments have been used in situations around the world (i.e. South Africa, Argentina, Chile).
Thinking about this, I was reminded of a section from the book, by Susan Classen, Vultures and Butterflies: Living the Contractions. Classen was an MCC worker for about 23 years in Bolivia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. She lived in El Salvador during the armed conflict there, and experienced harassment, arrest, and the suffering of the communities she lived with.
Here are her thoughts about the relationship between justice and peace, in a context where violence is used to protect privilege and power, and “peace” means leaving past injustice covered up.
“Christians are indeed called to take sides in certain kinds of conflicts. [Albert Nolan, a South African priest] identifies three mis-perceptions in the position that being a peacemaker always means reconciling two opposing forces.
First, the position of reconciliation assumes that the conflict is based on mis-understandings that can be cleared up by facilitating communication. But in some conflicts there is a right side and a wrong side. Christians aren’t called to try to reconcile good and evil, justice and injustice. We are called to do away with evil and injustice.
Second, the reconciliation position assumes that a person can be neutral. But in cases of injustice and oppression, neutrality is impossible. It we don’t side with the oppressed, we automatically side with the oppressor by consciously or unconsciously maintaining the status quo.
Third, the position that Christians should always seek reconciliation and harmony assumes that tension and conflict are worse evils than injustice and oppression.” (p. 150-151)
The Challenge for Peace with Justice
The issue of how justice AND peace are achieved in countries that have experienced extended, painful periods of armed conflict is complex. Guatemalans are currently grappling with this, as are many other countries in Latin America. Colombians will be facing similar challenges as peace negotiations between the government and guerrillas progress.
Building peace while achieving justice is extremely difficult, particularly when addressing cases of State crimes against their own populations. However, it is critical to balance genuine justice and holistic peace if positive societal transformation is to come from these armed conflicts.
Susan Classen, 1992. Vultures and Butterflies: Living the Contradictions.