Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Neighbor to the Assassin: Transitional Justice in Guatemala

After 36 years of civil war, Guatemalans struggle to address the wrongs of the past.

By Miriam Schulman

April 1982. The tiny village of Chel, Guatemala. It is dawn. Convinced that the community is aiding the guerrillas who have been fighting the government since the 1960s, the Guatemalan army surrounds the town. Many of the village's men have already left for work in the fields, but the women, the children, and the elderly are at home. The soldiers herd the villagers together, torturing some, raping others. Then the people are forced to remove their clothes. The adults and older children are taken to a wooden bridge spanning a deep gorge. They are hit on the back of the head with machetes, and their bodies fall into the rushing water. With their clothing, the soldiers build a bonfire where they toss the infants. Then they burn the village to the ground.

[A Mural]
At the Guillermo Torriello Foundation,
demobilized guerillas display a mural
showing the reincorporation of former

The 100 people who died at Chel that day represent a small fraction of the more than 150,000 deaths and 50,000 disappearances that marked Guatemala's 36-year civil war. Although peace accords brought an end to open fighting in 1996, the journey toward true peace must navigate this history. Demobilized soldiers and guerrillas are returning—sometimes to the same communities—and together with noncombatants, they must try to rebuild a civil society. That means people may be living next door to the person who murdered their father or raped their sister. Are the perpetrators of such violence going to be brought to justice? If so, what would such justice look like?

Some Models

Of course, Guatemalans are not alone in confronting these questions. The history of the 20th century is rife with examples of countries confronting a legacy of political violence, most prominently the de-Nazification of Germany. Though each country's experience is unique, it's worthwhile to note some models of transitional justice, which might provide insight into Guatemala's options.

Spain's approach sits at one end of the spectrum. At the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, Francisco Franco coldly eliminated many of his republican opponents and instituted a series of repressive policies. But as Spain moved gradually toward its current parliamentary monarchy, the crimes of the Franco regime were never punished. On the contrary, King Juan Carlos issued a royal amnesty for many convicted of political crimes, and police files detailing the behavior of officials remain sealed. Adolpho Suárez Gonzáles, prime minister during the transition, commented, "The question is not to ask people where they are coming from, but where they are going to."

A totally opposite approach was taken by Greece. Under the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1973, torture, purges, and other repressive measures were common. When Constantine Karamanlis returned the island to civilian rule, he immediately began a program of "dejuntafication." According to Neil Kritz, editor of Transitional Justice, Karamanlis "dismissed or replaced over 100,000 people in the military, in government down to the local level, and in state organizations.... Within six months, criminal proceedings were initiated against more than one hundred former officials."

South Africa's current experience might represent a middle way. Citizens there must testify before a truth commission about any crimes they may have committed under the apartheid regime. If they tell the truth and ask for forgiveness, they may be eligible for amnesty. These three examples are drawn from countries that have made relatively successful transitions from authoritarian regimes to democratic civil societies. Unfortunately, there are just as many instances where these same approaches have failed. Burying the hatchet seems not to have worked in the former Yugoslavia, where the wrongs of the Second World War—and even the Ottoman period—were reanimated by the Serbs to provide justification for a horrifying program of ethnic cleansing. In Argentina, an executive pardon from the prime minister undercut the convictions of numerous former junta members and military officers who committed human rights abuses.

Political Realities

The question of justice is a moral one, but it is answered within specific political parameters. In his essay, "Justice After Transitions," Jamal Benomar, formerly with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, puts it this way: "There are no hard and fast rules or easy answers about how to resolve the dilemma of bringing violators to justice. Official policies on this issue have been dictated not only by strict principles of justice, but also by the need to balance ethical and legal concerns with the hard realities of politics. The balance of power between the forces that represent the past and the democratic forces that lead the transition has proven to be the determining factor in the policy of many governments on this issue."

[A. Mendez and K. Musalo]
Amilcar Mendez, Guatemalan congress
member, and Karen Musalo, director,
Human Rights and Migration Project.

Before we look at rights and wrongs in post-war Guatemala, it's important to lay out some of the political realities. First, the war was a particularly ugly conflict, in which terror was used to keep the civilian population under control. It was commonplace for activists, union members, and dissidents to disappear from their homes, only to turn up later as mutilated corpses tossed into the street. A scorched-earth campaign begun by government forces in the early 1980s eliminated more than 400 villages.

The preponderance of such acts were committed by the Guatemalan military. A recent report by the Project to Recover the Historical Memory (REMHI), a program of the Catholic Church, concluded that 80 percent of the human rights abuses were committed by the military, 10 percent were perpetrated by the guerrillas, and another 10 percent were of unknown origin.

The officers who were responsible for these violations are still highly placed in the military; they were not defeated by the guerilla forces. No side "won" the civil war. Guatemala's peace accords represent a negotiated agreement between the government and the guerrillas.

As such, the accords form a remarkable document, which provides for much more than a cessation of hostilities. The peace accords include provisions on social and economic development, on the rights of the indigenous Mayans, on the reincorporation of soldiers and guerrillas into civil society.


But the implementation of the peace accords has been a frustrating process. One of the impediments, many believe, is a lack of faith in the Guatemalan justice system: Too many people literally get away with murder.

Fernando Moscoso Moller is a member of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team, which conducts exhumations of massacre sites to determine what really happened during the war. He says, "In each community where we work, we always ask what the people hope to see, and they always say 'justice.' In many of these communities, the people must live side by side with the perpetrators [of these massacres], and they feel the perpetrators will mock them because there's been no justice. The peace process can't be consolidated if there is no justice."

A poster displayed in many human rights organization offices has the same message. Above a stylized dove of peace is the inscription, "Where impunity ends, peace begins."

The end of impunity may take many forms, and Guatemalans differ on the best path to take. Justice might mean trials and punishment for human rights abusers. It might simply be setting the historic record straight. Or it might require apologies from those responsible for the atrocities.


Maria Puj, a leader of the national war widows' organization, CONAVIGUA, makes the case for retribution: "What the women in my group say is, 'The men who killed our husbands are free; they have money; they live in nice houses, while our husbands are rotting in the ground. We want the killers to be punished.'"

But prosecutions for human rights violations were made less likely with the passage last year of the Law of National Reconciliation. "This law was practically an amnesty, especially for those members of the military responsible for hundreds of killings and disappearances," says Amilcar Mendez, a longtime human rights activist now a member of the Guatemalan Congress. "It amnesties the acts of the government or the guerrillas during the war, and it puts the burden of proof on the victims to show that the perpetrators do not fall into a category covered by the amnesty."

Although there is some debate about whether the Law of National Reconciliation violates international human rights standards, the current Guatemalan government shows no inclination to challenge its provisions. Here, some history may be instructive. In 1986, the Guatemalan armed forces gave control of the government to a civilian president, Vinicio Cerezo; but before the turnover, they declared an amnesty for themselves. Cerezo told Aryeh Neier, at that time executive director of Human Rights Watch, that repudiating the amnesty would have spelled the end of his government.

Neier comments on situations such as Guatemala's:

Permitting the armed forces to make themselves immune to prosecution for dreadful crimes seems intolerable; yet it also seems irrational to insist that an elected civilian government should commit suicide by provoking its armed forces. This dilemma illustrates the fragility of most of the elected governments that have recently taken over from dictatorships. On a matter that is crucial to the military, the commanding officers still wield decisive power. Yet if the new civilian governments are to evolve into genuine democracies, it is essential that the rule of law should prevail and that the armed forces should be subordinated to democratic rule.

Recovering the Historical Memory

Whether or not punishing the powerful proves possible in Guatemala, another route toward justice may be through simple truth telling. Again and again, Guatemalans stress the need for an honest account of what happened, both as a necessary step toward reconciliation and as a preventive measure.

"The thinking of many groups-the families of the disappeared, unionists, indigenous-is that what they really want is to know the truth: who was responsible for what," says Mendez. "We can't forgive if we don't know what happened. Our history has been so tragic and violent; we want the children to learn about it in school so they don't return to the same errors." As part of the peace accords, Guatemala set up a truth commission, which was charged with recording the human rights abuses of the civil war period. But the commission was originally slated to operate for only six months. Later the mandate was extended to one year. Still, "that was extremely short for a war that lasted 36 years in a country with 23 different languages and distinct cultures," Moscoso Moller says. Also, the commission was instructed not to name any names.

[Guatemalan Kids]
Children perform a song at a shelter for
war widows and orphans run by CONAVIGUA.

Among the many groups who felt this commission would be inadequate was the Catholic Church. Even before the end of the war, the Archdiocese of Guatemala began REMHI, which has now collected over 6,500 firsthand testimonies about what happened during the war.

In its official report, REMHI does not name perpetrators, except for responsible government officials. "We wanted the report to create a social reconstruction, not be a cause of conflict," says Graciela Asmitia of the REMHI project. "Some of the perpetrators continue to live in their communities. Often they are very powerful, and the people have to live with them." But the REMHI archives do detail who did what and may eventually be used as the basis for future prosecutions.

Dangerous Truths

In the meantime, the four-volume report, titled "Nunca Mas" (Never Again), was published in April. A few days after its release, Bishop José Juan Gerardi, national coordinator of the REMHI project and director of the Archdiocese Human Rights Office, was killed outside his home, an assassination many take to mean that powerful elements in Guatemala still don't want the truth to come out.

In their essay "Transitions From Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies," Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter address the dilemma countries such as Guatemala face. They point out the dangers of exposing the past, especially when it is raw to both victims and victimizers. But they go on to say:

Superficially, this may seem to suggest that it is better (or at least more prudent) in such cases just to bury the past and get on with the future.... [However] it is difficult to imagine how a society can return to some degree of functioning which would provide social and ideological support for political democracy without somehow coming to terms with the most painful elements of its own past. By refusing to confront and to purge itself of its worst fears and resentments, such a society would be burying not just its past but the very ethical values it needs to make its future livable.

So far, the bishop's death seems not to have intimidated those who wish to tell the truth. More people are volunteering to give testimony because of their indignation over the attack, Asmitia reports. Even perpetrators are coming forward.

A basic recommendation of the REMHI report is that the guilty on both sides acknowledge what they did and ask forgiveness from the Guatemalan people. Neither the government nor the guerrillas have yet followed this recommendation. Both sides say they are studying the document.


In the meantime, some hope that the very process of truth telling can have a restorative effect. REMHI, Asmitia says, "was not just about cases and statistics. It was also about listening." As they told their stories, "people were recovering their dignity, and we were accompanying them in this process."

Moscoso Moller has observed the same phenomenon as the Forensic Anthropology Team exhumes massacre sites. "The same men who buried the bodies of the slain helped us to dig them up [for forensic examination]," he says. "Being involved, they became protagonists, not simply observers.... This is part of the process of democratizing. It's difficult for people to see the skeletons, but they know that the pain they are going through is beneficial. They hope that if the world knows what happened, they will receive compensation for their suffering."

Through the recovery of memory, some communities are trying to reconcile former enemies. Asmitia recounts the experience of a village in the Quiche district, one of the regions of Guatemala hardest hit by violence: A mental health team from the REMHI project worked with the community, dividing them into groups that looked at the history of the village before, during, and after the violence.

"There was a role for everyone," Asmitia says. "The old people gave the history; the women talked about the family and the home; the men talked about the structure; the children showed where they played and went to school."

Each group created a banner to illustrate their conclusions. The perpetrators of the violence, some of whom still lived in the community, were drawn in red to signify that they were dangerous. But the center of the final banner was white, to represent hope.

A Legacy of Violence

Another group trying to effect reconciliation is the Guillermo Torriello Foundation, a project of the URNG (National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity), the umbrella organization for the various guerilla groups. Lydia Santos, coordinator of the regional office in Quetzaltenango, describes a series of forums her group has been sponsoring: "We are asking, What attitudes are needed to create a climate of tolerance so that the incorporation [of ex-guerrillas] can go forward?" To this end, the foundation is bringing together heads of the military bases, members of the civil patrols, mayors, and ex-guerrillas to talk about compliance with the peace accords.

"For them, it's not easy, and it's not easy for us, either," says Santos, "but we consider this work very important."

In both ex-guerrillas and ex-soldiers, Guatemala has a generation of young people who were raised in a climate of violence. Within the experience of many young Guatemalans is forced military service, often including participation in atrocities. For others, who fled to the mountains to join the guerrillas, the rhythms of peaceful life never developed.

Valerio Ramirez, a former guerilla, is now one of a group of ex-combatants trying to build a new life on a cooperatively owned coffee plantation. "It's a difficult transition," he says. "After 15 or 20 years in the mountains, it's been a long time since many of us have held machetes. Some grew up in the mountains and had to learn from scratch."

Guatemala's struggle is Ramirez's writ large. "During the last 40 years, there has been little attention to civil institutions and little attention to people," U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Donald Plante observes. "The Pan American Highway turned to dust, police were nonexistent, democratic institutions were ignored. Now, even though the fighting has ended, the country still needs to find its soul."

Further Reading

Kritz, Neil J., ed. Transitional Justice. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995