Commemorating the Genocide Sentence; Guatemala’s New Attorney General

Today, on the one-year anniversary of the genocide sentence, we reaffirm our solidarity with the thousands of Ixil victims and survivors who have witnessed so much suffering, and with those who continue fighting for justice and dignity.

On May 10, 2013, Guatemalan courts handed down an 80-year sentence against former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and war crimes against the Maya Ixil people — a sentence that was a historic step for Guatemala, and for the global community working for justice.

The verdict not only represented justice for the 1,771 Ixil men, women and children assassinated between March 1982 and August 1983, but also for their surviving family members and the thousands of victims from across the country of the internal armed conflict. It signified, too, the possibility of justice for victims who had buried their traumas in silence for more than 30 years, and endured the indifference of a society that has gone so far as to deny that the events even occurred.

A Mayan ceremony performed outside the court asking for justice; General Rios Montt hours before a verdict was handed down

The verdict was annulled 10 days later by the Constitutional Court through a ruling which clearly responded to orders from powerful actors like the conservative business lobby, CACIF, fearful of setting a precedent that would shatter the impunity that had been the norm for so many years. 

Unfortunately, sectors linked to the military, the economic elite, and even public officials continue to adamantly deny genocide occurred and seek to dismantle any advance in the construction of a justice system that functions for all Guatemalans. 

Attorney General Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz, under whose leadership the genocide case went to trial, became one the principle targets of this effort to maintain impunity. The Constitutional Court ruled to reduce her term by seven months, a move that appeared to be retaliation against her for daring to hold accountable those who thought they were untouchable – and a message to others that those efforts will not be tolerated. It was perhaps symbolic, then, that the President announced the new Attorney General yesterday as people commemorated the trial. Thelma Aldana will take office in little over a week, after a rushed selection process marred with irregularities. 

Nevertheless, the legacy of the genocide sentence continues to offer hope. Even though it was annulled, the sentence was read, heard, known and celebrated. As Jorge Santos commented in El Salmon, “Without a doubt, the power of this sentence is immeasurable in the way it became an homage to the thousands of victims of repressive State forces.” 

This May 10th, 2014, in Guatemala and in other countries, this historic act is being commemorated with diverse activities of reflection and analysis. There will also be discussion of the new challenges Guatemala confronts – and the ways in which the Guatemalan state continues to criminalize communities and use violence against them — issues that can´t be taken out of their historical context.

Click here to learn about the commemoration activities and how you can get involved.

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