What Guatemala can teach Colombia about the long road to peace
By Natalia Lozano
A peace process is a long, arduous road. Whenever it is taken, there is always a moment—though that moment differs for each party in the conflict—when the driver stops at a desolate gas station, gets the restroom key from the indifferent cashier, reviews their disheveled face in the bathroom mirror and wonders, gee, why not just turn around and go home.
It’s a gut check. At this moment, the given party must decide how much they want to get to the destination—and how much they are willing to concede in the process.
In 1996 Guatemala sacrificed justice to end the longest civil war in Latin American history. Despite decades of massacres, both sides agreed to an amnesty in order to achieve an agreement. Maybe it was too much of a shortcut. 17 years later, “peace” remains an empty promise as violence still plaguing the country.
Today Colombia faces a similar dilemma between securing peace and delivering justice to end Latin America’s most protracted guerrilla conflict. A glance at Guatemala’s experience can be illustrative as to how enduring peace goes beyond the immediate goal of simply signing accords. Rather, it depends on an equal measure of justice to ensure any sustainability.
Drenando el mar para matar al pez
After the US-backed coup of the Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz’s government in 1954, a series of repressive regimes, de facto discrimination of the Mayan majority, commercial interests and external intervention plunged the country into 36 years of civil war beginning in the 1960s.
During the civil conflict, military- dominated governments waged a brutal counter-insurgency against leftist guerrilla (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit).
When the originally urban movement attempted to take cover in rural Guatemala, the military furiously moved upon indigenous campesinos – even though they had not rebelled. Military junta leader Ríos Montt unleashed the worst of the war in his 1982-83 “scorched earth” campaign. In 1982 he serenely explained his military strategy stating that where the guerrilla is the fish and the people are the sea, if you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea.
Over a period of more than three decades 626 massacres occurred, 200,000 Guatemalans were tortured, victims of sexual violence and/or killed, thousands were disappeared and over a million were displaced.
When peace became a political and economic necessity, the military and the guerrilla signed a peace agreement monitored by the United Nations (UN) in 1996. The Peace Accords, featuring nearly 200 substantive commitments, brought hope of a transition, reconciliation and democracy to the Guatemalan people, especially to the beleaguered Mayan communities.
In 1999, the Guatemalan truth commission, a transitional body sponsored by the UN, defined the terror campaigns against the indigenous people as genocide and blamed the army for 93 percent of the human right abuses during the war.
The piñata of self-forgiveness
During nearly 10 years of negotiations, the military was able to influence the terms of the peace accords, securing general amnesty. Superficially, this benefited both sides, as both were granted amnesty. Empirically, when one side committed 93 percent of the war crimes, it benefited one side.
While the majority of the commitments in the Peace Accords have remained words without power, the amnesty was endorsed in 1996 with the Law of National Reconciliation. Though the law purportedly exempted extreme crimes, almost all the perpetrators responsible for the most horrific acts have escaped prosecution, and even reentered the political stage.
In July 2003 Rios Montt, recently found responsible for a massive human lost, was allowed to run for president by the country’s highest court. In 2012, a retired military officer, Otto Perez Molina, accused of playing a pivitol role in the indigenous massacres in 1980s, was elected president.
License to kill
Today, Guatemala suffers the effects of post-conflict without justice. The country’s violence levels are alarming and impunity is endemic.
In 2010 Guatemala, supposedy at peace, had a higher murder rate than Colombia, supposedly at war. Guatemala has never developed the ability to successfully reach guilty verdicts in human rights cases. Investigations have increased notably since 2009, but few upper-echelon abusers see a jail cell.
The impunity is endemic: nearly ninety-seven per cent of homicides remain unsolved. Indeed, in 2007, a UN official declared, “Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”
Colombian Framework for Justice
While peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC in Cuba trudge along, Bogotá is focusing on a mechanism to deal with the aftermath of more than 50-years of atrocities. The Legal Framework for Justice, the Colombian government’s plan for delivering justice in the transition period from conflict to peace, is a hotly debated topic.
Tuesday, last week, the Colombian Constitutional Court decided that the transitional justice instrument fits the requirements of the Colombian constitution. The government’s measure focuses on the prosecution of those most responsible for crimes during the armed conflict, and calls for prioritization of human rights violations.
But is Colombia shielding those responsible for human right abuses from accountability?
The Colombian courts believe that in concentrating guilt on the most responsible, they would dismantle criminal macrostructures and ultimately ensure non-repetition. However critics insist that under the Framework for Justice the guerrilla members will walk away unpunished once the peace accords are signed.
The ghosts of Guatemala whisper that without justice, peace is but a vague promise. Any Colombian peace accord to come out of Cuba will likely offer legal guaranties to perpetrators of human right abuses. It remains to be seen if such a deal will help the country transition to peace and redress victims, or as in Guatemala, trigger violence and impunity.
For now, is just helpful to study the uneasy reality of Guatemala to shed light on Colombia’s dark, lonely road to peace.
Natalia Lozano trained in the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and writes for CON-TEXTO TADEISTA in Bogotá. She currently lives in Bogotá, Colombia.