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Guatemala Must Not Grant Amnesty To War Criminals

by Jo-Marie Burt, WOLA

Guatemala's ongoing political crisis is having a devastating impact on its people, fueling unrest in the streets and increasingly driving asylum-seekers to migrate to the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, with the country's Congress poised to pass a bill that would free war criminals, there's no clearer sign that rule of law in Guatemala is undergoing a slow, ugly collapse that could spur even more migration to the United States.

The proposed legislation, which Guatemala's Congress is expected to debate imminently, would free more than 30 military officials convicted of crimes against humanity and more than a dozen others awaiting trial on such charges. It would also prohibit all future investigations into other cases of grave human rights crimes committed during the country's brutal 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

Should this amnesty bill pass, not only would it undo decades of work to provide justice to victims of wartime atrocities, it would represent an unequivocal return to the reign of impunity long sought by the powerful, military-backed networks of corruption that the United States has invested significant resources into dismantling.

Guatemala's civil war and resulting genocide was fueled by U.S. Cold War support for regimes that, no matter how brutal against their own populations, were seen as protecting U.S. interests. United Nations investigators found that 200,000 people died, the vast majority at the hands of the Guatemalan army. Four out of every five victims were indigenous. Four hundred indigenous villages were wiped off the face of the earth.

Impunity was the norm for many years, even after the conflict ended and peace accords were signed in 1996. But over the past 10 years, thanks to the persistent demands of victims and new generations of prosecutors and judges unencumbered by past fears, Guatemala has made impressive strides in bringing war criminals to justice.

To date, Guatemalan courts have convicted 33 military officials, military commissioners and paramilitaries for a series of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, massacres, torture, sexual violence and sexual slavery. Courts have also convicted one guerrilla leader for a 1988 massacre.