On October 22nd, the University of St. Andrews had the distinct pleasure of hearing Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz give the first of a series of lectures on Latin America. As the current and first female Attorney General of Guatemala, this lecture series could not have begun with a more impressive individual; as Paz y Paz’s work to strengthen the justice system within Guatemala and, perhaps most impressively, to successfully indict former President Rios Montt for acts of genocide has won her a place on Forbes’ list of the 5 most important women changing the world today, as well as a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Taking office as Attorney General in 2010, Paz y Paz assumed a powerful position in a country whose justice system was in desperate need of revision. Having only emerged in 1996 from a 36-year long civil war that pitted Marxist rebels against the Guatemalan state, and saw many innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, Guatemala was and is in many ways still recovering from a gruesome war whose death toll exceeded 200,000 people. The Guatemalan justice system, when Paz y Paz took office, also suffered from high levels of immunity granted to political leaders that protected them from ever having to face the consequences of their actions, and served overall to make the justice system ineffective and catered to those in power. Rios Montt, for instance, head of state between 1982-1983 as a result of a military coup d’état, ran for and won Congressional Office in 2006, which granted him immunity under Guatemalan law until his position ran out in 2012.
However, despite these challenges, Paz y Paz and her colleagues in the Office of the Attorney General made drastic improvements when coming into office in 2010; ultimately helping to strengthen the public executioners office by improving internal controls and consolidating a new group of worthy employees throughout the Guatemalan justice system. In her lecture, Paz y Paz made specific mention that, were it not for the fact that the justice system had already been strengthened prior to 2012, the office would never have been able to indict Rios Montt for genocide when his immunity ran out.
Indeed, having lost his immunity on January 14th, 2012, Rios Montt was indicted by Paz y Paz and appeared in court only 12 days later, apparently appearing in court because he believed the judge would close his case. As it happened, however, the judge overturned his plea for a dismissal of a case, marking an historic moment, as Rios Montt became the first head of state to ever be indicted for genocide by his own country.
Specifically indicted for genocide because of his involvement with the death of over 1,700 indigenous Mayan Ixil through ‘scorched earth’ campaigns, as well as for turning a blind eye to the brutal measures his soldiers employed against the supposed ‘internal enemies’ of the state, the case also marked a historic moment in that it forced Rios Montt, for the first time, to listen to the testimonies of victims of his abusive regime as they stood before him. The case, revealing evidence that had been covered up for years, also helped to shed some light onto what actually went on during Rios Montt’s reign. It was discovered, for instance, that racism was a massive issue during the trial, and that measures such as the systematic rape of indigenous women, including pregnant women, was used as a tool for political subordination. Investigation into the case also revealed that there had been mass-graves hidden in certain indigenous regions, where skeletal remains were discovered to have been shot in the head of the head or to have had their hands tied, ultimately helping to disprove those who claimed that genocide had not taken place.
After months of testimony, Rios Montt was officially charged on May 11th, 2012 and sentenced to 80 years imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity. However, only 10 days later, due to pressure from economic and business groups in conjunction with the fact that the current President, Otto Perez Molina, had been implicated in some of the evidence, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled in a 3-2 decision to turn back the clock to April 19th. Essentially, this decision meant that all that had been achieved since then, including hundreds of testimonies and, most importantly, Montt’s 80 year sentence, were ruled invalid. However, when asked by an audience member if Paz y Paz thought, due to the fact that the verdict was defeated, Guatemala was better of worse after the trial, Paz y Paz poignantly answered:
“[that] while it was a tactical defect, it marked a strategic victory as justice was strengthened and … [it was shown] that we can uphold the law by using the rule of law rather than breaking it”.
Additionally, as Paz y Paz went on to exclaim that much more work and progress needs to be made in Guatemala –citing the high levels of abuse against women as an especially problematic facet of the situation in the country –Paz y Paz seemed determined, rather than frightened, by the obstacles facing her. Indeed, as the lecture was wrapping up, Paz y Paz made one final comment that resonates with what the case against Rios Montt, and her work to strengthen the Guatemalan justice system perhaps most effusively proved, “that it is possible to act beyond what is allegedly possible”.