By Hannah Jane Ahern
The political landscape in Guatemala, which signed internal peace accords less than two decades ago between the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity party, an umbrella of leftist guerilla groups that is now a political party, has shifted dramatically in the past six months. Following the exposure of a major customs tax fraud scheme implicating officials at the highest levels of government, an unprecedented grassroots social movement, which grew out of social media activism, has taken shape to demand justice and end corruption in Guatemala.
The past 500 years in Guatemala, a country of roughly 15 million people, have been marked by colonial rule, military dictatorships, and a 36-year long bloody internal conflict between the Guatemalan government and leftist guerrilla groups. That conflict lasted from 1960 to 1996, and it resulted in the genocide of indigenous Mayan people who the government claimed were guerrilla sympathizers. Roughly 200,000 Guatemalans, the vast majority of whom were indigenous Mayans, were murdered or disappeared at the hands of the military, police, paramilitary and intelligence forces, according to the Commission for Historical Clarification, the United Nations-supported truth commission established after the conflict.
The Commission determined that 93 percent of the human rights abuses that took place during the conflict were perpetrated by the government. These abuses included rape, torture, forced disappearances, and arbitrary executions. Stunningly, not a single government official or member of Guatemalan security forces was brought to justice in Guatemala until 2009, when an ex-military commissioner was convicted of forcibly disappearing Guatemalan citizens during the genocide. Guatemala has been found responsible in human rights violations in numerous cases by both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but they have yet to comply with all of the measures ordered by the Court in 19 of those cases.
In 2013, Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982-1983 who was directly responsible for at least one massacre of over a thousand indigenous Ixel people, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Former President Otto Pérez Molina has also been accused of involvement in the Ixel massacre, and possible other acts related to the genocide, while he was in the army and stationed in that region. Ríos Montt’s sentence was annulled on a legal technicality shortly after it was issued; since then he has tried to avoid retrial by claiming that he suffers from dementia. Although the judgment was overturned, his conviction reopened public debate around the need for justice in a country where impunity has long been the norm. The hashtag #SiHuboGenocidio (“Yes there was genocide”) has remained constant on social media since 2013, and the case continues to be in the news.
LA LINEA: THE SCANDAL THAT SPARKED A MOVEMENT
La Comisión Internacional Contra La Impunidad en Guatemala (“The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala”), known as CICIG, began investigating corruption in Guatemala in 2007. Last year CICIG and the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office discovered an extensive customs fraud scheme, now known as La Linea. Government officials were accepting bribes in exchange for non-payment of import taxes by certain companies, so that money designated for schools and hospitals ended up lining their pockets instead. In April of this year investigations revealed that then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s personal secretary was the ringleader of La Linea; soon after, evidence against Baldetti herself began to mount. No one knew it at the time, but La Linea and the social movement it catalyzed would lead to the unraveling of Pérez Molina’s presidency.
Having traveled and lived in Guatemala for a number of years, I have many personal ties to this small Central American country and consider it my second home. Historically, corruption has been so deeply entrenched in government that everyone I know has always taken it for granted. However, after Baldetti’s connection to La Linea was publicized last spring, something changed. I noticed a new slogan on social media: #JusticiaYa. (Justice Now.) That slogan was followed by a more specific demand, leveled at Baldetti but with a clear message for all corrupt officials: #RenunciaYa. (Resign Now.)
The first protest, organized over social media, took place on April 25. It caught everyone off guard when over 10,000 people mobilized to demand Baldetti’s resignation. Since April, there have been peaceful demonstrations nearly every week to demand that corrupt officials be brought to justice, and following the first wave of protests Baldetti was forced to resign in May. In August, she was arrested for her role in La Linea, and on Aug. 25 a judge ordered her to stand trial on charges of bribery, conspiracy and customs fraud. That same day, a court ruled that Ríos Montt would have to stand trial again, for genocide, although he will not be sentenced to prison because of his health. The #JusticiaYa movement began because of public outrage against La Linea, but its impact has gone far beyond the customs fraud scandal. The movement has sent a clear message that the Guatemalan people will no longer tolerate the impunity of the ruling class.
#27A: PARTICIPATING IN HISTORY
On August 27th my boyfriend, who is from Guatemala, and I participated in the demonstrations in Parque Central in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city. Six days earlier, the prosecutor’s office announced that they had evidence implicating Pérez Molina as a leader of La Linea; in the wake of this news Guatemalans began repudiating his authority. In the days leading up to the protest, there was a new hashtag painted on signs and cars and posted on social media: #YoNoTengoPresidente. (I have no President.) We didn’t know it then, but the protest occurring simultaneously in Guatemala City that day would turn out to be the largest in Guatemalan history. It would become known simply as “#27A.”
When we arrived at the protest we wound our way through the sea of blue and white Guatemalan flags and found a cluster of family and friends standing together under the trees. We listened as student leaders enumerated the complaints and hopes of people across Guatemala. Local artists shared songs, raps and poems indicting Pérez Molina and the government for failing the Guatemalan people. We echoed chants demanding the President’s immediate resignation, even with the next presidential election only ten days away.
When I first heard about the protests last Spring, I (and many of my friends) remained skeptical about the potential to affect real change in a country that has historically been so divided and corrupt. I couldn’t comprehend the transformation that had occurred and the impact the #JusticiaYa movement had had in such a short time until I was standing there with the other protesters. What I found most inspiring was how the protests united Guatemalans from all regions, ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. As we stood in Parque Central that day among university students, local leaders, rural farmers, members of the urban middle class, Mayans, ladinos, young people, old people, and everyone in between, laughing, shouting, and singing, united peacefully in pursuit of a common goal, there was a feeling that the voice of the people was finally being heard.
A CHANGE IN POWER
In the days prior to and immediately following #27A, Pérez Molina did his best to cling to power. His public statements rejected calls for his resignation, denied involvement with La Linea, and attempted to minimize the magnitude of the movement taking place against him. In a way, though, it didn’t really matter what he said at that point: in most people’s minds he was already gone.
I left Guatemala the day after #27A feeling electrified, inspired and hopeful. On Sept. 1, Guatemalan Congress voted unanimously to strip Pérez Molina of his Presidential immunity, opening him up to prosecution. The next day—just four days before the first round of elections—a judge issued a detention order for him, and just before midnight, Pérez Molina tendered his resignation. Baldetti and Pérez Molina, once untouchable, were now both in jail, where they remain today awaiting trial.
On Sept. 6 Guatemalans went to the polls. In a surprising upset, the wealthy businessman considered to be the front-runner, Manuel Baldizon of the Lider Party, came in third place. Baldizon, the runner up in the 2011 elections, is known for his connections to narco-traffickers and for his illegal and corrupt campaign tactics. Among my friends in Guatemala, he is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Guatemala: how the ruling class profits off the desperation of the poor, and of how you can get away with anything, no matter how corrupt or illegal, if you have enough money. The message in the fact that Baldizon didn’t win (and that Jimmy Morales, a comedian with no prior government experience, came in first place) was clear. Jimmy Morales, who promised to tackle corruption in politics, went on to win the Presidential election by a landslide over the former first lady, Sandra Torres, on Oct. 25. This further echoes the message Guatemalans have been sending since the first protest in April: We will no longer tolerate corruption and impunity. We won’t be taken advantage of. And we will no longer be silent.
So many questions remain for Guatemalans about the future of Guatemala. Will Pérez Molina be found guilty, or will he escape justice on a technicality? Will the new president of Guatemala actually crack down on corruption? What effect will the new government’s policies have for the Guatemalan people? Will the vast majority of Guatemalans who live in poverty—75 percent of the population according to the World Bank—and without steady access to education, food, medical care or social services, see any real change in their quality of life any time soon?
In the realm of justice for rights abuses, even if he is found guilty again of genocide and crimes against humanity, Efraín Ríos Montt will never serve a day in prison in his lifetime. It is unclear who else will be brought to justice for acts of genocide committed by the government against its own people. Even if Pérez Molina goes to prison for his role in La Linea, will we ever know the full story of his connection to the massacres in the Ixil region while he was an officer in the army, and will he ever be held to account? Will the new government comply with the orders of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to give some small amount of justice to victims of rights violations and ensure that those violations aren’t repeated? Moreover, will the international community continue to stand with Guatemalans as they demand justice and accountability, or will we go back to business as usual, and only put Guatemala on the map when there is gang violence or a natural disaster?
There is no question that Guatemala will face enormous challenges as it continues to grapple with the consequences of genocide, human rights abuses, political corruption, racism, poverty, weak infrastructure, structural inequalities and decades of devastating U.S. policies in the region. No one, least of all the Guatemalan people, has any illusion that inequities going back 500 years will somehow disappear, or that anything can remedy decades of violence, genocide and impunity. But one thing is certain: a momentous shift has taken place. Peoples’ fears of speaking out against their government, of standing up against injustice, and of joining forces with those who are different from them are gone.
When I returned to New York at the end of August, there were two new slogans on everyone’s lips. They continue to circulate everywhere on social media, and are forever etched in the digital history books in hashtag form: #GuatemalaDespertó. (Guatemala Awoke.) And: #EstoApenasEmpieza. (This is just beginning.)
Hannah Jane Ahern was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and spent part of her summer in Guatemala during the protests and change in government.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo courtesy of Hannah Jane Ahern.