The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice

Partners for change at the intersection of academics and advocacy.


Transitional Justice: Impunity in Guatemala

Human Rights Victims and Advocates Criticize Ongoing Impunity in Guatemala:

Interviews with Francisco Goldman, Jennifer Harbury and Julio Solórzano Foppa

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Francisco Goldman
Interview & Links
Jennifer Harbury
Interview & Links
Julio Solórzano Foppa
Interview & Links

On December 12, 2007, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court issued a decision that many see as a setback for an ongoing fight against impunity in the country, as it effectively invalidated international efforts at seeking justice for past human rights abuses designed by a military regime. A little over a year prior to the issuing of the decision, four members of the former military regime in the country had been held in arrest under a warrant issued in Spain. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled that the Spanish arrest warrant, part of an effort to open avenues to justice for Guatemalans using international law, violated Guatemala's sovereignty. The Court refused to permit the extradition to Spain of two Guatemalan generals who were being detained in Guatemala and refused to accept the Spanish Court's jurisdiction over any of the Guatemalans accused of genocide.

The Spanish Court investigating violations of human rights, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide has been undeterred. In fact, over the past year, many Mayans and other victims of years of oppression in Guatemala have traveled to Spain to testify. For many human rights defenders and survivors of violence in Guatemala, however, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court's decision continues to be an obstacle to justice.

Reactions from the Human Rights Community

The Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice has hosted a number of guests on campus to speak on the issue of impunity in Guatemala, who all have connections to the ongoing struggle for justice in the country. In April 11, 2007, Mexico City writer, director, and producer Julio Solórzano Foppa gave a Rapoport Center talk on the issue of impunity in Guatemala. Solórzano Foppa, whose mother Alaíde Foppa was disappeared in Guatemala in 1980, has been heavily involved in the fight against impunity in Guatemala via the investigation of his mother’s case. In a 2008 interview with Engle, Solórzano Foppa noted that impunity affects the entire country at an institutional level, saying that many Guatemalans perceive “impunity as a fact” of politics in the country. For Solórzano Foppa, the problem is “not only that those crimes were committed, but there is a whole system and a chain of people that are protecting those responsible.”

Jennifer Harbury, whose husband was disappeared in Guatemala in 1992, visited the University of Texas in February 2008 to give a Rapoport Center talk on the history of the US and torture. Harbury has also spent much of the past twenty years promoting human rights in Guatemala, especially since the disappearance of her husband. In an interview with Engle, Harbury pointed to the need for the international community to recognize the significant danger and violence still present in the country, particularly for those involved in investigating and lobbying for justice for past human rights abuses. She suggests the widespread violence in the country is a result of a pervading culture of impunity stemming from the long armed conflict in Guatemala. While speaking on violence directed toward human rights defenders and political activists in Guatemala, Harbury noted, “It just happens. But it happens always to the same targeted group of people, and it will keep happening until there are consequences.” Ongoing investigations in Spain, Harbury notes, are about “speaking truth to power, and putting that first stone in place toward bringing people to justice.”

Author Francisco Goldman’s newest book, The Art of Political Murder, offers an investigative account of the cover-up of the murder of Guatemalan bishop Juan Gerardi. When he came to speak about the book on the University of Texas campus in February of 2008, he agreed to an interview at the Rapoport Center. In the interview, he drew a parallel between the human rights trials in Spain and the UN-sponsored Truth Commission that was carried out in 1998. “When a country’s institutions are this weak, the world can play a positive role,” he said, speculating that UN presence during the investigation of Bishop Gerardi, played a valuable watchdog role. “The safety issue is, I think, a key argument for universal jurisdiction. Ten people were killed in [the investigation of Gerardi’s] case, and if the UN hadn’t been there, it would have been much higher.”

The justice process has been slow-moving and has encountered many obstacles in Guatemala, and logistically, it would be next to impossible to seek justice for all victims and their families. However, activists say it is important that they continue to the furthest extent possible. Solórzano Foppa, using his own case as an example, points to the larger, symbolic value of trials against those responsible for violence carried out in Guatemala: “It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of this as myself or my family. It’s a whole country that needs it, and in my case [my mother] became a symbol,” he said. “In this process, we’ve learned to understand justice as a collective issue, more than only an individual issue. It’s more than that…it’s something needed to be able to stay alive and go on with life and have a better future.”

Transitional Justice and Universal Jurisdiction in Context

The Constitutional Court’s decision and subsequent critiques and reactions to it reflect a wider debate common to many countries facing transition from violent military rule to a democratic government. The body of study of “transitional justice,” though not commonly applied in Guatemala, encapsulates these debates: should a country simply draw a line between a brutal past and a more peaceful, democratic future, or confront the past by convening a truth commission, providing reparations to survivors and victims’ relatives, or putting those responsible for human rights abuses on trial? Members of the Guatemalan military, believed responsible for 90% of the 200,000 deaths of the period of armed conflict spanning from 1960-1996, have enjoyed impunity in Guatemala under an amnesty law preventing prosecution for most of the violence carried out against the mostly indigenous population.

Absent recourse to justice at home, some human rights activists and victims’ family members have found empathy in Spanish courts, where judges and lawyers have attempted to apply universal jurisdiction to try those responsible for human rights abuses committed in Guatemala. A group of victims’ family members and survivors, among them Rigoberta Menchú, filed a complaint in the Audiencia Nacional of Spain in 1999, charging members of the military regime with genocide, state terrorism, torture, and other human rights crimes. In July of 2006, Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz issued arrest warrants for six members of the Guatemalan military regime on these charges. Four of the six were apprehended in November 2006, but the Guatemalan Constitutional Court’s December 12, 2007 decision freed those who were detained, claiming that Spain’s application of universal jurisdiction was invalid. While the Court had the right to reject Spain’s jurisdiction in this case, many are skeptical of whether there will be any renewed effort to pursuing justice domestically.

On January 31, 2008, Rapoport Center Director Karen Engle participated on a forum on impunity in Guatemala City, sponsored by the Guatemalan NGO Genocidio Nunca Más. The forum was held as a part of a series of events to respond to the Constitutional Court’s decision, and also to commemorate the anniversary of the Guatemalan military’s 1980 fire-bombing of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala. In her talk, Professor Engle placed the recent Court decision in the context of transitional justice and of universal jurisdiction under international law. Because Guatemala has failed to make the transition to democracy, she noted, a foreign court has taken on the role of seeking criminal justice (Engle's commentary: English and Espanol). “As became evident with the Constitutional Court’s resolution of last December 12, Guatemala has not made a transition,” Professor Engle said, addressing the forum held by Genocidio Nunca Más. “The question is when and how the country will make the transition.”

On a positive note, Spanish judges and lawyers have continued to investigate cases of human rights crimes in Guatemala, and witnesses and other activists continue to travel to Spain to give testimony. Other European countries have been encouraged to do the same. Though the accused will not be able to be tried in Spain, many hope there will be a growing consciousness and public shaming of those believed responsible for designing the widespread violence in Guatemala.