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Guatemala Country Report

Mayan women whose family members were killed in the Guatemalan Genocide celebrate after the initial conviction of Rios Montt in 2013. Credit: The Associated Press

From 1960 to 1996, the Guatemalan government, with support from the United States, conducted a systematic campaign of extermination and genocide against the indigenous Mayan population, killing more than 200,000 people. While the Guatemalan government has taken steps in January 2022 to offer reparations to several women who were victims of the genocide, the majority of Mayans still seek justice, recognition, and reparations for the crimes committed by the government. However, widespread governmental corruption and pervasive discrimination against indigenous groups have hampered attempts at justice for the genocide victims and even left indigenous people vulnerable to further persecution.

Legal proceedings to convict government officials who participated in the genocide have not only been slow and infrequent, but the current proceedings also show a clear bias against the indigenous Mayans. Mayan communities continue to speak their indigenous languages instead of Spanish. While Mayans make up 51% of Guatemala’s population, court proceedings are normally held in Spanish, and translators are often not provided to plaintiffs. Judicial corruption is pervasive in Guatemala and prevents effective trials. A prominent example of this was the trial of dictator General Rìos Montt, who was responsible for the killing of 170,000 Mayans during his military rule from 1982 to 1983. Montt was convicted of his crimes in 2013, but a 3-2 ruling by the Montt-appointed Constitutional Court overturned the verdict. The dissenting Justices made it clear in their opinions that overturning the conviction failed to preserve judicial impartiality. Montt’s retrial began in 2015, but he died in 2018 before the retrial could conclude.

Women also face significant discrimination and persecution. Guatemala has the third highest rate of femicide in the world, with a large proportion coming from indigenous populations. This culture of violence against women, specifically indigenous women, can be linked back to the genocide in which the military used rape, mutilation, and forced abortion and sterilization in a campaign to destroy the social fabric of surviving Mayan communities. This genocidal strategy normalized rape and violence against women by involving significant portions of the male population. It reinforced Guatemala's patriarchal culture and its acceptance of violence against women. Femicide resulted in 396 women murdered between January and August of 2021, up 31.1% since 2020.

The government’s historical use of violence against women as a military strategy and its continuing discrimination against women has increased femicide. In 2018, the Guatemalan Congress passed the “Life and Family Protection Law” that criminalizes abortion and allows women to be prosecuted for termination of non-viable pregnancies. In 2022, the law was expanded, creating a five-year minimum sentence for women who self-induce an abortion. Such legislation strips women of their bodily autonomy, and it continues to enforce a culture where controlling women is normalized, leading to official tolerance of domestic violence.

In recent years, the LGBTQ+ community has also come under greater attack. The “Life and Family Protection Law” also prohibits same-sex marriage. It also prohibits teaching in schools about same-sex relationships. In 2021, at least 32 people were killed because of their sexual orientation or identity. By creating a legal system in which the LGBTQ+ community is ostracized, the government subjects them to further attack and persecution.

Because rampant violence against women and the LGBTQ+ community has been normalized, and extreme discrimination against indigenous peoples continues, Guatemala is at Stage 3: Discrimination and Stage 8: Persecution. Lack of accountability for those who perpetrated the genocide, reversal of convictions, and an unwillingness to allow trials put Guatemala at Stage 10: Denial.

Genocide Watch Recommends:

  • The United States Government should take responsibility for its support of the Guatemalan government during the civil war and genocide and assist efforts to prosecute perpetrators.

  • The Guatemalan government should recognize and include indigenous languages in schools and offices.

  • The US and other governments should support activist groups like Centro Para la Acciòn Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), which work to increase the rule of law.

Guatemala Country Report October 2022
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