On Friday May 10, 2013, General Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala during one of the most violent periods of the country’s 36-year civil war, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. In addition to charges that he masterminded the massacre of 1,771 Ixil Mayans, Ríos Montt was convicted of 1,485 acts of sexual violence and acts of torture. The 86-year-old was sentenced to 80 years in prison, and victims and their families will receive reparations in various forms.
You might be wondering why I, a domestic violence attorney in Boston, would care about a genocide trial in Central America. Viewed through the widest lens, this is a pivotal moment in the international human rights movement. It was the first time that a former head of state was tried for genocide in his home nation in genuine proceedings in his home nation (despite several delay tactics, procedural roadblocks, and the lingering scent of corruption along the way). Guatemala has been under the microscope since the trial began in March, as the nation was given a chance to prove to its citizens, and the rest of the world, that it could uphold the rule of law. This was a true test for a country that has been grappling with a legacy of extreme violence since the armed conflict officially ended in 1996.
But my interest in understanding Guatemala’s sense of justice runs much deeper. I have relatives who live in Guatemala City, and I visited them a handful of times throughout my childhood. However, it wasn’t until the last decade, as my awareness about Guatemala’s internal conflict evolved in step with my interest in advocating for survivors of domestic and sexual violence here in Boston, that I truly began to understand the struggles facing victims in Guatemala.
During the civil war, the Guatemalan army—commanded by Ríos Montt, and with financial and training resources from the United States—developed and implemented a series of plans designed to exterminate the Ixil Mayan population, believing that the counterinsurgency could only be ended by eradicating Ixil support of the guerillas. Rape was one tool used by the military as part of the systematic and intentional plan to destroy the Ixil ethnic group; exercising violence on women’s bodies was seen as a way to destroy the social fabric and thereby stop the growth of the Ixil population. Although these crimes occurred more than 30 years ago, during the past several weeks the court heard testimony from dozens of survivors who described the extreme atrocities they suffered at the hands of the army. Day 8 of the trial was dedicated solely to hearing the testimony of survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by the military. [Trigger warning—link contains descriptions of extreme sexual violence].
The violence persisted in very real ways after the war. As Giovana Lemus from the Guatemalan Women’s Group has stated, “Guatemala went from war to peace but came out with organized crime and clandestine groups who deny the rights and integrity of all women and act with impunity.” Guatemala’s legal system was in no way equipped to deal with this; statutes criminalizing femicide and other violence against women did not become law in Guatemala until 2008. Add to this a pervasive culture of patriarchy and “machismo”… In short, what Guatemala was left with after the war was a justice system at best incapable—and at worst unwilling—to respond adequately to the rights of victims of violent crime, especially women.
So, what could this recent monumental verdict mean for victims in Guatemala? Without a doubt, Ríos Montt’s conviction is necessary to encourage justice and healing in Guatemala. As David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, noted in a statement released after the verdict, “Today will be carved into history…as a victory for victims in the country, and for all who care about the state guaranteeing, rather than abusing, the fundamental rights of citizens.”
But as I contemplate this victory for Guatemala, I am drawn to compare the experiences of my clients, survivors of domestic and sexual violence here in Boston. I am left with this question: What does it mean for a state to truly protect its victims? Here, our clients know that laws protecting them from violence exist, and police officers and prosecutors are aware of their obligations to enforce them. But what does that actually mean for our undocumented clients, or those in communities of color, where there may be deep-seated distrust or fear of law enforcement? In a city like Boston, with a troubled history of racism and xenophobia, can survivors really rely on the state to protect them?
As an attorney who has spent the past several years watching our students navigate the justice system with their clients, I do have faith that there is value in accessing the system. I have seen clients emerge on the other side of the criminal justice process safer and more empowered, having helped send messages of deterrence and accountability to the perpetrator. But there are just as many cases where law is not the answer. And if the justice systems at home and abroad are as limited as they seem, it seems that the better question to be asking is: What more can we be doing to stem the violence at its sources in our communities?