Embassy Magazine, Wednesday October 30th 2013
Edgar Pérez has known several lives.
Growing up as an impoverished youth in Guatemala, he felt the country’s elite labeled him what he calls a “subhuman” delinquent, and faced a bleak future with few opportunities.
Later, he became an Olympic wrestler, he suddenly had the ability to travel the world and see the differences between his country and others.
When he opened his own practice as a human rights lawyer, funded in part by a Canadian government program.
But the funding to improve Guatemala’s legal system through Canada’s Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force ended on March 30.
Less than two months later, the groundbreaking success of convicting former Guatemalan dictator Effrain Ríos Montt of genocide in a national tribunal (a worldwide first) was short-lived when, ten days later, the decision was overturned by the constitutional court on a procedural technicality.
Mr. Pérez recently visited Ottawa to tell the Canadian government that although progress has been made in Guatemala’s courts, the country needs Canada’s assistance and attention now more than ever.
Guatemala sits between Mexico to the west and Belize, Honduras and El Salvador to the East. For decades, it has been trying to overcome the conflicts and cultural tensions caused by Spanish colonization and a 36-year civil war that some consider a genocidal campaign against indigenous populations.
During the war, an estimated 200,000 people were killed, and 83 per cent were Mayan, according to a report by the country’s truth and reconciliation commission. The United Nations-backed report also found that government security forces were behind 93 per cent of human rights atrocities, including more than 600 massacres in indigenous villages.
Now, 17 years after the end of the war, justice is being sought in a legal system that is still plagued with inefficiencies, astronomical impunity rates, extrajudicial killings, and allegedly, government influence.
Significant progress has been made since the establishment of the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, said Mr. Pérez, but he added that recently, there have been signs of backsliding.
Mr. Pérez told Embassy he’s losing confidence that the re-trial of Mr. Ríos Montt—scheduled for October 2014—will actually go ahead, and organizations such as Amnesty International have been sounding alarm bells that the constitutional court is considering granting the former military general and president amnesty.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government is remaining tight-lipped on whether it will continue funding justice reforms in the country, and the Guatemalan government insists that progress is substantial, and that there hasn’t been meddling into the judicial system by political elite.
A period of progress
“There was progress, but now we’re backtracking,” Mr. Pérez said with the use of a translator during an Oct. 9 interview in Ottawa.
With the help of the UN-sponsored commission, as well as funding from the Canadian government to the tune of $9.8 million over four years, implemented in part through Lawyers Without Borders Canada, there were many improvements made.
Lawyers were assisted in setting up firms; special high risk tribunals were formed, and judges were trained to handle sensitive and complex cases such as genocide and crimes against humanity.
An auditor general was also appointed, Claudia Paz y Paz—who was reportedly shortlisted for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize—and criminal investigations were strengthened and methods such as informants and wiretapping were permitted.
Over the past several years, former security force members have been arrested and successfully tried for their role in various human rights abuses during the war.
“These are historical processes that have established the conditions for the present context,” said Mr. Pérez. “Finally there was some political will to implement the recommendations of the international commission.”
He went on to say that in the past three years, Guatemala’s impunity rate has dropped from 96 per cent to roughly 80 per cent. With a smile, he added: “for Canada, these would be stratospheric rates, but in a country such as Guatemala where the extrajudicial killing rate is roughly 18 a day, in a country which is…geographically placed for organized crime and drug dealing, lowering the impunity rate by 15 points is a lot.”
In this window of opportunity, Mr. Ríos Montt was temporarily brought to justice, but the overturning of the decision is a sign that the system is still fraught with issues, argued Mr. Pérez.
The former dictator, who took power in a military coup in 1982, was convicted by a Guatemalan tribunal in May for the massacre of more than 2,000 Ixil Indigenous people, and was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The country’s highest court tossed out the decision 10 days later, citing a procedural error, and hit the rewind button, scheduling a re-trial that would essentially pick back up at the point during which the procedural error was said to have occurred in the original trial.
“With the annulment of the verdict, there is now a risk that all that has been won in the past few years could be lost,” he said. “It’s very important that the international community and Canadians be aware and be vigilant of what will happen in Guatemala in the next year.”
Mr. Ríos Montt has connections in the current government, as well as strong relationships with powerful members of the business community, said Mr. Pérez. Guatemala’s current president, Otto Fernando Pérez Molina, was a military leader who worked in the same regions as Mr. Ríos Montt during the civil war. Mr. Pérez has also been accused of human rights atrocities in the Quiche region.
He responded to these allegations in an a pre-election interview with the BBC saying “very small groups have made the accusations but they have been incapable of producing any evidence or winning any trial.”
Mr. Pérez said he has dwindling confidence that the re-trial of Mr. Ríos Montt will occur “because Rios Montt still controls part of the economical and political life of the country.”
The government and the justice system are supposed to be separate, but Mr. Pérez said the political elite still has ways of influencing the country’s highest courts.
Guatemala’s ambassador in Ottawa, Georges de La Roche, told Embassy that the government has not been meddling in the trial of Mr. Ríos Montt.
“The constitutional court is completely separate from the government, it’s a different entity…whereas [as] influences go, I could not say, but it does not sound correct to me,” he said.
Mr. de La Roche also said the case is extremely complicated, and stressed that the case hasn’t been completely annulled, just delayed, and that it will start at the point where the constitutional court found there was an error made in proceedings.
Amnesty International posted an article on their website on Oct. 24 that also raised concerns that Mr. Ríos Montt would be granted impunity by the Constitutional Court.
“Reports that Guatemala may open the door to an amnesty for former President Effrain Ríos Montt would be a travesty of justice and send the country back more than a decade,” it said.
The press release said there are increasing reports in Guatemala that the Constitutional Court has asked for more details as to why Mr. Ríos Montt’s previous request for amnesty was denied.
“This is an alarming new development that, if confirmed, would set the country back decades. Amnesties can never be applied to genocide and crimes against humanity,” Sebastian Elgueta, a Guatemala researcher at Amnesty International, was quoted as saying.
When asked if the Canadian government has concerns with the stalled trial of Mr. Ríos Montt, DFATD spokesperson Béatrice Fénelon wrote, “the trial of Ríos Montt was an important milestone for Guatemala’s justice system [and] despite interventions which overturned the verdict on a legal technicality, the legal process continues to follow its due course. We are following developments closely.”
Pascal Paradis, the executive director of Lawyers Without Borders Canada, said the organization has been working in Guatemala since 2011, helping to strengthen the rule of law with almost $2.8 million in support from Canada’s START funding.
The funding cycle ended in March, and Mr. Paradis said they are anxiously awaiting an update from the Canadian government as to whether there will be continued funding.
“We hope Canada will be there to make sure that all the efforts it has engaged in in Guatemala come to fruition,” he said.
When asked whether Canada is considering a new phase of funding for improvements to Guatemala’s legal system, Ms. Fénelon wrote, “If or when we have something further to announce, we will.”
While in Ottawa, Mr. Pérez said he met with members of Lawyers Without Borders Canada, several bar associations, officials from DFATD, MPs, members of the Canadian War Crimes Unit, and legal academics.
He said his message to the Canadian government is to stay invested in the strengthening of the rule of law in Guatemala—not just because it has already contributed a significant amount of money to the cause, but also because Canadian companies are increasingly setting up shop in the country, and would benefit greatly from a sound and uncorrupt legal system.