March for the National Day for the Dignity of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict, Photo credit: EFE

Yesterday, Guatemala celebrated the 25th National Day for the Dignity of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict. Survivors from across the country marched through Guatemala City to honour the loved ones who were taken from them by state violence, to demand the return of the disappeared, and to call for justice and respect for historical memory. 

The National Day for the Dignity of the Victims of Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict takes place each year on the anniversary of the publication of the Historical Clarification Commission’s (CEH) “Guatemala: Memory of Silence” report in 1999. The report documented the atrocities carried out by the Guatemalan state throughout the country’s 36-year Internal Armed Conflict.

Survivors have long struggled for justice and reparations for these crimes. Organizations like the Rabinal Legal Clinic (ABJP) have brought historic cases for crimes against humanity, forced disappearance, and sexual violence through the courts. They have carried out exhumations and held yearly commemorations, refusing to forget the memories of their loved ones and community members. They call on the government to provide economic reparations, guarantee non-repetition, hear cases for justice in the courts, protect historical archives documenting the conflict, and ensure younger generations learn about and understand what their ancestors lived. 

The Guatemalan State has consistently failed survivors. The Giammattei government dismantled institutions created by the Peace Accords. The State has failed to pay reparations ordered by national and international courts to victims. Accused war criminals have been let out on house arrest or freed for medical reasons. The last Congress once again sought to force through an amnesty law.

Changing of the Rose of Peace. Photo credit: COPADEH

However, yesterday’s commemorative events left some hope, with Vice President Karin Herrera announcing a National Dignification Plan, “whose north star is to rehabilitate the memory of the victims… as there is no possibility of authentic reconciliation if just demands are not taken into account.”

Melissa González, a psychologist with the ABJP who provides psychosocial support to survivors of violence, attended yesterday’s events, along with Máxima García and Pedrina López, two of the witnesses in the 36 Maya Achi Women’s case. In this lightly edited interview, González shares her thoughts about the struggle for justice, the importance of the National Day for the Dignity of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict, the lasting effects of state violence and erasure, and hopes for the future.

How are you involved in the struggle for justice?

González: I am a psychologist. I provide psychological accompaniment for the ABJP in two areas: one is accompaniment for the internal armed conflict victims and the other is for victims of crimes that occur today, including physical, sexual, and psychological violence. I have worked with the survivors in the 36 Maya Achi Women’s case since I joined the ABJP in 2020.

Why is it important to continue commemorating the National Day for the Dignity of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict? How did you, Doña Pedrina, and Doña Máxima commemorate the day yesterday?

González: It’s essential to dignify the memories of the people who are no longer here, who were disappeared. We must dignify their memories and recognize that [the State] attacked the people of Guatemala, especially the Indigenous peoples. We must recognize that those events were real and that they left an indelible wound that remains open today.

In my experience as a psychologist, I have seen that psychological support is important to help a survivor take up their life project again, to deal with the aftermath of what they survived. But I have also seen that it’s impossible to totally repair the psychological after-effects of the violence people lived through, whether that’s massacres, forced displacement, or sexual violence. These after-effects still influence people’s lives and personalities 42 years later. We see that some remain in silence, they remain fearful, they duck their heads, they feel weak. In the face of those effects, it’s important to continue to name that these genocides and atrocities took place and to dignify the memories of those who are gone.

The National Day for the Dignity of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict is of utmost importance. Like other major holidays, whether Mother’s Day or Christmas, it’s not a day you can just let pass by unmarked. It’s like another Day of the Dead, but specifically for those who were killed during the atrocities of the conflict. For instance, both of Doña Pedrina López’s parents were disappeared. Their memory holds a lot of pain and sadness for her. So, she brought flowers and photos to remember them.

The fact of coming together is also important. Yesterday, more than 500 people came to the march, which gives survivors strength and hope because they remember that they are not alone in their struggle. Even though many years have passed, people continue to struggle and remember with the same intensity as always.

Survivors sit with photos of disappeared loved ones. Photo credit: Emisoras Unidas

For survivors in Rabinal and the ABJP, what does justice look like? 

González: Justice would mean taking meaningful action to guarantee non-repetition. It would mean working to preserve historical memory, taking concrete actions to record the history and ensure that young people have access to it in the future. It would mean following through on economic reparations measures. We see that the life expectancies of those who survived the conflict is dramatically lower than it should be. That’s because many of the conflict’s victims are not living, but merely surviving, having lost everything they owned during the conflict. That destruction leaves a mark not just on one person or one family; it leaves a generational mark. Every generation continues to pay for the [State’s] violence.

What are your thoughts on the responsibilities of the government in the work for justice and historical memory? What are your thoughts following Vice President Herrera’s announcement yesterday?

González: Previous governments had zero interest in working towards justice. It was not convenient for them to recognize the State’s role, to name what the government had done. They aren’t interested in resolving anything.

With this new [Arévalo] government, we have some hope for concrete support. Yesterday, Doña Pedrina and Doña Máxima heard the Vice President’s promises. The new government made commitments and we hope it will follow through on those commitments. We have hope.

The last administration [under Giammattei] shut down the National Indemnification Program. It sought to end processes [for justice], hide the past, cover it up. The new president will face difficulties and we expect this will be a slow process, but we do hope that the new government will follow through on their Plan for the Dignity of the Victims.

They have said they will create a new department within the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights (COPADEH) meant to work on promoting the dignity of the Internal Armed Conflict victims. They will try to recover lost documentation on past indemnification and reparations efforts. We hope they will contribute to efforts for economic reparations, actions to ensure non-repetition, and actions to honour the victims of the Internal Armed Conflict.


Interested in interning with BTS partners in Rabinal to support their ongoing struggle for justice and historical memory? Please apply to the ACIC International Youth Internship Program to become a BTS intern: Applications are open until February 29!