Burden of Peace

By | 09 March, 2015

Burden of Peace (directed by Joey Boink, Netherlands) is a documentary about the pursuit of justice in post-civil war (1960-1996) Guatemala. Using a mixture of interviews, case meetings, arrest proceedings, witness testimonies and court hearings interspersed with newsreel, the film graphically illustrates the difficulties involved.

In particular, it focuses on the role of the country’s first female attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who working in collaboration with Human Rights Watch and local advocates and officials, wants to establish the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to investigate organised crime and help strengthen local justice institutions.

Paz y Paz’s motivation is clear: “You must do it because the victims deserve justice. You must do it because the country deserves justice. You must do it because it has to be done.”

Justice Postponed

The Guatemalan civil war was an archetypical conflict of its time and locale. A geopolitical proxy war – in the tradition of the Monroe doctrine – which set the country’s ruling elite and military against its own people. The nominal enemies were Marxist-inspired guerillas, yet in reality nearly all of those massacred, disappeared, assassinated, gang-raped or victims of genocide, were Ladino civilians and indigenous Ixil Maya, respectively. An estimated 140,000 and 200,000 people died and 45,000 “disappeared”.

Another dimension to the conflict is revealed in the testimonies of some of the indigenous vox pops. It seems that ethnic cleansing in certain areas not only resulted in death, it also led to de facto land seizures. Indeed some land, especially in Huehuetenango department, has been developed since the war for mining, power projects and other commercial activities.

Justice and Civic Society

The struggle to transform a system of justice which is so woefully dysfunctional has unintentional moments of sardonic humour, such as the prosecutor who wants to start mañana, the criminal prosecutors with zero clear-up rates and a database that has 56 different spellings for the word desconocido (“unknown”, as in assailant), yet the overwhelming feeling is that whilst the majority of Guatemalans like the idea of justice, a powerful minority does not.

When the peace process involves precisely those people and organizations who organised and orchestrated the violence and corruption of civic society, then no attempt at reform is going to be easy. This is particularly so, as the film reveals, when the ethical basis of human rights and justice is conflated with Marxism and seen as essentially “alien” in the Guatemalan context. When Paz y Paz says, “What a country!” there will be many who’ll nod in agreement.

During the worst period of the conflict, under the presidency of José Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983), soldiers said on newsreel footage: “Human rights are political ideals from socialist countries” and “human rights are being used by the communists’ friends.”

Members of the Guatemalan army, as court testimony reveals, gang-raped a 12-year-old girl, disembowelled pregnant women, destroyed their foetuses and beheaded men.

The tone is set, and whilst Paz y Paz, makes remarkable progress in her four-year tenure, including bringing Ríos Montt to trial and clamping down on the country’s horrendous rates for murder, rape and drugs offences, especially those committed by gangs such as Salvatruchas, Zetas and Cigareros, she is undermined in the final analysis by an unholy alliance of the guilty, the powerful and the corrupt.

A Peculiar Notion of Justice

It would be a very depressing film but for the quiet bravery and resilience of those who are trying to bring Guatemala back from the law of the jungle to somewhere more discernibly human. Nevertheless, there are some in Guatemala, as the film shows, who believe the pursuit of justice is a Marxist plot and “unconstitutional”. Some of the advocates of this parallel system took a brick to the head of Monsignor Juan José Gerardi, the Catholic bishop and human rights defender in 1998, the day after he named names of those in the military responsible for crimes against humanity and genocide.

The president of Fundación Contra el Terrorismo, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, son of a minister in Rios Montt’s government, is shown as a trenchant critic of Paz y Paz. He refers to her as a “softly spoken poor little fatty” and a Marxist. For him, and the ex-military, who support his organisation, there is no case to answer; the military was protecting the country.

It is evident from ad hominem attacks, TV denunciations/propaganda, veiled threats and efforts to impeach her before her 4-year term is up, that Guatemala could so easily reoffend. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is referred to by one lawyer as that “little Chinaman”, Human Rights Watch is similarly disparaged as Marxist and Paz y Paz, who was elected to the position of attorney general (on constitutional business) is deemed “unconstitutional” and “unqualified” and is effectively side-stepped (through underhand means) from being reappointed.

Know Them By Their Works

Despite being indicted and found guilty of charges of crimes against humanity and genocide on May 10, 2013, Rios Montt served just one month of an 80-year-sentence (which in due course was overturned on procedural grounds). The case remains unresolved. Other members of the Guatemalan military have suffered different fates. Brigadier General Óscar Mejía Victores, the former minister of the interior, was too ill to stand trial but former Special Forces officer, Otto Pérez Molina, was elected president in 2012.

As for Paz y Paz, on her last day in office she left the country with her husband and son. Who could blame her? As the film explains, her protection detail went with the job. If you were a gambler or a lawyer, as the film illustrates only too well, you wouldn’t bet on the future of habeas corpus, due process or justice in Guatemala.

Burden of Peace will be screened (followed by a discussion with film-maker Joey Boink) at 6.30pm on both March 25th and 26th, at the Ritzy Brixton and Curzon Soho respectively, as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.


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