Bojana Djokanovic examines Guatemala’s 20-year effort to account for the missing from almost four decades of conflict
Guatemala is the most populous country in Latin America, with the highest birth rate and the highest population growth rate. Poverty is endemic and health and development challenges are severe. The indigenous population, mostly of Mayan descent, constitute 60 percent of the overall population, and continue to lag behind the non-indigenous population in social statistics: they are 2.8 times poorer and have 13 years’ less life expectancy; meanwhile, only 5 percent of university students are indigenous. Twenty-one different Maya groups live in Guatemala making up an estimated 51 % of the national population. A period of social and economic reform in the 1940s and 50s was followed by 36 years of internal conflict that began in 1960, pitting a right-wing regime against a variety of left-wing rebel groups supported chiefly by indigenous people and agricultural laborers.
An estimated 200,000 civilians were killed or disappeared during the civil war. The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) in its 1999 report found that the state’s military operations against some Mayan communities constituted genocide. Eighty-three percent of those who were killed were Mayan and 17.3 percent of Ladino/Mestizo descent.  In 1998, the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG) concluded that the war took a disproportionate toll on indigenous communities and that more than 90 percent of violations—including more than 600 massacres—were committed by the State army and paramilitary forces. Another report commissioned by the Catholic Church, Project to Recover Historical Memory (REMHI), attributed just under 80 percent of cases to the Army and just under 10 percent to the guerrillas. All reports, however, determine significant involvement by the State in the massacres that were committed.
Efforts to end Impunity
As reported by Human Rights Watch, “Guatemala’s efforts to promote accountability for human rights atrocities . . . have had mixed results. While the Attorney General’s Office has successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases, the vast majority of victims have not seen any form of justice for the violations they endured.“
In 2009, Felipe Cusanero, a former military officer, was convicted in a Guatemala court of responsibility for the disappearance of six peasant farmers and sentenced to 150 years in prison. This was the first time a case had been brought successfully against anyone for disappearances during the civil war and was expected to open the way to further trials.
Former Guatemalan head of state Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty in May 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but several days later the Constitutional Court overturned the verdict on procedural grounds. The retired general had led a military government from 1982 to 1983 during which period the military carried out hundreds of massacres of unarmed civilians.
In July 2013, following Ríos Montt’s conviction and 17 years after the end of hostilities, Ixil Mayans helped anthropologists to uncover mass graves. Reports of killings and disappearances had begun to emerge in 1990 and 1991, when groups of survivors cited clandestine graves in their communities, most of which contained the bodies of Mayans massacred during the “scorched earth” policy pursued by the government in the early 1980s. The forensic services of the Guatemalan judiciary started investigations into some of these cases but failed to pursue them to a conclusion.
In the mid 1990s, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team, today known as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) was established to search and identify Guatemala’s missing and engage the families and relatives left behind. The FAFG endeavors to allow the relatives of the disappeared to recover the remains of their missing family members and to proceed with burials in accordance with their beliefs, and enable criminal prosecutions to be brought against the perpetrators. It has carried out exhumations at approximately 1,650 grave sites, discovered the remains of more than 7,000 victims, helped identify missing family members, and provided crucial testimony in trials in Guatemala and Spain. ICMP has developed a productive working relationship with the FAFG, cooperating on a number of projects, the latest of which is in Sri Lanka as part of a consortium led by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. The Director of ICMP’s Science and Technology Department is a member of FAFG’s scientific advisory board and has provided assistance on technical cases and participated with FAFG on an expert panel on El Salvador’s response to an Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruling concerning a mass killing in the 1980s.
In 1994, the Historical Clarification Commission asked the FAFG to conduct four field investigations in order to secure physical evidence to support testimony it had gathered from survivors; this evidence was included in the Commission’s final report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence. Since 1994, the FAFG has undertaken a number of other activities to assist Guatemalan society with search and identification of the missing. These activities include efforts to account for the missing from the internal armed conflict, migration, natural disasters and organized crime.
Guatemala’s Congress passed a resolution in May 2014 denying that acts of genocide were committed during the country’s civil war, despite the findings to the contrary by the UN-sponsored Truth Commission in 1999. Nevertheless, in October 2015, an appellate court rejected a two-year old petition by Rios Montt’s attorneys to apply a 1986 amnesty decree that would put an end to his prosecution. The court ruled that the decree, applicable to “all political and related common crimes” committed between March 1982 and January 1986, did not apply to genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Attorney General’s Office has convicted several other former members of the security forces. Five Army Special Forces personnel received lengthy sentences for their role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre of more than 250 people, and former National Police Chief Héctor Bol de la Cruz received a 40-year sentence for ordering the disappearance of a student activist in 1984. In January 2015, former Police Chief Pedro Garcia Arredondo was sentenced to 90 years in prison for a police raid on the Spanish embassy in 1980 in which 37 people were burned to death. Activists had occupied the embassy in order to draw attention to government human rights violations.
In July 2014, Felipe Solano Barillas became the first ex-guerrilla to be convicted in connection with atrocities committed during the civil war. Found guilty of ordering the massacre of 22 residents of the town of El Aguacate in 1988, he was sentenced to 90 years in prison.
The Guatemalan judiciary inaugurated a third “high-risk court” in October 2015 to hear cases of grave crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The new court was established to help resolve cases more quickly and effectively, and to ease the workload of the two existing high-risk courts.
Violence and extortion by powerful criminal organizations remain serious problems in Guatemala. Judges and prosecutors continue to suffer intimidation, which contributes to widespread impunity. Gang-related violence is one of the principal factors prompting people, including unaccompanied young people, to leave the country. Frustrated with the lack of criminal law enforcement, some communities have resorted to vigilantism.
Compensations for the Victims
A National Reparations Program was set up almost ten years after the end of hostilities. The Program endeavors to improve the material circumstances of survivors and to accord symbolic recognition to victims. In practice, the focus has been on small, individual payments, an approach that has been met with widespread dissatisfaction.
In November 2014, the government approved a landmark reparations bill and allocated funds to address human rights violations suffered by communities that were displaced by the construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in 1975. Hundreds of exhumations have been conducted, and a DNA bank (modelled on ICMP’s integrated approach) has been set up by the FAFG to help identify human remains.
Migration and Missing Persons Project
Extreme poverty, high rates of unemployment, and depleted agricultural resources have prompted many Guatemalans, especially indigenous citizens, to migrate to Mexico, the US and Canada. This migration began during the civil war, and many migrants returned following the peace agreement. Today, migrants from Guatemala are routinely turned back by destination countries and many go missing as a result of criminal activity and people smuggling.
There are numerous projects led by local NGOs dealing with this issue. The Human Rights and Migration Project in the town of Zacualpa, for instance, is a collaborative project between local inhabitants, Guatemala-based researchers and clergy, and students, faculty, and legal staff from Boston College. The project studies social, political and psychological factors contributing to migration among the local population and seeks to offer assistance where practical. Among other things, the project helps families locate missing relatives. 
Disappearances in Guatemala have been a consequence of armed conflict, migration, natural disasters, human trafficking and organized crime. A refusal by successive governments to accept responsibility for disappearances and to support the effort to account for the missing has exacerbated the issue. Families of the disappeared continue to endure social and economic hardship and in some cases still live in fear; many are unaware of their rights as relatives of victims. The absence of an integrated response to the issue, one that brings civil society and government together, along with other stakeholders including authorities in migrant destination countries, and the absence of an effective legal framework, has had a serious impact on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan citizens who are still living with the legacy of the long conflict.