Looking for justice in the Guatemalan highlands

January 22 2013: In the highlands of Guatemala following the 36-year civil war, crime and violence ravages families and communities unchecked due to the alarmingly weak judicial system. Law and order, disrupted for so long, have created a struggle to successfully investigate and prosecute crimes, leading to vigilante justice taking the place of trials and prison terms. However, in one mountain town a sort of organic justice is starting to evolve, where traditional indigenous authorities and the 'official' town government are finally willing to cooperate to find a road to conflict resolution and peace.

José Efraín Ríos Montt, former de facto President of Guatemala, dictator, army general, and former president of Congress. Photo courtesy of Jean-Marie Simon.

In November 2012, a few days before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, two women were killed in the rural highland town where I live, Nebaj. One of these women had become pregnant while her husband was in the United States; he paid a gang to murder her. The other, a woman named Feliciana, was the casualty of a botched home burglary. Local community members managed to identify and seize two of the culprits from the burglary, locking them up in someone’s house. In Nebaj, even the police know that taking a suspect into official custody would result in a difficult and usually fruitless struggle with a weak, corrupt legal system. Instead, in their rage and grief, the community planned to take matters into their own hands and kill the two men that night in a public burning. As word of this plan spread, even police officers began to invite people to come and attend.

Unfortunately, none of these events are uncommon in this region. Guatemala has a startlingly high rate of crime and homicide, plagued by a combination of gang activity, drug trafficking, a violent history, and a lack of prosecution: the United Nations estimates that the conviction rate for murder stands at 2%. Many communities, in a desperate attempt to restore law and order, resort to public punishments like burnings and floggings to deter future criminals.

It was a historic moment. A full council such as this one has not been called for almost 30 years, roughly around the time when the armed conflict began.
That night, however, something unusual happened. A local authority figure, Nebaj’s indigenous leader, stopped the mob, called off the burning, and announced a meeting the following Sunday with local neighbourhood authorities to make a decision, as a community, to decide what to do with the accused in a rational, democratic process. It was a historic moment. A full council such as this one has not been called for almost 30 years, roughly around the time when the armed conflict began.

In much of Guatemala, the long and violent civil war has disrupted what existed of local governance. In their efforts to suppress the guerrilla movement, the Guatemalan army targeted anyone in a position of local leadership, regardless of political inclinations; any possibility of community organisation could be a challenge to their power, or eventually favour the guerrilla movement. As a result, individuals such as Catholic priests, Mayan spiritual guides, and even school teachers were singled out, threatened, tortured, and often killed outright, publicly.

Market day in Nebaj. Photo courtesy of simonhn.

Today, many communities have slowly begun to recover. Leaders are overcoming the fear of ‘sticking out’, of being held responsible, of being targeted merely for stepping forward, and communities in many indigenous parts of the country are now electing local councils, representatives, and an indigenous mayor.

The role of the indigenous authorities varies from place to place, and often exists alongside a parallel ‘official’ government; a town will have two town councils, two mayors, two municipal buildings; one elected in the national elections and the other chosen through a separate process, often specific to that town. In some regions of the country, the ‘official’ government holds almost no power at all, except their legitimacy in the eyes of the national government. In others, the indigenous authority struggles to achieve its goals of pluricultural governance and equal rights. In many towns the two groups are at odds.  Often, the indigenous authority comes under fire for sanctioning the kind of vigilante justice that almost occurred in this case.

In the case of Nebaj, the new mayor elected last year proved willing to cooperate with the indigenous mayor. Following the morning’s march for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, where hundreds of local women carried signs demanding justice, the mayor opened the official municipal meeting hall and held the meeting jointly with the indigenous mayor and his council. The mayor as well as local police forces had also signed a document legitimising the authority of the assembly, and agreeing to abide by whatever decision the group would eventually make.  Small groups of 5-8 representatives from each neighbourhood in the urban centre of the town of Nebaj were present, around 200 people in total, both men and women  In the course of the day, each group was given a chance to speak via a spokesperson. Over the course of nearly 6 hours of intense dialogue in Ixil (the local language), the council reached a decision: 50 years in prison for each of the convicted murderers and lifelong banishment from the Ixil region.

The idea of justice in Guatemala is a complicated, elusive thing, and the cycle of violence is persistent and destructive.
The idea of justice in Guatemala is a complicated, elusive thing, and the cycle of violence is persistent and destructive. A pluricultural society with a conflicted past makes responsible leadership and true governance rare. Nevertheless, as anywhere else in the world, people on the whole are thoughtful, committed to their communities, and desperate to achieve a more peaceful society for their children. Even if it means building up a system piece by piece, community by community, sometimes it only takes one case to set a set a precedent and give society a hopeful example of how to peacefully resolve conflict.

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Comments

There are 2 comments Show comments

Carolyn Hayman on February 5, 2013

Reading this, I was struck by the similarity with stories of community level justice in DRC. Maybe there are a lot more similarities, that could usefully be explored, even though we think of the two countries in such different ways.

Anna Moccia-Field on February 7, 2013

I think local linguistic and cultural diversity plays a big role in this dynamic, alongside the fact that imposed western systems of governance have never been well or thoughtfully implemented in Guatemala. I’d be curious to learn more about the DRC – probably many other countries are working with similar situations of judicial pluralism, recognized or not.

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