Guatemalan State Violence: How Political Instability Breeds Human Rights Violations

Dossier By: Emily Moncada, Nayda Peace, Rob Dellinger, and Jocelyn Vera

Photo taken by Rob Dellinger in Guatemala

In Guatemala, a country with a majority indigenous population, it is imperative to remember the past as a precondition for analyzing current political issues (Jonas 2000: 14).  Guatemala’s history can be explained through the narratives of the most marginalized voices of society, to highlight ongoing political violence and injustices. War, domination, subjugation, and military dictatorships have characterized its history. To offer a more nuanced historical analysis of Guatemala, testimonies and truth commissions must be explored in relationship to its reconstructed history. A structural-violence approach employs framework that highlights the racial, geographical, and sociopolitical patterns of violence in Guatemala and its consistency between the past and the postwar period (Oettler 2006: 15- 19). Various current conditions of Guatemala must be explained through a historical analysis of the structural nature of institutionalized violence, the polarization of Guatemalan society, and the lack of restorative justice.

The dossier gives context to the archival evidence of the more than 200,00 people lost their lives in Guatemala as a result of state-orchestrated acts of terrorism. The narrative we portray discusses the recovery and transformation of discourse that denied Mayan history, and ignored the destruction of villages and brutal killings through indigenous peoples’ testimony. Political violence does not necessarily have to be directly committed by government officials. By legitimizing violence is a formal violation of human right violation. Guatemala has given legal authorization to community organized groups to practice justice through the use of violence. Since citizens do not trust the state’s ability to protect them, they have decided to form community groups to defend their communities against drug-trafficking organizations. One form of making justice is that indigenous justice systems have contributed to collective lynching, which is viewed as a legal procedure that is justified under the political community, the idea of security and normality. It is important to analyze the social violence that these organized groups and communities have contributed as a collective violence since the end of the civil war. As Santamaria argued “lynchings constitute public, gruesome, and highly ritualized forms of collective violence that involve the torture, mutilation, burning, ot hanging of the victim in a prominent public space” (44). Lynching is a state sanctioned human rights violation because it reflects the legitimacy of the state as the ultimate arbiter of legality and as the organizer of extralegal forms of violence organized by government officials. Amidst the cold war, the U.S. used interference in Guatemala to stage a ‘Coup D’état’, and Guatemala would be subjected to years of continuous violet coups, genocides, torture, and  disappearances.

The 1950’s began to reveal the class conflict and through the 60’s to the 80’s the government sponsored violence and terror only intensified. These constructed government transitions a long range of repression of the Guatemalan people and the history of state atrocities and human rights violations. Ultimately, human rights in Guatemala can be defined as a subject that is only achievable if the government and state institutions are willing to aspire to uphold it. The separation between state interests overshadowing human rights and the citizen population of Guatemala wanting to establish human rights commissions and programs within the government makes it more difficult to have a successful outcome.

Guatemala’s state governance has been subject to various instances of foreign intervention, repeated administrative changes to the presidency, and inconsistency in enforcing human rights organizations to help solve the problems of the past. State sponsored violence and structural violence caused by long periods of class, racial, and gendered violence from before the Mayan genocide to the present has contributed to the inability of the CICIG to fix major corruption issues. The current sentencing of Rios Montt to 80 years for Crimes Against Humanity is a beginning to reconcile the generational repression and violence that the people were subject to. However, since the convection in 2013, Montt has passed away. On one hand, justice has been served. On the other, there is amount of reparations that could ever heal the pain that the people has faced.  If one wishes to project human rights in Guatemala into the future, the structural violence that grew with state violence must be considered. Furthermore, the corruption that exists today in Guatemala could not have been made possible without the events that occurred more than 50 years ago.

To learn more about political violence in Guatemala click on the file below to see the full dossier.

Image provided for the dossier was taken by Rob Dellinger.

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