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Guatemala Elects Former Military General Accused of Torture, Genocide

Jillian Tuck, JD on November 10, 2011

Last Sunday, former military general Otto Perez Molina, was elected to be Guatemala’s next president. Mounting evidence of Perez Molina’s participation in crimes against humanity and genocide during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict raises the question of how the international community will respond to the new head of state.

Perez Molina served as a commanding military officer in the Ixil region of the Quiche department in the mid- 1980s. Under his leadership, the Guatemalan military carried out a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that escalated into genocide of the Maya Ixil people. As National Director of Military Intelligence during the 1990s, Perez Molina is also implicated in torture and forced disappearances.  He allegedly ran a secret torture center on the Mariscal Zavala military base while on the CIA’s payroll during this time.

Perez Molina has not only denied participating in war crimes but has publically claimed that genocide in Guatemala did not occur. These denials fly in the face of a 1999 UN Truth Commission report that the Guatemalan army carried out daily acts of torture and terror in the Ixil region, and razed between 70 and 90 percent of the indigenous villages there.

The election of Perez Molina represents an unfortunate backwards step for Guatemala, who has struggled to implement rule of law and transition to democracy since the Peace Accords were signed in 1996. Civil society and human rights organization are strongly concerned because Perez Molina’s administration will have the power to support or block on-going reforms of the judicial system, state collaboration with the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and precedent setting human rights cases.

Of particular concern is how Perez Molina will respond to the on-going prosecution of military officials for crimes committed during the conflict. These prosecutions have languished for over a decade due to pervasive impunity in Guatemalan courts and flawed investigations, but have made small strides forward recently under the leadership of Guatemala’s first female Attorney General Claudia Paz. Perez Molina is not a named defendant in the domestic cases, however, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Spanish National Courts are currently investigating the role he playing during the worst years of state repression.

It remains to be seen how the international community will treat Guatemala’s new head of state. If the US embassy’s congratulatory statement is any indication, the US will certainly not be leading the effort to hold Perez Molina accountable for the crimes committed under his command.  Before the international community engages in diplomatic relations with Perez Molina, it must develop an effective system for responding to atrocities committed by State agents and apply universal jurisdiction where states have no functioning judiciary of their own.

Places: Guatemala