Guatemalans protest the proposed immunity law in Guatemala City in January. (Esteban Biba/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

For years, it was dangerous to speak of the horrific abuses by security forces during this small country’s 36-year civil war. The army and its allies remained powerful well after the conflict that had claimed 200,000 lives. But then Guatemala stunned the world by starting to prosecute former military officers for genocide and other crimes.

Now the Guatemalan Congress is considering a bill that would grant amnesty to perpetrators of crimes against humanity. It would free more than 30 convicts, mostly former military officers, and invalidate current and future trials for crimes linked to the 1960-1996 war.

The bill, which is expected to be back on Congress’s agenda next week, has prompted outrage from Guatemalan civil society groups and organizations representing the indigenous, who make up 40 percent of the population but more than 80 percent of the victims of wartime abuses.  

The measure has also alarmed the United Nations and the U.S. government. Robert Palladino, deputy spokesman at the U.S. State Department, said last week that Washington was “deeply concerned” about the measure.  

The legislative push comes as other Latin American countries are finally reckoning with the counterinsurgency tactics used by military forces against civilians during the Cold War. In Argentina, hundreds of human rights abusers have been convicted in the past 15 years. In El Salvador, where an amnesty law was struck down in 2016, 18 military officers are on trial for the massacre of nearly 1,000 people in El Mozote in 1981 — one of the worst atrocities in Latin American history.

In 2013, Guatemala became the first country to convict a former leader — ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt — of genocide. (His conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was being retried when he died last year.) 


Efrain Rios Montt, a former general and president, was convicted of genocide in 2013, won an appeal and was being retried when he died in 2018. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

But now, analysts say, there is a growing backlash against the trials of former wartime military officials and the aggressive investigations of corruption by political, military and business elites in this impoverished country. Many of those corruption cases are being co-prosecuted by a pioneering U.N.-backed commission, which President Jimmy Morales is trying to shut down.

The amnesty bill “is part of a larger assault on the rule of law that is aimed at restoring the power of a corrupt elite” in Guatemala, said Jo-Marie Burt, a political scientist and Latin America specialist who teaches at George Mason University.

The bill wending its way through Congress would amend the National Reconciliation Law, passed after the peace accords that ended the brutal war. That law includes an amnesty for many crimes — but not for torture, forced disappearance and crimes against humanity.

The new bill would order the release within 24 hours of people imprisoned for those crimes committed during the armed conflict.  

Rosalina Tuyuc, a longtime human rights activist, has been at the forefront of protests against the bill. After the killings of her father and husband by the military in the 1980s, Tuyuc founded the National Council of Widows, an indigenous-led human rights group.

“They want to grant impunity for those responsible for forced disappearances, the rape of women and massacres,” Tuyuc said in an interview. “It would be a step backward and an attack on a whole system of truth, justice and peace.”

Congressman Fernando Linares of the conservative National Advancement Party introduced the bill in 2017, but it did not make headway until last month, when it passed the first of three required votes.

Linares said in an interview that the crimes excluded from the earlier amnesty did not exist in the country’s criminal code during the conflict and should not be applied retroactively. He also said military officials should be tried in military tribunals.

The bill’s opponents say such arguments have been rejected by Guatemala’s highest courts — and the legislation would violate international agreements the country has signed.

“This is going back to another era where military governments or authoritarian regimes tried to grant themselves absolute impunity for atrocities they committed,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. “You can’t do that under international law.” 

Among those who would be freed if the measure passes is former army chief of staff Benedicto Lucas García. He was sentenced to 58 years in prison last year for crimes against humanity, rape and forced disappearance. He is also facing trial for a case involving disappearances in connection with the remains of more than 500 people discovered in clandestine graves on a military base.

At its core, the dispute over the bill is a dispute over what occurred during the conflict.

According to the U.N.-backed truth commission, the military was responsible for more than 90 percent of civilian fatalities during the conflict. The commission also concluded that state forces carried out acts of genocide.

Linares and other supporters of the bill reject those conclusions.

The army’s operations during the war “were a constitutional response to the armed actions of illegal groups,” said José Luis Quilo, a retired general and the president of the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala.

Proponents of the amnesty bill dismissed the State Department’s statement, highlighting the fact that it was attributed to a deputy department spokesman. “He’s a third-degree bureaucrat,” Linares said. 

Human rights advocates view the amnesty bill as part of an effort to push back at Guatemala’s groundbreaking campaign against corruption and impunity. Since 2007, hundreds of politicians, government employees, business executives and former military officers have been implicated in cases by the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, a team of lawyers and crime experts that supports Guatemalan prosecutors. 

President Morales has said he won’t renew CICIG’s two-year mandate when it ends in September. He has been in the commission’s crosshairs over alleged campaign finance violations related to his 2015 election. He says he is innocent.  

Sheridan reported from Mexico City.