For Guatemalan human rights activist and politician Rosalina Tuyuc, the country’s peace accords — though fraught with challenges even 20 years later — were worth it, opening new opportunities for communities to rise from the ashes of the massacres and other violence that killed and disappeared tens of thousands of people during the civil war and to fight against the inequalities that sparked the conflict in the first place.
“Everything we have achieved up until now we have achieved through struggles,” said Tuyuc during a recent forum in Guatemala, organized by Peace Brigades International, reflecting on the state of peace in the country leading up to the anniversary of the historic peace agreement.
After the Guatemalan government and left-wing guerrilla rebels signed the peace accords on Dec. 29, 1996, bringing an end to more than three decades of bloody civil war and a brutal genocide against Indigenous people, the work of building lasting peace began. And while Guatemalan social movements, human rights defenders and other activists have been on the frontlines of the long and uphill battle, international accompaniment has also played an important role supporting the struggle for transitional justice.
Early accompaniment efforts focused on exposing the grave human rights abuses state security forces perpetrated during the war, including massacres, torture, systematic rape and a scorched earth policy that decimated Indigenous communities. Though a handful of landmark strides toward justice have been made over the years, many wounds remain open as families of victims still seek justice for the 36-year-long civil war that killed some 200,000 people and disappeared 45,000 more, mostly at the hands of the military and death squads and especially concentrated in Indigenous areas.
And as the underlying issues of deep economic inequality, land conflicts, gender discrimination and racism remain looming problems, the ongoing fight for transitional justice to redress the legacies of the civil war extends beyond criminal prosecutions for past abuses to questions of present-day struggles for land and livelihood, many with deep roots aggravated by the war.
“You can see that the face of poverty is Indigenous, a victim of institutional racism and a victim of the armed conflict — survivors of genocide,” said Tuyuc during the Peace Brigades International forum, gesturing to the fact nearly 60 percent of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line, while poverty rates in some Indigenous communities are as high as 80 percent. “The few advances that there have been have been through many social struggles.”
Several international human rights and accompaniment organizations have been on board alongside Guatemalan leaders to provide support for such movements. As the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, also known as Nisgua, explained in a recent report on its accompaniment efforts in Guatemala, the organization focused in the early 1990s on shining an “international spotlight” on the plight of waves of refugees displaced by the civil war returning to Guatemala, including to militarized areas. The international accompaniment effort was a bid to discourage further state violence against marginalized communities that had already been gravely victimized.
“Our accompaniment work is our recognition of the interconnected nature of global oppression,” explained Nisgua in its report. “As people living in the global north, we have a responsibility to prioritize and amplify the voices of those most impacted by injustice.”
Over the years, as struggles for justice and accountability — led by Indigenous and human rights activists, attorneys and local victims’ organizations — made progress, human rights defenders continued to suffer violence in the form of attacks, smear campaigns and criminalization. Today, Guatemala is one of the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders, according to the human rights organization Global Witness. In the face of such dire threats, international accompaniment networks increasingly threw their monitoring support behind the protection of both witnesses in civil war-era cases as well as leaders of diverse social movements fighting for land, environmental protection and human rights.
What's more, repression of social movements in recent years in tandem with the militarized war on drugs in Central America increasingly recalls Cold War counterinsurgency strategies that targeted Indigenous communities and land struggles in the region in the 1980s in the name of staving off the threat of communist expansion.
While the work of accompaniment often happens behind the scenes, the impact it has can at times be a matter of life and death in a country where rights defenders have suffered systematic assassinations and attacks. And as key cases have ramped up, in many cases so have threats against the activists and social leaders championing fights for accountability, human rights and justice.
“The cases of transitional justice have unfortunately increased enormously the risks for attorneys, lawyers, witnesses and judges involved in these cases,” Peace Brigade International’s Kerstin Reemtsma told teleSUR, adding that incidents include death threats, legal harassment, and other forms of intimidation.
Local human rights defenders who live daily with such threats often report that the presence of international accompaniers helps reduce the attacks they suffer. A recent report by Peace Brigades International highlighted such experiences with testimonies from activists that have benefited from accompaniment.
“In our evaluation of PBIs work, we have seen that their visits to our offices, accompanying us to communities, talking with local authorities substantially decreases the level of aggressions that we have been subjected to,” Omar Jeronimo, leader of the Chorti Nuevo Dia Campesino Coordination said in the report.
While activists are quick to point out that much work remains to be done to fully realize the promise of peace as Guatemalans continue to face high rates of poverty, inequality, violence and migration combined with a lack of justice for civil war abuses, landmark advances have been made in recent years. In 2013, a Guatemalan court handed down a genocide sentence to former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, whose military regime oversaw a slew of egregious rights abuses during one of the bloodiest periods of the war. The historic sentence was overturned just 10 days later in an immense blow to transitional justice, but the formal recognition of genocidal blood on Rios Montt’s hands still holds symbolic significance.
As rebel army leader Pablo Monsanto said when the peace deal was finalized in 1996, the signing of the accords did not mark an end, but only the beginning of a long journey toward peace.
Two decades later, that road still stretches on, but the local social movements and the organizations offering them support have not veered from the path.
International accompaniers like Nisgua and PBI have reaffirmed their commitments to listening to the leaders and movements in Guatemala to amplify their voices and struggles for justice, while working to help improve the security situations for activists on the ground with international presence.
According to Reemtsma, this includes working to help local organizations and activists expand their “own mechanisms and capacities for protection” while promoting safe spaces for “civil society engagement for peaceful change” and pressuring the state to fulfill their obligations to protect human rights defenders from threats of violence and harassment.
For Nisgua, accompaniment work is also critically focused on mobilizing information provided by local rights defenders to shed light on the dangerous consequences of U.S. foreign policy for vulnerable communities in Guatemala to encourage an international solidarity effort to defend human rights.
Meanwhile, grassroots movement in Guatemala are forging their own path, both with continuities with the past and new priorities.
For Indigenous rights leader and politician Tuyuc, educating younger generations about the civil war and the atrocities suffered, especially in Indigenous communities, is a key challenge for the future to ensure the preservation of historical memory.
“At 20 years since the accords we can say that we are in serious danger of losing,” Tuyuc said during the recent PBI forum. “And that’s why we need to continue creating peace.”
“We need to write history,” she added, noting that many stories have not been written down,“so that Guatemala knows what happened.”