What kind of courage does it take to defy death threats in the name of justice? The kind of courage embodied by Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz.
This remarkable woman has been at the forefront of stopping organized crime and confronting human rights violations in Guatemala since she became the first female attorney general in 2010.
Paz y Paz didn’t let anyone stop her in her pursuit of justice. She charged corrupt police officers, drug lords, politicians and other perpetrators of human rights violations. But Paz y Paz’s term was cut short. The reasons why speak volumes about the enduring impunity in Guatemala.
Paz y Paz began her term as attorney general when her predecessor was removed from the position 6 to 7 months after he started. Ricardo Sagastume, a businessman and corporate lawyer—whose father was the president of the supreme court when dictator Efrain Rios Montt was in office—argued on a technicality that Paz y Paz would fulfill her term in May as opposed to December because of her start date. The court ruled in favor of this questionable argument, cutting back her term by seven months. Paz y Paz was also excluded from running for a second term as attorney general during this election cycle.
Sagastume says he pursued this for non-political reasons, but the timing is very suspicious. The retrial of a monumental case was scheduled before the end of her term. Paz y Paz prosecuted and convicted Rios Montt for his role in the genocide against Indigenous Peoples during his term. Rios Montt was only president for a few years during a brutal 36 year civil war that killed over 200,000 people, and during this time, he received supported from the Reagan Administration.
One survivor of this violence, Rosa, shared her story with us and our partner organization Muixil. Both of Rosa’s parents were executed when she was five-years-old. She sat next to her parents’ bodies for two days, waiting for someone to come. When her uncle arrived, they hid in the mountains and ate grass to fight their hunger. Numerous women told similar stories about losing their loved ones during this terrible time.
The case against Rios Montt was a landmark in the quest for justice in Guatemala. Our partners told us that the mere initiation of these charges against the former dictator was validating. But two weeks after the decision, everything changed. On May 20, 2013, the verdict was overturned by the courts. Now 88-year-old Rios Montt will not face retrial until January 2015.
During her four years in office, Paz y Paz developed into a prominent political figure and brought significant change to the region. She became a voice for women, who now have laws acknowledging that violence against women is a crime. The overall crime rate also dropped by around nine percent.
Even though she has been forced from her position, it is clear that Paz y Paz’s role in bringing accountability to Guatemala’s judicial system will leave a lasting legacy for victims of violence and others standing up against human rights abuses.