Guatemalan military officers jailed for war crimes may get amnesty

by Elisabeth Malkin

Emma Theissen Álvarez says she will never forget the faces of the three men who came to her Guatemala City house that day in 1981 looking for her daughter, a student leader who had escaped from her military captors. When they did not find their target, they grabbed her 14-year-old son, Marco Antonio, instead.


She never saw her boy again.

For years, the family said nothing, mute in its pain. But when Ms. Theissen and her three daughters finally went to court, helping secure the convictions of retired military commanders of crimes against humanity, they found a sort of healing.

“One feels that one is doing something to bring a little justice to Marco Antonio,” said Ms. Theissen, who is now 84.

Now that justice is in peril.


In a reversal that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago, Guatemalan lawmakers are moving forward with a proposal to grant amnesty for war crimes committed during the country’s brutal 36-year civil war.

The bill, scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, would free more than 30 former army officers, soldiers and civil defense patrolmen within 24 hours and halt investigations into thousands of cases.

The amnesty has gained traction in Congress as part of a reaction against a broader fight against impunity and corruption, analysts said. What originally seemed like a push from the fringes of the far right seemed to gather force as President Jimmy Morales, battered by allegations of graft, turned to the military for support.

“It’s a reflection of the weakening of the rule of law in Guatemala,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, a former Guatemalan justice official.

Backers of the amnesty say they are simply trying to move on and promote peace.

“The courts have been infiltrated with judges and prosecuting attorneys with ideological inclinations to one side, the left-wing side, which are the guerrillas,” the congressman who introduced the amnesty law, Fernando Linares, said in a recent interview in Guatemala City.

But for victims and their families, the bill is like a denial of justice and a negation of history, said Edgar Pérez, a human rights lawyer who has brought war crimes cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Guatemalan courts. “For the victims, the sentence is their certificate of truth. It is their history.”



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