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Guatemala Elects Former Military General Accused of Torture, Genocide

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

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

Perez Molina has not only denied participating in war crimesbut has publically claimed that genocide in Guatemala did not occur. These denialsfly in the face of a 1999 UN Truth Commission report that the Guatemalan armycarried out daily acts of torture and terror in the Ixil region, and razedbetween 70 and 90 percent of the indigenous villages there.

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

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

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