Connie Fisher attended the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on behalf of Development in Action to see ‘Burden of Peace’, the story of Claudia Paz y Paz, the Attorney General who shook the foundations of the Guatemalan justice system. By the closing credits, the viewer has been challenged to ask for themselves what justice and law really mean, and who has the right to define them
An impassioned supporter of human rights, Claudia Paz y Paz was selected as Guatemala’s Attorney General in 2010. In a country suffering rocketing crime rates and approaching global highs for homicides, Paz y Paz launched on the mammoth task of revolutionising the country’s justice system and tackling impunity. In her first six months in office alone, more drug traffickers were arrested than in the entirety of the previous decade. She led a campaign which caught five of the country’s ten most wanted criminals, and the overall crime rate dropped by nine per cent during her tenure. In 2012 Forbes named her one of the five most powerful women changing the world.
Paz y Paz was trying to make a clear break from the country’s long history of unpunished crime, which was partly due to the fact that the perpetrators of the injustices suffered during the country’s thirty-six year civil war were never brought to justice. Paz y Paz embarked upon a mission to put these men, many of whom were still serving in government positions, on trial for their crimes. During the country’s extended civil war up to 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and between 1982 and 1983, under the rule of President and Dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt (who was backed by the USA), the campaign of massacre, rape and torture against the indigenous peoples reached its peak. Over 600 villages were destroyed and the Ixil people were wiped out entirely. When she put Montt on trial for human rights abuses in 2012, Paz y Paz initiated the first ever genocide trial of a former head of state in his home country.
Burden of Peace follows Paz y Paz from her first day in office. The film shows her not as the domineering woman that might be expected but as a calm and collected official, quietly determined to pursue her duty at all costs. On several occasions, the film shows her climb into her car after a long day, shut the door on the world and turn to the cameramen to admit what a hard day she has had; to divulge ‘I am so worried’. The viewers are given a privileged insight into her world, allowed to see this incredibly driven and powerful woman as an ordinary human with fears and concerns; as human in the way that Ríos Montt and his associates perhaps are not.
Shot by a film director from the Netherlands, and screened in a cinema in the UK, the film is watched through eyes which do not question that Ríos Montt and the other ex-military officials deserve punishment. However, as Ríos Montt, supported by many Guatemalans, tries to forestall the trial, to justify his acts as necessary, and to deny the charges against him, the viewers see a whole country where the definition of just and unjust determined by authorities is far from black and white.
The most moving sequence in the film is the trail of witnesses brought before the Ríos Montt court. Voice after voice cries out their suffering: ‘I would like the pain to go away. Why did they do this to us?’ Despite attempting to declare the trial illegal, showing no respect for the judging body, and even physically walking out on the court, Ríos Montt was sentenced to eighty years in prison. He served only one night, before the constitutional court overturned the sentence.
Paz y Paz is portrayed as having done everything in her power to revolutionise the Guatemalan justice system, in a country where the even the ruling bodies and the institutions which decide the law are not yet ready for justice. She met with resistance at every turn, divided completely in viewpoint from even those with whom she needed to work closest.
In the aftermath of this trial, Paz y Paz was declared to have abused her power and she was removed from the position of Attorney General. After an emotional farewell to her department she fled with her family to Spain for security reasons, where she remains today. This film recognises how ground-breaking her work in Guatemala was, acknowledges the massive improvements in impunity and crime to which her time in office lead, and declares that, although Paz y Paz has left Guatemala, the mission to stop impunity and to bring war criminals to justice must not end.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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