"Judicial independence and the rule of law are at risk. What does this mean? That anybody, without any grounds, can come and accuse a judge in order to avoid being judged. The door to impunity and corruption is being opened."
— Yassmin Barrios is the Guatemalan judge who, in a historic case last May, ruled that a former military dictator, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83), was guilty of genocide. Gen. Ríos Montt presided over a scorched-earth anti-guerrilla campaign that killed thousands of civilians in the countryside, many of them members of indigenous groups. For decades afterward, he enjoyed not only freedom but political power, even serving as president of the legislature.
He was thought to be untouchable until Judge Barrios’s ruling. It raised hopes that perhaps, for the first time in history, Guatemala was approaching accountability for both rights abusers and those who collaborate with organized crime.
Judge Barrios’s sentence, however, was overturned shortly afterward by a narrow vote in the country’s Constitutional Court, and the Ríos Montt trial must restart again sometime in the future (many doubt that it will).
And now comes the real insult.
One of Gen. Ríos Montt’s defense lawyers went to Guatemala’s equivalent of a bar association (Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala) and said that Judge Barrios had unethically “humiliated” him during the trial. The association—which, shall we say, is not a force for progressive change in Guatemala—has suspended Judge Barrios from practicing law for a year and fined her the equivalent of US$650.
Guatemala has long been under the sway of large landowners, military officers, organized crime figures, and corrupt politicians, who have maintained their grip on wealth and power through brutal means. These “hidden powers" suffered some setbacks in the past couple of years.
But today, the backlash is in full force. If anything, Judge Barrios’s warning, in an interview published Monday, is too timid.
This deserves more attention.