Claudia Paz y Paz is a criminal law specialist and human rights activist who has worked tirelessly for over 18 years, rebuilding the justice system in Guatemala. She was the country’s Attorney General from 2010 to 2014, giving long-lost hope for justice to the people who suffered so much.
Born in 1967, she comes from a country known for its banana exports, its deep inequalities and the appalling violence that has torn it apart for more than half a century. A country of modest size, but great in its men and women who strive for justice and peace, like Rigoberta Menchú, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
Guatemala is the Central American country with the highest percentage of indigenous population (up to 60%, according to some sources). In this country of 17 million inhabitants that is slightly larger than Portugal, there are 20 indigenous peoples. The civil war that ravaged the country between 1962 and 1996 caused the death of approximately 200,000 people, the vast majority of whom were indigenous. Most were killed during the peak of violence between 1981 and 1983. According to research conducted by the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), more than 90% of the violations were committed by state forces and more than 80% of the victims were indigenous.
As a young lawyer, Claudia Paz y Paz was inspired by Catholic bishop Juan José Gerardi. This great defender of human rights and Mayan indigenous peoples, assassinated by the army in 1988, remains a source of awe to her today. “I belong to a generation born during the war that grew up without role models, because most intellectuals and opposition members were either assassinated or exiled,” she explains, referring to her first steps as a human rights activist.
"There were hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their destroyed villages in the country and in Mexico. People were afraid to testify about what they had suffered. It was too recent,” she recalls. This courageous and humble woman believes strongly in the importance of defending human rights. Along the way, she met other men and women who supported her in this struggle, giving her strength to face injustice.
As former Attorney General of Guatemala – the first female one, too – she holds several records, including having five of the ten most wanted criminals in her country arrested during her tenure. She has also helped to drastically reduce the rates of homicides and violence against women. In recent years, however, those grim rates have been on the rise again.
In December 2011, International Crisis Group and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton honored Claudia Paz y Paz along with three other women in recognition of her dedication to promoting peace and justice in the most war-affected regions of the world. And in 2012, the Forbes magazine named her one of the “Five Most Powerful Women Changing the World”. She was also considered a candidate for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.
Her investigation of several criminal cases in Guatemala was a constant fight. She distinguished herself by prosecuting the perpetrators of the Dos Erres massacre, sentenced to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, and the former leader of the country, Efraín Ríos Montt, responsible for multiple atrocities and human rights violations, primarily the “scorched earth” policy that resulted in the destruction of 440 villages and the death of 200,000 Mayans, massacred or thrown from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean.
During the trials, Claudia Paz y Paz relied heavily on the archives, but had to face countless administrative obstacles in order to ensure that the victims finally have their right to justice observed. “There were more than 100 witnesses and irrefutable evidence of sexual violence during the genocide. The victims of sexual violence suffered so much that they did not want to testify openly in the trial of Ríos Montt. We recorded them on camera and their testimonies were essential,” she recalls. “I’ve had the privilege of accompanying genocide survivors fighting for justice. I feel deep gratitude to them because they trusted me when it was very difficult to trust public officials to carry out this work of investigating the truth of the crimes. It is precisely this gratitude that is the source of my commitment. I am grateful for their trust and their struggle for justice.”
The international accolades have not affected her daily life and the way she works. She remains deeply humble and driven by the urgency of accomplishing her mission. Today, one of the greatest challenges she faces is the fight against the impunity for violence against women, with defending indigenous peoples being a close second.
Right now, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are experiencing a boom in extractive industries that affect the territories and ecosystems of these vulnerable communities. The magistrate, however, continues to denounce the crimes perpetrated against indigenous people fighting for their dignity and against expropriations. “We are experiencing a noticeable setback in the fight against impunity. The prosecutors and judges who fight against powerful groups are confronted by corrupt leaders and are in turn worried,” explains Claudia Paz y Paz.
Victims of all kinds of atrocities, sometimes committed by Guatemalan soldiers, and Central American migrants in transit to the United States are also the object of her concern. The pandemic has increased the feeling of social exclusion and aggravated an already dramatic situation that also affects Guatemalan migrants in Mexico. “The lack of an adequate protection system for these people confirms the need to make this situation known to the international community. It must have a role to play,” says Claudia with conviction, adding that if the United States and Europe “raised their voices in defense of human rights, it would have an undeniable impact. It could ensure respect for the rule of law.”
In Guatemala, where political life is dominated by right-wing parties, criticizing the role of the army or defending human rights often exposes one to the accusation of “communism”, which in itself is considered a crime. Pushed out despite all the work she has done for the nation, Claudia Paz y Paz currently lives in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, as criminal proceedings have been initiated against her by the Guatemalan government. Since 2018, she has led the Central America and Mexico program of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), an organization that defends human rights in the Central American region.
Deeply committed to the defense of human dignity, Claudia Paz y Paz continues her struggle with confidence and humility, driven by the memory of the unburied dead that haunt her country and the pain of those being persecuted and discriminated against today.