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A Truth and Reconciliation: The Pathway Towards Reuniting Guatemala

By Arnav Raval

Marked by bloodshed and numerous authoritarian regimes, the Guatemalan Civil War fundamentally redefined the nation’s social and political landscape. With 200,000 deaths over 36 years, conflict between the government and leftist guerilla groups created political instability, propagated resentment, and left the unanswered call of adequate justice for the victims (“Moving toward Peace”).

To resolve these issues, Guatemala would benefit from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose introduction would symbolize an effort to rebuild a society suffering from “[economic underdevelopment], government corruption, poverty, and racism” (Zwicklbauer, 2017)

Introduced in post-apartheid South Africa, a TRC is an official body capable of investigating human rights violations and delivering tangible reparations (Hayner, Truth Commission). Discoveries are shared with the public, building the transparency necessary for restoring a deeply divided society. Most importantly, the group provides a “public acknowledgement of ‘untold suffering and injustice,’” restoring the dignity of victims and exposing perpetrators (Government of South Africa, 1995, p.49).

In Guatemala, the TRC must have the influence and autonomy to investigate without corruption. Any inaction against a corrupt government destroys the commission’s purpose. Therefore, the TRC must have investigative freedom and a unique composition of perspectives from all of Guatemala’s groups.

After formation, the TRC should thoroughly investigate all human rights abuses from the civil war. Drawing from both physical evidence and statements, the commission can generate public reports that will generate both financial reparations to victims and legal action against violators. War-torn families and livelihoods likely contribute to Guatemala’s poverty rate of 54%, so reparations can uplift affected individuals (World Bank). Opportunities like “psychological counseling or job training,” can also provide tangible reparations through long-lasting skills (Hayner, 2010, p.123).

However, to truly prompt reconciliation, the TRC must provide education through public hearings and educational programs. For their work, the Canadian TRC expanded school education, interviewed 6,500 witnesses, and hosted 7 national education events (Government of Canada, 2022). Similar education in Guatemala, coupled with testimony from victims and perpetrators, highlights the origins of the hateful ideas, as well as how to prevent their spread in the future.

In terms of legal action, some favor violent retaliation after hearing victim stories. For example, Miguel, a Catholic Mayan, buried his family, including his infant son, and fled after a merciless army slaughtered his town (Duffey, 2010). Thousands underwent similar situations, losing their lives in the process. Consequently, retaliation has been favored, signified by the applause that met the imprisonment of Efrain Montt, the leader during the bloodiest period of the war (CBC News, 2013). Therefore, mercy may seem to reduce truly restorative justice.

However, a violent TRC becomes reminiscent of a military regime. A successful TRC will prioritize reprimands, not retaliation, against violators. While the latter perpetuates a cycle of violence, the former signals an intolerance for injustice while still promoting a path of healing.

To achieve balanced justice, the committee should inherit the principle of ubuntu from South Africa. Translating to “I am, because you are”, ubuntu highlights the connected spirit of humans, arguing that effective healing occurs through compassion rather than separation (Duffey, 2010). Even with conflicting viewpoints, Guatemala’s groups can only find common ground through communication. While legal action cannot feasibly be taken against every perpetrator, Archbishop Tutu argued that true restorative justice is derived from “the greater moral justice of enduring societal harmony” (Duffey, 2010). Rather than prosecute every perpetrator, amnesty could be traded for truthful testimonies: a more powerful component to rebuilding.

For Guatemala to truly recover from its cataclysmic damage, everyone – victims and violators alike – must be allowed to recover. Continued retaliation will only propagate conflict, never leaving room for healing. Undoubtedly, a TRC would be a complex undertaking, but through careful design, an ubuntu philosophy, and reparations, it will put Guatemala on a path of improvement.


Works Cited

Duffey, Michael K. “Post-War Guatemala Justice, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.” Manchester University , 2010,

Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 1995,

Hayner, Priscilla B. “Truth Commission.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 8 June 2023,

Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths - Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions, 23 Aug. 2010,

“Guatemalans Celebrate as Ex-Dictator Begins Jail Term | CBC News.” CBCnews, 12 May 2013,

“Guatemala - Central America Peace Plan, Esquipulas Agreement, Rigoberta Menchú, 1996 Peace Accords... | Britannica.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2023, Accessed 30 June 2023

Government of Canada; Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” Government of Canada; Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, 29 Sept. 2022,

“Moving toward Peace.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Accessed 30 June 2023.

“The World Bank In Guatemala.” World Bank, 2021, Accessed 30 June 2023

Zwicklbauer, Kristin. “US Democratic Hypocrisy and Economic Exploitation in Guatemala.” Virginia Review of Politics, 20 Nov. 2017,


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