Memory Battles: Guatemala's Public Debates and the Genocide Trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt

54 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2015 Last revised: 14 Apr 2015

Date Written: December 31, 2014


This article challenges the idea that transitional justice mechanisms will naturally lead to a collective memory that results in a widespread societal condemnation of human rights violations. Instead, the author draws from the field of Memory Studies to debunk the assumption that there is a smooth path towards a national narrative about atrocity. Different societal actors accompany the transitional justice process, actively and purposefully seeking to use judicial and non-judicial justice mechanisms to construct public memories that fit within their own interpretations and political agendas resulting in many contested versions of the past. This situation presents a paradox for transitional justice advocates: On the one hand, tolerating expression of different interpretations and opinions of the past promotes the ideals of democracy. However, when versions of the past justify or explain away atrocity, they challenge the political project of building a culture of rights and the rule of law. This Article examines how this paradox plays out when a transitional justice project includes national criminal trials. This focus represents a new direction in memory scholarship since most studies focus more directly on the relationship between truth commissions and memory. Moreover, most scholarship looking at the relation between memory and trials offer only theoretical speculations. This narrow focus can best be explained by the fact that transitional justice evolved as a response to the inability or unwillingness to conduct criminal trials, a trend that has begun to change only in the last decade with a rise in national human rights trials especially in Latin America. The author responds to this gap in study by offering an empirical examination of how human rights and genocide trials impact the process of memory formation by discussing the 2013 trial of former Guatemalan leader General José Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity. Through a systematic evaluation of news reports and opinion pieces, the author discusses the nuances of Guatemala’s memory battle over whether or not the country suffered a genocide. The author contends that a country’s long term interpretation of its past, and its agenda for the future, depends on which camp of memory-makers wins this memory battle. Importantly a collective memory is the first step towards cultivating its collective consciousness which leads to a conscience that can influence how its members buy into this culture of rights, accountability, equality and other essential attributes to sustainable peace. Importantly, it is often the nature of the memory making process itself, as opposed to a final memory product that predicts the outcome of memory surrounding national human rights trials. For this reason, the author argues that an endeavor to embark on a journey of transitional justice must consciously contemplate the role of memory production in its design.

Keywords: Transitional Justice, Human Rights, Genocide, Criminal Trials, Memory

Suggested Citation

Laplante, Lisa J., Memory Battles: Guatemala's Public Debates and the Genocide Trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt (December 31, 2014). 32(3) Quinnipiac Law Review 621 (2014), New England Law | Boston Research Paper No. 15-02, Available at SSRN:

Lisa J. Laplante (Contact Author)

New England Law | Boston ( email )

154 Stuart St.
Boston, MA 02116
United States

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