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(Left to right) Jake Weisenthal '13, Professor Anita Isaacs, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland, and Daniel Salem '13 meet in Guatemala.
(Left to right) Jake Weisenthal '13, Professor Anita Isaacs, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland, and Daniel Salem '13 meet in Guatemala.

Studying Transitional Justice in Guatemala

More than a decade after the end of a violent 36-year war that cost the lives of at least 200,000 people, Guatemala held war crimes trials in July for four soldiers of the Guatemalan Special Forces unit that committed atrocities during the war.  Benjamin R. Collins Professor of Social Sciences and Associate Professor of Political Science Anita Isaacs and her summer research assistants Jake Weisenthal and Daniel Salem (both ’13) were on hand to witness the event.

Weisenthal and Salem spent their summer helping Professor Isaacs organize a decade’s worth of fieldwork research and interviews on transitional justice in Guatemala. They were charged with developing a framework for organizing Isaacs’ interviews. They coded the interviews under different categories such as truth seeking, criminal justice, reparations, institutional reform and leadership. Additionally, they travelled to Guatemala in late July with Professor Isaacs to help conduct further field research.

“Transitional justice,” says Isaacs, “refers to the set of processes and goals linked to the search for justice after periods of repressive dictatorship or armed conflict and war. It usually speaks to efforts to introduce reforms and to provide justice that will prevent a recurrence of those kinds of violations that accompany a dictatorship or war.”

Isaacs, whose research focuses on post-conflict accountability for human rights violations, has interviewed hundreds of participants and observers in Guatemala over the past decade. Her work seeks to understand how these individuals “perceive the quest for justice; not just the quest for criminal justice, but the search for truth and reparations after conflict.”

As research assistants to Isaacs, Weisenthal and Salem spent most the summer in the library poring through interviews in Spanish, some longer than 20 pages.  But the trip to Guatemala gave them a broader perspective on the work. Originally they had planned to conduct a number of interviews with a variety of participants in Guatemalan politics, but Isaacs rearranged the itinerary upon learning that a long awaited war crimes trial was scheduled to go on during the trip. The four soldiers on trial were recently sentenced to 6,000 years in jail each, 20 years for each murder.

Salem was disturbed by the proceedings. “To watch them [the soldiers] take the stands and show no remorse or pretend not to remember what had gone on was frustrating,” he says.

In addition to the war crimes trial, Weisenthal and Salem met U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland, and attended a protest march of more than 50,000 Guatemalan citizens in support of presidential candidate Sandra Torres. The ex-wife of the Guatemalan president, Torres divorced her husband in order to run for office, since Guatemalan laws prevent family members from running for the presidency. Isaacs says that Torres is one of the few people who have shown support for the impoverished of Guatemala, and this has made her very popular in some sectors. (Despite the protests in favor of Torres, the Guatemalan Supreme Court recently ruled that she was ineligible for the upcoming election.)

Isaacs, who has received awards for her innovative teaching techniques from Haverford College and the American Political Science Association, says that she tries to incorporate fieldwork opportunities into her program for research assistants. “I was strongly committed to not asking them to spend an entire summer just bleary eyed going through interviews,” says Isaacs. “But to enable them to meet the people whose interviews they were coding, and to also get a sense of what it was like on the ground and what it is like to speak to these people and to witness a post-war society.”

Salem says the research he conducted this summer allowed him to appreciate the relatively minor issues the United States government has compared to Guatemala. “People [in Guatemala] aren’t being represented by their government and there is incredible corruption in the elections,” says Salem. “There is so much impunity and drug cartels run the country.” He recalls driving through Guatemala City with Mayan lawyer Jorges Morales Toj, Haverford’s first Global Leader for Peace Fellow (who spent a semester on campus as part of a new program sponsored by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship). Spotting a suspicious car, Morales Toj, says Salem, remarked that it was probably a hitman from one of the cartels. [Read more about Morales Toj in the Winter 2010 issue of Haverford magazine.]

Weisenthal enjoyed the opportunity to see politics in action and apply what he as learned in the Haverford classroom. “A lot of times in class you talk about popular political movements or people protesting and somehow making their voice heard,” he says. “We saw political science in a real life process.”

Isaacs first began studying Guatemala in the late 90’s while researching the role of international actors in promoting democracy. She has also published extensively on the politics of military rule, transition and democratic consolidation in Ecuador. In addition to teaching a higher-level class on transitional justice in the fall semester, Isaacs will be working on completing her book on Guatemala, tentatively titled At War with the Past? The Politics of Transitional Justice in Postwar Guatemala. In the spring, she will be on sabbatical, but will serve as a thesis advisor for seniors.

Funding for the Guatemala trip for Isaacs and her student research assistants came from the Green Research Fellowship for Faculty and Students. This bequest from the estate of Louis and Elizabeth Green is used for faculty and students to attend conferences and other meetings related to research topics, especially during the summer.

--Jacob Lowy '14

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