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A new documentary, "Burden Of Peace," chronicles Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s extraordinary first female attorney general

Lady law

Meet the brave woman who convicted Guatemala’s former dictator of brutal war crimes

By Neesha Arter on June 19, 2015

The surname Paz y Paz translates to “Peace and Peace,” which appropriately suits trailblazer Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s first female attorney general and the subject of the new documentary Burden Of Peace. The film was screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City on Thursday night. Paz y Paz effectively led the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Guatemala from 2010-2014, until her term was controversially cut short by seven months.

Guatemala’s long history of political unrest includes a lengthy civil war from 1960 to 1996, genocide, corruption, crime and a deadly drug war. A scandal erupted in 2010 when attorney general Conrado Reyes, in office for just 17 days, was linked to the Mafia there.  Reyes was forced out and the country was left searching for an honest, transparent prosecutor. That’s where Paz y Paz, a human rights lawyer,  stepped in. She says in the film, “When I took the job as attorney general, I knew there were risks, but I have to do it because the victims deserve justice … the country deserves justice.”

The film depicts Guatemala as a lawless country where one can “kill, rob, and rape while the state does nothing” prior to Paz y Paz assuming the attorney general post. “Guatemala cannot wait. I will do anything I can to reduce impunity,” Paz y Paz said at the beginning of her term. The film details that when Paz y Paz stepped in, more than 20 people were murdered in Guatemala every day. She risked her safety and reputation to address the issue and by the time she left office, 30 of every 100 murder cases were solved, compared to a mere 5 percent prior to her tenure.

In the first six months of her term, there were more drug traffickers arrested than in the previous decade, and throughout her time served, five of the top 10 most wanted criminals in the country were caught. Paz y Paz continued to imprison corrupt military members and many affiliates of the Zetas, Mexico’s most violent criminal syndicate. In addition to pioneering a new wave of justice in one of the most dangerous countries in Central America, if not the world, Paz y Paz opened 24-hour courts to specifically expedite proceedings of cases of violence against women.

Burden of Peace also takes viewers inside one of the most historical cases in Guatemala. Paz y Paz successfully prosecuted Guatemala’s former dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, an army general. Ríos Montt seized power in a military coup during the civil war in 1982 in which roughly 200,000 Mayan Guatemalans were massacred. However, he was not convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity until 2013 in a case brought by Paz y Paz. The verdict was the first conviction for genocide in a national court.

Ríos Montt, 86 at the time, received a sentence of 80 years in prison, however the Constitutional Court of Guatemala quickly overturned the conviction after 10 days in a move that many saw as a blow to the legitimacy Paz y Paz had been building.

After living in Guatemala on and off for 10 years and becoming aware of the violence and corruption, Boink decided to make this film with his colleague Sander Wirken, a human rights lawyer. The film’s title takes its name from the 1996 peace treaty in Guatemala between the guerrilla army and the government army, as well as Claudia’s surname. Paz y Paz went on to garner many international accolades including a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2013. Paz y Paz is no longer safe in her home country and she splits her time in Spain and America. Nevertheless, she continues to give hope for justice in Central America, and, forthrightly, the world.

Watch the trailer for Burden of Peace: