Employee Spotlight: Rachel Lopez, Transitional Justice Scholar and Investigator

Rachel Lopez

Rachel Lopez trekked six hours on a dirt road in middle-of-nowhere Guatemala to find what she needed for her research on the country’s path to justice in the wake of genocide. She used her phone to take pictures of some of the documents she sought because copy machines were few and far between in rural areas. She visited distant courthouses only to be redirected to new locations, and after week-long waits she learned the files she requested had never been there in the first place. She even had human rights advocates cancel interviews with her when they found out why she was there and what she was hoping to learn.

Lopez, JD, associate professor of law and director of the Community Lawyering Clinic at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, returned to campus this summer after completing six months as a Fulbright Scholar and six months as a Schell Fellow at Yale Law School. She spent the year researching transitional justice in countries addressing the human rights violations of predecessor regimes. Specifically, she looked at the interplay between traditional criminal justice proceedings and truth commissions — non-prosecutorial efforts to detail past wrongdoing and compile a narrative of events in the quest to help a nation reach peace.

Legal scholars often position truth commissions as an alternative to seeking justice, but Lopez found a much more symbiotic relationship between the two that could be revelatory for countries dealing with the aftermath of mass atrocities.

“My study fills in some of the holes in the existing literature and tells us the story of how this is happening,” said Lopez, whose research focused on the decades-long genocide perpetrated by a U.S.-backed military regime that killed an estimated 200,000 indigenous Mayans and Ladinos in Guatemala. “There is recently released research by two political scientists that showed that empirically, looking at the numbers, when you employ a variety of mechanisms — truth commissions, reparations, amnesties and trials — you get better results for human rights and democratic consolidation. But there was no understanding of why there was that difference.”

By gathering and analyzing information on the cases that led to convictions for grave crimes tied to the Guatemalan genocide, and interviewing judges, prosecutors and human rights attorneys involved in the legal proceedings, Lopez set out to help the legal community better understand the tangled paths countries take to find justice. In addition to her travels through rural Guatemala, she conducted research in Spain, where the first proceedings took place to hold the organizers of the genocide responsible after two truth commissions released reports that created a historical record. Those narratives, she found, played a significant role in aiding the criminal justice system’s efforts — a complementary relationship that had previously gone unobserved by legal scholars.

“Courts are not very well suited to understand context and history,” said Lopez, who wrote about her findings in a paper she expects to be published next spring in the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Journal of International Law. “They want hard evidence that specifically deals with the case, but when you’re talking about crimes like genocide and crimes against humanity, it’s not something that can be encapsulated in a single document, a single witness. It needs to be understood in the context of history, and so that’s how the judges used the truth commission. It was a historical narrative that informed how they understood the crimes.”

The authority of the United Nations-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (there was a separate commission led by the Catholic Church) helped convince Guatemalan judges that they had solid grounds to convict the genocide’s perpetrators and contributed to elevated charges, Lopez said. By characterizing the crimes using the language of international law, the truth commission created “a whole different paradigm” in which acts that had previously been charged as homicide, kidnapping or grave injuries were changed to crimes against humanity, genocide and forced disappearance, she said.

The case against Efraín Ríos Montt, who was president of Guatemala from 1982–83 and was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013 before a court overturned his conviction on procedural grounds, was corroborated by information from the truth commission, Lopez said. It’s the type of finding that could influence the way nations such as Colombia and El Salvador pursue peace and justice following their own civil wars.

“I’m hopeful my research can give insights into how the interaction [between approaches to justice] can be improved, and also raise some questions about things they might not be thinking of,” said Lopez.

Lopez had long been interested in human rights by the time she used a grant during her senior year of undergraduate studies at Northwestern University to research the Pan-Mayan movement in Guatemala. She quickly fell in love with the country, its history and its people, and returned two years later on a Rotary ambassadorial scholarship to study indigenous rights. By the time she began teaching the Guatemalan Rule of Law program years later at Seton Hall University School of Law, Ríos Montt had gone from a member of congress with immunity to a convicted perpetrator of crimes against humanity.

“I was just flabbergasted,” said Lopez. “I couldn’t believe that in a little less than 10 years someone could be so powerful and then could later be on trial. Human rights advocates had been trying to seek prosecutions against him for many years.”

She began to pair her human rights research with the related but separate field of transitional justice, diving into questions of peace and justice and what it takes for a society to move forward. When she learned about a special Fulbright grant that allowed for study in multiple countries, she saw a chance to use Guatemala’s history to show that justice develops less like a tree, with its distinct branches, and more like a vine, separate truth-seeking missions twisting together to make a stronger whole. The academic conversation pitting peace and justice against one another misses the point, her report argues.

“It confirms the scholars who believe it will take a multitude of mechanisms,” said Lopez. “Some people are still caught in the peace vs. justice debate and haven’t moved forward, so for them maybe it will be more convincing. It isn’t just empirical, it’s actually substantive, so I’m hoping it will be more persuasive.”

The upcoming paper won’t be the end of Lopez’s research on Guatemala — not close. There are still cases she wants to track down that she couldn’t find on all those rural missions, and she’s planning to make the sentences she gathered publicly available online alongside summaries in English and Spanish. She may write a separate report exploring the factors that led the Guatemalan trials to go forward, and she’s putting the finishing touches on an article about the responsibility of state accomplices that aid and abet the human rights abuses of other states, as the United States did in Guatemala.

Though it may seem like Guatemala’s troubled past is now history, its reach is long, Lopez said. Human rights attorneys and forensic workers involved in the quest for justice received death threats. A judge she interviewed was poisoned twice. A prosecutor she spoke with was incarcerated as political retribution.  

The struggle to rebuild continues, Lopez said, and Americans shouldn’t look away.

“It’s important we pay attention to things like this, even though some people would think, ‘Oh, that’s Guatemala, what does that have to do with us?’” said Lopez. “We’re very enmeshed in the history of Guatemala, and we can actually effect change by just being effective allies and partners.”

This story was published in the fall 2017 issue of Drexel Quarterly.