MEXICO CITY — Emma Theissen Álvarez says she will never forget the faces of the three men who came to her Guatemala City house that day in 1981 looking for her daughter, a student leader who had escaped from her military captors. When they did not find their target, they grabbed her 14-year-old son, Marco Antonio, instead.
She never saw her boy again.
For years, the family said nothing, mute in its pain. But when Ms. Theissen and her three daughters finally went to court, helping secure the convictions of retired military commanders of crimes against humanity, they found a sort of healing.
“One feels that one is doing something to bring a little justice to Marco Antonio,” said Ms. Theissen, who is now 84.
Now that justice is in peril.
Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen, left, and her mother prepare to speak to the press about her brother, Marco Antonio, who was taken by the military in 1981 and never seen again.Credit Moises Castillo/Associated Press
In a reversal that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago, Guatemalan lawmakers are moving forward with a proposal to grant amnesty for war crimes committed during the country’s brutal 36-year civil war.
The bill, scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, would free more than 30 former army officers, soldiers and civil defense patrolmen within 24 hours and halt investigations into thousands of cases.
The amnesty has gained traction in Congress as part of a reaction against a broader fight against impunity and corruption, analysts said. What originally seemed like a push from the fringes of the far right seemed to gather force as President Jimmy Morales, battered by allegations of graft, turned to the military for support.
“It’s a reflection of the weakening of the rule of law in Guatemala,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, a former Guatemalan justice official.
Backers of the amnesty say they are simply trying to move on and promote peace.
“The courts have been infiltrated with judges and prosecuting attorneys with ideological inclinations to one side, the left-wing side, which are the guerrillas,” the congressman who introduced the amnesty law, Fernando Linares, said in a recent interview in Guatemala City.
But for victims and their families, the bill is like a denial of justice and a negation of history, said Edgar Pérez, a human rights lawyer who has brought war crimes cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Guatemalan courts. “For the victims, the sentence is their certificate of truth. It is their history.”
Mr. Pérez and other human rights experts say that the proposed amnesty is unconstitutional, and that it violates international treaties, the 1996 peace accords that ended the civil war, and rulings from Guatemala’s highest court.
But they fear that in the time it would take for the court to overturn the law, the released war criminals might begin to exact revenge on the witnesses, prosecutors and judges in their cases.
More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s bloody conflict between the country’s military and leftist insurgents, according to a United Nations Truth Commission.
What began as a campaign of terror against political and peasant activists, as well as union and student leaders, transformed into a scorched-earth offensive against Mayan villages. In the early 1980s, military and paramilitary forces razed whole communities in massacres of untrammeled brutality.
The truth commission concluded that security forces and the paramilitary groups they set up were responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations committed during the conflict. And the role of racism in Guatemala’s still deeply-divided society was also made clear: 83 percent of the identified victims were Mayan, many of them women and children.
Although the United States officially cut off support to the Guatemalan military, the Reagan administration found a way to divert aid to the government of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted in 2013 of genocide against the Mayan-Ixil population during his rule in 1982 and 1983.
After the war, justice was elusive. When Guatemalan prosecutors buried their complaints, victims took their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Very slowly, the tide began to turn and by 2009, the first cases reached Guatemalan courts. The trial of General Ríos Montt was a watershed, uncovering military orders that showed the military atrocities were part of a deliberate strategy. General Ríos Montt’s conviction was overturned on a technicality and he was being retried when he died last year at 91.
The judges “have allowed us to believe a little bit in the system,” said Edwin Canil, the president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, an alliance of survivors from seven Mayan groups that brought the case against General Ríos Montt.
“We have managed to place these crimes that they wanted to forget in the history of this country,” he said.
Guatemala’s former dictator José Efrain Rios Montt speaks in Guatemala City during his trial for genocide against the Mayan-Ixil population in 2013.CreditMoises Castillo/Associated Press
In January 2016, investigations led to the arrests of 18 former military officers implicated in two prominent cases.
One involved a military base in the department of Alta Verapaz, where hundreds of bodies have been exhumed. The other involved the attacks on the family of Emma Theissen Álvarez.
Four former senior military officials were convicted, including Benedicto Lucas García, who was the army chief of staff, and Manuel Callejas y Callejas, who was the military intelligence chief.
“This was the only possibility that we have had in almost 40 years to place the responsibility, the shame, the guilt on those who are truly responsible for our situation and that of many other victims,” said Marco Antonio’s sister, Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen, 59. She was detained on a military base where she was raped and tortured before she escaped after nine days.
Now many Guatemalans fear a return to impunity.
“People had the audacity to believe that the justice system is listening,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a Guatemala expert at George Mason University who has followed the trials closely. “And then for Congress to say that none of that matters, that, we, the army saved the country from terrorism — they want to bring Guatemala back to 1981.”
But if the amnesty is approved Wednesday, it will not succeed in turning back time, said Ana Lucrecia Molina Theissen, 64, the eldest of the family’s three daughters.
“The image of criminals disguised as heroes, that won’t be recovered,” she said. “That image of heroic, respectable patriots — that will never return for them, never.”
Guatemalan lawmakers have brushed aside protests from indigenous groups and human rights groups at home, and appeals from abroad, including a protest from the United States State Department. Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, warned that passage of the bill would have “serious consequences” for United States aid.
“A government that shields its armed forces from punishment for crimes against humanity fails in its most sacred obligation to defend justice and uphold the rule of law,” he said.
Juan Francisco Soto, a lawyer with the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights in Guatemala City, which represents victims, said the government no longer cared about international respect.
“There is an emboldening of the government with this group of lawmakers,” he said. “They want to impose the impunity pact, no matter the cost.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Jailed for War Crimes, Guatemalan Military Officials May Now Receive Amnesty.