Guatemala: Between Justice
Resurgent death squads hamper
by Mark Engler & Alexandra
Z magazine, November 2002
In the past year, a new wave of repression
has swept through Guatemala. One of the many anonymous letters
received by the country's human rights activists reads, "In
a war there are no guilty parties, and it is not your place to
judge us." Another simply warns: "You had better take
care, you son of a bitch, we are going to shut you up."
With several recent murders, Guatemala's
resurgent death squads proved that they are prepared carry out
their threats. In late April, Guillermo Ovalle de Leon, from the
prominent Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, was killed. On September
6, unknown assailants abducted and tortured Manuel Garcia de la
Cruz, a rural activist involved in exhuming clandestine wartime
cemeteries. Journalists investigating his murder were followed
and had their equipment stolen.
The renewed acts of violence and repression
are designed to silence activists seeking to prosecute military
officers for genocide and other war crimes. In May 2000 and June
2001, representatives of indigenous communities belonging to the
Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) filed two cases
in the Guatemalan legal system. They charged former dictators
Romeo Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, along with members of their
high commands, with genocide and crimes against humanity. Complementing
these efforts, Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum previously
filed charges in December 1999 in the Spanish courts against the
two generals and six other Guatemalan officials.
The genocide cases and the attacks against
human rights workers have brought mainstream attention back to
a country that faded from international view following the passage
of Peace Accords in 1996.
Since the Guatemalan Republican Front
(FRG) came into power in 2000, human rights violations have increased
dramatically, reaching their highest levels since the 1996 Accords.
Examples of abuses abound. Anselmo Roldan Aguilar, president and
legal representative of AJR, was stabbed in July 2001 by a person
with links to the army. This August Roberto Romero, a key lawyer
in a trial attempting to prosecute three Guatemalan army officials
for ordering the assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack, received
several threats on his life. Shots were fired at his home and,
a few hours later, two anonymous callers warned him to abandon
the case. Since the trial began on September 3, Romero and his
family have been the targets of further death threats, surveillance,
Continuing violence has impeded efforts
to take meaningful steps toward justice and reconciliation. The
country has yet to collectively reckon with the 1.5 million people
displaced and the 669 massacres, which took place throughout the
countryside-a situation that a 1999 UN-backed report acknowledged
as genocidal. Two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed or
disappeared during the country's 36 year-long war, when death
squads linked to the U.S.-backed military targeted analysts, activists,
and journalists who spoke out against state repression.
Recent human rights violations, while
not directly committed by the government as they were during the
war, are often carried out by clandestine groups with links to
the State. Guatemalan civil society, the United Nations Mission
in Guatemala, and the governmental Human Rights Procurator report
the existence of "hidden" power structures parallel
to the State. These Mafia-like power cells, linked to the economic
elite and laced throughout the government and military, carry
out surveillance, intimidation, threats, political assassinations,
and extrajudicial executions. In a clear moment of double-speak,
President Portillo's spokesperson Byron Barrera recently denied
the existence of clandestine groups, yet admitted that such groups
are responsible for some human rights violations.
Meanwhile, many wartime human rights violators
continue to wield influence in Guatemalan politics. Former dictator
Rios Montt currently serves as Head of Congress. According to
a survey by the daily newspaper Prensa Libre, most Guatemalans
consider him the most powerful person in the country. The government
has failed to follow the Peace Accords' mandate to abolish groups
responsible for wartime atrocities, groups like the Presidential
guard and military intelligence units. Congress has also elevated
the army's budget to levels that violate the Accords.
The social and economic problems at the
root of Guatemala's civil war also remain unaddressed. The government
has abandoned Peace Accord mandates calling for wide-ranging reforms
in social services and the judicial system-changes aimed at creating
an inclusive and democratic society. As a result, injustices endure:
86 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, including 69 percent
in extreme poverty. Unequal land distribution plagues the rural
population: while 96 percent of producers hold only 20 percent
of the country's arable land, a mere 0.15 percent control 70 percent
of productive lands.
The United States regularly expresses
concern when grave human rights abuses occur in Guatemala. But
U. S. activists have reason to doubt the government's sincerity.
In 1999, President Clinton apologized for the U. S . role in the
Guatemalan genocide. The Bush administration, however, effectively
rescinded the U.S. apology with its move to "unsign"
the agreement assuring its participation in the International
Criminal Court. In a 2001 meeting with U.S.-based solidarity groups,
U.S. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell rejected the suggestion that
the U.S. government assist in providing reparations payments to
Guatemalan war victims.
Moreover, the U.S. has shown little interest
in pressuring the Guatemalan government to adopt the social service
reforms of the Peace Accords, or in otherwise unsettling Guatemala's
economic elites. Human rights concerns do not extend to labor
rights. One egregious example involves the TECO powerplant in
Guatemala City, where union members were illegally fired in 1999.
Although the Overseas Private Investment Company (OPIC)-a public
agency-partially funds the plant, the U.S. government has done
nothing to pressure the company to comply with a Guatemala Supreme
Court ruling to reinstate the workers.
It would be a mistake to assume that the
United States still favors the School of the Americas-trained
generals that ruled over many of its client states in the 1970s
and 1980s. Its Cold War motives of anti-Communist containment
have been replaced by a desire to enforce a neoliberal hegemony.
The new ideal is provided by leaders like Mexico's Vicente Fox-vigorous
"free trade" advocates reared in the suites of U.S.-based
But despite the shift from anti-communism
to neoliberalism, the protection of its economic interests serves
as the consistent force behind U.S. policy in Guatemala. Much
has changed since the United States government orchestrated a
coup in 1954 in order to protect U.S. agribusiness interests.
Yet human rights still seem less important to the Bush administration
than having leaders in place who will support measures like the
Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), legislation that
regulates commerce on terms that favor corporate investors over
indigenous peoples seeking self-determination.
Justice in the Courts?
Can the genocide trials effectively address
these injustices? Ironically, many human rights activists risking
their lives to prosecute the cases in Guatemalan and international
courts don't expect to succeed in convicting the country's past
dictators. Hinting at a much larger series of difficulties, the
Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), the non-governmental
organization providing legal assistance to the AJR, acknowledges
"the pressures that there will be against the investigation
of this case." Nevertheless, these groups believe the tactic
can have important effects both inside and outside of the legal
Skeptics base their pessimism about actual
convictions on the fact that most human rights cases in Guatemala
languish in the courts. A recent criminal trial charging members
of an army unit with the massacre of returned refugees in Xaman
has been riddled with delays, inconsistencies, and evidence of
courtroom bias. In May, a related civil trial was suspended because
the court had not provided the proper translators for indigenous
witnesses. Then, the case was transferred to a nonfunctioning
court in a remote part of the country. Both domestic genocide
cases remain in the investigative phase, even though charges against
Lucas Garcia were filed over two years ago. CALDH estimated that
the investigation should have been completed in eight months.
In spite of these impediments to legal
victory, Guatemalans have hope. The attempts to prosecute Chile's
former dictator Augusto Pinochet provided a powerful example of
what high-profile trials can accomplish. While the Chilean General
has thus far succeeded in avoiding jail time, the prosecution
brought his war crimes to the fore of international discussion.
Rather than traveling the world as an honored statesperson, Pinochet
must behave more like a wanted drug lord-always in fear of being
detained for extradition.
Activists in Guatemala are working to
raise dictators Montt and Garcia to a similar level of infamy.
Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a co-plaintiff in the Spanish case, says,
"At the very least, we know these criminals will lose some
sleep at night and will be afraid to leave the country."
Furthermore, they argue that new cases help to establish the precedent
that war criminals will be prosecuted internationally, even if
the perpetrators are powerful enough to avoid trial in their home
countries. "I want this case to teach a lesson to other human
rights violators around the world, that they can't get away with
crimes against humanity," Portillo-Bartow adds.
High-profile lawsuits can serve not only
to bolster international solidarity, but also to transform an
ossified national judiciary. While Montt and Garcia may prove
impossible to convict, the lawsuits make lower-ranking criminals
increasingly vulnerable. In one important example, intense public
pressure succeeded in bringing those responsible for the murder
of Bishop Juan Gerardi to justice. In 1998, barely two days after
releasing a report attributing the majority of wartime violations
to state agents, Gerardi was bludgeoned to death with a concrete
block. Police posited a series of bogus theories, attributing
the murder first to "common crime," then to a "crime
of passion," and even took a priest's decrepit dog into police
custody, claiming it had played a key role in the murder.
Although observers initially despaired
at the progress of the case, international outrage ultimately
forced officials to conduct a serious investigation. The Guatemalan
human rights community rejoiced in 2001 when Colonel Byron Disrael
Lima and 2 other military officers were sentenced to 30 years
in prison for Gerardi's murder. This ruling dealt a remarkable
blow to Guatemala's long-standing culture of impunity for the
A second extraordinary blow fell even
as this article was going to press. On October 3, a Guatemalan
court sentenced Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio to 30 years in prison
for ordering the murder of Myrna Mack. On September 11, l990,
not long after publishing a crucial study demonstrating that the
army's counter-insurgency campaign was responsible for the massive
internal displacement of indigenous communities, Mack was stabbed
27 times outside her Guatemala City office. Although a low-ranking
officer had previously been jailed for carrying out the murder,
Mack's sister and other campaigners pressed to convict those who
ordered the execution. In the most recent trial, the two high-ranking
officials were freed (with judges citing "lack of evidence")
even as Valencia was convicted. Nevertheless, by successfully
prosecuting a senior military officer, activists have paved the
road for further victories.
A New Human Rights Movement
Human rights activists see the AJR's demands
for justice as key to broadening the political space for Guatemalan
war survivors to speak out about not only about past atrocities,
but also about on-going political and economic abuses. "At
the very least we have publicly named the perpetrators of the
massacres," says a witness in the genocide case against Garcia.
"Our speaking up gives other victims, other survivors, the
strength to stand up for their rights."
Witnesses further explain that when survivors
speak about their experiences during the war, they are empowered
to strengthen their political participation and denounce current
violations. Miguel Angel Albizurez of the human rights group Alliance
Against Impunity argues that massacre trials allow those denied
a voice in national politics for decades to "retake their
right to demand justice"-creating the possibility for activists
to highlight economic injustices that elites prefer to keep unmentioned.
Today, labor and farmworker organizers
who fight for their social and economic rights, journalists and
analysts who expose companies' exploitative practices, and activists
who question inequalities continue to be the targets of political
violence. In April, journalist David Herrera was abducted while
on an assignment with a U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) reporter
regarding human rights issues. Bishop Alvaro Ramazinni and other
Catholic clergy who advocate peasants' rights have received death
threats. Union organizers at a Liz Claiborne factory were attacked
with rocks and bottles. In a four-day period in June, three farmworker
leaders were killed by paramilitaries.
Guatemalans in the human rights movement
connect these current violations with the need to obtain justice
for wartime atrocities, which were linked to the government's
desire to maintain the social system of privilege and inequality.
Between 1980 and 1982 the army and local paramilitaries carried
out five massacres in the Rio Negro area because Achi Maya residents
protested a World Bank-funded dam that flooded their ancestral
lands. Having learned from such examples, Guatemalans who denounce
wartime massacres see them as intimately connected with a whole
system of abuse.
In the process of bringing the genocide
case charges, spokespeople from indigenous communities gain power
as political leaders. AJR leaders have gained skills in organizing
workshops and rallies, giving press conferences, and rebutting
critics' comments. Roldan and others have participated in international
speaking tours and conferences. Association members who had never
been further than ten miles from their homes have traveled through
the country to share their stories. Many are learning about the
judicial system for the first time. One witness proudly states
that despite his lack of formal education, he is struggling to
read the Constitution in order to understand "the commitments
and duties that the State has to its people, and the rights and
duties that we have as citizens."
Because of the genocide trials, political
crimes that have remained hidden from national scrutiny for years
have been vigorously condemned in the national press. An increasingly
critical media has been more willing to cover human-rights-related
legal cases, union campaigns, ethnic discrimination, plantation
occupations, and the government's unwillingness to deal with the
land crisis. Headlines in mainstream newspapers reading "Judge
Named in Genocide Case" and "Government of the Rich
in Country of the Poor" represent equally remarkable developments
in Guatemala's political culture.
As they assert their humanity in trials
against past dictators, the Guatemalan people grow increasingly
willing to resist neoliberal plans undemocratically designed to
"develop" the country on the terms of transnational
corporations and local elites. Tired of being ignored by authorities
and large landowners, organized landless peasants have taken direct
action. In February, farmers in San Marcos occupied the San Luis
finca (plantation) to use for subsistence farming and to pressure
the government for solutions to the two-year famine, historic
land inequalities, and worsening poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition.
Throughout the country, activists currently control lands taken
in 53 such occupations.
On August 21, approximately 15,000 farmworkers
occupied 2 major highways, blocking traffic for hours, to demand
land reform and an end to repression against activists "The
killings, threats, and arrest warrants against farmworker leaders
are meant to worsen our political, social, and economic situation
even further," noted the Committee of Peasant Unity. These
acts "are done in response to the struggles that we are undertaking
alongside peasant communities that lack even a bit of land to
cultivate in order to survive."
In March, 34 Guatemalan organizations
and 64 groups from other countries held a forum in La Quetzal,
Peten to discuss and plan actions against Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP).
PPP is a series of proposed industrialization projects throughout
Central America and Mexico that would displace hundreds of indigenous
communities and destroy wetlands and rainforest ecosystems. The
grassroots groups presented a series of demands that intertwine
political and economic rights and denounce both past and current
abuses. They call for "justice for those responsible for
state genocide," "an end to persecution, intimidation,
forced disappearance, death threats," and "an end to
the imposition of projects that do not emerge from communities
and peoples themselves."
An AJR witness who lost his wife, mother,
and children in a 1982 massacre relates these campaigns to attempts
to use the courts to challenge war criminals: "This country
needs to change a lot. There is so much poverty, inequality, and
lack of democracy. Governments are used to doing what they want
and following their own economic and political interests. This
legal process can make a huge difference by challenging the long-time
impunity that governments have enjoyed, by proclaiming that we
who have always been marginalized are not going to just let them
do what they want. What we are doing serves as an example for
With finca occupations and claims to economic
rights, survivors of the country's civil war show that the process
of healing and justice is incompatible at key points with a neoliberal
economic agenda. The genocide cases are working both to speed
the transformation of a still-entrenched judiciary and to further
activist campaigns throughout the country. The survivors coming
forward as witnesses insist that the powerful will someday be
held responsible for the crimes. As they inspire wider acts of
resistance, they envision a time when the tragic inequalities
will finally disappear.
Mark Engler, a writer and activist, has
worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress
in San Jose, Costa Rica and the Public Intellectuals Program at
Florida Atlantic University.
Alexandra Durbin is the editor of the
quarterly Report on Guatemala and co-coordinator of the Guatemala
Accompaniment Project for the Network in Solidarity with the People
of Guatemala (NISGUA).