Human Rights in Guatemala
by Jennifer Harbury
Global Exchange newsletter, Fall 1998
It's great to be here at Global Exchange, where I will be
working on the CIA, the ongoing human rights situation in Guatemala,
and helping to shape GX's human rights program.
The more I learn about the CIA, the more frightening the evidence
becomes. I am receiving more and more eyewitness reports from
people who were tortured throughout Latin America. Some were flown
to secret detention centers in helicopters flown by people who
were clearly North American. Some had North Americans in their
torture cells asking their tormentors for more information. Some
were directly questioned by persons with heavy North American
accents. In short there is frightening evidence that 'our' government
officials knew very well where the centers of secret detention
and torture were located, who the torturers were, and who the
victims were. Instead of acting to save human lives, our officials
purchased information extracted through the use of torture. Then
they turned their backs on the victims and left them to their
fates. I believe the practice was widespread and routine. One
of my first efforts here will be to write up a "White Paper"
on precisely this issue, the legal questions it raises, and some
suggestions as to what we can do about it.
Meanwhile, human rights in Guatemala continue to take a beating.
A frightening trend that I am seeing is the army's assault on
the judicial system. The final peace accords did not grant an
amnesty for any human rights violations carried out by either
side. This apparently is a bitter pill for the army to swallow.
The first strategy was the widespread claim that there was no
point having any trials for war crimes because the guerrillas
and the military were equally bad. Better to forgive and forget.
Then in early 1998, Bishop
Gerardi reported in the REMHI findings that the army was responsible
for 85% of the atrocities, and the U.R.N.G. for less than 10 percent.
Gerardi was bludgeoned to death 48 hours after making this report
public, and there is clear evidence linking the military to his
brutal assassination (such as a call made to a military base from
the house just after the murder was committed).
The military's strategy is grim, although not exactly new.
All the key cases are being blocked in the courts by bad faith
manipulations. And the courts are literally under fire: judges,
lawyers, plaintiffs, prosecutors, witnesses, and investigators
are being attacked and are in fear for their lives.
I have pulled the following information from the last six
* Sylvia Jerez, the prosecutor in my own case, was forced
off the road, shot thirteen times and left dead together with
her badly wounded assistant. The prosecutor investigating her
murder has resigned under threats. He had sought official protection
but the authorities failed to provide any.
* Another official was told that if he continued to investigate
an of ficial corruption case, his wife would be killed and his
* In the Xaman massacre case, a military lawyer first tried
to bribe key witnesses, then a lawyer for the Xaman survivors
was followed and threatened.
* The Guatemalan Supreme Court reversed the conviction of
certain police and military officials in the case of law student
Alioto Lopez Sanchez, who was beaten to death during a protest
in 1994. The reversal took place despite remarkable evidence,
including film taken as the killing took place.
* Relatives of Epaminondas Dubon, the slain Judge of the Corte
de Constitucionalidad, have decided to withdraw from the case
because of death threats.
* The Supreme Court announced that six judges have received
* Another judge, this one in Chimaltenango, was told to leave
the country in fifteen days or face assassination.
Even more frightening is the recent effort by the Guatemalan
army to annul the international agreement to subject the government
of Guatemala to Inter-American Court jurisdiction of the Organization
of American States (OAS). This international court only accepts
cases where it can be shown that the domestic courts of a nation
cannot handle the matter, either because no legal remedy exists
or because the courts are de facto non-functional (as in Guatemala).
Precisely for this reason, the Inter-American Court has heard
two cases recently-in addition to mine-and in both cases the Court
ruled against Guatemala.
My own case was heard in June. The decision is still pending
but we expect a positive result.
I am confident that the Court will soon take more cases out
of Guatemala. The Guatemalan military thinks so too, and they
don't want a dozen international condemnations. So they are now
trying to force the government to withdraw from the Court's jurisdiction.
In short, the army is declaring itself to be above justice.
This does not bode well for the transition to peace. Please
"stay tuned." We will be needing your help soon.
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Human Rights, Justice, Reform