Guatemala: Between Justice and Terror

Resurgent death squads hamper genocide trials

by Mark Engler & Alexandra Durbin

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, and intimidation.

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 multinationals.

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 system.

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 army.

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 other people."

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).

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