The Persistence of Terror

by Rolando Alecio and Ruth Taylor

from the Report on Guatemala, Fall 1998


This article is based on the article "La Privatizacion del Terror" written by Rolando Alecio for the Guatemalan news magazine Noticias de Guatemala. This version of the article was translated, edited and expanded on by Ruth Taylor, who works with the Guatemalan news agency CERIGUA.

"It becomes necessary to record, in quantity and quality, the magnitude of the harm produced by the counterinsurgency campaigns and by state repression, in order to understand the deception of wanting to erase this history and start afresh. The past that we so joyfully wish to seal up is not only alive in individuals and groups- victims and victimizers-but continues to operate in the very social structures." (Ignacio Martin-Baro)

The Proliferation of Crime

One of the thorniest problems Guatemala faces today in its attempt to build a true democracy is the damage caused by the political repression of the past. The scars of the brutal counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are worn not only by the victims, their families and friends but by the society as a whole, affecting both attitudes and behavior, as well as the country's social fabric and imagination.

The terror inflicted on the population during the civil war has metamorphosed in post-war society, but it has not disappeared. It remains intact in the operations of dozens of crime rings-sophisticated mafia-like networks-as well as urban youth gangs and rural bandits.

Today, more than a year and a half since peace was signed, public insecurity in the face of crime and violence remains one of the most deeply felt concerns of the Guatemalan population. For the first year following the Peace Accords, police registered more than 2,500 deaths by firearms and other weapons - about 7 a day. Although police claim that they are chipping away at the problem, only 278 persons were arrested for homicide in that period.

Recently Guatemala was listed as having one of the highest rates of kidnapping in the world: according to the British consulting group Control Risks, the country ranks fourth worldwide, in absolute terms. The Mutual Support Group for Relatives of the Disappeared (GAM), documented 200 kidnappings for 1997.

Although rampant crime is the subject of daily public scrutiny and discussion, official explanations, public opinion and the media tend to reduce the problem to a simple lack of punitive actions against offenders. Reference is rarely made to this situation being a consequence of terror.

The Deep Roots of Terror

Beginning in the mid-1970s, in response to rising pressure from below for radical change, Guatemala's rulers built a state anchored in illegality and impunity, and armored it with one of the most efficient and feared machines of terror in the history of Latin America. Terror is government by intimidation, coercion and fear. It is implemented when the state, or those who hold power, feel threatened; to conserve their privileges-the status quo-they resort to systematic violence and the planned violation of human rights. In such a scenario, suffering regulates political conduct. To carry out this strategy in Guatemala, tens of thousands of members of the security forces- civilian, military and paramilitary- were trained at home and in specialized schools abroad in the methods and techniques of applying terror through surveillance, kidnapping, torture and murder.

In general terms, the effects of terror on individuals, social groups, and society as a whole can be observed immediately and in the long run. In Guatemala, the most evident immediate effects were displacement, disappearance and the destruction of tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of communities. The long run effects, while less visible, are no less dramatic.

One outcome of the end of the counterinsurgency war has been the shift from state-sponsored to privately financed terror. As Edgar Gutierrez of the Catholic Church's Recuperation of Historic Memory (REMHI) project has noted, Guatemala's repressive structures were "displaced, not dismantled." Although President Alvaro Arzu won praise early in his term for purging a number of corrupt personnel from the security forces, these individuals were never brought to trial for their alleged offenses, leaving them free to continue their criminal activities in civilian life, and to use their connections with still-active security force members and state officials to further their criminal ends. Similarly, when the army disbanded the Civil Defense Patrols (PACs) there was no supervision or follow-up by civilian authorities to ensure that these paramilitary groups did not retain their role as local strongmen under another name.

Common crime and other more serious offenses (such as rape, kidnapping, torture and murder) are still being committed by many of these counterinsurgency "experts." Every day, reports in the media testify to the pivotal role of both retired and active security force personnel who were trained in criminal means and are now prepared for criminal ends. In one high-profile case, the 1996 kidnapping and murder of teenager Beverly Sandoval, 18 of the 21 suspects rounded up were ax-members of military or paramilitary forces. Two former army officers were also among the suspects arrested for assaulting and raping a group of U.S. college students last January.


Students demonstrating outside Supreme Court, demanding justice in Mario Alioto murder case. Banner refers to numerous unprosecuted murders and massacres; Nov. 1997. [Christina Albo]

"It's the ideal combination for the underworld," observed an editorial in the daily Prensa Libre. "Retired (army personnel) operate under the protection of those who hold public posts, which hinders to a great degree the investigations." The state "has been an official school from which its institutions have not been able to free themselves," it concluded.

Impunity Holds the Trump Card

One essential factor in preserving and amplifying the effects of terror on a society is impunity. This phenomenon, which is founded on the absence of truth and justice, always appears intrinsically linked to the practice of terror. According to Guatemalan author Mario Rene Matute, in using repression as a means of government, the state has to offer "those who plan and those who execute the full guarantee that their actions will take place in a climate of absolute impunity... since punishment cannot be offered as their reward."

Impunity, then, instituted for the purpose of conducting a "dirty" war against the Guatemalan population, extended its roots into all the state's structures by legalizing the illegitimate, the arbitrary, and the corrupt. It is a weed that is difficult to extirpate, and is one of the reasons why the state has not moved effectively to bring criminal groups under control. But impunity is not the only cause. Although the U.N. Verification Mission (MINUGUA) has repeatedly absolved the state of sponsoring a policy of human rights violations, its most recent report, released in June 1998, accused the government of "tolerance and acquiescence" towards organized crime.

Resignation by state authorities in the face of crime can be traced in part to the ruling class' historic relationship to the army and to the counterinsurgency war itself. The governing Party of National Advancement (PAN) represents the same oligarchy that financed the war and turned the country over to the military so it would "protect" their interests. But to date, only the army has had to answer-although only at the level of moral sanctions and a reduction in its scope of operations-for the crimes committed during the terror. Members of the army who lost their jobs because of the armistice, as well as those who remain within the institution, know the "truth" about the oligarchy's role in the war, and may be using it as their trump card to ensure that they retain a degree of power, or at least a free hand in carrying on their illicit trades.

Kidnappings have proven to be a handy tool for keeping the elite in their place, not to mention a lucrative business. It is perhaps ironic that Guatemala's oligarchy, who in the past politically and materially supported state terror, are now often the target of this transformed and privatized terror.

Furthermore, former military officers, well-equipped with terror skills, are also in good position to destabilize the government should the authorities try to put the squeeze on their operations.

Terror's Impact on the Social Fabric

In addition to a thriving criminal empire, the legacy of state terror has other manifestations in society, many of them touched on in a recent study by a team of Argentine psychologists who examined their own country's experiences with terror. Although differences exist between the processes of repression and impunity in Argentina and Guatemala, a number of the team's conclusions fit Guatemalan society today very well.

1. The continuing existence of fear, insecurity, and vulnerability.

Broad sectors of society display these feelings as a result of their experience of living with terror. At sundown, whether in the countryside or in the city, people hurry home to the relative safety of closed doors. Among the war's victims, these feelings can be much more acute. A survey by the National Widows Coalition (CONAVIGUA) on wartime abuses found that the vast majority of women and men interviewed reported crying fits, listlessness, insomnia, tremors, difficulty thinking, fear, headaches, and feeling of persecution. A smaller number referred to hallucinations, alcoholism, fits of anger, jealousy, and mistrust as products of the war. Such fears are reinforced by the prevailing climate of insecurity and impunity.

2. Impunity becomes a social model.

The model of impunity is a model of omnipotence; it teaches that you can get away with anything, that consequences are nonexistent. Under the current government, although a number of human rights cases have gone to trial, few have resulted in convictions. And so far the masterminds, or intellectual authors, of these crimes remain untouched. On several occasions, lower court convictions have been successfully appealed and overturned. To date, no military officer over the rank of sergeant has served time for a human rights violation, and no one at all has answered for the 45,000 Guatemalans disappeared during the civil war, or for a single massacre, despite a wealth of physical evidence gathered from dozens of mass graves and extensive eyewitness testimonies.

This is especially dangerous for the young, who are at a stage of their development where they are becoming part

of the social fabric of the country and are incorporating values and norms of what is and what is not possible, what is permitted and what is prohibited for coexistence and mutual respect.

In this atmosphere "maras"-youth gangs-have proliferated. While many crimes committed by these gangs have material ends, they are often accompanied by acts of violence that have no apparent objective other than to terrorize the victims, causing serious injuries or death in the act of stealing a purse, a watch, sunglasses.

Carlos Aldana, who oversees a crisis center for the Catholic Church's Pastoral Social Ministry reports that violence among children is increasingly common. In a recent column in Prensa Libre he described several cases he has worked on, including a brutal attack by a group of seven-year-olds on a younger girl which left the victim blind.

3. The proliferation of vigilante "justice."

Lack of confidence in the ability of the state to sanction criminal activity results in the appearance of "avenging" individuals, groups or mobs, who seek to take justice into their own hands by punishing suspected criminals. The most serious manifestation of this phenomenon is the recourse to lynchings.

MINUGUA reports that in the last two years, angry crowds have captured at least 100 suspected criminals and executed them on the spot. The vast majority of these lynchings took place in the countryside in response to petty theft; only 12 percent were responses to crimes such as assault, rape or murder. MINUGUA also found that many of the towns and villages where lynchings have occurred are ones where paramilitary groups such as PACs or military commissioners have been influential; on several occasions former members of these organizations were identified as instigators of the mob action. To date, in only two cases have those responsible been convicted.

The U.N. mission also confirmed the existence of armed groups who carry out "social cleansing" campaigns against suspected criminals and social outcasts (such as transvestites, prostitutes and drug addicts). It reports that this year in La Libertad, Peten province, a vigilante squad has already executed ten people, including one child, torturing and mutilating its victims to provide horrific warnings to other "wayward" citizens. Notes of explanation were pinned to the corpses: "We're very sorry but we have to clean up this village and there are still a lot more people to go." Of course, such vigilante violence does not bring security or justice, but rather generates more fear, prolongs the cycle of violence, and contributes to general disrespect for the rule of law.

5. Exaltation of "iron fist" policies and past oppressors.

The breakdown of the criminal justice system also prompts calls by a frustrated populace for iron fist measures to combat crime. When the state does not fulfill its function as social guarantor, the promotion of a recognized repressor-a "father" figure, arbitrary and all embracing, who ostensibly protects the citizenry and promotes the "common welfare" and "justice"- becomes possible. In Guatemala, this figure is embodied by former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, whose Republican Front (FRO) nearly won the presidency in the last elections and still constitutes the second strongest political force in the country. Despite heading a regime in 1982-83 that was responsible for the most wartime atrocities, many Guatemalans recall his rule as a time when criminals got what they deserved.

Some observers contend that Rios Montt and his party may even be using their links to the repressive structures of the past to foment the current crime wave, destabilizing their political rivals in the Arzu government and furthering their own chances at the polls.

6. Support for the death penalty.

Feelings of personal insecurity, vulnerability and defenselessness are used- by certain Former Civil Patrol members on trial for a deadly 1993 attack on peaceful demonstrators, groups and by the state itself to demand and Colotenango, Huehuetenango; July 1995. (They have since been acquitted.) justify the application of the death penalty. In this case the population looks to the law instead of a figurehead like Rios Montt to impose exemplary punishments. Since peace was signed, three convicted murderers have been sentenced to death and executed, the first executions since civilian rule was restored in 1986. And now many Guatemalans want the penalty applied to kidnappers too. In 1995 Congress instituted the death penalty for kidnapping, but the measure contravenes the InterAmerican Human Rights Convention, to which Guatemala is a signatory, and has therefore never been applied. To resolve this contradiction, several groups are currently lobbying the state to renounce the convention.

What Does the Future Hold?

The negotiators of the Peace Accords worked to address the issue of military control over internal security through several measures placing it more squarely under civilian institutions. Although the army has complied with some of these provisions, it has yet to relinquish control of key areas of its former operations. One such area is the military's exclusive hold on intelligence. Neither the army nor the government has taken steps to establish the civilian intelligence branch called for in the Peace Accords.

As long as the army controls intelligence, the civilian government will be forced to rely on it for combating crime, as it does currently in the case of kidnappings. Many analysts suspect that army intelligence is well aware of who is behind organized crime in the country, whether they are private citizens or hold posts within the state, just as it knows who ordered the massacres of the past, and whose interests were served by the counterinsurgency war. Wresting control of intelligence from military hands is thus fundamental to bringing the whole security apparatus under civilian management, as well as to taking on organized crime.

In addition to addressing the role of the army in postwar Guatemala, the Peace Accords seek to mend the many deficiencies of the justice system and grant it more independence from the executive branch. The Commission to Strengthen Justice, established by the Peace Accords, has delivered its recommendations to the government, but these have yet to be turned into policy or legislation. Perhaps one of the Commission's most important conclusions is the need to understand the administration of justice as much more than the imposition of punitive measures. Reconciliation, one of the underlying aims of the peace process, should also be a central objective of the justice system. The current clamor for the death penalty and other repressive responses to crime may be reduced over time if reforms are successful in producing a more effective justice system based on a different conception of justice.

Clearly, the country will not be able to overcome the experience of terror and heal if its ailments are not thoroughly examined. This means, among other things, facing the past, and taking steps to understand and overcome its legacy. The eagerness of some sectors, including the government, to put the past behind them and turn their eyes only toward the future, is symptomatic of a superficial approach to the peace process as a whole. Those points in the Peace Accords which call for examining the past, compensating the war's victims and encouraging reconciliation should not be skipped over. If the legacy of terror left by the war is not addressed, the construction of a true democracy may never get beyond the blueprint stage.



Report on Guatemala is published by the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) / the Guatemala News and Information Service, 3181 Mission St., Box 12, San Francisco, CA 94110, 415-826-3593, email -

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