University of Minnesota

Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.61, Doc. 47 rev. 1 (1983).





A. General Considerations

1. Article 23, subparagraph 2, of the Fundamental Statute provides:

The right of movement is guaranteed, so that any person may freely enter, remain in, travel through or leave the territory of the nation, except as otherwise provided by law.

2. The Commission notes that this new guarantee established in the Fundamental Statute contains no reference to the right of any person to remain in his residence or domicile, which represents a step backward compared to the previous Constitution.2

3. The state of siege that was in effect in Guatemala up to March 23, 1982 partly restricted the right of freedom of movement, by providing the following:

Article 11. Officials responsible for maintaining public order are authorized to prohibit the movement or parking of vehicles at specified places, zones and times, and to require that persons who travel in the interior of the country report the route they intend to follow. Such officials may also prevent vehicles from leaving towns and search them.

Article 13. Drivers of vehicles must stop when first ordered to do so by the authorities and must fully identify themselves.

4. In practice, Guatemalans and residents in the territory of Guatemala can now travel freely throughout the country although there are certain restrictions, especially in what are known as the “conflict areas.” Although the Commission interviewed during its visit to the country many persons who actually had traveled recently to rural areas distant from the capital, especially in the Department of Chimaltenango, El Quiché, San Marcos and Huehuetenango, they had always traveled on the main highway and with a great deal of fear and many precautions, since, as they reported to the Commission, they were afraid of both the national security forces and the insurgents.

5. However, travel within the country is only one aspect of the right that concerns us. In analyzing this right, we must also study other related situations that have a direct bearing on the observance of the rights of freedom of movement and residence. Among the situations connected with these rights, the Commission believes it is important to address three problems: a) voluntary exiles; b) Indian refugees who flee abroad from the violence in the country; and c) the situation produced by the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in Guatemala.

B. Voluntary Exiles

1. Many Guatemalans have voluntarily left the country. Some of them did so during the regime of President Lucas García, but a substantial number did so after March 23, 1982. In general terms, the different situations of these voluntary exiles must be analyzed separately.

2. First, there are the leaders and intellectuals, who mainly include the religious (both national and foreign), writers, journalists, teachers, professionals and politicians, who have left the country because of the climate of insecurity they found there.

3. Many of these leaders and intellectuals have decided not to return to Guatemala. Most of the voluntary exiles have established new homes, especially in the United States, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Despite the public statements of the authorities that these exiles can return to Guatemala when they wish, the reality is that fear prevents them from doing so. Right or wrong, they feel threatened, and the prevailing state of terror, which has been mentioned so frequently in this report, heightens the insecurity that prevents their returning to their country.

4. Another group of voluntary exiles is the Guatemalan workers, who for years have emigrated to Mexico with official permission to work in the harvesting of crops. The Government of Mexico has reported that many of these day workers, who cannot be considered refugees, simply do not return to their country when their work permits expire. The problem of these workers is found mostly along the Pacific coastal region near Tapachula, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Although it would be impossible to estimate their number, thousands of Guatemalan peasants are now living in Mexico as undocumented aliens, either for economic reasons or because they are afraid to return to their country, or both.

C. Indian Refugees Fleeing Violence

1. A special situation is that of the much more numerous Guatemalan refugees of Indian origin, including those known as “ladinos.”3 Most of these refugees now live in Mexico, especially in the state of Chiapas, although some of them have relocated in Honduras. They come from border towns in the Departments of Huehuetenango, El Quiché and now, in increasing numbers, San Marcos.

2. Guatemalan refugees living in Mexico numbered about 32,800 in January 1983, according to figures from the Mexican Committee for Aid to Guatemalan Refugees and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner in Mexico City. Approximately half of them arrived in Mexico after the coup d’etat of March 23, 1982.

3. Technically, the Government of Mexico regards these persons as “visitors” rather than “refugees,” and issues them work permits as such. On the whole, the displaced persons live in 28 camps or zones along the Mexican-Guatemalan border. As the IACHR noted in the chapter on the right to life, almost all of them have fled their country as a result of the Guatemalan Government’s decision to establish a buffer zone along the border to prevent the rebels from receiving moral and material aid.

4. The refugees—whole towns of men, women, children and old people—invariably tell the Commission that they left their homes because they were afraid of the mass attacks launched by government officials. Many of them witnessed massacres and destruction of their homes, churches, community buildings, animals, crops and other private property through air and artillery attacks.

5. Some of these refugees have scars from wounds they received during their exodus. For example, the Commission found, with the aid of a Mexican Government doctor, that a woman, Catarina Ignacia Ramos, received a bullet wound while fleeing persecution. According to her testimony, the bullet killed the child she was carrying on her back and passed through her thorax, miraculously without damaging any vital organ.4

D. Persons Displaced in Guatemala

1. The Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church estimated in May 1982 that over one million Guatemalans had been uprooted from their homes, while other more conservative estimates placed the figure at 250,000.5

2. In any case, an enormous number of Guatemalans, especially Indian peasants from the high country, have voluntarily or involuntarily abandoned their towns, crops and homes under a strategic hamlet program, and many of them have been relocated in camps administered by the Government.

3. A few of these camps are facilities that have been opened in large cities like Chimaltenango. However, most of them are in camps in the narrower sense of the world, in other words, isolated places, that are controlled and surrounded and administered by government troops and by civil defense patrols.

4. Many of the residents of these camps are there by their own volition, having placed themselves under the control of the army, seeking protection. However, a considerable number are there against their will, having been compelled by force to change their residence.

5. The camps, some 80 in all, according to the Pro-Justice and Peace Committee of Guatemala,6 provide residents with food, protection and some kind of work. However, the work is mostly designed to produce goods for the national and international markets, rather than helping the displaced persons to supply their own needs. A kind of dependence on the Government has thus been institutionalized, as part of the program known as “Beans and Guns.”

6. Aside from creating dependence on the government’s largesse in the camps, a number of other consequences of this policy should be noted. One is that peasants no longer live on their own land, and if they own no land, they are separated from the place where they were born and raised. For rural inhabitants, separation from their plot of land, their people, and their habitat represents a great loss that frequently proves traumatic. The second observation refers to the overcrowded conditions and the primitive sanitary and educational facilities in these camps. Although the Government has clearly made efforts to improve this situation, the difficulties are truly overwhelming, since Guatemala is a poor country and the peasants are not used to living in such crowded conditions.



1 American Convention on Human Rights. Article 22. Freedom of Movement and Residence. 1. Every person lawfully in the territory of a State Party has the right to move about in it, and to reside in it subject to the provisions of the law. 2. Every person has the right lo leave any country freely, including his own. 3. The exercise of the foregoing rights may be restricted only pursuant to a law to the extent necessary in a democratic society to prevent crime or to protect national security, public safety, public order, public morals, public health, or the rights or freedoms of others. 4. The exercise of the rights recognized in paragraph 1 may also be restricted by law in designated zones for reasons of public interest. 5. No one can be expelled from the territory of the state of which he is a national or be deprived of the right to enter it. 6. An alien lawfully in the territory of a State Party to this Convention may be expelled from it only pursuant to a decision reached in accordance with law. 7. Every person has the right to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory, in accordance with the legislation of the state and international conventions, in the event he is being pursued for political offenses or related common crimes. 8. In no case may an alien be deported or returned to a country, regardless of whether or not it is his country of origin, if in that country his right to life or personal freedom is in danger of being violated because of his race, nationality, religion, social status, or political opinions. 9. The collective expulsion of aliens is prohibited.

2 Before repeal of the 1965 Constitution, this guarantee was provided for in Article 59, which read as follows: Any person is free to enter, remain, travel through and leave the territory of the Republic, except for such limitations as the law may establish. No one may be compelled to change his residence or domicile except by order of a competent authority, pursuant to the requirements stipulated by the law.

3 In Guatemala, “ladino” is an Indian who has adopted the Western style of living and abandoned his native customs.

4 Similar situations are described in Chapter II.

5 See for example, the magazine Foreign Affairs, Vol. 61, Nº 3, 1983, p. 654.

6 Los Derechos Humanos en Guatemala, December 1982, p. 160.


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